New Femininity

  • 2014-05-01
  • By Linda O’Grady

RIGA - Since living in Latvia has turned me into a raging feminist, I was excited to hear about the exhibition “New Femininity” at the Romans Suta and Aleksandra Belcova Museum.

Having convinced a friend to accompany me, I arrived ten minutes before he did, giving me a moment to appreciate Monument Wars, an installation by Aigars Bikse on the esplanade. Monument Wars was billed on Riga 2014’s Web site as “one of the most audacious projects of the Riga 2014 program… a witty and slightly provocative installation that plays on the various powers [Germany, Poland, Sweden and Russia] that have had an impact on the fate and development of Riga.”
Honestly, I think the blurb oversold it.

The Romans Suta and Aleksandra Belcova Museum is hidden away down a little courtyard. It’s easily missed if you’re not looking for it. The museum is actually the former residence of the two artists and the site where they produced many of their important works.

The sign on the door said that the museum was open until 6 p.m., which gave us more than enough time. But when I tried the handle, the door didn’t open. I tried pushing and pulling it, but nothing. Suddenly a disembodied voice sounded from a speaker system I hadn’t noticed. We were instructed to push 2-6, then wait. I entered the numbers on the battered-looking system, but nothing happened. Naturally, I was pushing the wrong buttons – there was a modern keypad to the side of the door. Finally, we got in but I couldn’t help thinking that already the exhibition wasn’t particularly visitor-friendly. Who ever heard of a museum where you have to be buzzed in?

The next challenge was the five flights of stairs we climbed in the absence of a lift - add non-accessibility to the cons list. We finally huffed and puffed our way into the museum, where the curator charged a rather odd admission fee of precisely 2.13 euros.

The space itself is quite charming and intimate; the museum is made up of just three rooms. The much-signed visitor book revealed that most visitors had similar impressions. The exhibition showcases paintings, graphic works, photographs and other materials that characterize Latvian women of the 1920s. This was, of course, the period when everything changed: with the men at war, women found themselves taking a more active role in society.

Women were working, taking part in sports, becoming more visible in the arts. Fashions and hairstyles changed to suit this new, modern woman. Specialized women’s magazines were published to educate women on the current social and legal issues, as well as giving advice on personal grooming and housekeeping, of course. It seems that Latvian women were always expected to look amazing while cleaning up after their men.

We browsed around, looking at the photography, portraits, self-portraits and trinkets from the era. My friend commented that though this period was supposed to be a heyday in Latvian history, the people still looked miserable in almost all of the paintings. In one large painting, a little girl is holding a doll – and even the doll is scowling. I guess some things don’t change.

I should mention that the information cards, annotations on the pieces are in Latvian only. There are information sheets about the exhibition in plastic pockets on one of the tables. These are in Latvian, English and Russian. I recommend reading these before exploring the exhibition as it makes the experience a bit more meaningful. The curator also seemed happy to answer questions.

Although there was nothing particularly shocking or feather-ruffling about it, The New Femininity was worth visiting if only to become acquainted with the works of these two important Latvian artists - it was probably even worth climbing the five flights of stairs.

March 7 – Sept. 6
Museum of Romans Suta and Aleksandra Belcova: Exhibition Room
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