Jewish Women of the Russian Avant-Garde: Nina Kogan

Nina Kogan (1889-1942) (Нина Осиповна Коган, or Nina Cohen (?)) was born in St Petersburg, and studied at the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture from 1911-1913. From 1919 to 1922, she lived in Vitebsk, training under Marc Chagall and Kazimir Malevich, and teaching at the Vitebsk National School of Art. In 1922, returned to Moscow where she worked at the Museum of Artistic Culture; in the middle of the decade, she was back in Leningrad. In the 1930s, she was known for her illustrations for children’s books. She is considered one of the main exponents of the Suprematist style of the avant-garde.

Nina Kogan was known for her geometric abstract art, and later for expressive realism. The subject of her paintings were the ‘marginals’, that is people who could be considered ‘not in the avant-garde of the Revolution’. She herself was imprisoned for counter-revolutionary activities. After her release, she stayed in the shadows, working for publishing houses in Leningrad. From exhibition catalogues, it is evident that she also painted watercolours and several landscapes in oils.

[Nina Kogan was a friend of Anna Akhmatova, and painted several portraits of the poet.

Portrait of Anna Akhmatova. (1930).

Lydia Chukovskaya recalled in her ‘Notes on Anna Akhmatova’ that “Akhmatova was friendly with the Leningrad painter Nina Kogan, whom I knew slightly… a humble woman, not beautiful but very talented. I saw a portrait of Akhmatova by Kogan – interesting, the very essence of Akhmatova’s beauty.”]

Solomon, or a Jew at prayer. (1938).

In the picture titled ‘Solomon’, all that remained of Suprematism was the black skull cap, pointed and geometric. The soft, dimmed manner was characteristic of Nina Kogan even in the 1920s. The black stripes and fluid smears are typical of the manner. The painting is distinguished by its high artistic quality.

[The Vitebsk school, of course, is one of greatest names in the Russian avant-garde. I might blog about it at length one day.]

In the 1980s, when some dealers and experts became greatly interested in the creations of the Vitebsk school, a large number of Suprematist works ostensibly by Nina Kogan suddenly appeared in the market, especially in the West.

Western admirers of the hitherto unknown artist had to explain the provenance of these beautiful watercolours and gouaches. In a catalogue released in 1985 by the Zurich-based Schlegl Gallery, one of the contributors of which was Andrei Nakov (who was already known to experts), there was cited a biography of Nina Kogan. According to the authors, Kogan had perished in the gulag, and only her true friends had been able to save her works for posterity.

Alexandra Shatskikh of the Moscow Institute of Art History and author of a book on the Vitebsk school, said, “Nina Kogan had some strange friends. They were strangely ignorant of the facts of her life.” It’s true that she was a student of Malevich and was a member of  UNOVIS, but all other provided details were false, starting from her place of birth and ending with the circumstances of her death. Contrary to the assertions of the authors of the catalogue, she wasn’t born in Vitebsk; she did die in tragic circumstances, but not in a gulag in Magadan, but in the siege of Leningrad. According to Shatskikh, Kogan wasn’t a particularly gifted painter, and her Suprematist phase didn’t last long. She only found three Suprematist works by Kogan in the archives. Everything else attributed to her was clearly fraudulent.

[Fraud in the Russian avant-garde is rampant, and merits a post entirely on its own. Given the large sums of money involved in the Russian art business, this is not surprising at all.]

Given Shatskikh’s claim that only three or so pieces of Suprematist art are attributable to Nina Kogan, I’m not entirely sure that all the following are by this artist.

Suprematism 1

Suprematism 2

Composition 1

Composition 2

References

1) The italicised lines are translated from Remochka’s blog dated 22 Jan 2008. There are more images on that page, but again, it’s not clear if they are all correctly Kogan’s.

2) The block quote is translated from ‘Nina Kogan – sister to Lieutenant Kije‘. (An allusion to the character in the eponymous novel by Yuri Tynyanov about a lieutenant who exists only on paper, and yet is promoted all the way to general; implying, of course, that falsified documentation suddenly thrust Nina Kogan into prominence.)

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