Artists: Russia and the Soviet Union
Women in general and Jewish women in particular have been participating in the artistic life of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union for over a hundred years. Chronologically, this period can be defined by the years 1890 to 1990, that is, from the end of the nineteenth century, when the first women painters appeared on the Russian artistic scene, until the USSR ceased to exist as a unified state. Throughout this period, Jewish women occupied a significant place in Russian and Soviet artistic life; indeed, they were among those who led the way in establishing women’s presence there. Jewish women artists worked in all styles, from the routine academic to the extreme avant-garde. There were also well-known art patrons and gallery owners, art historians and art critics.
Even though Jewish women actively and successfully participated in Russian cultural life, their contribution still lies beyond the scope of interest of art historians and exhibition curators, who are entirely focused on Jewish male artists, as is evident from two examples of Russian Jewish art exhibitions: Tradition and Revolution. The Jewish Renaissance in Russian Avant-Garde Art 1912–1928 (The Israel Museum, Jerusalem, 1987) and Russian Jewish Artists in a Century of Change 1890–1990 (The Jewish Museum, New York, September 1995–January 1996). It is noteworthy that in both cases the exhibitions were overseen by women curators: Ruth Apter-Gabriel and Susan Tumarkin Goodman respectively. Neither of them, however, displayed any works by Jewish women painters and graphic artists, who were only briefly mentioned by Alexandra Shatskikh in her article “Jewish Artists in the Russian Avant-Garde,” published in the catalog of the New York exhibition.
As a result, the oeuvre of Jewish women artists in Russia and the Soviet Union has basically not been explored in either its Jewish or its gender aspects. In part, this may be due to objective factors that rendered difficult the revelation and interpretation of ethnic and gender components in the art of Jewish women. One of these factors is the unique evolution of the feminist movement in Russia. The “women’s question” there had no significance of its own, almost always being only a part of nationwide socio-political or ethnic programs and declarations. Russian feminism, therefore, never attained the same degree of social importance as in Western Europe and the USA. The weakness and vagueness of the feminist movement in Russia found expression in the artistic sphere as well: women painters were an integral part of the general artistic environment; they never acted as a separate group with unique objectives. In contrast to American women artists, for example, Jewish women painters never united themselves into separate organizations or unions, instead becoming members of Jewish or Russian artistic associations headed by men. In the Soviet period, the Communist party saw the “women’s question” as an element of state politics to be resolved by the ideological re-education of women and their involvement in socialist industry and social life. The totalitarian state promoted full emancipation of women and shaped the new forms of their social behavior, at the same time endorsing puristic and even ascetic forms of relationships between the sexes and often persecuting the violators of these norms. These concepts left their mark on Soviet art, where class or propaganda rhetoric typically replaced gender issues. In addition, works of art addressing any ethnic topics, especially Jewish ones, were not approved of and sometimes even condemned, the scope of artistic topics being limited to the internationalist Soviet ideology. As a result, both gender and ethnic problems were pushed to the background of artistic consciousness. Nevertheless, these topics were sometimes represented in the works of some Jewish women painters, though, only minimally and in a veiled manner.
The present chronological discussion reviews the work of these artists, as well as of other Jewish women who took an active part in Russian and Soviet artistic life.
Until the last quarter of the nineteenth century, Russian art history is almost devoid of female names. This could be explained by the general nature of Russian historical and cultural evolution until the end of the reign of Nicholas I (reigned 1825–1855). Patriarchal and conservative moral standards in Russia during this period, the domination of the Orthodox Church and the nature of the educational system blocked women’s participation in the social and cultural life of the Russian Empire. The sphere of arts was in fact totally forbidden to women. The regulations of the St. Petersburg Imperial Academy of Fine Arts (the main and, for a long period, the only Russian institution for artistic education) made no provision for even the possibility of a “female person” being admitted to studies. In addition to all these obstacles, Jewish women were discriminated against because of their religion and were subject to legal restrictions, since they were the representatives of a persecuted ethnic minority.
Circumstances changed under Alexander II (reigned 1855–1881), whose first years of reign were referred to as “the epoch of great reforms”. These reforms, which related to the fundamentals of Russian law and state organization, brought about a relative liberalization of the social atmosphere and, in particular, contributed to a modification in women’s status. Liberal tendencies of “the epoch of reforms” became manifest in additional civil rights for some categories of Russian Jews as well as in transformations in the system of higher education, including artistic studies, rendering them more accessible for women. Remarkably, it was a young Jewish woman, Maria Dillon (1858–1932), who became the first female student at the St. Petersburg Academy of Fine Arts. She was also one of the first women sculptors in Russia. Maria was admitted to the sculpture faculty of the Academy in 1878 and graduated in 1888 with a minor golden medal and the title of “class artist,” which made her eligible for personal ennoblement. Dillon’s artistic career was also fairly successful after graduation: her works were regularly exhibited and praised by art critics. She focused primarily on sculptural works depicting allegoric and mythological subjects, and on portraits of eminent figures of Russian history and cultural life. For Dillon, this choice was typical and consistent. The daughter of a rich maskil tradesman from St. Petersburg, she was shaped in the milieu of the enlightened Jewish élite of the Russian capital city of the 1870s. Aspiration towards absorption of Russian culture and social integration in the surrounding environment was characteristic of the cultural atmosphere of this milieu. It is not surprising, therefore, that Dillon’s works address no “Jewish topics” and depict no Jewish characters, apart from two early portraits: busts of her father, Lev Dillon and of Judah Leib Gordon (1831–1892), a well-known poet who wrote in Hebrew and who was also one of the principal Haskalah ideologists in Russia.
Maria Dillon’s younger contemporary, Leonora (Eleonora) Bloch (1881–1943), also became a sculptor. The daughter of a prosperous physician from Kremenchug (Ukraine), Leonora, after graduating from the gymnasium, took lessons at the Drawing School of the Society for Encouragement of the Arts in St. Petersburg in 1898, and then studied with Auguste Rodin in Paris in 1899–1905. (Much later, in 1940, she wrote a book Thus Taught Rodin that was published in 1967 in Ukrainian.) In Paris, her sculptures were exhibited at the Société Nationale des Beaux Arts, the Salon des Artistes and in the Salon d’Automne. In 1910, Bloch returned to Russia and lived in St. Petersburg. After the revolution, she moved to Kharkov, where she became a teacher at the Institute of Arts. Unlike Dillon, who worked in the academic style, Bloch adopted the methods and style of her teacher, Rodin—energetic, impressionist modeling, combination of different textures and use of light effect on the sculpture surface. She frequently represented female images, depicting women of different nationalities. The artist was especially fascinated by the maternity theme, which is to be found present in a number of her works. Her attitude to this subject is most clearly expressed in a sculptural composition, The Joy of Maternity (1915). Maternity is symbolized by a nude standing female figure who passionately embraces and kisses an infant. It is thus interpreted as an erotic ecstasy which the sculptor could have learned from Rodin. At the same time, the “Jewish issue” in Bloch’s art is very meager, with only two works that are undoubtedly related to it: a plaster bas-relief Portrait of a Jew (1905) and a bronze monument on the tomb of Max Mandelstamm (1839–1912), an eminent ophthalmologist and an activist in the Russian Zionist movement.
The emergence of Jewish women on the Russian artistic scene towards the end of the nineteenth century can be perceived as a result of modernization processes in the Russian Jewish community, processes that became stronger from the second half of the century, the time of Alexander II’s reforms. The apologists and ideologists of Jewish modernization, the Haskalah activists, called for Jewish women’s emancipation and for the encouragement of their social mobility. In this connection, it seems no coincidence that the first two Jewish women artists were sculptors. Like their contemporaries, eminent women sculptors Anna Golubkina (1864–1927) and Vera Mukhina (1889–1953), challenged the male-dominated Russian artistic world by choosing the most “masculine” type of plastic art. At the same time, it is known that it was the example of Mark Antokolsky (1843–1902), a famous Russian sculptor of Jewish origin, that most influenced both Dillon’s and Bloch’s choice. His artistic works, the talent that brought him fame, his very personality, all inspired the Jewish intellectuals and was a guiding star for an entire generation of Jewish artists in Russia. From the point of view of the Haskalah ideologists, the appearance of Jewish artists was a proof of the Jewish people’s creative abilities, which were exemplified by Antokolsky. Thus, in contrast to their Russian colleagues, the Jewish women artists’ professional choice was a mode of national self-assertion and therefore carried a Jewish message as well. At the same time, it in no way conflicted with the universal outlook of Dillon and Bloch, who lacked any distinct interest in the depiction of “the Jewish” in art. The first Jewish women artists in Russia sought and found their spiritual and artistic ideals in the “universal” sphere of European and Russian art and culture.
Such a cultural orientation determined the outlook of the Jewish intellectuals and upper and upper-middle bourgeois who aspired to an active role in Russian economy and culture. From the end of the nineteenth century, their rôle in Russian cultural life steadily increases, becoming its visible and influential component. This milieu produced a number of art patrons and collectors, among whom were also women who contributed considerably to the artistic development of these times. The excellent art collection of the banker and manufacturer Vladimir Hirshman (1867–1932), for example, was amassed to a great extent due to the initiative of his wife, Henrietta Hirshman (1885–1970), who took under her patronage many eminent Russian painters. Another Jewish woman, Nadezhda Dobychina (1884–1949), was one of the key figures of Moscow and St. Petersburg artistic life at the beginning of the twentieth century. She owned large galleries in both cities and organized exhibitions of the leading Russian artistic associations; in her galleries she also exhibited works by Western European artists as well. In 1910, Dobychina founded “Art Bureau,” which existed until 1919 and became one of the pioneering art agencies in Russia.
Before World War I, a number of young women artists of Jewish origin emerged on the Russian art scene. Some of them, like Nina Simonovich-Efimova (born Simonovich) (1877–1948), and Sofia Dymshitz-Tolstaya (born Pessati) (1889–1963), were born into assimilated and even baptized families and educated in Russian culture; they identified themselves as “Russian women artists” and their Jewish origins never became apparent in their work. Dymshitz-Tolstaya early on adopted a non-figurative language (Glass Relief, 1915) and joined Russian radical avant-garde circles. Simonovich-Efimova reveals firm interest in female images in her works during 1911–1915—female portraits and paintings depicting Russian peasant women in bright national costumes and scenes from the daily life of common townswomen (Maid-servant’s Room, 1911).
Another group of Jewish women artists of the same generation included sculptors Nina Niss-Goldman (1893–1989) and Beatrice (Berta) Sandomyrskaya (1894–1974), graphic artists and painters Sarah Shor (1897–1981), Polina Khentova (?–1933) (who began her artistic education in Yehuda Pen’s (1854–1937) studio in Vitebsk), Vera Tarasova (born Khinchin)(1896–1991), Vera Schlezinger (Rokhlina) (1896–1934), Nina Brodskaya (1892–?), Olga Erman-Shabad (1892–1983) and others. Their outlook was greatly influenced by the Jewish national movement, which attached great importance to the creation of national art. It was thus no wonder that many of these young women artists belonged to the modern Jewish cultural and literary circles—for example, Shor, who was in touch with the so-called “Kiev group” of modernist Yiddish writers, and Khentova, who was connected to Jewish writers living in Moscow in 1916–1918; some others became members of the Jewish Society for Encouragement of Artists, founded in 1915 in Petrograd. Sandomyrskaya, for instance, participated in the activities of this society and in its exhibition in 1916; she, Niss-Goldman and Schlezinger displayed their works in other Jewish art exhibitions in 1917–1918. This group also rightfully includes Margarita Genke (1889–1954), whose origins were in Swedish Russified nobility. She converted to Judaism in 1912, in order to marry the painter Nisson Shifrin (1892–1961) as his parents demanded. She blended naturally into the Jewish artistic environment and later designed scenery for plays in Jewish theaters and illustrated books in Yiddish.
Elements of gender consciousness and the national and cultural outlook of the majority of the artists mentioned above, emerged in forms of modernist art and even of the radical avant-garde. Such a combination was natural in this period, because, in some conceptions of Jewish art the notions of “national” and “avant-garde” were closely juxtaposed or even became identical; gender problems also had their place in modernist aesthetics. The cubist sculptures of Niss-Goldman and, in particular, of Sandomyrskaya are convincing examples of the fruitful combination of all these elements. Focusing primarily on female images, Sandomyrskaya creates them in primitivist style inspired by the ancient African art. This “Negrism” (as it was called by contemporary critics) often rendered her female characters Jewish-like, since “Negroidness” at this time was identified not only with the African race, but also seemed to be an essential feature of Semitic, and particularly Jewish, appearance.
Shoshana Persitz (1893–1969), who belongs to the same generation as all these artists, was a member of the Zionist élite in Russia. She initiated and headed a Jewish art publishing house, Omanut (Art), founded in Moscow a short time before the revolution in July 1917. Omanut specialized in publishing illustrated books in Hebrew. Persitz moved the publishing house to Frankfurt in 1920, and, in 1925, to Tel-Aviv. A number of illustrated books published by Omanut during this period share a well-deserved place with other masterpieces of Jewish publishing of the twentieth century.
Many of the tendencies that had already emerged in the work of Jewish women artists developed further during the first years after the Bolshevist revolution (November, 1917). At this time, Vitebsk and Kiev became important artistic centers, together with Moscow and Petrograd. The idea of creative modern Jewish art by synthesis of the plastic principles of Jewish folk art and the formal achievements of the artistic avant-garde united a group of Jewish artists in Kiev. In the summer of 1918, in the framework of the Yiddishist organization Kultur-Lige, these artists founded “Art Section,” which was also joined by Khentova, Shor and Genke. From 1918 to 1922, they worked in collaboration with Jewish publishing houses, illustrating books in Yiddish, and also designed scenery for Jewish theaters. During this period, Jewish women painters in Kiev found subjects for some of their works in the life of the Jewish shtetl. At the same time, the theme of pogroms occupied a central place in their subject matter, thus imbuing shtetl images with apocalyptic traits. The tragic image of the real Jewish life co-exists with the optimistic utopian birth of the “new world.”. This utopian visionarism induced the artists to renounce figurative art methods in favor of the avant-garde modes of expressing a symbolic representation of the historic cataclysm, which is particularly typical for Genke and Shor. For these women painters and for other artists in their circle, the optimistic enthusiasm aroused by a sense of the grand scale of the changes taking place was an essential part of the overall national outlook. This outlook, expressed by the international mode of avant-garde art, took on a universal meaning. Similarly, female images that appear in the works of Jewish women artists were not connected to gender issues, but rather served as conventional symbols of revolutionary freedom which were common at the time and comparable to Romantic art. All these qualities were also typical of the early works of the first female students in the Kultur-Lige art studio—Lubov Kozintseva (Kozintseva-Ehrenburg) (1900–1970) and Sofia Chernyak (1904–1995).
While Jewish artists in Kiev chose non-figurative forms of art consistent with their national artistic goals, in Vitebsk their affiliation with the radical avant-garde stream had a different source. Here, as early as in 1897, Yehuda Pen (1854–1937) opened a private school of drawing and painting, where the majority of students were Jewish, one of them being Marc Chagall (1887–1985). In September 1918 Chagall was appointed commissar for fine arts in Vitebsk and director of the newly established People’s Art College. On January 28, 1919, the College was officially opened and Chagall invited a number of leading Russian avant-garde artists to teach there. Kazimir Malevich (1878–1935), who arrived in Vitebsk at the end of 1919, soon ousted Chagall and became the head of the college. One of the most extreme reformers of twentieth century art and the originator of a special abstract art stream called suprematism, Malevich thought of his art utopia as of a universal metaphysical system of cosmic scope whose mission was to reorganize the world. Many students and some of the teachers who were particularly inspired by Malevich’s ideas organized a group called UNOVIS (Russian acronym of New Art Establishers). The majority of its members were Jewish, among them several young women artists: Fanya Belostozkaya (1904–1980), Emma Gurovitz (1899–1980), Evgenya Magaril (1902–1987) and Tsivya (Clara) Rosenholz (1870–1961). Like many other of Malevich’s disciples in Vitebsk, Jewish women artists tried to fulfill the recommendations and tasks of their maître and leader in the most exact manner, attempting to attain his suprematic utopia. Its abstract universalism dissolved and obliterated ethnic, gender and even individual traits of the artists—UNOVIS members signed their works with the group name instead of with their own. Later, most of the Vitebsk artists mentioned above became architects and worked as industrial designers, applying in practice the experiments with abstract forms they had performed under Malevich’s guidance. Magaril continued as a painter and the influence of the Vitebsk period can be traced in her late works: she remained faithful to local colors and to the representation of objects as combinations of the simplest geometrical bodies.
Two of Pen’s students—Elena Kabischer (Kabischer-Yakerson, 1903–1990) and Raisa Edelson (1894–1972)—were also students at the Art College in Vitebsk during the period when it was headed by Malevich. For some time, both these artists attended his introductory course, which was at the time dominant at the college. The goal of this course was to develop creative thinking in abstract art by consistently mastering Malevich’s methods “from cubism to suprematism.” Kabischer and Edelson did not become members of UNOVIS; their affiliation with avant-garde art turned out to be superficial and insignificant for their subsequent work. In 1922–1923, they moved to Moscow, where they were admitted to VKHUTEMAS (acronym of Advanced College of Art), into the painting studio of Robert Falk (1886–1958), one of the brilliant representatives of Russian Cézannism. Edelson became his disciple and later his wife. Kabischer also adopted some elements of Falk’s painting style, but, at the same time returned to topics and images typical of Pen’s school in general. In 1920–1930 she focused on painting the Jewish shtetl and its inhabitants. In addition, the artist’s Jewish national outlook in her works of this period is frequently exhibited and identified with her position on gender: female images occupy an important place in her paintings and are sometimes used as an allegory or a symbol of Jewish life.
From 1925 on, the artistic and cultural realms in the USSR fell more and more under control of the Communist party and state. Official critics attacked modernist experiments and promoted life-like realism with unveiled propaganda tendencies. Among the authoritative ideologists of this stream was a Jewish woman, Frida Roginskaya (1898–1963). A shrewd critic and observer, she keenly detected the emphasis on ethnic themes in the works of some Jewish artists, which she interpreted as praise of traditional Jewish life and a manifestation of the so-called “bourgeois nationalism.”
Along with the elimination of Jewish subjects, Soviet art was creating an ideal image of woman devoid of any distinct ethnic or even gender traits, which were replaced by class characteristics. A revealing example of this is the work of Dillon, who in 1925 created a series of sculptural portraits of the activists of the international socialist movement. Among these was Rosa Luxemburg, who was included not as a woman and a Jew, but as a representative of the pantheon of the world’s revolutionary heroes. Sandomyrskaya’s work underwent a similar transformation at the same period, when she created a gallery of “Soviet women” images and, in addition, abandoned the cubist style in sculpture. Thenceforth, most of the Jewish women artists in the USSR—among them, Dymshitz-Tolstaya and Shor—preferred to work as illustrators or theater designers. This switch to ideologically more “neutral” forms of the fine arts can be viewed as a hidden form of refusal by the artists to give public expression to their national and gender viewpoint.
A typical manifestation of this tendency towards the ideological indoctrination of the female image was the “Woman in Building of Socialism” exhibition which opened in Leningrad, in spring, 1934. It is noteworthy that this exhibition was organized with the assistance of Rabotniza i Krestyanka (Woman-worker and Woman-peasant magazine), that male artists participated as well as women, and that there was virtually no representation of Jewish women artists. There were no works addressing national—in particular, Jewish—subject matter. Works that showed woman as a builder of “the new way of life” and as an active worker defined the nature of the exhibition and fully justified its name.
During 1920–1925, a number of Jewish women artists—Khentova, Schlezinger and Brodskaya—left Russia and moved to various Western European countries. At the same time, a new generation of Jewish women artists emerged in the USSR, showing their talents in all styles of the fine arts during 1930–1950. This group included the students of a well-known Soviet graphic artist, Vladimir Favorsky (1886–1964): Lea Ratner (1912–?), Hanna Blum (1908–1992), Elena Gurevich (1906–1988), Rosalia Kagan (1907–1986), Tamara Rein (1915–1991), Alexandra Rubleva (1908–1943), and Nadezhda Elkonina-Rosenberg (1910–1980), who all belonged to the leading stream of Soviet illustration art. Some of them also worked as porcelain ornamentors and painters of monumental art. Other Jewish women artists of this generation—Dora Brodskaya (1909–1985) and Lubov Rabinovich (1907–1989) —were principally painters, while Lea Raitzer (1902–1988) became known as a textile designer. Among theater designers, the following should be mentioned: Elena Fradkina (1902–1987), Sofia Junovich (1910–?) and Raisa Margolina (1909–1991). The latter graduated from the Jewish Art and Industry School in Kiev and was appointed the chief designer of the Jewish Puppet Show in the capital of Ukraine in 1939. All these women associated themselves with realism art and showed a high level of artistic skills which they acquired during their studies in the best Soviet artists’ studios. At the same time, their works were almost completely devoid of national themes, while gender topics were interpreted according to the official ideology.
After Stalin’s death in 1953 and during Nikita Khrushchev’s “thaw period,” the ideological pressure lessened and many restrictions on free self-expression in art were removed. For Jewish artists, in particular, there was now an opportunity to communicate their Jewish identification. This evolving opportunity was especially topical in connection with the experience and understanding of the Holocaust and Stalin’s crushing of Jewish cultural life in the USSR which were part of the personal experience of many Jewish artists. One example of this is the destiny and work of the painter and sculptor Eva Levina-Rosenholz (1892–1975) in 1950–1960. She began her artistic studies at Pen’s school in Vitebsk. From 1918 to 1920, she studied at the Sculpture Studios of Stepan Erzya (1876–1959) and Golubkina’s; and from 1921 to 1925, attended Falk’s painting class in VKHUTEMAS. From 1926 to 1930, she lived in London, studying Turner’s art. Back in the USSR, she actively participated in exhibitions. During this period, she painted only landscapes and still-life compositions, in which she solved only formal problems—inter-relationships of color and form, creation of composition etc. In 1949, during an antisemitic campaign against “cosmopolitanism,” Levina-Rosenholz was arrested and spent seven years in the GULAG. When she was freed, she returned to Moscow, where she worked on a large series of graphic works on subjects from the Books of Ruth and Esther. These stories of female destinies were not chosen by chance by the artist, who focused on their most dramatic moments, emphasizing the element of tragedy and the loneliness of the characters. The artist’s own life was interpreted in the universal content of these Biblical stories. The images of Ruth and Esther, which are of paramount importance for the Jewish psyche, filled the Jewish painter’s life with a national meaning, thus transforming it into a symbolic reflection of the tragic history of all Jewish people.
The Holocaust theme emerges in the works of a number of young Jewish women artists in 1960–1970. This choice of subject was, on the one hand, a result of the awakening of Jewish national self-consciousness in the USSR following the Israeli victory in the 1967 Six-Day War; and on the other hand, a reaction to the growing state antisemitism. While the Jewish themes could not be directly expressed, they were usually alluded to by hints as well as in symbolic and allegorical images. For example, in some of the sculptural compositions, Julia Segal (b. 1938), depicted everyday life scenes in pre-war Kiev. The characters could easily be identified as Jews, thus transforming the compositions into nostalgic memories of a world that no longer existed. Julia emigrated to Israel in 1991.
During these years, many Jewish women played a prominent rôle in Soviet art criticism and art historical studies. The most distinguished among them are: Ella Gankina (b. 1924), an expert in Russian and Soviet illustration who emigrated to Israel in 1992; Olga Roitenberg (1923–2000), an art historian specializing in the 1920–1930 period; Vigdarya Khazanova (b. 1925), an expert on Soviet avant-garde architecture; art critic Muda Yablonskaya, (1926–1990); and Dora Kogan (1923–1995), the author of definitive monographs of Russian painters of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Dora emigrated to Israel in 1999. Entire strata of Russian artistic culture were discovered due to their research. Among the younger generation that emerged around 1975, Galina Elshevsky (b. 1953) deserves mention. Her research focuses on Russian art of the beginning of the twentieth century and she is also a leading and authoritative art critic.
Jewish women artists also left their mark on the Soviet “non-official” or “non-conformist” art of 1970–1980. Irina Yudina (b. 1943), a veteran of this movement, participated in underground “apartment” exhibitions as early as the end of the 1960s. Rimma Zanevskaya (born Sapgir, 1930) was a member of the “Movement” group which developed principles of abstraction and kinetic art. In Leningrad in 1975, a group of Jewish non-conformist painters founded the Jewish artistic group “Aleph.” These artists, who differed from each other in style and artistic inclinations, were united not by a mutually accepted program, but rather by their common origin and their feelings of protest against official art. Tatyana Kornfeld (b. 1950), who emigrated to Israel in 1976, and Olga Schmuilovich (b. 1948) were active in this group. A Jewish artist, Natalya Abalakova (b. 1941), is one of the most radical creators of conceptual art in Moscow. She organizes happenings and installations together with her husband, Anatoly Zhigalov (b. 1941). They initiated a special stream in conceptual art called “TOT-ART,” the goal of which is a total conceptual re-comprehension and artistic transformation of everyday life. In their joint projects, there is a conscious division of gender roles, with Abalakova taking on provocative and creative functions, according to her understanding of her female rôle, which also, most recently assumes a certain Jewish quality.
The plastic experiments with gender implications by Nina Kotel (b. 1949) are of considerable interest. With color pencils, she draws large-sized fragments of the nude female body (usually, these are self-portrait fragments), obtaining a visual effect that is based on the paradoxical but deliberate contradiction between the fine technique of the pencil strokes and the huge size of the image itself. In these works, the overt, almost provocative, self-eroticism is a convincing aesthetic feature.
Currently, Jewish women occupy many key positions in the artistic world of the post-Soviet era. However, the circumstances in which they operate are different from those of previous periods and therefore should be described separately.
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