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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Varvara Bubnova

I came across Bubnova on LiveJournal, and was then happily directed onto sundry museum sites and the Wikipedia. Varvara Bubnova was born in 1886 and died in 1983, and was one of a small set of Russian emigre artists that headed not west, but east – to Japan. She spent  35 years in that country, till 1958. A puppet to politics, she found herself declared an undesirable alien in Japan in 1936, while during the war years, she was stripped of her Soviet citizenship for ‘allying with the enemy’. Evidently her citizenship was restored to her, because she was allowed to return to the USSR, spending time in Sukhumi, before settling in St Petersburg, where she spent the last years of her life.

Bubnova was one of the artists who participated in the famed Donkey’s Tail and Jack of Diamonds exhibitions in 1913, along with the likes of Tatlin, Malevich, Goncharova, Rozanova, Burliuk and Larionov.

Bubnova trained as an archaeologist and ethnographer, concentrating on the primitive art of ancient Russia and the northern peoples of Siberia. In Japan, she developed her mastery of lithography and book illustration. She also participated in exhibitions of the Japanese avant-garde, including six solo exhibitions during every decade of her sojourn in Japan.

In the botanical gardens.

In the botanical gardens.

Green room.

Green room.

Sukhumi surroundings. (1964).

Sukhumi surroundings. (1964).

Bench. (1963)

Bench. (1963)

A teacher and student of music. (1970).

A teacher and student of music. (1970).

In memory of Anna Akhmatova. (1965-66).

In memory of Anna Akhmatova. (1965-66).

Conversation. (1969).

Conversation. (1969).

Self-portrait. (1962).

Self-portrait. (1962).

A grieving woman. (1932).

A grieving woman. (1932).

Road. (1932).

Road. (1932).

From a series of landscapes. (1930s).

From a series of landscapes. (1930s).

Orchard. (1930s).

Orchard. (1930s).

Still A Gallery Tour

Part 2 of paintings displayed at the St Petersburg Gallery, London, in their Russian portraiture exhibition.

Nudes (two-sided painting), by David Shterenberg. (1907-09).

Portrait of Igor Stravinsky, by Mikhail Larionov. (1915).

Portrait of S.A. Lobatchev, by Aristarkh Lentulov. (1913).

Nude female models, by Ilya Mashkov. (1908).

Two ladies, by Natalia Goncharova. (1907).

Woman with head bandage, by Alexej Jawlensky. (1909).

A Gallery Tour, Continued Continued

This is part 1 of an exhibition of Russian portraiture at the St. Petersburg Gallery, Cork Street, London.

Portrait of Pavel I, by Stepan Shchukin. (1797).

Sportswoman, by Vladimir Lebedev. (1933).

Lady with a fan and a newspaper, by Marie Vassilieff. (1910-12)

Self portrait with a cigarette, by Boris Grigoriev. (1916).

Baseball, by Alexander Deineka. (1935).

Laughter, by Filipp Maliavin. (1925).

A Gallery Tour, Continued.

So here we are among the works by artists originally displayed as part of the Jack (or Knave) of Diamonds exhibition in Moscow. The notes for each painting are taken from the exhibition cards of the Courtauld Gallery, London.

Mikhail Larionov’s (1881-1964) work below was displayed along with Still life in a Major Key at the Golden Fleece exhibition in Moscow in 1910. The Russian avant-garde artists had an abiding interest in the union of music and painting.

Still life in a minor key, by Mikhail Larionov. (1909).

Still life in a minor key, by Mikhail Larionov. (1909).

This painting was in the first Jack of Diamonds exhibition in Moscow from December 1910 – January 1911. “The nude female bathers form a scene similar to the works of the German Expressionist group the Bruecke (Bridge). Larionov’s use of red-orange and green, opposite colours on the colour wheel, define the figures with a jarring, clashing force.”

Bathers at sunset, by Mikhail Larionov. (1909).

Bathers at sunset, by Mikhail Larionov. (1909).

Aristarkh Lentulov (1882-1943) returned to Moscow and painted this based on his impressions gained from his Parisian life among the French avant-garde. “The artist uses a radical style to depict a very traditional subject, giving the roses a monumental quality through his layering of petals and bright blocks of colour.”

Flowers, by Aristarkh Lentulov. (1913).

Flowers, by Aristarkh Lentulov. (1913).

Natalia Goncharova’s (1881-1962) series of harvest paintings appeared between 1908 and 1911. She imagines a scene of cypresses and pink mountains, and the women’s outfits are unlike those she usually depicted Russian paintings in. Apelsinia was a name she invented for her solo exhibition in 1913 in Moscow. “The work reveals her taste for the exotic and interest in the art of Paul Gauguin.”

Apelsinia, by Natalia Goncharova. (1909).

Apelsinia, by Natalia Goncharova. (1909).

Vladimir Burliuk (1886-1917) was influenced by Cezanne and Cubism. “He often fractured his paintings into interlocking irregular segments, as if translating the principles of stained glass onto canvas.”

Landscape, by Vladimir Burliuk. (1913).

Landscape, by Vladimir Burliuk. (1913).

Olga Rozanova’s (1886-1918) typical style of simple and energetic brushwork and bright colours is exemplified in this work, executed three years before her death. The playing cards theme was one she returned to throughout her life, “emphasising that her art was based on card games often played in streets, bars and funfairs.”

Queen of Diamonds, by Olga Rozanova. (1915).

Queen of Diamonds, by Olga Rozanova. (1915).

Innokenti Annenesky’s play Thamyris, The Cither Player (Famira Kifared) was staged at the Moscow Chamber Theatre to Alexandra Exter’s design, which incorporated traditional art of her native Ukraine and referenced ancient Greek friezes. “With their graphic clarity and arrangement of bold colours, Exter’s designs contributed to a rhythmic framework shaping the performance itself.”

Greeks (Costume design), by Alexandra Exter. (1916).

Greeks (Costume design), by Alexandra Exter. (1916).

This was a design created by Goncharova for the astronomer Magus in a ballet (Liturgie) that never saw the light of day. Here she displays her interest in Russian folk art, peasant embroidery and icon painting. She was at the same time beginning her fruitful collaboration with Sergei Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes.

Magus (Costume design), by Natalia Goncharova. (1915).

Magus (Costume design), by Natalia Goncharova. (1915).

Alexei Yavlensky – German Artist, Russian Emigre

That is how the Great Soviet Encyclopedia introduced this artist of world significance. Certainly, the artistic career of Yavlensky is associated with Germany. But he received German citizenship only at the age of 70. And he’s buried in Wiesbaden in the Russian Orthodox cemetery. Therefore his oeuvre may be rightly said to illustrate the history of art both in Russia and in Germany.

In Russia

Alexei Georgevich Yavlensky (Alexej von Jawlensky) was born in 1864 in Torzhok (Tver oblast) in a family connected to the Rastopchin counts. The boy was expected to take up a military career: upon finishing cadet school he studied at the Moscow military academy and graduated as a lieutenant in the Grenadiers. But since his teens Alexei had been interested in art; receiving a special dispensation (which was necessary for officers) he joined the St Petersburg Academy of Art where he attended classes taught by Ilya Repin.

In the academy, Yavlensky became acquainted with Marianna Veryovkina (1860-1938), a daughter of an army commander. She was four years older than Alexei and had already established herself as an artist, but recognising Yavlensky’s extraordinary gifts, abandoned the art to become his ‘common-law’ wife, and devoted herself entirely to the development of her husband’s talents.

A Wonderful and Joyous Time of Work

In 1896, Alexei and Marianna (who had become financially independent owing to a rich bequest from her father’s estate) moved to Munich, the German Athens. With them went 11-year old Yelena Neznakomova, Marianna’s ward.

Yavlensky joined the famous atelier of Anton Aschbe. At the time, there were many Russians who would attain later fame: Grabar, Dobuzhinsky, Bilibin, Kardovsky, Kandinsky, … Kandinsky got acquainted with Yavlensky there, which was the beginning of a long friendship and collaboration.

Schokko with Wide-Brimmed Hat. (1910).

Veryovkina and Yavlensky travelled extensively, immersing themselves in European culture. The young artist was enraptured by all forms of modern art – impressionism, constructivism, cubism. Acquaintance with Henri Matisse and his work inspired Yavlensky’s creation of colour paintings, for which he earned the nickname ‘Russian fauvist’. This passion changed expressionism, into which the artist brought his individuality. His main interest was the ‘life of colour’. One of the most characteristic works of the period is Schokko with Wide-Brimmed Hat.

In 2008, this painting was sold for £8.4 million at Sotheby’s.

Off and on, Yavlensky would return to Russia to exhibit his works. But his artistic and organisational activities remained associated with Munich. In 1909, with Kandinsky he created the “New Art Association. Munich.” which included artists from different movements, who were, however, united in their typical rebellious spirit and protest against traditional art. Next, Blue Rider (Der Blaue Reiter) appeared, established together with Kandinsky and the German painter Franz Marc.

Girl with red ribbon. (1911).

Girl with red ribbon. (1911).

Girl, folding hands. (1909).

Girl, folding hands. (1909).

In 1910, Kandinsky came up with his first abstract creations. Although Yavlensky’s remained close to his friend’s artistic investigations, he never completely took up abstractionism in the full sense of the term. Munich was a happy period in his life: he painted and exhibited copiously, his works sold successfully. The Yavlensky-Veryovkina house was frequented by friends and visitors. In Murnau, where Kandinsky and Yavlensky were neighbours, their association was particularly close. The artist Gabrielle Münter, Kandinsky’s intimate, wrote in her diary: ‘a wonderful, joyous time of work with constant discussion of art with the inspirational Gisellists.’ (Gisellists was a term originating from the name of the street that Yavlensky lived on in Munich).

Other Moods – Other Art

With the beginning of the first world war, everything changed. Kandinsky returned to Russia. Franz Marc joined the army and soon after died. In August 1914, Yavlensky moved to Switzerland with his family, to St Prex – near Lausanne – on the shores of Lake Geneva. The sharp change in fate oppressed the artist – his works became filled with symbols and simplified forms. This is reflected in his famous ‘Variations on the theme of Landscapes’ of the period.

Everything changed again when he became acquainted with the 25-year-old Belgian artist Emmy Scheyer (1889-1945). Having encountered his canvases at an exhibition, she had been so taken up with them that she sought out the artist, saw his other works, and as a result decided to abandon her art and to devote herself entire to Yavlensky and to promote his work. Such was the amazing impact of this man and his works on women! This friendship (or was it love?) determined the artist’s fate. He was unwilling and unable to sell his paintings or to engage in discussions with exhibitors. Emmy took all this upon herself in the capacity of his private secretary.

Self-portrait. (1912).

In 1917, the artist began the series Mystical Heads. In the beginning, these were stylised portraits of Scheyer, which then gradually transformed into ‘heads’ – abstract images without similarity to any prototype.

Life in the small town burdened Yavlensky, and the family moved to Zurich. But his health suffered, and on the advice of doctors, they moved to the south of Switzerland, to Ascona on the shores of Lake Maggiore. The years spent here were considered by Yavlensky as ‘the most interesting in his life’. He worked intensively, creating one series after another. These were ‘Abstract (or constructive) heads’, then ‘Holy faces’. The faces were ascetic, stern, filled with spirituality – limned only with colour lines and ink patterns. ‘I realised that the artist must express himself through colour and form, … whatever is in him is from God.’

Wiesbaden

By 1921, there had been many changes in Yavlensky’s private life. His platonic relationship with Marianna turned into an affair with Marianna’s ward Yelena, who, at the age of 17, gave birth to his son, Andrei. Officially, he was considered Yavlensky’s nephew. Yavlensky, however, wanted to marry Yelena and legitimise his son. Marianna was against this, and so after thirty years of life together, she and Yavlensky separated. She remained in Ascona, where she lived another seventeen years till her death. She was buried there. In the town museum, several of her works are exhibited. Yavlensky moved to Wiesbaden with Yelena, now his wife, where they lived for twenty years until his own demise.

The First Green in Spring. (1915).

The First Green in Spring. (1915).

In 1924, Yavlensky and Kandinsky created the ‘Blue Four‘ (Die Blaue Vier), an association including Paul Klee and L. Feininger. Scheyer now organised exhibitions and sales of the works of the group in Germany and the USA.

In 1927, fate sent another guardian angel. This time it was Lisa Kümmel (1897-1944), a painter, a master of applied arts and a designer. One of his friends from later life wrote about this friendship (or was it again love?): ‘This woman was with him every day. She took care of his correspondence, created a catalogue of his oeuvre, wrote his memoirs… Kümmel selflessly sacrificed herself for the sake of the man and his work.’ Yelena didn’t understand her husband’s quests. ‘All the time he draws these idiotic crosses,’ she said.

At this time, he became friends with another admirer of his talent. The name of this artist and sculptor was Hanna Bekker vom Rath. She set up the Association of Friends of the Art of Alexei Yavlensky, the purpose of which was to provide material aid to the artist. Members of the association paid monthly dues which allowed them at the end of the year to obtain one of his paintings. A large part of the collections went to the support of Yavlensky’s family. (In the preparation of this essay, we visited Wiesbaden museum again. Not a few works of the artist are on permanent loan from the collection of vom Rath.)

His last years were the most important for the artist’s career. In his personal life, there were terrible events. The nazi regime confiscated his works, relegating them as ‘degenerate art’, and prohibited him from participating in exhibitions. Ironically, Yavlensky received German citizenship in 1934, having waited four years for it.

Meditations. (1934).

Illnesses progressed. His eyesight worsened. He suffered from acute arthritis. The artist could not use his right hand, so he guided the brush with his left. Nevertheless, despite no expectations of exhibiting his works, he continued to paint. It is said he worked in ecstasy, with tears in his eyes. ‘My work – this is my prayer, my passionate prayer, expressed through paint.’ Friends called him Ivan Karamazov, and experts consider him one of the prominent representatives of modern religious art. His last series, created in 1934-1935, was called ‘Meditations‘ and conveys the tragic state of his soul. The image has become stark in contrast, grim. This is a combination of planes crossed with vertical and horizontal strokes. Out of the black background emerges a stylised face, a cross. Critics consider ‘Meditations’ the acme of Yavlensky’s oeuvre, unparalleled in the art of the 20th century.

Memory

Yavlensky died on March 15, 1941 at the age of 76. He is buried in the Russian orthodox cemetery of Wiesbaden. The gravestone is a white marble cross on which appear the words ‘Thy will be done’. Below appear the names and dates of Alexei and Yelena Yavlensky.

Yavlensky’s archive is in the Swiss town of Locarno. His granddaughters Lucia and Angelika arranged and published a four volume catalogue of the great painter’s artistic inheritance in 1990.

Yavlensky’s paintings adumbrate museums in Europe and the US; numerous researches have been performed on his work. At long last even his countrymen saw his works: an exhibition at the Russian Museum was held in 2000.

One of the greatest collections of his works is at the Wiesbaden museum. Besides the permanent collection, there are also special exhibitions devoted to the artist. In October 2011, an exhibition titled ‘Light – abstraction – series’ opened at the museum.

In Wiesbaden too an art prize in Yavlensky’s name has been set up; a local high school is named after him; there is a street – Jawlenskystraße; and a memorial tablet appears on the wall of the house he lived in (Beethovenstrasse 9).

[Loosely translated from the Neue Zeiten article by Ilya Dubinsky, October 2011.]

Avant-Garde Outing Continued Again

(Text below is from the St Petersburg Gallery’s exhibition notes for Russian Revolution in Art, Russian Avant-Garde: 1910 – 1932, running in London till September 20, 2014.)

Vyacheslav Levkievsky’s painting Tramway was displayed in the 1914 exhibition N°4, a show that (Mikhail) Larionov described as uniting artists that were ‘not in any way related to each other apart from their youth, their forward-looking vision and their problem-solving approach in the realm of painting while nevertheless being like-minded in their thoughts and feelings’.

Woman with guitar.

Woman with mandolin, by Vladimir Burliuk. (1913).

Vyacheslav Levkievsky.

Tramway, by Vyacheslav Levkievsky. (1914).

Self-portrait, by Yuri Annenkov. (1960).

Self-portrait, by Yuri Annenkov. (1960).

Sketch for the painting "Battle", by Aristarkh Lentulov. (1913).

Sketch for the painting “Battle”, by Aristarkh Lentulov. (1913).

Three designs of book cover "Evreinov, Kamensky, Lentulov", by Aristarkh Lentulov. (1914).

Three designs of book cover “Evreinov, Kamensky, Lentulov”, by Aristarkh Lentulov. (1914).

The Fool's Ball, by Jean Pougni. (1915-16)

The Fool’s Ball, by Jean Pougni. (1915-16)

Design, by Gustav Klutsis. (1922).

Design, by Gustav Klutsis. (1922).

Sun, by Mikhail Matyushin. (1921).

Sun, by Mikhail Matyushin. (1921).

Avant-Garde Outing Continued

Russian Revolution in Art, Russian Avant-Garde: 1910 – 1932, runs in London till September 20, 2014 at the St Petersburg Gallery.

Marché au Minho, by Sonia Delaunay. (1916).

Marché au Minho, by Sonia Delaunay. (1916).

The Bridge 1, by Natalia Goncharova. (1916).

The Bridge 1, by Natalia Goncharova. (1916).

Vladimir Baranoff-Rosine.

Vladimir Baranoff-Rosine.

Spatial force construction, by Liubov Popova. (1921-22).

Spatial force construction, by Liubov Popova. (1921-22).

Floating: Suprematist forms, by Ilya Chashnik. (1922-23).

Floating: Suprematist forms, by Ilya Chashnik. (1922-23).

Study for cup and saucer, by Vasily Kandinsky. (1920-21).

Study for cup and saucer, by Vasily Kandinsky. (1920-21).

Study for cup and saucer, by Vasily Kandinsky. (1920-21).

Study for cup and saucer, by Vasily Kandinsky. (1920-21).

Architectonic Suprematism, by David Yakerson. (1920).

Architectonic Suprematism, by David Yakerson. (1920).

Avant-Garde Outing

The same day I saw the Popkov exhibition at Somerset House, I also nipped into the St Petersburg Gallery where there was a display of Russian avant-garde works. I took a few a pictures with my Moto G, and as you can see, the picture quality isn’t great.

The curators of this show (Russian Revolution in Art, Russian Avant-Garde: 1910 – 1932) focused on a major dichotomy of the modernist period – figurative vs non-figurative art. While artists, joined up in a multitude of movements, claimed that art was separate from the real world, they continued to investigate abstraction and rhythm, and created new colour and plastic compositions.

The exhibition has more than sixty pieces: paintings, drawings, craft and sculptures. There are suprematists and constructivists, ceramicists and non-objectivists. There is a St Petersburg circle, a Malevich circle, a Moscow circle. There even is a set of Kandinskys before that worthy legged it to Germany. The exhibition continues to September 20, 2014, so if you’re in London, do take a look.

Rayonist composition, by Alexander Bogomazov. (1914).

Rayonist composition, by Alexander Bogomazov. (1914).

Women in interior, by Sonia Delaunay. (1923).

Women in interior, by Sonia Delaunay. (1923).

Self-portrait, design for the exhibition catalogue's cover, by Sonia Delaunay. (1916).

Self-portrait, design for the exhibition catalogue’s cover, by Sonia Delaunay. (1916).

Rhythm, by Vladimir Baranov-Rossine

Rhythm, by Vladimir Baranov-Rossine

Rooftops, by Marie Vassilieff. (1915).

Rooftops, by Marie Vassilieff. (1915).

The Night Rider, by David Burliuk. (1911).

The Night Rider, by David Burliuk. (1911).

Design for cover of Exhibition Catalogue 5x5=25, by Liubov Popova. (1921).

Design for cover of Exhibition Catalogue 5×5=25, by Liubov Popova. (1921).

Construction ordinate according to different points of view, by Alexandra Exter. (1922-23).

Construction ordinate according to different points of view, by Alexandra Ekster. (1922-23).

Circles in a suprematist cross, by Ilya Chashnik. (1926).

Circles in a suprematist cross, by Ilya Chashnik. (1926).

Colour lines in vertical motion, by Ilya Chashnik. (1923-25)

Colour lines in vertical motion, by Ilya Chashnik. (1923-25)

Lives of the Artists XXV

Viktor Popkov (whose exhibition I visited a few weeks ago) often visited the Arkhangelsk region of Russia. In particular, he spent time in the villages along the river Mezen, which informed some of the more introspective works of his career. It was a hard life for the villagers, not often joyous.

Memories. Widows.

Memories. Widows.

Popkov remembered an occasion when some friends came to visit the old lady with whom he was living in the Mezen region…

The women “sat there for a long time, recollecting the past, drinking home brewed beer, eating fermented cod and, forgetting all about me, gradually went back completely to that far-off time when life was just beginning for them. I lay on the bare floor by the wall and looked up at them. I must have dozed off or my concentration lapsed, and when I came to my senses I suddenly saw the whole scene clearly … I remembered my father, killed at the battlefront when he was just 35, and my mother’s unhappiness, and the whole tragic sense of what was taking place before my eyes. How was this possible! Why, for God’s sake, were they so alone? Where were their husbands and their children? Where was the happiness which should have belonged to them? Why had fate been so unkind towards them?”

(From the exhibition notes, Somerset House.)