RIGA - For a country in which women make up a significantly disproportionate part of the population and which has long promoted gender equality, women's studies departments may be unnecessary. If Georgia O'Keefe, even with all her rampant vaginal imagery, had been a 20th century Latvian, she may have been subjected to fewer feminist, pre-feminist and post-feminist, structural critiques.
Within this context, "Female Friendship," the State Museum of Art's new show, is something of a surprise. The exhibit presents a series of work from the 60s to the 90s, all from the museum's collection, which explore platonic female bonds. There are Socialist Realist, realist and abstract depictions. Men and women artists are both represented. The idea for the show came from a group of fourth-year art students in their 20's who may have a different way of looking at things than their mothers.
Natalie Suyunshalieva, the head of collections in the museum's Arsenals' department, made it clear that by grouping these paintings together under this theme, the exhibit may be imposing ideas that may not have been intrinsic to the paintings themselves. "We don't know if the painters thought this way about their work."
Birum Baumane's "Bathers" (1971) depicts three women in black bathing suits drying off at the side of a swimming pool. The face in the center is deeply quiet and seems to stare inward. "It shows a psychological sense of solitude," says Suyunshalieva. The women are clearly together, but in some ways each are separate.
In "Friends" (1962), Vladmir Kadiss, a Latvian who was heavily influenced by the Russian tradition, gives us a pair of women each with a faraway look in their eyes, but who are still evidently very close. There's something oddly warm about the moment.
Zoja Frolova's "Women" (1988) shows a group of abstractly painted Valkyries, bearing armor and crosses going off, Suyunshalieva believes, to conquer the world. "The life of women is harder than the life of men. Women have to bear a cross."
We stop in front of Franceska Kirke's "The Art of Tattoo" (1990), a modern depiction of an assembly line of women giving each other tattoos on their backs. This painting has served as the exhibit's great advertiser, capturing the ideal of women helping women very well. "But," Suyunshalieva says, "you have to ask her what the painting means."
I met Kirke later in the day at a small caf? across the street from the museum. She's a handsome black-haired woman of 50 who says she never considered herself a feminist. Before we began the interview over mulled wine and gingerbread cookies, she confessed that she hadn't actually seen the exhibit. We were talking about a painting she had done 15 years ago and hadn't thought about that much since.
"I'm not a feminist," she says. Latvian women of her generation, including Latvian women artists, she says, didn't have problems being inferior to their male counterparts.
Did she consider "The Art of Tattoo" to be a depiction of female friendship?
"The painting is more about forms, women's forms and the shape of tattoos," she says. Tattoos, she thought always looked nice on any body, Russian bodies, Japanese bodies. The painting was about how forms repeat each other while changing. "Like Gertrude Stein, 'A rose is a rose is a roseâ€¦'"
A blue splotch of paint in between the bodies? "Just an artistic flourish."
"I was doing a lot of paintings like this at the time."
She did have a joke about her placement in the exhibit. "I guess these women may be friends. They're all tattooing each other on the back." The old line: "I'll scratch your back if you scratch mine."
Still, she didn't think the exhibit was a bad idea at all. "It's a new fresh way to look at these things."
Could she explain the generation gap, about why the idea of female friendship would never have occurred to her, but did to the young art students who put together the exhibition?
"Maybe they think female friendship is more important. For me, it's more important to be friends with a man. Another woman is competition."
Arsenals Department of the State Museum of Art
1 Torna Street
Runs until March 12