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Galina San’ko: The Unwomanly Face of Soviet War Photography 
Day 2, December 2,

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Monash University Museum of Art (MUMA) or online

900 Princes Highway Service Road

Caulfield East, VIC 3145


The Margaret Plant Annual Lecture in Art History is coordinated by the Art History and Theory program in the Department of Fine Art, Monash Art, Design and Architecture Faculty and proudly hosted by the Monash University Museum of Art. This year's Lecture is supported by The Australian Institute of Art History (AIAH). 

This lecture examines the work of the Soviet war photographer Galina San’ko (1904-1981). The title refers to Svetlana Alexievich’s The Unwomanly Face of War, an oral history of the estimated one million Soviet women who served at the front during WW2. After the war, these women and their wartime experiences were largely forgotten and ignored, with the war largely recounted by men in terms of the experiences of men.


An ethnic Ukrainian, San’ko was born in Kursk province, about 10 kilometres from the present border between Russia and Ukraine. Taking up photography in the early 1930s, she quickly established herself as an adventurous photojournalist through challenging travel to remote regions and produced a strong portfolio of work that was published in leading Soviet newspapers and magazines. In conjunction with the arrest and execution of her husband during the Great Terror, San’ko was imprisoned by the Soviet secret police for 18 months but managed to resume her professional work upon release.


During WW2, San'ko worked as a photojournalist and editor for Red Army propaganda publications. Surviving injuries and plane crashes, she was decorated six times for her service at the front. Her photographs were broadly circulated in both the Red Army press and in popular publications for the home front. In January 1943, she documented the German defeat at Stalingrad, where she shot remarkable photographs of dead German soldiers and the dismembered carcasses of horses in the snow. These near-abstract photographs of human and animal bodies evoke the abject horrors of war, engaging poetically with the dismemberment and destruction of living beings in a manner that transcends historical specificities.


The following year, San'ko photographed Soviet children after their liberation at a Finnish detention camp in Northern Russia. These photographs were attacked for failing to capture the joy of the children after their liberation. While most of her prior work had eschewed the gendered subjects often presumed for women photographers during this era, San’ko frequently shot women and children after the war, including a prize-winning series of portraits of the child detainees 20 years after their liberation. Through this talk, Sanko’s body of work will be considered in terms of the reworking of the legacy and public memory of WW2 in contemporary Russia.

Erika Wolf

Erika Wolf is a visual historian who is broadly engaged with the photography, the reproduction of images, and the circulation of images in print. Recognized internationally as an expert on Soviet photography and Russian visual culture, she has contributed to exhibition projects at the Reina Sofia Museum and the Art Institute of Chicago. Erika completed advanced degrees in Art History and Russian & Eastern European Studies at the University of Michigan. She has been the recipient of various fellowships from the Fulbright Foundation, the International Research Exchange Board, the Center for Advanced Studies of the Visual Arts, the Kennan Institute, and the Harriman Institute. She is an Honorary Research Associate of the Munich Graduate School for East and Southeast European Studies at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität (Germany). From 2003 to 2018 she taught in the department of History & Art History at the University of Otago, where she also pursued research and supervised topics related to the history and criticism of photography in New Zealand and the Pacific. In 2018, she relocated to Russia to help establish the School of Advanced Studies, an experimental interdisciplinary international honors college in Yugra (Siberia), where she worked as the Dean of Faculty until February of this year. She is presently a research fellow at the Ne boltai! Collection of 20th Century Propaganda.


About Margaret Plant and the Annual Lecture in Art History

Margaret Plant is Emeritus Professor of Visual Arts at Monash University. Plant began her teaching career at the University of Melbourne in 1962 as a tutor in the Department of Fine Arts. She then accepted an appointment at RMIT University in 1968 as Senior Lecturer in the History of Art—the first academic appointment of an art historian within an Australian art school. Plant has a long and distinguished association with Monash University as Professor of Visual Arts (1982–96) and Emeritus Professor from 1996 onward.

The Margaret Plant Annual Lecture in Art History was established at Monash University in 2018. Previous speakers include Ming Tiampo (Professor of Art History, Centre for Transnational Cultural Analysis at Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada, 2021), Christina Barton (writer, editor, educator and Director, Adam Art Gallery Te Pātaka Toi, Victoria University of Wellington, 2019), and James Meyer (Curator, National Gallery of Art, Washington, 2018).

Image caption: Galina San'ko, German Prisoners at Stalingrad, 1943

Co-organised by

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Supported by

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