Research series: Russian Art and Artists (14): The Cubo-Futurists

By 1912, Moscow was one of the key nodal points in the networks of European modernism, with Russian artists working across Europe and European artists visiting Russia, and exhibitions, catalogues and magazines all part of the circulation of visual ideas and experiments – including Cubism and Futurism which, combined, became a significant movement in Russia known as Cubo-Futurism, or Russian Futurism and would lead to the developments of Rayonism, Suprematism and Constructivism as we shall see.

Alexandra Exter (1882-1949), was based primarily in Kyiv, Ukraine (where, the Tretyakov notes, she was “a magnetic figure…the toast of the town”), exemplified the extent of the ‘travelling artist’ as from 1907 – 1914 she working in St Petersburg, Moscow, Venice and Paris, becoming close to many of the leading artists and taking part in a variety of key modernist exhibitions (see Daily Art Magazine). She learnt of Cubism directly from Braque and Picasso, intrigued by its revolutionary approach to exploring the dynamics of vision and modern life.

Left: Cubist Nude [1912; MoMA, New York]. Right: Still Life [1913; Thyssen, Madrid]

Importantly, and interestingly, however, whilst the early Cubists played it down in their often sombre paintings, Exter’s work is full of colour, one of the significant aspects of Russian avant-garde art both, say, in the paintings of Goncharova and, looking ahead a little, that of Malevich. As the Thyseen Museum notes with regard to “Still Life”: …whereas the spatial fragmentation and use of collage evidence her experimental zeal, the vivid colours are drawn from Russian traditions. Colour, for the Russian avant garde was very much part of its ‘revolution’ against bourgeois and academic traditions.

Nadezhda Udaltsova (1886-1961) also studied and worked in Paris, taking on the ideas of Cubism. Though much of her work from this period has been lost, what remains is glorious, especially (to my mind):

At The Piano [1915; Yale University Collection]

As the fragmentation emanates from the woman’s hands playing the piano keys and the ruffling of the score so it feels as if we can see / experience the vibrations and rhythms of the music itself, the gradations of the colour segments create a sense of the fleeting notes as they concentrate then dissolve into the air. And I love the look of concentration on her face, the word BACH by her forehead gives the idea that woman and composer interweave: they come together, unite at the meeting point of the music.

Alongside Udaltsova in Paris was another remarkable artist central to the development of Russian art: Liubov Popova (1889-1924) whose study of the European Renaissance paintings along with Russian art history, especially icon paintings, underpinned her experimental ‘laboratory’ of art-making.

The Traveller [1915; Norton Simon Foundation]

This abstracted composition suggests the speed and sense of dislocation associated with modern transport, and seems to include an oblique self-portrait in the central figure: a woman wearing a yellow necklace and high-collared cape who reads a magazine or newspaper in her seat on a train, grasping a green umbrella in one gloved hand. Snatches of words (including the Russian terms for “gazette,” “hat,” “2nd class,” and the roar of the train) vividly convey the sights and sounds of locomotive travel. With her use of found text, fragmented forms, and shapes rhythmically repeated to create a sense of acceleration, Popova assimilated both French Cubism and Italian Futurism in a uniquely Russian hybrid known as Cubo-Futurism. [Norton Simon]

Untitled [1915; Guggenheim, New York]

There is a marvellous overview of Popova’s career by Joyce Kozloff in Hyperallergic; one paragraph of which reads:

There was much discussion of faktura (the physicality of surface) as content. Popova’s mixed media, non-objective paintings on wood met these conditions gracefully. Lines zigzag across their surfaces, weaving in and out of patches of colour, breaking up and crossing, some in concentric circles, others zooming upwards in parallel formation toward a cosmic unknown, and still others ripping diagonally through hovering shapes and shadows.

We discussed the term faktura in connection with Goncharova’s art – it is an element that would come increasingly to the fore amongst the Russian experimentalists – the texture of the surface whether in paint, collage or sculpture. Popova would be a leading light here, her work with figures such as Tatlin and Malevich signalled by abstracts such as her Painterly Architectronics series from 1916, one of which is in the National Galleries of Scotland:

Whilst Natalia Goncharova’s paintings rarely become absolutely abstract, another painting at the National Galleries of Scotland reveals her interest in the experiments Popova pioneers:

Goncharova, Natalia; La foret (The Forest) [1913]; National Galleries of Scotland; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/la-foret-the-forest-211837

Goncharova had long been interested in Cubism and Futurism, each working in synthesis with her explorations of colour and subject matter all of which often brought her increasing public venom as much as acclaim. we can see the principles of Cubism here in The Forest as the picture space is fragmented and distinct planes of colour then bleed into each other (‘passage’). Yet notice how rich her colour remains; the decorative brilliance of the painting even as we – even in reproduction – can see the roughness of the paint (‘faktura’).

The natural world of the forest seems in contrast to some of Goncharova’s more apparently Futurist works that express the speed of the modern city and the industrial world:

The Weaver [1910; National Museum of Wales]

The Weaver – also known as Woman and Loom – gives us the speed and frenetic activity of the working world; the Cubo-Futurism fragmenting any placid visual experience for the viewer. However, whilst we might recognise the dynamic element of the Futurist aesthetic, it is also increasingly apparent that the woman seems to be dissolving/fragmenting/metamorphosing into the loom: she is disappearing as the machine remains fairly solid. As Anthony Parton recognises, Goncharova’s did not take Italian Futurism at its word, but used it to question the social politics and ethics of ‘the machine age’.

Cyclist [1913; State Russian Museum]

Cyclist is often regarded as one of the archetypal works of Futurist painting, both in Natalia Goncharova’s oeuvre as a whole and the Russian art of the early 1910s in general. It embodies such typical features of Futurism as constant repetition, dislocation of the contours of the figure, which seems to be recorded in temporal and spatial sequence, and the interspersion of fragments of street signs, in order to convey the bustle, noise and movement of the city

so notes the State Russian Museum website. However… a bicycle hardly expresses the dynamic of modernity does it? And note the cobbles he’s riding over. Then, in the background to the left, there is a finger (the hand of God?) pointing him in the opposite direction. Goncharova seems to be deploying all sorts of Cubist / Futurist elements in order to usurp the very aesthetic of modernism it would usually express and applaud.

What Goncharova – along with her partner Larionov – does seem to be very interested in is how Cubist fragmentation and Futurist dynamism relate to light and how it can be refracted into shape, colour and texture. This became known as Rayonism, or Rayism and first came to public attention at The Target exhibition in Moscow, 1913.

Rayonists aimed to create an art that represented the immaterial world beyond the human eye, or the ‘fourth dimension’, by capturing the rays of light reflected off objects in the material world. Dynamic lines were added to their paintings, to suggest the movement of light and energy. Recent scientific discoveries on the discovery of x-rays and radioactive rays may have influenced their depictions of time and space and a further reality beyond the naked eye. 

National Galleries of Scotland

Rayonist Lilies [1913; Perm Art Gallery];

Cats: Rayist Perception in Rose, Black and Yellow [1913; Guggenheim, New York]

In their “Rayonists and Futurists: A Manifesto” (1913), Goncharova and Larionov declared:

Long live the beautiful East! We are joining forces with contemporary Eastern artists to work together.

Long live nationality! We march hand-in-hand with ordinary house-painters.

Long live the style of Rayonist painting we have created – free from concrete forms, existing and developing according to painterly laws!

That which is valuable for the lover of painting finds its maximum expression in a Rayonist picture. The objects that we see in life play no role here, but that which is the essence of painting itself can be shown here best of all – the combination of colour, its saturation, the relation of colour masses, depth, texture; anyone who is interested in painting can give [their] full attention to these things.

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Unlike Gonchariva’s paintings in which there is usually an identifiable source or subject, for Larionov, Rayonism would lead to absolutely abstract pictures, this ‘second phase’ was called Pneumo-Rayonism in which the object has been completely removed giving the viewer an extraordinary experience of rhythmic patterns as the picture dissolves, reforms,, twists and shifts in criss-crossing lines and fireworks of colour:

Rayonist Composition: Domination of Red [1913; MoMA, New York]

This all leads us back to that concept “faktura”, the surface texture of the picture and the open recognition of the material elements of a painting, and will lead to almost scientific analyses in artists studios by the time of the 1917 Revolution and, in the short term, a turn to Russian abstract art:

Olga Rozanova: Non-Objective Composition (Flight of an Aeroplane) [1916; Samara Art Museum]

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So, next time, we will turn to: Malevich and the Art of Suprematism which will appear here on The Common Viewer by Monday 12th July.

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Russian Art and Artists (14): Russian Futurism

Thank you so much for joining me on this research journey. If you are able, please do ‘donate’ to help me keep it going!

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The Russian Futurists’ paintings were just a part of the controversial culture they created in Moscow and St Petersburg:

Aiming to subvert the dominance of Western culture, the Moscow artists adopted a strategy of the provocatively absurd. Beginning in 1912, Goncharova would stroll down Moscow’s luxurious Arbat Street painted in gaudy colours. In the evenings, she performed with her partner Mikhail Larionov at Cabaret No. 13 – Frieze magazine.

In fact, with other Futurists, Goncharova – and Larionov – would paint strange symbols on their faces; it was extremely provocative, a ‘slap in the face’ of bourgeois culture:
Our
faces are like the screech of the
trolley
warning the hurrying passers-by,
like
the drunken sounds of the great
tango.

(from “Why We Paint Ourselves” 1913; see: History Transformation of Design)

To the left here is a photograph of Goncharova with her painted face. To the right is a still from a film called “Drama in Cabaret No.13” made in 1914. Goncharova and Larionov had set up two theatrical cabarets, one was called the Pink Lantern the other Cabaret No.13; there were wild exhortations of poetry, performance art and much heckling from (and towards) the audience.

The Futurists abused the “crowd” with all the words at their disposal, and the audience tormented these “clowns of art” mercilessly … as a result the artist Goncharova slapped a certain barrister. A disgraceful, brazen, and talentless can-can reigns dissolutely in the temples of art, and grimacing and wriggling on its altars are these shaggy young characters in
their orange shirts and painted physiognomies
wrote one reviewer (who clearly didn’t appreciate the evening!)

The Drama in Cabaret No.13 film told a Futurist drama: on a typical evening, the Futurist artists gather to perform in honour of Goncharova. There are dances, poetry recitals and Goncharova herself performs a Futurist tap-dance. The evening concludes with Larionov dancing a tango, during which he kills his partner – Goncharova. He goes to bury her in a snowdrift, but is witnessed by the other artists and so finds himself excommunicated from Futurism. Unable to bear the pain of such a sentence, he himself dies.

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Research series: Russian Art and Artists (13) – Icons, and Wassily Kandinsky

The Mother of God of Vladimir [Constantinople; 12th century; Tretyakov Gallery]

The art of Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944) especially, to my mind, the paintings made from around 1910 to 1916 on the cusp of full abstraction, is among the most experimental, fascinating and exciting work of the 20th century. Before we get there, however, I’d like to explore Russian Icons a little – primarily because of their connections to Kandinsky’s art and thinking as we will see, but also because it was only in the late 19th century and early 20th century that Icons began to be viewed as works of art; much more than that, however, as a genre, they represent, symbolise, Russia’s understanding of itself.

The Mother of God of Vladimir, or the Theotokus of Vladimir (detail top of page) is one of the most beautiful and most revered icons in Russia:

The Vladimir Icon of the Mother of God was painted by the Evangelist Luke on a board from the table at which the Saviour ate together with His All-Pure Mother and Righteous Joseph. The Mother of God, upon seeing this image, exclaimed, “Henceforth, all generations shall call Me blessed. The grace of both My Son and Me shall be with this icon.” In the year 1131, the icon was sent from Constantinople to Rus to holy Prince Mstislav (April 15th) and was installed in the Devichi monastery in Vyshgorod

[Orthodox Wikipedia]

Luke the Evangelist painting Vladimirskaya icon of Our Lady [16th century, Russian Museum]

With the attempted invasion of Kievan Russia by the Mongol Empire led by Tamerlaine (aka Timur), the icon was removed – translated – to Moscow:

Orthodox tradition states that later, in 1395 Timur, having reached the frontier of Principality of Ryazan, had taken Elets and started advancing towards Moscow. Great Prince Vasily I of Moscow went with an army to Kolomna and halted at the banks of the Oka River. The clergy brought the famed Theotokos of Vladimir icon from Vladimir to Moscow. Along the way people prayed kneeling: “O Mother of God, save the land of Russia!” Suddenly, Timur’s armies retreated.

Since then:

The histories of Moscow and of the icon of Vladimir Mother of God are eternally inseparable. How many times did the Mother of God save the capital city from enemies through the grace of her holy icon? This icon has linked Apostolic times to Byzantium, Kievan Rus’ to Vladimir Rus’, and later to Muscovy, the Third Rome; as it is said, “there will be no Fourth.” The kingdom of Moscow was formed by divine providence and embraced the mystical ties of ancient empires, historical experience and traditions of other Orthodox peoples. The miracle working Vladimir icon became a symbol of unity and succession.

[The Catalogue of Good Deeds]

That the Icon is said to be painted by St Luke directly from the Virgin Mary, and to have passed from Byzantium to Moscow carrying all the symbolic weight of Orthodox belief, is the pivot of Russia’s sense of itself in the world.

A 15th-century depiction of Princess Olga being baptised in Constantinople

(from the Radzivill Chronicle: part of UNESCO’s amazing Memory of the World project).

Princess Olga of Kiev was the first ruler of Kievan Rus’ who became a Christian. Her grandson, Vladimir of Kiev, made Rus’ officially a Christian state. The official Christianization of Kievan Rus’ is widely believed to have occurred in 988 AD, when Prince Vladimir was baptised himself and ordered his people to be baptised by the priests from the Eastern Roman Empire.

These were times often depicted by the Wanderers artists in the late 19th century as they revived the sense of Russian history and tradition. In 1880, Vassily Perov for example portrays early Christians praying in secret during pre-Christian pagan times, in 1892 Mikhail Nesterov recalled Princess Olga and in 1890, Viktor Vasnetsov depicted the baptism of Vladimir [all Kiev Museum of Russian Art].

When Vladimir accepted Orthodox Christinaity, artists from Byzantium came over to Kievan Rus to decorate the newly built churches and to teach local painters the skills of their work; and it was in Russia that icon painting really took hold, especially in the cities of Vladimir, Novgorod and Moscow. One especially important master of Moscow was Andrei Rublev (1360s-1420s):

Andrei Rublev’s famous icon of the Holy Trinity (c. 1410; Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow) [see Tretyakov Magazine and there’s Tarkovsky’s mesmerising loosely biographical film Andrei Rublev.]

The ‘School of Novgorod’ is also particularly fascinating as it was the only Russian city spared the Mongol invasion in the 13th century due to being surrounded by marshes making it inaccessible, and so although the painting of icons is a very strict, inherited, hardly-ever-changing tradition, there is a distinctly Novgorodian style.

Saints Boris and Gleb

The Novgorod Icons Gallery notes:

The artistic culture of Novgorod reached its summit in the later half of the XIV century. The best icons of that period demonstrate the consummate skill of their creators. The exellence of style is manifested in profound and highly expressive images, in perfect composition and choice of colours. The pride of place among the late XIV century icons belongs to “Sts. Boris and Gleb” from the Church of same name in Plotniki – heroic in spirit and superb in its colour – scheme of flaming cinnabar, gold, emerald green, and olive and orange tones. The icon represents the first Russian saints, the sons of Grand Duke Vladimir. Killed in 1015 by their brother Svyatopolk who strove to take up his father’s throne, they were canonized in the XI century and were revered as the martyrs and warriors, the patrons of dukes and soldiers.

In terms of the painting:

Softness is the distinctive feature of the Russian Orthodox icons of Boris and Gleb. Usually, they represent frontal, full-length images of the princes, which seem to float in the air. The faces of the saints are somewhat sad but display concentration and kindness. In their hands, they hold the attributes of martyrdom and princely authority: crosses and swords. Boris and Gleb are dressed as princes with fur hats on their heads. The colour palette… is distinguished by richness and consistency. [Russian Icon Collection]

Add to that, ochre, green and red are dominant colours in Novgorod icons.

Another very famous icon image is that of St George (Patron Saint of Novgorod/ Moscow):

St George and the Dragon (Novgorod School; early 16th Century; c/o Ruzhnikov Gallery, London):

The icon is painted in rich colour typical for the Novgorod school. St.George on a rearing white charger, shown against a rocky landscape, slays the winged monster as it appears from the lake; the hand of God emerges from a segment of heaven on the top right of the composition and blesses the saint. An angel crowns St.George with a martyr’s crown, symbolising the victory of good over evil. The tower on the right represents the city, the king and inhabitants witness the battle.

Icons such as these – singular paintings, as it were – would be in churches and also people’s homes where they would reside in the Icon or Red Corner; small versions could be carried around and, in large churches and cathedrals the images would be built up such as on the iconostases which separate the sanctuary from the nave: here, for example, is the glorious interior of the Dormition Cathedral, Moscow [see Russian Art & Culture for full article].

One of the strangest, perhaps, icon images – especially for west European viewers – is that of Saints Stephen and in particular Christopher:

Saints Stephen and Christopher

That Christopher is represented with a dog’s head may stem from his being an outsider from an Eastern tribe. His faith in God conquered temptation, only to lead to his beheading. Rarely portrayed, even in Russian Orthodoxy, he is nevertheless the renowned patron saint of travellers Understanding The Dog-Headed Icon of St-Christopher – Orthodox Arts Journal. And one more extraordinary icon:

Elijah ascending to Heaven [Novgorod]

Here the prophet and miracle worker Elijah ascends alive to Heaven on his chariot in a ball of fire; and it is believed, echoing Christ’s Resurrection, that Elijah will return to earth “before the coming of the great and terrible day of the LORD” (The Book of Malachi), ie. at the end of the world, the end of history, when St Michael sounds the trumpet to awaken the dead and signal all souls to the weighing scales for the Day of Judgement.

Looking at all of these, what is so important to remember is that:

a religious icon in Russian Orthodoxy is considered a window to the Heavenly World. One should not look at an icon as a work of art bearing certain aesthetic features and merits but as a manifestation of the Holy Spirit. It is a special devout attitude to the icon, which sets Orthodox traditions apart from others.

Russian Icon

It is in light of this Orthodox way of seeing icons that we might understand Kandinsky’s thesis for paintings that bypasses naturalistic representation and turns instead to an orchestration of lines, a chorus of colours and juxtaposition of forms that reach straight into the viewer’s soul. This would lead him, ultimately, to pure abstraction. My interest here, though, is in the pathway towards that abstraction and particularly Kandinsky’s ongoing references – even whilst he was painting in France, then Munich – to Russian history, folktale and Orthodox icons.

A ‘gallery’ of early paintings is one of medieval Moscow and fairy-tale romance:

Kandinsky: Sunday (Old Russia) [1904; Netherlands]

Kandinsky: Couple Riding [1906; Lenbachhaus, Munich]

The Gallery notes:

The “Riding Couple” belongs to the large group of Wassily Kandinsky’s early works, in which he conjures up a poetic world of images full of enigmatic diversity with fairy-tale- like, freely conceived sceneries. The magic of distant, long-gone times, into which such scenes are always transported, increases the impression of mysterious unreality. From jewel bright particles of colour, the image of a young, tightly entwined couple in Russian costume is created, riding along between stylized birch trunks and under the golden net of their leaves in the dark foreground. Behind them, the arch of a silent, sparkling river is visible, on which the white sails of two Viking ships, messengers of an indeterminably prehistoric time, appear in the mosaic of colour spots. Across the river, the silhouette of an old Russian Kremlin city with colourful domes and towers appears like an apparition over the water.

Kandinsky combines the romantic nostalgia of Symbolism with Post-Impressionist colour; the mosaic, or stained-glass window effect liberates the colours from ‘realistic’ representation, allowing them to shine in their own right. In “Concerning the Spiritual in Art”, he would write:

“Generally speaking, colour is a power which directly influences the soul. Colour is the keyboard, they eyes are the hammers, the soul is the piano with the strings. The artist is the hand which plays, touching one key or another, to cause vibrations in the soul.”

That liberation of colours is further enabled by ‘reaching back’ into an imaginary Russia; and perhaps one of his most extraordinary early pictures is:

Kandinsky: This Colourful Life [1907; Lenbachhaus, Munich]

We see a variety of characters from Old Russia, some of whom we’ve met before; in the foreground, just to the left, is the Madonna and Child, just behind them stand Boris and Gleb; to the right of the tree we see St George on horseback and, far right, our romantic couple are about to kiss. In the background there are sword fights and children’s games, a boat is rowed along the river (Volga) and we see a church and cemetery: stories, imagination and death being all part of this colourful life. Just up, to the left of the church steeple/cupola is fairy-tale witch Baba Yaga’s house and, looking up further, at the top of the hill, is Moscow.

It’s an extraordinary accumulation of Kandinsky’s ideas, heritage and inspiration. Art historian Hajo Duchting writes:

The painting is meant to depict all the worldly and spiritual aspects of Russian life past and present, aspects that touch upon death and the belief in resurrection, as well as strife and the small joys in life.

Whilst ‘Colourful Life’ is understood as a turning point, these Russian aspects will continue to influence the development of Kandinsky’s paintings over the next few years as explores colour even further in his painting and we the colour saturation intensifies in, for example “Picture with Archer” [1909; MoMA] in which we see the figure on the horse at the forefront to the right, some men in medieval costume to the left and, in the middle of sky and landscape a city with cupolas that could, again, by Moscow:

and becomes brighter, clearer…

The Blue Mountain [1909; Guggenheim, New York]

Vasily Kandinsky’s use of the horse-and-rider motif symbolized his crusade against conventional aesthetic values and his dream of a better, more spiritual future through the transformative powers of art. 

That colour saturation now begins to change and the forms become less substantial; there’s increasing light, movement and fluidity to the picture:

Composition IV [1911; Lenbachhaus, Munich]

And yet…

can you see Boris and Gleb, the two figures on the lower right?

the three central figures holding sabres (?) who seem to be guarding the blue mountain (blue, the colour of Heaven), well these are members of the celestial army which, according to legend, resides in the mountain and will emerge ready to save Russia and the Sainsts in time of need.?

and to the left in the foreground, under the rainbow, is the River Volga, with the oars of the rowing boat.

Above the rainbow, you might even see a calligraphic line suggesting a horse (the horse of St George), and in the top left? Those two ‘figures’? Well, look at the sky just above them – the red and orange seem to be the shape of a dog’s head. Those two figures are Saints Stephen and Christopher.

For Kandinsky, all this symbolism and this new art implies a turning point, a new dawn: spiritual and social renewal; apocalypse and resurrection.

Kandinsky sought to develop an abstract style by increasingly veiling and stripping his imagery, which he retained to provide the spectator with a key to his apocalyptic visions of a coming utopia. In essays written in 1911, 1912, and 1913, he stressed the importance of this “hidden” imagery, stating that it gave expressive power to a painting and that it would be the first step toward the development of a “pure art.”

Art Forum

Most pertinent, then, is perhaps this glorious glass painting:

All Saints I [1911; Lenbachhaus, Munich]

In simple outlines and bright colors, regardless of proportions and spatial logic, the artist assembles the figures of All Saints’ Day under the yellow trumpet of a monumental angel. Among them are St. George with shield and lance, a female saint with a burning candle and the large couple holding each other wrapped around each other, perhaps the two princely martyrs of the Russian Church, Boris and Gleb… The holy society stands under the clear antagonism of brightness and darkness, salvation and destruction… [and] on the left above the trumpet of the angel [St Michael, from the Book of Revelation, sounding the last trump], the Kremlin city on the hill shines…

Moscow being, of course, the Third – and final – Rome.

And when, due to World War I, Kandinsky returned to Moscow in 1914, he began working towards this extraordinary vision of the city:

Kandinsky: Moscow I [1916; Tretyakov Gallery]

We seem to be standing in Red Square, whirling around looking at everything at once, cupolas and factory chimneys; there is a joy of life in the city under the rainbow; and, very probably, that is Boris and Gleb standing at the centre of it all: a triumphant vision.

And if, as Kandinsky believed, spiritual renewal would come with artistic renewal, then Moscow was the place to be, for the avant-garde artists were continuing to experiment fervently…

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Russian Art & Artists (13) – Russian Icons and Kandinsky

If you are enjoying this series and able to contribute I am extremely grateful. Many thanks and all best wishes!

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Next time (Saturday 26th June) we’ll catch up with Natalia Goncharova and the Russian Futurists!

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Russian Art Week: London, June 2021

It’s that time of the summer when the auction houses of London focus the Art of Russia (see Russian Art Week Summer 2021 | Russian Art + Culture (russianartandculture.com)) which is always a delicious nosegay of paintings from across Russia and Russian history. Anyone following my little Russian Art & Artists research course will, hopefully, enjoy browsing the online galleries, especially as there are pictures, even by the most celebrated artists, that are rarely seen in public (especially in Britain) because they’re in private collections.

It means too that, for the common viewer, one begins imagining which paintings to buy in the creation of a personal collection (imaginary cheque books at the ready!) – I have chosen three:

I would have to start with this glorious painting by Ivan Shishkin: “Forest Road” (1896) at MacDougall‘s. I love the way (as with many artists of the 19th century Wanderers movement) the path comes right up to the lower frame, as a viewer one feels invited in, as if already walking along, enjoying the light, the air and the colours of the forest.

MacDougall‘s notes:

Here, as in many of Shishkin’s best works, there is no pursuit of a beautiful motif or exalted tone yet, for all its apparent simplicity, Forest Road enchantingly evokes the mysterious depths of the Central Russian forest landscape so familiar to everyone, as well as the natural progression of the muted light, and the emotional and expressive quality of the artistic language.

That suggestion of ‘mysterious depths’ calls to the ancient history of Russia, the wildness of its interior lands, even evoking the traditions of story-telling, the grand legends and folk-tales.

My second ‘imaginary acquisition’ is – and this will surprise no-one! – a painting by Natalia Goncharova: The Life of the Holy Martyrs Florus and Laurus from 1913 and on sale at Sotheby‘s. For all the radical difference of Goncharova’s art from that of Shishkin, they share the same catalyst for their work: the traditions of Russia. Here, Goncharova explores the story of two Orthodox saints from the Russian Icon tradition.

Florus and Laurus are known as protectors of horses and have been important for the Russian peasantry. In both its form and subject matter, the work therefore continues Goncharova’s exploration of peasant traditions

say Sotheby‘s in their Catalogue Note. With its simplified forms, bright colours and decorative elements (the flowers top right) Goncharova connects folk art and visual culture with avant-garde modernism.

Now this might come as a surprise! Ivan Andreev’s “Pig Farm” is undated and, on sale at Sotheby‘s, sadly there are no additional notes. But surely it is from the ‘heroic’ / ‘working class impressionism’ period of 1950s Socialist Realism? Everyday life is recognised as worthy of monumental representation, the lives of the happy, healthy worker-citizens gloried in sunlight and even pig farming is an honoured part of Soviet collective productivity. Of course we can see it is ‘propaganda’: Socialist Realist artists were closely circumscribed in their art even after the demise of Stalin, both in the subject matter and style; and yet, I find there is something immensely satisfying in Andreev’s painting.

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If you want to explore further, the websites are:

Sotheby’s: Russian Pictures (sothebys.com)

Christie’s: Browse Lots (christies.com)

MacDougall’s: MacDougall’s Auction | Home (macdougallauction.com)

and Bonhams: Bonhams : The Russian Sale

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And if you are following the Russian Art & Artists research series here on The Common Viewer, our next ‘episode’ (to be published 12th June) will be on Russian Icons and the Art of Kandinsky.

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Words and Pictures (A Russian Aside): Rasputin and Anna Krarup

The Moscow Times has reported that – yesterday in Copenhagen – two portraits of the notorious/infamous Rasputin painted by Danish artist Anna Theodora Krarup went to auction, see: Bruun Rasmussen Auctioneers of Fine Art (bruun-rasmussen.dk).

I’m not sure if I’m more intrigued by the paintings – done from life, incredibly rare – or the artist!

Christie’s writes of Krarup:

Theodora Krarup was born in Scheelborg in 1862 and studied in Berlin, Copenhagen, Paris and Helsinki, before fulfilling a lifelong ambition to visit Russia, at the age of 34, where she remained for forty two years. Krarup lived in St. Petersburg, where she was asked by the, dowager Maria Feodorovna to paint the late Alexander III from pictures. She was then commissioned to paint further Imperial portraits from life.

Krarup became a friend of Rasputin and painted a total of twelve portraits of him, the last of which was completed five days before his death. According to her memoires, Rasputin entrusted his own memoires, photograph album and letters to her, but these along with her own remaining works, she had to destroy the day before her deportation in 1938. However, she attempted to refute the scandalous reputation of Rasputin in her own memoires, dictated to and published by : Henning Kehler and William Haste.

What a fascinating story this must be – living in St Petersburg through the Revolution and deep into Stalinist times – but apparently it’s only published in Danish.

The Moscow Times adds:

She had a studio on Nevsky Prospekt and painted portraits of not only Russian royalty, but also other prominent cultural and scientific figures. She was acquainted with Grigory Rasputin and strongly refuted the depiction of him as a womanizer and fraud. She wrote that he was a kind person without ambition.

Concidentally, I’ve just been reading Teffi’s short story/memoirs Rasputin and Other Ironies [Pushkin Press] in which she describes meeting Rasputin:

Lean and wiry and rather tall, he had a straggly beard and a thin face that appeared to be gathered up into a long fleshy nose. His close-set, prickly, glittering little eyes were peering out furtively from under strands of greasy hair. I think these eyes were grey. The way they glittered, it was hard to be sure. Restless eyes.

It’s a description that approximates Krarup’s portrait so closely it’s astonishing.

Teffi meets Rasputin a couple of times, he’s clearly a very peculiar man sometimes posturing and high-handed, sometimes dancing madly, sometimes a womaniser; but then Teffi also sees the security around him, the journalists exploiting his story, and the powerful interest all sorts of people had in him, and for all sorts of motives. Teffi, however, doesn’t fall for his magic act:

Here he was, Rasputin in his element. The mysterious voice, the intense expression, the commanding words – all this was a tried and tested method. But if so, then it was all rather naive and straightforward. Or, perhaps, his fame as a sorcerer, soothsayer and favourite of the Tsar really did kindle within people a particular blend of curiosity and fear, a keen desire to participate in this weird mystery.

I think I’m with Teffi here; it would be much more interesting to find out about Anna Krarup’s time in Russia/USSR!

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Words and Pictures: Arty Books for June 2021

The first book to mention is Sarah Winman’s new novel “Still Life” which is published by HarperCollins next week, 10th June and looks fascinating. Anyone who had read her glorious “Tin Man” [Tinder Press] will know her extraordinarily succinct use of language to conjure atmosphere, a strong sense of place and time and always a dramatic, unexpected and often emotional plot. Throughout that novel the presence of Vincent Van Gogh – both his paintings (the Sunflower series) and his biography – haunted, sometimes even drove, the narrative, in surprising ways.

Reading “Tin Man” then took me back to re-reading A. S. Byatt’s novel (also called) “Still Life” [Vintage] which is similarly infused with the spirit of Van Gogh as well as other painters. The Prologue is set at an exhibition at the Royal Academy, and one of the main characters, a writer, looking at Van Gogh paintings reflects how difficult he had found it to find “an appropriate language for the painter’s obsession with the illuminated material world.” Perhaps Byatt, too, found it difficult, but her success throughout the novel – as Sarah Winman achieved in “Tin Man” also – is the creation of story, characters, fictional events that enable one to look again at the paintings and their effect/s upon the viewer.

Vincent van Gogh, Vincent; Sunflowers; 1888
The National Gallery, London; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/sunflowers-115371

In Winman’s novel the propelling catalyst is a reproduction of “Sunflowers” won at a raffle – Dora hangs it on the wall of her otherwise drab and depressing back room, and against her husband’s wishes.

“She stood back. The painting was as conspicuous as a newly installed window, but one that looked out on to a life of colour and imagination, far away from the grey factory dawn and in stark contrast to the brown curtains and brown carpet, both chosen by a man to hide the dirt. It would be as if the sun rose every morning on that wall, showering the silence of their mealtimes with the shifting emotion of light.”

The painting now on the wall leads immediately to a near murder Dora’s her husband returns and goes to pull it down: “Do it and I’ll kill you. If not now then when you sleep. This painting is me. You don’t touch it, you respect it.”

Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” changes lives throughout the story in, as I say, surprising and powerfully emotional ways.

The publisher’s copy for Sarah Winman’s “Still Life” reads:

Still Life is a big-hearted story of people brought together by love, war, art and the ghost of E.M. Forster. 1944, in the ruined wine cellar of a Tuscan villa, as bombs fall around them, two strangers meet and share an extraordinary evening. Ulysses Temper is a young British soldier, Evelyn Skinner is a sexagenarian art historian and possible spy. She has come to Italy to salvage paintings from the wreckage and relive memories of the time she encountered EM Forster and had her heart stolen by an Italian maid in a particular Florentine room with a view. Evelyn’s talk of truth and beauty plants a seed in Ulysses’ mind that will shape the trajectory of his life – and of those who love him – for the next four decades. Moving from the Tuscan Hills and piazzas of Florence, to the smog of London’s East End, Still Life is a sweeping, joyful novel about beauty, love, family and fate.

In other words: it will be amazing!

A book more directly linked to an artist is Franny Moyle’s The King’s Painter [Head of Zeus] which, I have to say, is one of the most beautifully illustrated and produced art/biographies that I’ve seen in a long time. What is particularly interesting is that each chapter is dedicated to a particular portrait that then illuminates the context of the working artist. Moyle notes in the Introduction that there is very little by way of written records from the artist’s life, which means that the the paintings themselves, their subjects and their cultural-political receptions, are superbly foregrounded. And of course the paintings have been so historically affective: we could not ‘see’ or perhaps even understand Henry VIII and his court except through the eyes of Holbein.

Holbein the younger, Hans; Henry VIII and Henry VII; National Portrait Gallery, London; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/henry-viii-and-henry-vii-272754

The King’s Painter: The Art and Times of Hans Holbein is published now, and four episodes of it from Radio 4’s Book of the Week are still available (as of today): BBC Radio 4 – The King’s Painter: The Life and Times of Hans Holbein by Franny Moyle – Available now and – fascinatingly – as she was going about her research, Franny Moyle also discovered a portrait of the artist as a child: The child hidden in plain sight: how one painting has upended the Holbein world (telegraph.co.uk)!

My third ‘recommended’ book is Frances Wilson’s “Burning Man” [Bloomsbury] which is absolutely brilliant. Wilson not only portrays D.H. Lawrence in a uniquely new light – especially by way of his usually-forgotten-about writing – she has also transformed the art of biography by mapping Lawrence’s life by way of Dante’s travels from the Inferno of Hell through Purgatory to Paradise. It is truly extraordinary and, when the ‘blurb’ says “a landmark biography” for once this rings true.

You might be thinking – why is he talking about this when it’s not about an artist or art? Well, the third part is especially interesting as, when Lawrence and his wife Frieda move to New Mexico, an artist who travels with them is Brett (1883-1977), the Hon. Dorothy Eugenie Brett to give her formal name. Brett had been a student at the Slade, a friend of Carrington and one of the Bloomsbury artists who, during World War I, stayed at Ottoline Morrell’s Garsington Manor – thesae were the circles through which she met Lawrence. At a dinner party, Lawrence – drunk – suggested the guests should all move with him to create a writers/artists colony. One way or another they demurred, except Brett.

The artuk.org website has only four of her paintings, including one of Ottoline and her Garsington guests and a portrait of Lawrence himself:

The other two are later paintings (both in the Tate) from New Mexico where, from 1924, Brett would live for the rest of her life.

The Tate website tells a little more about these astonishing pictures.

And, one other book to mention is Ian Collins biography of the artist John Craxton [Yale University Press]:

which I will be reading over the next few days before discussing it with the author himself (via @HatchardsPiccadilly on InstagramLive next Wednesday 9th, 6pm), when I’ll have much more to tell!

So, for now, happy book-reading and picture-viewing!

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