Jewish Women in the Russian Avant-Garde: Introduction

One of the valuable consequences of the rebirth of Russian art was the participation of so many different communities across the vast empire. In particular, it enabled the rise of the female artist. Among Russian nationals there were the famous names – Natalia Goncharova, Elena Guro, Aleksandra Ekster, Lyubov Popova, Olga Rosanova – none of whom was inferior in talent or brightness to their male counterparts. Similarly, among the Jewish artists of the time, there was an emergence of female talent, many of whom  hailed from the enlightened families that lived in St Petersburg, Moscow, and the cities of the Pale of Settlement (Kiev, Vitebsk, Kharkov, Odessa). The sculptors Eleonora Bloch, Nina Niss-Goldman, Beatrice Sandomirskaya, the artists Sofia Dymshitz, Nina Kogan, Sonia Terk, Polina Hentova, Vera Schlesinger all started on their artistic paths at the end of the 1900s and the early 1910s. Bloch, Niss-Goldman, Sandomirskaya, Hentova, Schlesinger all participated in exhibitions of Jewish art. Several of the aforementioned artists sooner or later left Russia to settle in the West. Sonia Terk achieved acclaim under the surname Delaunay, and Schlesinger and Hentova both received good press. Others continued to work in the USSR, and between 1910 and 1920, formed a left (and extreme left) wing platform of Russian art.

Nina Niss-Goldman lived in Paris between 1910 and 1915, and collaborated with Eli Nadelman and Hannah Orlova. In her experimentation with form, she was close to Alexander Arkhipenko and Jacques Lipschitz. Her statues and sculptures, as those of Beatrice Sandomirskaya, were distinguished by their power and gave no reason to be discriminated against as ‘feminine’ art. Sofia Dymshitz-Tolstaya (the second surname arising after her short marriage to the famous writer Alexei Tolstoy) absorbed herself in experimenting with painting on glass. Fate brought her to the Russian avant-garde titan Vladimir Tatlin, whose faithful and devoted helpmate she was in the heroic years of the creation of the Monument to the Third Internationale. Volumes of cubes, cones and spheres in glass presented an important component in the ideological conception of the Tower. Sofia Dymshitz-Tolstaya’s related development of glass art was a powerful contributor the theory of form in the 20th century.

Eleonora Bloch studied at Rodin’s studio in Paris between 1898 and 1905. She is famous for her impressionist sculptures of Rodin and Jaures. Upon her return to Russia, she too was involved in the leftwing art scene, taking up with the Communists, and creating mass propaganda, still in the impressionist style: busts of Marx and Engels, the memorial of Gorky in Donetsk.

Beatrice Sandomirskaya studied at the same academy (R. R. Bach’s) at St Petersburg as Eleonora Bloch, and was much taken with cubism and constructivism. She travelled extensively across the country, supervised State Art Studios at Orenburg, Samarkand and Bukhara, and taught art at various schools.

Sonia Terk (later Delaunay) studied art in Karlsruhe and later in Paris, where she mostly lived from 1905 till her death. She, along with her husband Robert Delaunay, are considered the founders of the cubist form called ‘Orphism’. She also worked on textile and stage set design, as well as fashion and costume design for films.

Nina Kogan was a student of Kazimir Malevich in the early 1920s; from late 1920s, she moved away from geometric abstract art to expressive realism, favouring as subjects the ‘marginal’, that is, people who were not at the vanguard of the Revolution. Later on, she was jailed for ‘counter-revolutionary’ acts; upon release, she earned her living designing books for publishers in Leningrad.

Portrait of Eleonora Bloch, by A. A. Kokel (1924-1927)

Portrait of Sofia Dymshitz-Tolstaya by her husband Guermain Pessati. (1923).

Portrait of Nina Niss-Goldman by Boris Karafelov.

Beatrice Sandomirskaya at work.

Portrait of Nina Kogan, by V. V. Hlebnikova. (1924).

Portrait of Sonia Terk-Delaunay, by Florence Henri. (1931).


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