Beatrice Sandomirskaya (1894 – 1974) was one of the pioneers of the avant-garde in Russia, though one wouldn’t think it today when her fame is not even a shadow of what it once was. Even in her early youth, she was favourably compared to Rodin. At the age of 24, she created a furore in Moscow when her statue of Robespierre, four metres tall, was installed in the Alexandrovsky gardens. At its opening, on Nov 3, 1918, the top people of the regime attended, to the accompaniment of the Marseillaise. So many passions and furies were let loose that scarcely a week later, persons unknown had destroyed the statue. Surely this was notoriety?
And yet for most of her life, Sandomirskaya lived in obscurity. Only eight years before her death did she re-emerge. In 1966, her solo exhibition was held in Moscow, the only one of her life. It was more successful than anyone – including the sculptor herself – had dared hope. One hundred and forty five wooden sculptures were on display to the delight and appreciation of the crowds.
Not much is known of her life. She was born in a poor Jewish family. Somehow her parents managed to support her interest in the arts, first by sending her to a private studio, then to the St Petersburg academy of art. She felt stifled by the formalism of her training and left for Moscow to study under Sergei Volnukhin at the School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture. By 1914, she was a full-fledged member of the school.
Temperamental and moody, she was eager to learn of all things new. Yet she was no slave to the vogue: when the fashion was for Cubism, she fearlessly experimented with Constructivism. ‘I was a fanatic of this movement,’ she wrote in her unpublished memoirs, ‘and clung passionately to it. Considering an agglomeration of structures of glass, iron, cardboard, wood and plywood, I carefully studied its cleanliness, set up structures along straight lines and inclines, and engaged myself in the decomposition and analysis of forms.’
Beatrice Sandomirskaya was keen to try out new styles. For inspiration, she travelled to the provinces. She exhibited widely at home and abroad. Her researches into suitable mediums for her sculptures eventually led her to wood, and she never looked back. Indeed, she drew a line under her past, and destroyed virtually all her previous work.
At the time, there were two collectives of sculptors in Moscow – ‘Brigade of Eight’ and ‘Brigade of wood-workers’, both of whom sought in different ways the synthesis of architecture and sculpture to create a modern image for the young state. The first group experimented with metal, ceramic and faience, while the second worked exclusively with wood, incorporating cultural traditions, and claiming that this was the only true material for genuine sculpture. Sandomirskaya wrote a manifesto: ‘It seems to me that wood is such a wonderful material that it has a great role to play in our architectural constructions, in decorative and monumental design. Wooden sculpture can be variously used as external decoration in buildings as well as in the interiors, as long as methods of its preservation from atmospheric influence are available.’
Sandomirskaya was the leader of the woodworkers’ brigade, while Vera Mukhina led the other group. Only a couple of years later, Mukhina would exhibit her 25-metre tall statue of chromium-nickel steel, the famous ‘Worker and Kolkhoz Woman‘. The country went along the way of concrete, glass and metal, while wood was consigned to the studios of masters.
Incensed by the defeat of her ideology, Sandomirskaya was to face yet another humiliation. When a competition for a monument to Mayakovsky was announced, she proposed a variant on a theme of Campanella: a relief of the poet in copper hovering atop a library made from reinforced concrete arches. But this was so distant from the artistic vogue that it inspired nobody. And so for many years she ceased all public activities.
She travelled to Central Asia where she taught and worked in her favourite material. She created the impressive Brutalist cycle of female forms: ‘Motherhood and black soil’, ‘Nude on knees’, ‘Woman with washtub’, ‘Thrown ball’. In her credits appear the new image for the proletariat, where less important than likeness is the archetype. Exemplars are Sandomirskaya’s idealised thinkers and activists: ‘The Worker’, ‘The Fisherman’, ‘Uzbek woman from Ferghana’, ‘The Kurd’.
During the war, Sandomirskaya returned to the deserted Moscow and locked herself away in her studio at the School of art where she had lived during her youth. And she worked and worked to the end of her days, never setting down her axe and chisel. One of her last works was the idolatrous ‘Natasha’, bowing her head before the beauty and vanity of the world.
- Marina Voronina, “Life and passion of a Russian Amazon“, Roskultura.ru.