Art Roundup – April 2015

Happy All Fools’ Day, everyone.

Alexander Batykov

You may have seen that Google Maps has put the Pacman game at various locations on the map today. For example, check out the front lawn of the Taj Mahal. Are there similar Pacman games anywhere in Russia?

  1. In Tashkent’s House of Photography, an exhibition of the works of the graphic artist and portraitist Alexander Batykov (1939- ) started on 26 March 2015.
  2. In Paris, the Oneiro gallery holds an exhibition of the Kazakh artist Anna Sand. It runs till June 2015.
  3. Just like the Guggenheim, the State Museum of St Petersburg is opening overseas branches – one in Malaga, Spain, opened a few days ago.
  4. The Museum of Russian Art in Minneapolis has an exhibition of Romance in Soviet Art, running April 4 – September 30, 2015.
  5. Oh, and Tate Modern in London has a massive exhibition on Sonia Delaunay starting April 15. Did I mention this before? Whatevs… Huzzah!
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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.

Untitled.

Untitled.

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.)

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.

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).

Alexei Savrasov – Landscape Artist

Savrasov, by Volkov.

Savrasov, by I. Volkov. (1884).

Alexei Kondratyevich Savrasov was born May 12, 1830 to a merchant family in Moscow. From early age, his talent at art were evident, and he was already producing landscapes for sale as an adolescent. Against the wishes of his father, who wanted him to join the family business, he started at the Moscow School of Painting and Sculpture in 1844.

The early landscapes of Savrasov were in the tradition of the academy. In A View of Moscow from the Sparrow Hills (1848) and A View of the Kremlin in Inclement Weather (1851) one can observe the external influence of Romanticism. However, Savrasov’s keen powers of observation and sincerity of emotion manifest themselves in these landscapes. Over time, the artist devoted himself to a study of the character of the Russian landscape, and sought to convey the beauty of his native land.

Savrasov was one of the members of the art collective ‘The Wanderers’ (1870). Many of his works which were exhibited along with his fellow Wanderers were painted by him in the Volga region. Savrasov also travelled in Nizhny Novgorod and Kazan, but he much preferred the region between Yaroslavl and Kostroma. In 1871, on the Volga, he created a number of studies for the best of his works including the paintings Pechersk monastery near Nizhny Novgorod, and The Rooks Have Arrived – which have become the most popular Russian landscapes, a symbol of the country.

The Rooks Have Arrived, by Alexei Savrasov

The Rooks Have Arrived, by Alexei Savrasov

Besides his artworks Savrasov fruitfully engaged himself in teaching activities. He led the landscape painting class at the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture, and among his students were Konstantin Korovin and Isaak Levitan.

By the late 1870s, the artist was ill, and his art reflected his decline. His last decade of life was spent in deep distress. He died on September 26, 1897 in Moscow. Isaak Levitan wrote: One of the most profound Russian landscape artists is no more. From Savrasov emerged a lyricism in landscape art and a boundless love for his native land. Truly, the late Savrasov created the Russian landscape, and this, his undoubted merit, will never be forgotten in the field of Russian art.

The Pechersk Monastery near Nizhny Novgorod.

The Pechersk Monastery near Nizhny Novgorod.

A view of the Kremlin in inclement weather.

A view of the Kremlin in inclement weather.

[Translated rather loosely from 9 октября — день памяти известного русского живописца-пейзажиста Алексея Саврасова.]

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.]

Popkov

There was an exhibition of Viktor Popkov’s works at Somerset House recently. I managed to catch it the day before it ended. And lovely it was, too, well worth the sweaty train ride to get to it. The details below are taken from the exhibition display notes. Apologies for the poor quality images – I had forgotten to take my camera and made do with my toy smartphone.

After Stalin’s death began the Krushchev thaw, and Soviet artists began to experiment freely again. A reaction to the sterile Stalinist realism, called the Severe style, began in the 1950s, combining elements of socialist realism with self-awareness and humanity. Viktor Popkov was one of the finest exponents of this new style. The year of the Krushchev ascendancy, Popkov travelled to Bratsk where he painted his monumental canvas The Builders of Bratsk, a tribute to human effort. This was no generic piece of realism – he knew every one of his subjects and he delineated each one with care and character. This piece established his reputation.

Builders of Bratsk

Post-Stalin, Russians were able to engage with Impressionism and post-Impressionism. Popkov was influenced by the colourism of Matisse, evident in his Spring at the Depot, in which the steam beneath the wheels evoked Monet’s railway works at the Gare St Lazare.

Spring at the Depot

Spring at the Depot

Popkov was drawn to the bleakness of the Arkhangelsk region. In particular, the river Mezen drew his attention, and he dedicated an entire cycle of works to it and the tough lives of its inhabitants. Popkov saw both the poignant and quietly joyous, as for example in this canvas titled September on the Mezen, in which a family returns home after a satisfying day out collecting berries and mushrooms.

September on the Mezen

September on the Mezen

Popkov was a keen observer of human nature. He composed his portraits with little contrivance or formality; indeed, it appears his subjects were almost unaware that he was painting them; he imbued the works with unsettling perspectives. In Three Artists, he appears in the mirror, while the other characters are his friends Alexander Sorochkin and Karl Fridman. The portrait suggests the creative process: from his own contemplation through the performance (Fridman) to its completion and the subsequent relaxation (Sorochkin).

Three Artists

Three Artists

In Igor, Pavel and I, Popkov paints his fellow Severe stylists Pavel Nikonov (1930 – ) and Igor Obrosov (1930 – 2010) in foetal poses of restful sleep. Only half of his own body appears: was it an afterthought, a reticent addition as though he considered himself not quite on par with his friends?

Igor, Pavel and I

Igor, Pavel and I

This positional triumvirate is also the theme of one of his most affecting and affectionate works, Summer. July. in which a woman, a man and their child depict the strength and fragility of the family unit.

Summer. July.

Summer. July.

Popkov was a fragile, suffering individual. In 1966, he attempted suicide. Throughout his career, he explored his own emotions through his self-portraits. In Sunday, he projects optimism, sunbathing on a Moscow rooftop.

Sunday.

Sunday.

In Work Completed, Popkov is exhausted but content. Through his window you can see the Kudrinskaya Square building, designed between 1947-53 by Ashot Mndoyants and Mikhail Posokhin as a residence for Moscow’s cultural elite. Popkov’s satisfaction is mirrored by the triumphalism of the building beyond.

Work Completed.

Work Completed. (1972).

And, to round things off, here is Portrait of a Man with a Lamp Shade.

Portrait of a Man with a Lamp Shade.

Portrait of a Man with a Lamp Shade.

Kliment Red’ko

Uprising. (1924-25). (© Pavel Otdel’nov on Flickr)

On March 14, 1935, Kliment Red’ko (1897-1956) – who at the time had been living for several years in France and was getting ready to return home – wrote in his diary: “Wrote a draft statement for the consul. Decided to get out of Paris in three months. I have given eight years to France. All these years have gone by, and yet it seems that the ninth spring of 1935 is no different from the first spring of 1927. To Moscow now! To my own! To the motherland!” In the land of the Soviets, the reality was considerably different from when the avant-gardist had headed out to the main foundry of the art of the time. And though his most famous work remained the controversial ‘Uprising’, and he thought of himself as an artist of the new system, he could in no way be considered a political artist. Who was he?

He began in the icon painting workshops of the Kiev Monastery of the Caves (although at first he had to learn to decorate porcelain) and he culminated in an art studio on the Timiryazevka, and it can be said that his life executed a full circle. Lunacharsky helped him go to Paris (perhaps to save his life), and when he returned home, he was accused of formalism, for which he was expelled from the Moscow Union of Artists in 1948, although he had only joined them three years earlier.

In the middle of his life, a year after the death of Lenin, Red’ko completed his masterwork, ‘Uprising’. Not that he was a one-hit wonder, but it is this work that consistently epitomises him. Red’ko first thought to call it ‘RCP’, then changed its name to ‘Revolution’, and finally ended up with ‘Uprising’.

Before it arrived at the Tretyakov Gallery, the painting was in the collection of George Costakis, who (according to Irina Lebedeva, the director of the Gallery) had written in 1977: ‘The picture of the century, the greatest work of revolutionary Russia. George Costakis, Moscow, April 14, 1977.’ Lebedeva said that today’s audience apparently saw the picture for the first time in 1987’s exhibition ‘Art and Revolution’, since when the work has never been removed from the permanent displays.

Like many of the avant-garde, Red’ko embraced the revolution. Like many others, he too believed that the new era expected from artists new creations in art, modelling, and explanations of life, all incorporating technological innovations. In fact, his ‘Uprising’, despite Lenin’s admiration, is thought by some to be a picture of tragedy; the painting hearkens to old iconography despite the rebellion having subjugated the old systems; there is the leader within the great red diamond, reminiscent of the icon of the Saviour in Majesty; except that on the sides we have Trotsky (who, in 1926, would call the new leader the ‘gravedigger of the revolution’), Krupskaya, Lunacharsky; Stalin is not in the front rank, but only appears in the second row. Red’ko risked much, and who knows what would have happened to him had he not moved in 1927 to Paris.

It is possible to ignore church iconography in ‘Uprising’, even allowing for the fact it was painted not as an icon; still, as an emblem of revolution, constructed to the rhythm of a march, with the geometry of perpendiculars and diagonals, with dynamic rays and vectors that cut through the red-black city, the houses that resemble prisons. Red’ko interested himself in questions of energy, and its  implementation as light, design as an expression of form, and consciously or not ‘Uprising’ came out full of contradictions. Welcoming the revolution, it reveals its dark side.

Red’ko’s art is a strange admixture, resulting from the icon studies in the Monastery of the Caves, and training under Arkady Rylov and Nicholas Roerich in the Society for the Encouragement of Art, and the studies under Alexandra Exter, and Vasily Kandinsky, between Kiev, Kharkov, St. Petersburg and Moscow. Red’ko started and eventually returned to fairly traditional realist works – pastoral landscapes of the 1910s and 1940s, or the completely pedestrian later portraits such as ‘Girl with gas mask’ in 1941 (granted, however, that her sad reverie didn’t quite satisfy the requirements of Socialist Realism) – these bracket his artistic career. His French works – Auvergne peasants as filled with languid lyricism as his melancholy landscapes. In these, his palette becomes softer, but experiments with form that occupied hi in the 1920s and remained his main preoccupation, came to naught. No wonder the artist wrote that his first French spring was like the last one.

Morning on the farm. (1933).

Morning on the farm. (1933).

It turns out that Red’ko’s most active period was the first half of the 1920s. Although the avant-garde, under the innovations of Malevich and Kandinsky, had produced its advances earlier in the century, in the 1910s, the heated pulse of revolution had propelled it into the next decade. Red’ko, of course, didn’t completely ignore Malevich, pondering whether Suprematism would fit into his own style; yet, he created one work in that vein, the Circle of 1921-1922.

Light and shadow in symmetry. (1922).

Light and shadow in symmetry. (1922).

A circle intersected by a square and above them, two wedges bumping into each other as a static sign. Perhaps this lacked the assertiveness of Malevich’s circle and square, and their motive power of their geometry; the wedges, perhaps, were not quite like the red ones that had beaten the white in Lissitzky’s work. Red’ko himself seemed to be more interested in the spatial appearance of the image. In his Suprematist efforts, even if there were dynamic diagonal elements, they didn’t strive to fly apart as in Malevich; rather, they behave as a collective, an emblem which would later become the ‘Uprising’.

In 1921, along with Solomon Nikritin, Alexander Labas and Alexander Tyshler, he formed a group known as Electro-organism (based on a theory declared by Red’ko in 1922); in 1924, they renamed themselves as ‘Method’. Electro-organism – in keeping with the spirit of the times and not without the influence of his teacher, Kandinsky – on the one hand explores the sensitivity of art to scientific discovery, and on the other, investigates the psychological impact that the painter translates across the painting. Red’ko called energy the ‘future culture of life’: ‘the artist’, he said, ‘needs to reinforce the new concepts of realism through artistically explored facts. The first graphic element of design is the line. The second is colour, and then, gravity and image.’ He added that ‘light was the highest representation of matter.’ And to replace Electro-organism, he came up with Luminism, which again is a response to the 1910s and the Rayonism of Mikhail Larionov.

Midnight sun (Northern lights). (1925).

Midnight sun (Northern lights). (1925).

The colour of light and the brightness of colour – the artist captured the energy of both in ‘Uprising’, combining geometric construction with realistic figures. Meanwhile, he explored light in his northern landscapes, where the aurora reminded him of electric flashes (‘Northern Lights’, 1925). Alternatively, he used the same expression of energy in works such as ‘Dynamite’, in which he came close to abstraction. (Funnily enough, Natalia Goncharova pondering the concept of energy in the spirit of the times had already spoken of the language of abstraction in 1913. However, it is unclear if her ‘Void’ depicts a force of destruction or construction that transformed the uneven puddle of colour into something novel.)

Void, by Natalia Goncharova. (1913).

Void, by Natalia Goncharova. (1913).

Red’ko was dissatisfied with the discoveries of the Futurists; in ‘Factory’ (1922), the vertical pipe mixed with diagonal rails, the distant blended with the nearby. The same year, he painted ‘Husband and wife’ as though through the same geometric filter. His 1924 ‘Composition 1’ could be said to connect to the second Russian avant-garde and Vladimir Yankilevsky, in which biomorphic forms ironically inform a mechanistic interpretation. (What the devil does all this mean?!)

Kliment Red’ko’s investigations continued between the early 1920s and his departure for Paris (under the aegis of the People’s Commissariat for Enlightenment, who included him in their list of the most serious and talented young artists). In Paris, he was able to communicate with Pablo Picasso, but it’s quite clear that the discussion had little influence on his own art. Rather, France and the Italian cities he had been through didn’t provide a new impulse to his art, but appeared to create a sort of implicit antidote to the impending Socialist Realism.

Parisienne. (1931).

Parisienne. (1931).

Motherhood. (1937).

Motherhood. (1937).

Red’ko painted realistic motifs but not in a socialist manner. For example, his strange ‘Motherhood’ of 1937 depicts a statue of a Red Army soldier on the windowsill behind a feeding mother, and is not really following the norms of the regime. However, he did a portrait of Stalin in 1938-1940 for the All-Union Agricultural Exhibition; though we should point out that Pavel Filonov, who can hardly be accused of flirting with the regime, also had painted a similar portrait, and in both cases, it is a distanced image of head of the leader appearing without any motivation.

Portrait of Stalin. (1940).

Portrait of Stalin. (1940).

[This is a really vague translation of Daria Kurdyukova’s article on Kliment Red’ko in Colta.ru, March 13, 2014.]

Alexander Kharitonov

The gallery ‘Our Artists’ performed an important task, having organised a large exhibition of fine and graphic art of Alexander Kharitonov gathered from various private collections. Kharitonov is an interesting, albeit not so well-known artist of the second half of the 20th century.

How would one classify such an artist? Clearly with the Nonconformists – after all, he exhibited with them in the Malaya Gruzinskaya. His relations with the ‘official’ artists weren’t particularly cordial on either side.

On the other hand, he neither participated in artists’ unions nor did he write manifestoes. He had little interest in politics, nor did he concern himself with emigration.

The bulk of the works probably have not been seen previously. Nearly a hundred works come from family and private collections, and these cover virtually all periods of his career, starting from the earliest works of the 1950s.

Most importantly, this exhibition traces the evolution of his creativity, not just in technique but also in theme. From a slight influence by the Impressionists in his early works, Kharitonov moves to a completely independent technique of pointillism, including references to the World of Art movement and the Blue Rose, as well as a distinctive naiveté in art.

Here you see his technique – delicate and with the application of tens of layers of paint, creating an unusual surface relief.

Probably very few people in the 1970s showed as much of a consistency in their adherence to religious themes (although, to be honest, few even in clerical circles would have considered his works strictly canonical). You can see the theme in early landscapes where churches often appear in the composition.

Trinity, in honour of Andrei Sakharov. (1990).

Kharitonov’s graphical works are equally interesting – detailed and driven to the miniature.

And here’s ‘Landscape with Gogol’, although you need to look to locate Gogol.

Evangelists

Self-portrait.

And this is his final work, completed two days before his death.

And here is a curious series of seemingly simple abstractions: it started with Kharitonov working on figurative painting, going by the original colour composition. He then applied multiple layers of paint, and the works survived as such at the request of his family.

[Loosely translated from Tatyana Pelipeiko, АЛЕКСАНДР ХАРИТОНОВ – НИ НА КОГО НЕ ПОХОЖИЙ ХУДОЖНИК (March 17, 2012)]