Martina Pachmanová: On Gaps That Need To Be Filled

(Born in 1970 in Prague)

An art historian, curator, critic, and professor at AAAD (Academy of Art, Architecture and Design in Prague), Martina Pachmanová is also an occasional guest lecturer at American universities. She has published a raft of books on gender and feminism in contemporary visual art and culture, including: Fidelity in Motion: Discussions on Feminism, History, and Visuality; The Invisible Woman: An Anthology of Contemporary American Thought on Feminism, History, and Visuality; and The Unknown Territory of Czech Modern Art: Under the Magnifying Glass of Gender.

Q: To begin with, I’d like to ask why you chose to devote yourself to art history.
A: I’ve always gravitated towards the humanities. I thought for awhile that I would study literature, but just before the revolution I started to get really interested in film and theater, which are much more visual fields. Eventually, through contacts I had with some people in Prague Five, I got into a circle of fine artists. At that time, though, I didn’t know you could even study art history. In those days, our department had the odd name of “The Science of Fine Art”, and you could only study in combination with aesthetics, which was thought to be “marxist-
leninist”, because no other approach to it existed before the revolution. When I entered the Philosophical Faculty in 1988, the Department of Art History, in contrast to that of aesthetics, was not that ideological. People were lecturing there who we really respected for their professional work, and who had not bowed to the regime, the prime example being Petr Wittlich.
Q: So what was the art history instruction like in the nineties? Did the school help you broaden your horizons with regard to current events?
A: Hardly at all. I remember visiting a few exhibitions of contemporary art with professor Wittlich, but other than that, our instruction ended with the Art Nouveau. We didn’t even cover the inter-war avant-garde, so it is quite paradoxical that out of the seven of us who graduated together, there is only one who hasn’t gone on to focus on modern, inter-war, or contemporary art.
Q: In 1998 an article of yours was published titled What Art History is Afraid of. When did you come to conclusion that art history was afraid of something?
A: Not long before I wrote that article. The thing is, I was so grateful for being able study art history in the first place, that I initially took quite a devoted approach to it, which meant I was non-critical. It was only through curatorial experience with contemporary art that I began to realize that local art history was encumbered with a petrified canon, and ignored a number of things that had started to interest me about art. It wasn’t only a question of gender, but also a social, ideological, political, and inter-disciplinary context. Maybe that was partly because under communism, the academic nomenclature considered art history a bourgeois pseudo-science, so it was a little ostracized, and thanks to that it gained a certain aura of exclusivity and untouchability. And so it was with the understanding of art in our department: it was perceived almost metaphysically, as if beyond the shallowness of ordinary life. And yet the everyday, the ideological, and the “dirty” do, and always will, belong to the history of art.
Q: Do you think art history is still afraid of something?
A: I think the art history still tends to subscribe to a canonized concept of art as a transcendental act, without taking questions of immanence, that is also the practice of art, into account. Art history in this country is definitely afraid of theory and new methodological approaches. Additionally, I also contend that there are large chasms between art history concerned with older time periods, that concerned with the 20th century, and most of all that concerned with the present. Yet in my opinion, it is precisely the dialogue between the past and the present that gives rise to the most interesting interpretations.
Q: You have done a number of residencies in the United States, in both a study and research capacities. How do you recall those experiences?
A: My first stay was a journey I took to see the world and find myself, completely out of the academic context. When I think about it now, though, I think that visit was of great importance, because in order for me to mature professionally, I first had to do so personally, so leaving home and family was invaluable. The first meaningful professional experience of that kind that I had was only in ‘99, when I did a three-month residency at the International Studio Program. I also took part in the Summer Institute of Art History and Visual Studies at Rochester University, which was underwritten by the Getty Foundation. The intellectual experiences I had in Rochester were completely novel, and those six weeks I spent amongst leading specialists in our field, as well as with participants from the whole world, is something that I still benefit from today. That was when I realized that what I was interested in – questions of gender and gender politics – were seen, unlike in my “motherland”, as adequate, relevant, and important perspectives from which to study art and its history.
Twenty-five people gathered there from all over the world, and while a few were from the West, the majority of them came from the former Eastern Bloc. We stayed on the campus for six weeks, discussing, reading, and attending lectures by leading historians and theorists of art and visual studies, particularly from the Anglo-Saxon world. A year after that, I received a grant from the Fulbright commission, and I spent ten months at Harvard.
Q: Could you say something about how the interviews in the book Fidelity in Motion came to be?
A: Their inception was in fact in Rochester, where I met a number of preeminent women historians and theorists of art and visual culture, for whose work the topics of gender and feminism were key, in particular Kaja Silverman and Janet Wolff. I wanted to catch hold of some of their opinions on art, and the form of the interview seemed like the most interesting method to me – it was lively, authentic, never a monologue, but rather a dialogue. Moreover, that dialogue reflected other professional and personal experiences; in some respects, they weren’t only interviews about gender and feminism in art, but were also about various political and social contexts in the West and in Eastern Europe. One of the things that was important for me when I was living in both the so-called “West” and the so-called “East”, was the realization of how deeply thought is situated, and that – to use Janet Wolff’s phrase – “the view from nowhere” just doesn’t exist; in other words, our interpretation of art history is conditioned by many factors, and we should not claim objectivity. When you ask what is missing today from the history of art, I think it is also a lack of awareness of situatedness. Not only does history have many different parallel and concealed episodes, but their interpretation is always largely subjective.
Q: And did you feel like you gave anything to your colleagues there?
A: I hope I did. Today the situation is different, but ten or eleven years ago Western intellectuals were interested in the point of view of their counterparts from former Soviet satellite states. The women with whom I did the interviews clearly showed me their interest in art, culture, and gender politics on the other side of the Iron Curtain. I consciously led the interviews from the point of view of a woman working as a curator and art historian “situated” in the Eastern European context.
Q: What did you want to find out from those interviews? Did you have any primary goal?
A: I was partially interested in their personal and intellectual background, of course. I wanted to know how they had become feminists, and what the feminist and gender perspective had made possible for
them when working in the field of art history. At the same time, I was trying to bring them to critically reflect on their older texts and opinions. In the background of the interviews was also my compulsive need to break the silence on gender issues in the Czech Republic, and to convey the ideas of outstanding, internationally-renowned personalities to domestic readers in liveliest possible manner. That’s why I started becoming interested in the form of the interview – at that time an oral history seemed more important than translating the key texts of those women; those came later in the follow-up anthology Invisible Woman.
Q: And do you think their arguments are applicable here in our context?
A: Definitely. If we accept that Eastern Europe is a construction of Yalta, then there are arguments that these women make that not only have to do with older art, but with the modern, and with that made before the second world war, that are completely applicable to Western culture in general, though you do have to take local nuance into consideration. In the post-war and pre-November period, the situation regarding art and gender was different on either side of the Iron Curtain, though there were corresponding patterns to be found between them. However, even if their ideas had been entirely untransferable, it is still important and challenging to be confronted with a point of view from elsewhere.
Q: How was your book Fidelity in Motion: Discussions on Feminism, History, and Visuality received, and in your opinion how many theorists are there in the Czech Republic that are concerned with a feminist perspective on art?
A: Not many – Zuzana Štefková and I are more or less the only ones who have consistently been concerned with feminism and gender in our field. Now and then someone will do a thesis project dedicated to forgotten female artist or to contemporary “women’s art”, but usually those projects just come and go. I can say that, based on my experience of being an opponent and consultant of student’s work, either they don’t take a critical perspective on gender into consideration, or they handle it clumsily and unconvincingly. Or – and this happens very often – they repeat what has already been said instead of trying to find a new way to look at things. Personally, what’s missing for me is a wider debate on this topic and a collective platform on which to discuss it.
With regard to the acceptance of my book, I think it resonated more successfully outside of the sphere of art theorists and historians. Many of my colleagues made it clear to me that those ideas were imported,
and that they had nothing to do with our context. Another problem people had was the amount of emphasis I put on theory in both the interviews and the following selection of texts for the Invisible Woman anthology. I did that despite the fact that art historians in this country have a lot of mistrust of theory, and still primarily continue to concern themselves with amassing documentation, and analyzing art from an iconographic and formal perspective. For me, it wasn’t only about gender, but also about showing that theory isn’t just self-serving speculation, but that it has critical, and even political potential. Not only Fidelity in Motion, but I think all my work related to gender was taken up only at the time I was defending my dissertation on Czech art and visual culture of the first half of the 20th century, which was then published under the title The Unknown Territories of Czech Modern Art: Under the Magnifying Glass of Gender. Until then I had spent more time on contemporary art, which in this country is likewise seen as academically shallow, and of less importance than historical research. Just to be fair, however, two interviews had been published in the magazine Umění (Art) before the book came out. They were precisely of the type that looked back to history: there was an interview with Linda Nochlin, an expert on art of the 19th century, and one with Natalie Boymel Kampen, whose focus is antiquity.
Q: And what was the reaction from artists like?
A: That was something else. Fidelity in Motion resonated better with artists than it did with art historians. Maybe it was the fact that the genre of the interview itself is closer to performance art, and that art academics are not fond of it.
Q: I’d like to ask you about the book Under the Magnifying Glass, and about the exhibition by Milada Marešová, which you conceived as a curator. When did you decide to unearth a forgotten female artist, and why from the First Republic period?
A: I was always interested in modernism and the avant-garde in the inter-war period. I wrote my thesis paper on Jindřich Štyrský, but after graduating I mainly dedicated myself to contemporary art. It was through it and through contemporary theory that I came to
the questions of gender, and I gradually became more interested in how relationships between the genders had functioned in the past. I collaborated with a range of contemporary female artists, and I wanted to know if they had had any predecessors, as well as what status female artists had had in the past. Of course it also irritated me that I had never been taught about them. It was only through my experience with contemporary art that took me back into history. I wasn’t only interested in women artists, but also in the more complex problems of gender: the visualization of femininity and masculinity, the reception of “women’s art” on the scene of the time, and gender schemas in art history and criticism. We should not forget that the formation of modernism coincided with the period when so-called “women’s issues” began to be discussed not only in the field of politics, but also in the field of culture and art. My return to history therefore had that logical link.
When it comes to Marešová that was love at first sight. What’s more, that was my first experience with a monographic exhibition of a departed and until then almost-forgotten artist. The show’s high attendance, and the speed with which the monograph sold out, convinced me that taking an interest in our “great-grandmothers” was worthwhile. Even if I didn’t want to put Marešová on a pedestal next to men, and in the monograph I especially tried to critique the hagiographic model of the “great masters” like that used by Vasari, the show’s success of course made me very happy.
Q: You chose female painters belonging to the New Objectivity category, and none in the avant-garde.
A: It’s not quite right to say that I chose them like that. With the exceptions of Hana Wichterlová and Toyen, none of the women belonged to the avant-garde. When it comes to Toyen, it is not only her works, but also her ambivalent sexual and gender identity that make her a very specific case when you look at women artists. Until recently, in foreign literature she was always referred to as the wife or partner of Štyrský. All over Europe, if you wanted to make it in avant-garde circles, it was usually assumed that you either had to be someone’s lover, partner, or wife.
If women like Slávka Vondráčková, for example, didn’t put their minds to the applied arts, and didn’t contribute to the “lifestyle revolution” then they weren’t welcomed among the avant-garde, and that despite the equality of the sexes, of which the left-wing intellectuals were preaching. The avant-garde was largely a masculine project. We shouldn’t forget, though, that it was only after 1918 that women were able to start studying art and to adopt artistic media that men had already been using for a long time. Finding their way to experimentation at that time was thus a lot more complex than it is today. Even though there usually weren’t female avant-garde experimenters, there were those practicing various other forms of modernism. Their “moderation” was indeed usually interpreted as a symptom and consequence of their gender, but after all, not all artists at the time were avant-garde! If we take into account the strength and integrity of the work done by the first generation of female sculptors working in the First Republic – Karla Vobišová, Marie Jirásková, Mary Durasová – then the widespread judgments of female artists as second-class talents, who were spoken about using appropriately sexist rhetoric, proved to be unsustainable. I would even say that, unlike amongst female painters in the twenties, the residue of women’s artistic dilettantism wasn’t recognizable in female sculptors. That was probably largely because sculpting had until that time been forbidden to women, even at private schools, and because they didn’t have to deal at all with the consequences of so-called “Sunday” art that was sometimes practiced by girls from well-off families. For them, sculpture was a field without a “feminine” tradition.
Q: Do you feel that something similar can be applied to more recent or contemporary art? Do you think it is easier for women to enter the realm of new media because there is no burden of tradition?
A: I don’t think it’s that simple. Until the twenties, sculpture was an eminently masculine discipline, and that wasn’t just because of the physical exertion involved, which – as was claimed – women couldn’t handle. A lot of theorists also asserted, for example, that women’s spatial perception wasn’t developed enough, and they were therefore unable to work in sculpture or architecture. Moreover, we can still see the remnants of these views today: many contemporary female sculptors continue to talk about having encountered gender biases and limitations in the pursuit of their work. New media are not only new because their histories are being written as we speak, but because they are unencumbered by tradition, regardless of gender. Although technology is sometimes thought of as a male domain, in a world of new media, human identity dissolves, or is rather made uncertain, especially with regard to its gender and sexual dimensions. That’s another reason why many feminists in the nineties celebrated new media and virtual reality as spaces of complete gender freedom. However, this now appears to be a myth.
Q: Don’t you sometimes have the feeling that feminist theorists also have their own stereotypes? Like, for example, that the questions they ask female artists are always the same ones?
A: Dogma and stagnated opinions is always a problem, and feminism and gender studies of course can’t completely avoid that. When something becomes an untouchable truth that results in empty rhetoric, phrases, and clichés. Or dogma. Being constantly on the alert to resist the trap of self-love, and to reflect the nuances that arise from situatedness, which I have spoken about, is of course difficult. That applies to art itself, as well; there are many female artists who passively accept certain gender patterns. What was radical ten years ago can today easily become a rhetorical figure, which lacks a critical core. It might be that the need not to be locked into one perspective – that of gender and feminism – is where my professional branching-out comes from, and what has taken me to photography, to design. However, even those fields actually have something in common with women working in the fine arts: for many years, photography and design were marginalized in art history, and their inherent nature of mass production and reproducibility in the past led to their placement outside the realm of “high art”. They were stigmatized just like women’s art was stigmatized – even in modern times they were often condemned as unoriginal and derivative, and the creative role of women was seen as restricted to the useful and the decorative, in other words to “low” art.
Q: Have you witnessed the female element in art become more visible?
A: I think we have now entered a second phase. Women’s art has already been discussed here – though quite superficially, so for the majority of our intellectuals and artists, the matter is settled. Still, there is a lot of raw historical material to be dealt with, and that poses a challenge for researchers for the next few generations. But it’s not only about history. The contemporary world is also changing, and with it gender dynamics are changing, so that is obviously reflected in the production, reception, and function of art as a whole. Treating this matter as settled, therefore, is premature. But it is indisputable that women’s advocacy and criticism of the patriarchal structure of culture and art in this country is still several steps ahead, for instance, of criticism of the heterosexual model, which controls our cultural and artistic spaces to no less degree.
Q: Růžena Zátková’s exhibition was running at Prague Castle, and it had an accompanying program in which you and three other theorists are giving talks on forgotten female artists of her time.
A: My appearance there ties in with the exhibition of Marie Galimberti-Provázková’s work that I am putting together at the Gallery of Western Bohemia in Plzeň. Galimberti-Provázková is notable not only as a painter who spent many years abroad, and who, after her return to the Czech scene after the First World War, was a complete outsider, but also as a demolisher of social conventions. The intimate relationship she had with Anna Macková played an important role in her life, and it is through the prism of this homoerotic experience that we can look at her preserved portraits of women, and her professional and social isolation. This goes back to necessity of disrupting hetero-normative art and of pointing out the hidden and yet-to-be-discussed meanings of particular works and their creators.