Fotograf Magazine

Eroticism and sexuality in the photography of post-totalitarian Europe

If we were to try to find a single element that divides Eastern European art of the final third of the 20th century from artistic activities in the rest of the world, we would arrive at a desperate and often no more than latent gesture of undefined resistance – resistance as the sole possible tool of defence and catharsis which allowed artists to survive with dignity and at least a grain of authentic artistic freedom. During the era of totalitarian timelessness, which – instead of being headed from someplace to someplace else – was marked by a confused sense of walking in place, the choice of erotic topics was a moderately daring one, a controversial and defiant reaction to the otiose expectations of “official” artists. On the one hand, fictional courage evoked a no less virtual sense of embarrassment, but at least it brought final acceptance by official structures. For Central and Eastern European photographers, the body thus became a tool for surrogate legitimate revolt. After all, except for a short interval during the most rigid period of Stalinism, the communist regime had an openly liberal relation to eroticism and sexuality in general. This approach was rooted both in the traditional lifestyle of the lower working classes (sex was the most accessible form of entertainment for the poor) and in the thinking of leftist intellectuals of the first half of the 20th century. At the same time, this relationship had grown out of the pillars of Marxist teaching and could be found in its proclamations, for instance in its adoration of the social mechanisms idealized by communist society.

During the socialist era, sexuality represented one of the few escape valves which could not be directly supervised by the ruling party’s central organs. At the same time, however, it was showered with praise by these organs, since the individual’s intense “engagement” in experiencing erotic relationships gave the regime hope that he was indifferent to the rigid societal situation and was absolutely uninvolved in dissident political activities. Unofficial relationships created a kind of conspirative and attractive adrenaline-based modus operandi which offered adventure and danger similar to participating in underground activities. Its fulfilment meant a certain level of time commitment and personal satisfaction. Eroticism removed any creeping sense of frustration and satisfied a certain realm of human needs, including self-realization. In a synthetic prefab culture of redundant employment without dignified reward or the possibility for professional growth and without the hope of travelling outside the country, it also helped to aestheticize society, to stratify the cultural environment and partially fulfil unrealisable dreams. If we look deeper into the past, to the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century, the depiction of nudity or its intimation through indirect images had different roots in different countries of Central and Eastern Europe, depending on the nation’s culture and traditions. Under certain circumstances, this differentiation by national characteristics could reflect specific geographically determined preferences for visual representation, although in other cases this determination appears too simplified and generalizing. During the 20th century and as a result of important and often fatal historical events, the original social paradigms were altered to such a degree that the above described divisions apply only with difficulty.

In the cultural context of Central Europe, extreme differences and subtle nuances in viewing representations of body in relation to the depiction of sexuality depend primarily on local spirituality and the character of metaphysical reflection, i.e. the specific religion which continues (even after several generations) to suffuse contemporary culture. In the Czech cultural context, this view may appear marginal or even somewhat distorted. As a nation of self-declared atheists, we lecture other nations on the loosening of the traditional family model and on the bold and analytical approach to depicting the naked human body (including sexual connotations). A different “sensitivity threshold” towards explicit nudes is logically found in societies blessed with Eastern or Southern spiritual traditions: Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Slovenia and Croatia (traditionally Catholic countries), Serbia, Bulgaria, Russia, Ukraine and Romania (defined by reserved Orthodox attitudes), or the sole Muslim representative in this European sample, Bosnia and Herzegovina. Artists (including photographers) from these countries understand their cultures’ traditional notion of this phenomenon as a challenge. During the period of communist repression, spirituality was consciously suppressed. The more brutal a specific dictatorship’s methods, the more extreme was the renewal of forgotten societal systems following the collapse of the communist regime. Contemporary artists thus have to face both historical facts, and their artistic activities can develop from a reflection upon or acceptance/negation of the relevant systems.

 In the second half of the 20th century, this naturally multicultural environment – which had given rise to unique avant-garde movements reflecting the final stage of the democratisation of the photographic work as an artistic artefact – was replaced by unnatural power structures and violently multi-national states. The inhabitants of these political conglomerations had to come to terms with their increasingly forced social isolation and totalitarian mechanisms designed to limit freedom. The more brutally a state’s social mechanisms controlled the fate of its inhabitants, the rawer was the artistic – especially photographic – response (Russia, Romania). Among most inhabitants of countries beyond the Iron Curtain, the conscious repression of individual personal freedoms resulted in a herd mentality, the acceptance of the cultural policies of the masses. For this reason, Eastern European artists often focused on purely existentially understood visual facts containing elements of an exalted physicality, including the mechanical recording of performances, just as with textbook examples of condensed stories or photographic and film recordings of specific situations. In this case, the important role of the main hero was often played by the naked human body. The austere documentary character and unmistakeable authenticity of these photographic works, which the contemporary art world looks to ever more frequently and whose price on the art market is increasing dramatically, are frequently conditioned by the “specific” characteristics of the photographic materials used at the time in the Eastern bloc. The use of these photo-chemical materials retroactively gives the works an originally unintended magic and (n-)ostalgia.

 While in Western Europe and America in the 1970s, Postmodernism rolled over the modern tradition like a wave, its message did not reach the eastern realm of the old continent until the second half of the 1980s. This delay and the previously discussed isolationism both played a part in creating the unique character of Central European photography in the past two decades. The last echo of classic staged black-and-white photography, in which the human body is essentially no more than an ornament or calligraphic mark, is heard in the early 1990s in works by artists such as Pavel Baňka, Zofie Kulik and Tono Stano. A definite break and early postmodernist gesture can be found in Markéta Othová’s unusually large-scale (for the era) chaste black-andwhite “nudes” or the “wild” self-stylisation of Václav Stratil. Around the mid-1990s, many Central European artists were creating almost euphorically colourful prints – classical, digital and digitally manipulated. A frequent topic at the time is the search for personal identity combined with the issue of gender. This can be found, for example in the work of Hungary’s Kriszta Nagy, Czech artist Veronika Bromová, or Slovakia’s Dorota Sadovská, who sees the photographic medium as a visual tool for authenticating her monumental paintings. In this view, a special and autonomous role is played by the post-conceptual, symptomatically ephemeral and demonstratively anti-erotic (but at the same time secretly erotic) approach chosen by Petr Nikl.

The positive early development and the ever-present euphoria reflected in the search for previously taboo approaches to human sexuality and the visual depiction of personal mythologies was suddenly replaced by a sense of sobriety associated with the explosion of combat both outside Europe and directly in the sensitive Balkan region. The depiction of sexuality again turned away from a temporarily lighter realm towards a more serious position. Particularly in countries with a direct interest in the conflict, it frequently retreated into a visual topography of the fragile and mortal human body, its sexual characteristics and the abuse of the sex act. In this regard, the testimonies by Balkan artists are particularly dramatic and cruelly frank. Through her self-portraits containing graffiti left by Dutch UNPROFOR soldiers in Srebrenica, Bosnia’s Šejla Kamerić offers a photographic catharsis from Europe’s civilizational hangover and confronts world audiences with the twisted reality of war. No less powerful are the photographs and videos by Serbia’s Milica Tomić. In the need for an urgent testimony and the complicated, often ambivalent message, we often find an element of process or performance. This element is returned to European and Central and Eastern European photography via the work of Croatia’s Slavena Tolje or Russia’s Oleg Kulik (here in the form of film stills, themselves transitional forms between static and moving images).

In addition to current topics resulting from the specific historical situation, the post-communist visual culture of transformation societies also adopted western art’s sources of inspiration. The opening of the western borders offered the opportunity to travel, gain new experiences, participate in grant and scholarship programmes, and to change one’s lifestyle. Central Europe is home to a new generation of photographic nomads who contribute to the globalisation and partially also the unification of the photographic medium. The suppression of local accents and the internationalisation of artistic approaches is also the result of a different approach to work – the division of labour between the author of the artistic concept (the photographer who takes the picture) and the subsequent collaborators who provide post-production for the final image. The photographer’s work thus more and more resembles that of the film director who manages his staff. On the thematic level, women photographers are especially inclined towards this approach to artistic expression. The process of liberating oneself from technical processes offers an opportunity for an exclusive, contemplative focus on the central theme. One area in which the naked body is photographically analysed is feminism. A pivotal factor – one which opened the issue of emancipation in post-communist societies as well – is the attempt to find new socio-cultural relationships. This idea has become the leitmotif for a whole generation of women artists. In this area, the leader in European feminist photography, Croatia’s Sanja Iveković, found continuity with her work from the 1970s. Zagreb-based photographer and performance artist Vlasta Delimar successfully follows in Iveković’s footsteps with her projects. While Slovakia’s Gabika Binderová (who partially works within the activities of the group of artists know as Kunst-fu) detachedly plays with and comments on her humorous and tragicomic images of family life, the work of Slovenia’s Tanja Ostojić teems with elements of absurd drama – especially when, in an attempt to become a full-fledged human being, she uses photographic personal ads to look for a husband with an EU passport.

A counterpart to these engaged attitudes is represented by a somewhat stylised voyeuristic and exhibitionist auto-suggestion and fascination with the human body. In many artists’ works, these phenomena are combined with the previously mentioned removal of taboos on minority forms of sexuality and eroticism. On the extreme level, we find artists inspired by pornographic materials who perform a “study” of a specific theme’s tolerability in relation to the question of the freedom of artistic expression and with a view towards the boundary between ethic and legal legitimacy. The extreme level of clearly pronounced facts lying somewhere between visual provocation and pornography (from a technical viewpoint, these artists create hybrid works of art somewhere between photography and video) includes members of the young Czech art scene Ondřej Brody and Marek Thér. A more ambiguous, but also more approachable form of this strange “wannabe eroticism” of young guys and touchingly debauched red-lipped nurses can be found in the work of Jindřich Chalupecký Prize laureate Michal Pěchouček.

Almost twenty years have passed since the fall of the Iron Curtain. It would seem as if this is enough time to allow for the creation of a new phenomenon in Central and Eastern European photography, which despite all its diversity continues to show common characteristics rooted in shared historical experiences. It has taken twenty years for contemporary photographers to rehabilitate the works of their predecessors and, following a period of unavoidable negation, to learn to live and coexist with photographs from the late modernist era created during the moribund communist regime. It has taken twenty years to establish the first theoretical platforms and an institutional framework which will promote mutual exchange of Central European experiences. Without this mutual sense of international fellowship, the isolated individual Central and Eastern European artistic signatures would not be nearly as tangible in the contemporary art world as they have been in the recent past.

Michal Koleček & Zdena Kolečková