Guardians of Morality and Women of Passion: The Image of Sex Work in Estonian Art in the First Half of the 20th Century 25/04/2024 – 25/08/2024

Kumu Art Museum

3rd floor, A-wing, Project Space 2

Adult: Kumu Art Museum
  • Family: Kumu Art Museum
  • Discount: Kumu Art Museum
  • Adult ticket with donation: Art Museum of Estonia
Voldemar Kangro-Pool. Nana. 1924. Art Museum of Estonia
Project room exhibition

Guardians of Morality and Women of Passion: The Image of Sex Work in Estonian Art in the First Half of the 20th Century

Perceptions of sex work have always been closely linked to social and personal moral standards. This exhibition explores how Estonian artists have portrayed sex work, how their works reflect the attitudes of society, and whether these representations may have contributed to shaping these attitudes. The focus is on the art of the 1920s and 1930s: this period marked a peak in the popularity of this subject among Estonian artists not matched before or since.

The exhibition features over 50 works, mostly prints, drawings and watercolours. Works by over 20 artists are represented: Eduard Wiiralt, Gori, Natalie Mei, Ado Vabbe, Voldemar Kangro-Pool, Jenny Uttar, Aino Bach, Aleksander Promet, Erik Obermann, Oskar Kallis and others.

The exhibition is part of Magdalena Maasik’s MA thesis, defended at the Estonian Academy of Arts in 2024.


The curator Magdaleena Maasik about the exhibition:

Although sex work continues to be a controversial subject, the sale of sexual services has always been a source of livelihood, and has provided inspiration for artists throughout the ages. From the Renaissance to Romanticism, sex work was mainly depicted through idealised mythological nymphs or exoticised harem scenes. However, by the end of the 19th century, artists had begun to approach the subject in an increasingly realistic manner.

The bustling metropolises of a rapidly modernising Europe attracted both artists seeking inspiration and sex workers, whose numbers had multiplied with the Industrial Revolution and urbanisation, and who hoped to make a better living in the city. For the Impressionists, fascinated by modern life, brothels and cabarets, with their colourful characters, soon became favourite subjects. Sex work became a particularly popular theme in Expressionism, which emerged in Germany in the early 20th century, and in its more socially critical successors, such as Verism and Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity).

Influenced by these modern movements and due to their close contacts with the German art scene, Estonian artists were also soon drawn to the subject of sex work. In Estonian art, as elsewhere, the theme is mainly represented through female sex workers. They appear as menacing vampires, desirable femme fatales, grotesque figures reeking of disease and death and suffering victims. Alongside sex workers, different types of clients, pimps, brothel-keepers and “moral guardians” stand out in the artworks, embodying the often hypocritical attitude of the society of the time towards sex work and sex workers.

This exhibition is a part of the 3rd floor permanent exhibition “Landscapes of Identity: Estonian Art 1700–1945″ of the Kumu Art Museum.

Curator: Magdaleena Maasik
Exhibition design and graphic design: Else Mare Lagerspetz

Exhibition team: Richard Adang, Darja Jefimova, Klaire Kolmann, Kaja Kährik, Tõnis Medri, Marit Must, Laura Tahk, Kristiina Tiideberg and Uve Untera

We thank: Joosep Kivimäe, Aet Kuusik and Rebeka Põldsam