Lives of the Artists XXVIII

In the 1930s, Russian-born sculptor Naum Gabo started experimenting with a thin, plastic material called celluloid. Previously used as film for photography or to make cheap jewelry, celluloid in Gabo’s hands became translucent geometric structures that were often suspended in mid-air. Art critic Herbert Read wrote that Gabo was using “new materials…[for] a new generation to create with them the monuments of a new civilization.” His pieces made their way into the top art collections in the world.

But by 1960, the plastic had begun to warp and crack. Gabo didn’t know it when he started using celluloid, but it is an extremely unstable and reactive material, and was infamous for catching fire in movie theaters. Despite conservators’ diligence to try to preserve his works, the plastic became too brittle and the sculptures collapsed. Gabo himself called many of them irreparable.

Alexandra Ossola, “How to Make Art That Withstands the Test of Time” in Nautilus, March 24, 2015.

The Bolt

Between 1930-31, Dmitry Shostakovich wrote the ballet The Bolt. It was met with horror by the commissars of culture (avant-garde! decadent! bourgeois! down with it all!). But at its first staging, the set and costume design was superbly constructivist, featuring the works of such luminaries as Tatiana Bruni. A recent exhibition of the design sketches was held at GRAD – the Gallery for Russian Art and Design in London. I visited and snapped away. Voila!

Portrait of Dmitry Shostakovich, by L. Golubovskii. (1977).

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Costume design for the Terrorist, by Tatiana Bruni. (1931).

 

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Costume design for the American Navy, and Japanese Navy, by Tatiana Bruni. (1931).

 

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Costume design for Colonial Slave Girl, by Tatiana Bruni. (1931).

 

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Costume design for the Opportunist, by Tatiana Bruni. (1931).

 

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Costume design for Petite-Bourgeoise, by Tatiana Bruni. (1931).

 

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Costume design for Olga, by Tatiana Bruni. (1931).

 

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The Drunkard and the Female Worker, by Tatiana Bruni. (1931).

 

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Costume design for the Carter, by Tatiana Bruni. (1931).

 

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Costume design for the Typist, by Tatiana Bruni. (1931).

 

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Costume design for the Opportunist, by Tatiana Bruni. (1931).

 

Sacha Zaliouk

Self-portrait. (1915).

Self-portrait. (1915).

Alexander Davidovich Zaliouk (1887 – 1971) was a Jewish artist, illustrator and sculptor, a member of the École de Paris, and a doyen of the Art Deco. He was born in an impoverished family in Radomysl, Ukraine, and studied at art schools in St Petersburg and Odessa. His early career involved illustrative work for magazines such as Krokodil (1911-12), Southern Weekly (1912-13), and the newspaper Southern Thought (1911). He signed his works Sacha, or Sach or AZ. He participated in exhibitions of the Association of Southern Russian artists in Odessa (1908-12).

In 1912, Sacha moved to Paris and settled in Montparnasse. He continued his education at the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts, training under Raphaël Collin and François Flameng. In 1914, he enlisted in the French army and fought at Verdun.

In 1919, he attracted attention with his portraits of literary figures, actors and other celebrities. He also created a series of sculptures. Besides portraits, he painted landscapes and generic compositions; nudes; carried out a series of erotic graphic art; created book illustrations. In 1920 he participated in the satirical magazines La Vie Parisienne, Fantasio, La Sourire, Le Journal Amusant, Paris-plaisirs.

Illustration in Fantasie.

Illustration in Fantasio.

In 1921, he participated in the First Russian Exhibition of Arts and Craft at London’s Whitechapel Gallery. He also took part in the Salon d’Automne (1926) as well as the Society of Artists’ La Horde de Montparnasse (1927).

The Lovers.

The Lovers.

Zaliouk became a member of the Salon des Independants in 1951, and of the Parisian salon of the National Union of Arts in 1954.

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Nude and pipes.

Nude and pipes.

Beauties by the mast.

Beauties by the mast.

Surrealist composition.

Surrealist composition.

Two nudes.

Two nudes.

The painter and the model. (1929).

The painter and the model. (1929).

The painter and the model. (1923).

The painter and the model. (1923).

(Text from ЗАЛЮК (Цалюк) Александр (Саша) Давидович, at the Art and Architecture of the Russian Diaspora.)

Art Roundup – March 2015

Yuristanbek Shygaev.

Yuristanbek Shigayev.

Heads up y’all. Sonia Delaunay at the Tate Modern from April to August 2015! Nothing like a bit of avant-garde to set the pulse racing.

Russian art in the aftermath of the Second World War at London‘s Saatchi Gallery. This runs from March 13 – April 6, 2015.

Contemporary Kazakh art is brought to a European audience at Strasbourg’s Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art. This runs through March 8 – blink and you’ll miss it.

More Central Asian contemporary art titled Silk Route of Central Asia at Studio 65a in London. Running till March 7, 2015, there are works by Kyrgyz, Belarusian, Uzbek and Kazakh artists, e.g. Yuristanbek Shigayev on the right.

Rather London-centric this time, and I’ll really have to make an effort to go see that last one – it’s a bit out of the way. Still, hope dwells eternal, etc.

Have a good March, folks.

Fedotov’s Favourite Family

In the previous post, we saw Pavel Fedotov’s lovely painting of Nadezhda Zhdanovich at the fortepiano. The Zhdanoviches were a large, close-knit family, quite likely Fedotov’s favourite, for he painted several of its members over the years.

The Zhdanoviches were a poor noble family, happy for the most part, but stricken with ill fortune -many of them died young. There were eight children, four boys and four girls, born to the patriarch, Pyotr Zhdanovich, a minor courtier. The boys, following family tradition, joined the cadet corps, while the girls were educated at a school for the lesser nobility.

Pyotr Zhdanovich. (1846-7).

Pyotr Zhdanovich. (1846-7).

Olga Zhdanovich (Pyotr's wife).

Olga Zhdanovich (Pyotr’s wife).

Pavel Zhdanovich.

Pavel Zhdanovich.

Mikhail Zhdanovich.

Mikhail Zhdanovich.

Anna Zhdanovich.

Anna Zhdanovich.

Alexandra Zhdanovich.

Alexandra Zhdanovich.

Pavel Fedotov and Domestic Art – An Example

Pavel Fedotov (1815 – 1852) was born in a poor family, and in his youth was handed over to the Moscow cadet corps. Upon finishing his training there, he entered service in the Finland guard which at the time was quartered close to the St Petersburg Academy of Arts. Even while a cadet, he had shown promise at drawing; his skill was so impressive that he was allowed to take evening classes in art at the Academy from 1834 onwards. Ten years later, he resigned his military job and became a full-time artist.

Portrait of Nadezhda Zhdanovich at the fortepiano. (1849).

Portrait of Nadezhda Zhdanovich at the fortepiano. (1849).

Fedotov painted sympathetic pictures of his friends, and scenes of the guardsman’s life, but his especial interest was in domestic art, and in 1848 was titled the master of the art of the home. His paintings on the theme of Russian society are marked by a delicate irony and drama. But fame and recognition were fleeting because of his association with the Petrashevists, for which he was criticised and attacked. In 1852, this led to a mental breakdown, which shortly thereafter resulted in his death.

The Portrait of Nadezhda Zhdanovich at the fortepiano, which Fedotov executed in 1849, shows the fourteen year old sister of Pavel Zhdanovich, a friend of the artist. The Zhdanoviches were a large, close-knit family living at the corner of the 7th line of the Vasiliyev Island, and all of them willingly posed for Fedotov. For instance, there is an earlier painting of Nadezhda in a red dress. This painting above was made at a time when women were being educated at the Imperial Educational Society for Noblewomen at the Smolny Institute. It is known that she subsequently married A. I. Werner, an officer in the Finland guards, and lived till 1915. All that time, she carefully preserved letters, poems and drawings by Fedotov. In 1912, when she was 76 years old, she donated the archive to the Russian Museum. The archive included the painting above.

Portrait of Nadezhda Zhdanova in childhood. (1846-47).

Portrait of Nadezhda Zhdanova in childhood. (1846-47).

Fedotov painted portraits of his colleagues and close friends throughout his creative life, and because they depict people dear to the artist, it is impossible not to feel all the love and warmth that characterizes his work. He himself very clearly disassociated himself from the portraits painted to order by other painters, because very often there was a certain artificiality and excessive idealization of the model. “Is it possible to capture the soul of a person who has come to you for the sole purpose of having a portrait painted of him?” he said. In his works, Fedotov, on the other hand, tried to create a simple home environment, surrounding the subject with objects that are precious to her, and strove to ensuring that her pose remained natural and relaxed. As a result Fedotov’s portraits are filled with intimacy and character.

All these features of Fedotov’s art are captured completely in the image of Nadezhda Zhdanova. The artist has successfully limned the slight turn of the figure which faces the viewer as it slides its fingers over the keyboard. The modest dress emphasises the ordinariness of the scene, and the simple background with no room for anything extraneous, only serves to reinforce the impression of quotidian life.

Portrait of Elizaveta Zhdanovich. (1846).

Portrait of Elizaveta Zhdanovich. (1846).

On the light gold coloured wall the silhouette of the girl stands out particularly clearly – soft, supple and graceful. A confident and dynamic painting technique is evident in the intimate portrait; the background is worked in with vigorous and energetic strokes; the head, like one in a miniature painting, is delineated clearly, with all the features of the hair clear, and with a marked emphasis on the clear, open and peaceful expression on Nadezhda’s face. Her back bends in consonance with that of the chair, while the sound of the plinking piano is audible in the smooth movement of her hands, while her shadow on the wall provides an illusion of space. The bright palette with a predominance of white, light blue, yellow and brown is perfectly in tune with the feminine and delicate feature of the girl. Warmth of perception is achieved by the soft artistic lighting that envelops all that’s visible here. In short, the portrait is filled with completeness and charm, which it achieves in its simplicity and elegance.

Despite the undoubted merits of Fedotov’s works, many of his contemporaries never missed an opportunity to accuse him of dilettantism and technical shortcomings in his paintings. For example, in the portrait above, Nadezhda’s left arm appears shorter than the right; the fortepiano is painted, it seems, from a more elevated point of view, which gives the impression that it is not flush with the wall, but rather penetrates it. Most likely, this is due to the fact that the artist painted the piano and the pianist’s hands not at the time of the sitting, but much later, from memory. Be that as it may, these errors do not detract from the charm in Fedotov’s portrait, but bring to mind a special vision of the world, which at the time was still to be discovered in the future, by impressionists – a vision that Fedotov could already glimpse, anticipating the coming generation of artists and sensitively divining their new artistic codes.

(Taken from Antiquities of Petersburg: Portrait of Nadezhda Zhdanova at the fortepiano. Pavel Fedotov.)

An Obit or Two

Two Russian artists died recently. Georgy Kovenchuk (1933 – 2015) was a St Petersburg-based graphic designer, book illustrator and painter. He was popularly known as Gaga, and was a grandson of the futurist Nikolai Kulbin. Kovenchuk studied graphic art at the Academy of Art, was a member of the Union of Artists, and during Soviet times, was one of the authors of the Military Pencil, agitprop posters made by some of the best Leningrad artists of the 1960s. His first solo exhibition was in 1971 and closed down for ‘formalism’. In 1975, Kovenchuk’s illustrations to Mayakovsky’s Klop (The Bedbug) became a byword for the application of the traditions of the Russian avant-garde to book design. Censors banned the book and it wouldn’t have been released had it not been for the efforts of the likes of Lilya Brik and Valentin Pluchek. In 2013, the illustrations were republished by Timofei Markov in a separate silkscreen cover.

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Vladimir Ovchinnikov (1941 – 2015) was born in the province of Perm where his family had been evacuated from Leningrad. He was not trained as an artist, but worked as a scaffolder at the Hermitage museum, the Mariinsky theatre, where he decorated churches. In 1964, he organised an exhibition of five artists at the Rastrelliyev gallery of the Hermitage, which (besides him) included Mikhail Shemyakin, Galina Kravchenko, Oleg Lyagachev and Vladimir Uflyand. He became one of the earliest of the unofficial artists (the non-conformists) to be allowed official exhibition in Soviet times – in 1974 and 1975, his works were put up at the houses of culture. Here the Soviet citizen was able to see domestic contemporary art distinct from the officially affirmed socialist realism, and to see its development from abstraction to surrealism. Subsequently, Ovchinnikov became a member of the Academy of Contemporary Art at St Petersburg.

In front of the TV. (2000).

In front of the TV. (2000).

Angel at the telescope. (2007).

Angel at the telescope. (2007).

Ovchinnikov’s art is generally always figurative with an important role played by its subject. In the works of the 1970s, everyday scenes of Leningrad life dominate, in which are embedded subtle mythological or biblical referenes. In later works, the artist addresses himself to twentieth century literature, developing the theme of absurdity as a timeless reference of modern reality.

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Art Roundup – February 2015

Man, the months sure do speed by. This month begins with the tragic news of the conflagration at a huge library in Moscow that destroyed well nigh on a million documents. It boggles the mind that even in the 21st century with every manner of fire-proofing available, it is still possible to lose treasures at such staggering rates.

Patrol

Patrol, by Nikolai Roerich. (1905).

Meanwhile, in London’s Whitechapel Art Gallery there continues an exhibition on Geometric Abstraction, which traces the story of abstract art following Malevich’s black quadrilateral: Adventures of the Black Square continues till April 6, 2015, and features not only Russian abstractionists but also works from Latin America and Iran, among others. I’ll be sure to nip over to this one – it’s not far from my workplace.

Over in New York, there is an exploration of views on the Russian avant-garde by the new Left, contemporary artists left cold by the increasingly conservative and nationalistic official culture. At The James Gallery is Specters of Communism: Contemporary Russian Art, running from February 7 to March 28, 2015.

In honour of the centenary of the birth of the great collector George Costakis, the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow has organised Georgy Costakis: Departure from the USSR, exhibiting choice selections of works he donated to the gallery when he emigrated in 1977. You only have a week to savour this special exhibit – it ends February 8, 2015 – but as the art works are in the Tretyakov anyway, you probably won’t miss much even if you didn’t go.

And to bring up the rear, the Samara Art Museum in Kuybyshev has an exhibition of Nikolai Roerich‘s work, running till February 23, 2015.

Pavel Pyasetsky and the Trans-Siberian

I’m reading Christian Wolmar’s To the Edge of the World: The Story of the Trans-Siberian Express, the World’s Greatest Railroad, which I would heartily recommend to anyone interested in railways and Russian history. By 1900, the Trans-Siberian railway was taking on passengers across the country, but Western observers continued to hold it in contempt. To counter that view and to demonstrate its equality among European railways, the Russian government commissioned the magnate in charge of the Orient Express to come up with an attractive display at the 1900 Universal Exposition in Paris. Nagelmackers arranged for four carriages to be built and equipped specially for the exhibition – the very acme of luxury and design. Visitors would pay to sit in a carriage for a meal, and:

…the real treat was the exhibit designed by Pawel Pyasetsky, who was specially commissioned by the railway to demonstrate the ‘experience’ of travelling on the Trans-Siberian. To give a sense of movement to the ‘passengers’ tucking into their three-course meals, the artist devised an elaborate arrangement outside the windows of the dining car to give the feeling of a virtual train ride. A moving panorama was created by means of an elaborate series of belts moving along at varying speeds. The front one travelled rapidly, carrying mundane features such as sand and rocks, while the next, slightly slower, had plants such as shrubs and brush. Behind that, there was a third, again somewhat slower, showing distant scenery while the fourth, which rolled along the slowest of all, was Pyasetsky’s masterpiece, a set of watercolours on lengthy scrolls, with scenes that he had sketched on trips along sections of the railway that had been completed early.

The watercolours included scenes from the cities of Moscow, Omsk, Irkutsk and Beijing and the idea was to give viewers the impression that they had journeyed along the whole railway. The show actually lasted forty-five minutes and there were nine separate scrolls with a total length of around 900 metres.

Encyclopedia of the Russian Avant Garde 4

Q: With which museums did you have the most effective relationships while working on the Encyclopedia?

A: We worked with an enormous number of museums, but mainly with the Russian Museum, the Tretyakov, and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Thessaloniki, where the Costaki collection is; we received lots of slides. But in fact we collaborated with many regional museums, after all the avant-garde in 1919-20 had spread across all of Russia. There was an ideological programme to establish contemporary art museums. I’ve been working on the subject for many years and can say that nearly a thousand works were transported out of Moscow to provincial towns, wherever there were some sort of art schools. Kandinsky, Malevich and lesser artists were taken to around 40 towns. In later years, about 30% were lost, while the remainder were preserved in museums, and we obtained reproductions from them.

Q: In the beginning of the interview, you said you were thinking of publishing one volume. Now there will be three. I’ve held the first two in my hands, and they are pretty heavy, and more importantly expensive. Truly the Encyclopedia is a seminal work of exceptional importance, but who can buy it for 22 thousand rubles? Libraries?

A: Of course we’d like libraries to have these books. There is an idea to find money to make additional copies – for libraries and museums. With the majority of museums we have had agreements and we’ll give them copies. For them, our book is very important. Several collectors have also written to me, saying that the Encyclopedia has helped them understand some things, and find attributions for works in their collections.

Q: How is it so expensive? Because of the illustrations?

A: No, not just that. We paid honorariums to the authors and museums for the rights. The cost of all the work is not small.

Q: Can we expect that in the Non/fiction exhibition the books will be a bit cheaper?

A: Certainly. There will be the lowest price at which the books can be bought, and there will also be a student discount for those with student IDs. After all, we are humanitarians.

Q: The budget always affects the final result, whether it’s big or small. Did your funding change during your work?

A: The budget kept climbing all the time, and I’m very grateful to our sponsors who took care of all the costs and never argued with me. The number of authors kept rising; we also had a powerful editorial team: a literary editor, a producer, a proofreader. All of them read it. Though I still to this day find various errors in the final book. But as an old-time worker in the industry, I understand that these are unavoidable. In one place, the photographs of two women artists are mixed up. I hope that after the third volume comes out, we can make an online version of the Encyclopedia and a website dedicated to it.

Q: An electronic version can be expanded, broadened, and importantly – constantly updated. That is, in the future, do you plan to continue working on the text?

A: Of course, there is work for the future, but I don’t know for how far in the future. The site could go beyond the Encyclopedia, there could be articles on major artists, including Malevich and Kandinsky.

But first, the third volume needs to come out, which in fact is the most difficult. If in the first two books everything is clear – the alphabet and the last name determine the location of the artist, then in the last tome it’s not even clear what title to give to some articles. For example, everybody knows the (ГСХМ) State Independent Artists’ Studios, which were established under the Stroganov school and the Moscow school of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture. These were transformed into a completely different status, new teachers appeared there who taught the avant-garde. These studios then expanded to a dozen and a half other towns – Tver, Novgorod, Vitebsk, and they were all called differently: ГСХМ, СГХМ, ГОСХУМ. In Soviet times, they loved abbreviations, but there was no uniformity among them. And how to bring them all into a single view, I still haven’t decided. The third volume will also contain articles on exhibitions, journals, publishers, or even about some artistic cafe. We’ll design it differently, with pictures not appearing stand-alone, but rather within the text. This will make the design more difficult, but there’s no alternative.

Q: Do you think that in the first two volumes you have been able to achieve a stylistic coherence, an encyclopedic uniformity?

A: We tried to do so, though there isn’t such a rigidity here as in other encyclopedias where everything is specified: write this way and no other. As our theme is art, not physics, not an exact science, we decided to allow our authors some freedom in language. One of our principles was to allow an authorial point of view. We welcomed this, and when it was missing, we had to add it ourselves. Rakitin and I wrote 150 articles each, and edited many others.

Q: What would you consider your greatest achievement in the Encyclopedia?

A: I think we have revived names that had been forgotten by everyone. This is the main thing. About famous artists, it’s always possible to find something, but about those who established the backdrop, there’s almost nothing. Malevich, for instance, had eighty students in Vitebsk, and we wrote articles about all for whom we were able to find some information. We found, maybe, twenty people. Of course, among his students were Chashnik and Suetin, but there were also complete unknowns – for example, the Finnish artist Ahola-Valio.

Undoubtedly, with the release of the Encyclopedia we also have plans to promote and popularise the Russian avant-garde, because it is not well-known in our country. Many artistic types like to brag, “I don’t like the avant-garde! Anyone can paint like that, anybody can paint the Black Square.” You understand that this is the favourite excuse of everyone who understands nothing about art. Well, be the first to paint it, then! Invent it! There is much for the Russian to be proud of; they only need to know more about the time.

Black suprematist square, by Kazimir Malevich. (1915).

Q: The avant-garde is such a diverse phenomenon, it has many different faces. You have combined them into one publication, and more importantly – showed the real faces of an enormous number of avant-garde artists. Did some general image develop?

A: When you leaf through the book, you see hundreds of people who perished tragically, because it was a terrible time, the Civil war, the terror… There was an incredibly talented artist, Semashkevich, who was executed in 1937, his paintings confiscated and lost somewhere in the Lubyanka. We found around ten works of art, and yet he had been extraordinarily prolific.

Many people died tragically, many abandoned the avant-garde because life forced them to: they couldn’t feed their families, they couldn’t survive solely on their art, they had to change job. But still they wouldn’t be part of the crowd, they were engaged in art because they loved it. It’s a slice of an entire era: everything that happened in the country in those years has been reflected in the art. And that’s why the multifaceted avant-garde is so striking. I think we were able to demonstrate it – and that’s also and important achievement of our Encyclopedia.

[Translated loosely from Tatyana Yershova, «Мы вытащили имена, о которых все забыли»: Как искусство русского авангарда собрали в энциклопедию. Lenta.ru, Nov 28, 2013.]