Research series: Russian Art and Artists (16): Towards Revolution

“The City Square” – Natalya Goncharova’s 1914 set design for Le Coq D’Or, the Ballets Russes, Paris [MoMA, New York]

Through the first half of 1914, Natalya Goncharova and Mikhail Larionov were in Paris working with Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes company and holding an exhibition of Goncharova’s paintings. The declaration of war, however, sent them back to Moscow. Larionov was called up. Goncharova portrayed the war as a mythic encounter, Russian soldiers accompanied by hosts of angels.

Goncharova: Mythical Images of War from a series of lithographs published late 1914

These are, remarkably, patriotic, notes Anthony Parton: “an apocalyptic view of the war in which Russia and its allies were supported by an angelic host in their battle against dark material and spiritual forces.” Other images include St George, St Michael and angels fighting with aeroplanes: see University of Notre Dame for full series). There is a sense in this apocalyptic vision of spiritual battle that Goncharova is invoking the ‘Destiny of Russia’ concept: that Russia is “divinely ordained to play a key role in shaping world events”.

Other artists were also forced to return home. Chagall returned from Paris to marry his beloved Bella:

Marc Chagall: The Birthday [1915; MoMA]

Having found a desk job with the War Office, he was nevertheless horrified at the idea of being conscripted, the talk of war all-encompassing:

Chagall: The Smolensk Newspaper [1914, Philadelphia Museum of Art]

The sole word visible in the newspaper is “war”. Walther and Metzger, write in the Taschen monograph of Chagall: “The ‘paper is on the table between the two men, whose conversation appears to deal exclusively with the carbage ahead in Europe. The olf Jew, resting his chin thoughtfully in his cupped hands, is thinking of the compulsory conscription Tsarist regimes have been imposing on his people from time immemorial. [His opposite number] whose suit and hat pronounce him to be a bourgeois, [is not] at all enthusiastic either; he is seen mopping his brow in distraction.”

Chagall wasn’t called up, indeed he remained in Russia through until the early 1920s, as did Wassily Kandinsky who, like Goncharova, saw Russia in a grand, epic and spiritual light:

Kandinsky: Moscow – Red Square [1916; Tretyakov Gallery]

Amidst the richly vibrant colours and textures, lines and patterns, we see Moscow, with all its churches and cupolas; Red Square has been painted frontally, raised on the heavenly hill. Right at the centre, Boris and Gleb, the two founding Saints of Russia gaze upwards. Above, we see the rainbow, symbol of the Archangel Michael:

the chief archangel, the Archistratig, the head
of the Lord’s heavenly warriors, the guard and protector of God’s honour.
Under his leadership the heavenly forces defeated the devil in battle. He
is therefore the patron saint of chivalry and warriors… [Museum of Russian Icons]

The artist wrote that he particularly loved the time, when the sun goes down and “melts all of Moscow down to a single spot that, like a mad tuba, starts all of the heart and all of the soul vibrating.” This hour of sunset is “the final chord of a symphony that takes every colour to the zenith of life that, like the fortissimo of a great orchestra, is both compelled and allowed by Moscow to ring out.”

Much had changed since Kandinsky had last been in Moscow, and whilst his ‘ways of seeing’ – that colour vibrates with emotion like music – were radical, others had even more far-reaching visions that would lead to Liubov Popova’s 1921 vision of the city which, with its light and air, steel and glass, stands in extraordinary contrast to Kandinsky’s Moscow:

. Popova: maquette for the City of the Future [1921, photographer unknown]

So how did we get there? Well there’s a photograph of Popova’s studio (taken by Alexander Rodchenko in 1924) that suggests the course that Russian avant garde art took in the wake of Malevich’s Suprematism.

Right: Space-Force-Construction [1921; Tretyakov]

The paintings on the wall above the City of the Future model are from Popova’s Space-Force-Construction series, which had evolved from the colour architectonic paintings we saw in our last episode. Malevich had created, in Suprematism, an entirely new artistic language that dispensed with representation and perspective, emphasising instead geometric shapes and dynamic movement. That breakdown of traditional painting – the Black Square and White on White being the most radical examples – and ways of seeing visual art, led to a period of deep, analytical experimentation of line, colour, shape, movement and recession. Olga Rozanova was painting ‘non-objective compositions’ that, by 1917, were truly brilliant examples of such experimentation:

Non-Objective Composition [1917, Ulyanovsk]; Green Stripe [1917, Rostov]; Colour Painting [1917, St Petersburg]

For Rozanova, colours and colour combinations were the primary building blocks of creative art. For other artists, other aspects came to prominence. In the photograph of Popova’s studio, for example, we see her space-force-construction paintings emphasise line as the dynamic force and – essentially – she brings material texture (faktura) to the fore: notice the paint veers from smooth to rough, and notice especially that this is not painted on traditional canvas, but unprimed plywood, large areas of which are left bare.

This recognition of the very materials used in art-making and the materiality of the art-work itself was central to the ideas of Vladimir Tatlin.

Valdimir Tatlin: The Sailor (probably a self-portrait) [1912; State Russian Museum]

Tatlin, having run away from home as an eighteen year old, became a sailor, travelling the world. Even so he kept up with the avant-garde artists, friends with both Larionov and Goncharova, and painted in the ‘primitivist’ style as we see in The Sailor. Living in great poverty, Tatlin managed to visit Paris and his hero Picasso in 1913 – returning to Russia filled with radical Cubist ideas. As Camilla Gray notes, it was in the winter of 1913-14 that Tatlin took the first step towards what would become Constructivism. Now the difficulty is that many of the early works were lost or destroyed, so there is a reliance on black & white photographs. Here, however, is that first step:

Tatlin: The Bottle [1913; location unknown, photograph from Camilla Gray’s “The Russian Experiment in Art”]

With wallpaper, wood, metal and glass, The Bottle is an exploration of different materials and their properties – the “culture of materials”; Camilla Gray explains: the object, the bottle, is still recognisable as the shape that has been incised onto a strip of metal. But it is not the individual object that is Tatlin’s subject matter, rather its ‘bottleness’ is being analysed. We see the shape silhouetted against a metal strip. But of course one can see through glass, so Tatlin recognises that idea of ‘seeing through’ by using a wire mesh. Moreover, glass is shiny, so the metal behind the mesh has been polished. Each element of a glass bottle has been isolated, taken separately and re-considered. The curve of the bottle, for example, has been taken away from the bottle and transferred to the near-cylinder of metal right at the centre – the reflection of light on the metal paralleling the reflection of light on the bottle. As this metal cylinder arcs out into real space, it contrasts with the flat silhouette of the bottle and the flatness, to the left, of a square of wallpaper. However, even the wallpaper’s flatness is usurped by its trompe l’oeil decorative patterning. Gray summaries: “Thus, a typical ‘enclosed’ space [the bottle] is dissected part by part, attribute by attribute, the analysis being conducted in a series of planes which contrast the idea of ‘real’ and ‘illusory’ space.”

Left: Wood, Metal, Leather [1913-4; Tretyakov Gallery];

Right: Painting Relief: Selection of Materials (iron, stucco, glass, asphalt) [1913-4; presumed destroyed

Using a variety of raw materials – wood, tin, plaster, glass, steel and more – Tatlin explores and combines them to create contrasting textures that illuminate the material properties of each element, extending the ‘picture’ out into real space. This extension he then takes further, removing any reference to the flatness of the framed picture, by creating corner-reliefs:

Corner Relief [1915; destroyed]

Corner Relief [1916; State Russian Museum]

“These corner constructions were Tatlin’s most radical works. In them he has created a new spatial form: a continually intersecting rhythm of planes whose movements jut into, cleave, embrace, block and skewer space” – Camilla Gray.

Alongside Tatlin was fellow-constructivist Alexander Rodchenko, whose initial works on paper and canvas explored lines, which Brandon Taylor in Tate Papers perfectly emphasises are ‘non-descriptive lines’, and would lead, like Tatlin’s work, into three-dimensional ‘real’ space:

Rodchenko: Line Construction [1920; MoMA]; Spatial Construction: Circles within Circles [1921; whereabouts unknown]

You’ll have noticed that we have slipped into post-Revolutionary time, and the Constructivists were very much part of the revolutionary aesthetic those first few utopian years, their artworks tending towards the scientific and the architectural. Notice, for example, the parallel here:

On the left we have Rodchenko’s “Composition No.47” [1917; oil on wood, State Russian Museum], the principles of which the artist re-directs two years later into, on the right, a Design for a Kiosk [1919; private collection]. The avant-garde’s radically new ways of seeing and creating were – at least to them – allied with the radical transformation of society. Even Malevich’s Suprematism was deployed in the decoration of post-Revolutionary Petrograd/Leningrad:

This is Natan Altman’s design for Uritsky Square (Palace Square) in Petrograd in celebration of the first anniversary of the Revolution. An unknown photographer captured the scene: a cheering crowd behind whom large ‘Suprematist’ panels (of colour) had been constructed:

This, however, is another story for another Research Series.

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Russian Art & Artists – Towards Constructivism

Thank you so much for following this series, i hope you have enjoyed and, as ever, if you are able to donate it is hugely appreciated. All best wishes for now.

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This is the last regular ‘episode’ in this ongoing series as ‘live’ events return, but there will be further articles in the future – simply “follow” The Common Viewer and a notice will appear in your email inbox.

To send us on our merry way then, with all best wishes, here is Varvara Stepanova’s 1920 painting “Musicians” [Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow]:

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Words and Pictures: Medieval Moments

Since my post about Medieval church wall-paintings in the “Rambling with Rothenstein” series last year, I have had half an eye on all things that touch on the visual culture of life in the Middle Ages.

For anyone who shares this curiosity, you may be interested in J.L.Carr’s short novel “A Month in the Country”.

Written in the late 1970s, it looks back to the summer of 1920. A young man, Tom Birkin, returned from the horrors of the Great War to train as a specialist in the restoration of wall-paintings. His first job takes him to the Yorkshire village of Oxgodby, deep in the English countryside, to an ancient church. “It was tremendously exciting”, he says, “to begin with I didn’t know what I was uncovering.” By the end of the second day he has uncovered a head and face of Christ, delighted by the colours that suggested the medieval artist was one of high calibre: “And, as the first tinges of garment appeared, that prince of blues, ultramarine ground from lapis lazuli, began to show – that really confirmed his class – he must have fiddled it from a monastic job – no village church could have run to such expense.”

The novel is extraordinarily subtle as his memories of the war gentle mingle with his meetings with villagers, a brush of romance and a broad contemplation of English life; it’s a subtlety that belies some deep themes if one were to seek them out. For me, though, it is this day-by-day revelation of the wall-painting that is so fascinating, and Birkin’s contemplation of the artist and his world:

“it’s not at all easy to find your way back to the Middle Ages. They weren’t us in fancy dress…”.

Yet, gradually, he does get to ‘know’ the artist, through the details of the image (a large Doom painting) and the touch of the paintbrush, as far as it might be possible across five centuries. By the end of the tale, he stands before “the great spread of colour” recognising that, for those past few weeks, he “had lived with a very great artist”.

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I was delighted to see fragments of a medieval wall-painting myself last week, at St James the Less Church, in Hadleigh, Essex.

My guide, local historian Sandra Harvey, told me that the Norman church had been built probably in the 1140s during the reign of King Stephen. But it wasn’t until the 1850s, during restoration work, that the whitewash was removed from the walls to reveal painted texts, border decorations and some extraordinary images.

Those that survive today include an angel and a painting of St Thomas of Canterbury inscribed “Blessed Thomas” and dated to the early 1170s. This is of course intriguing, as Thomas Becket had been assassinated in 1170, perhaps on the orders of King Henry II, and was canonised by Pope Alexander III in 1173. Only months later, the King “humbled himself in public penance at Becket’s tomb” which became a site for pilgrimage as Becket became something of a medieval cult figure. That the Hadleigh painting is so early suggests the church’s proximity to Canterbury and the King, perhaps via the Priory at Prittlewell.   

Other paintings at St James the Less could not be preserved, however Mr H.W.King (who oversaw the work) made some drawings, the most wonderful of which shows there had been a large depiction of St George and the Dragon from the 15th century.

The Knight, on horseback, impales the dragon, thus securing Christian good over evil, whilst the Princess watches on along with, in the background, the King and Queen who appear to be applauding from Hadleigh Castle (which had been re/built in the 14th century).

Oh to have seen this in colour!

I did find a version of St George and the Dragon here: https://reeddesign.co.uk/paintedchurch/broughton-st-george.htm from a church in Broughton, Buckinghamshire, just to give a sense of the Hadleigh picture.

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My other ‘medieval moment’ has been via Charles Spencer’s book “The White Ship” which tells the history of a medieval disaster when Henry I’s only legitimate son, William Aetheling, was one of the many to die when the White Ship – the Titanic of its day – was shipwrecked off the coast of Normandy.

The book is split into three sections. The first, Triumph, tells the story of Henry – the third son of the Conqueror – as he makes his way towards ruling both England and Normandy. It’s a complicated story, with inter-familial and strategic marriages, births both in and out of wedlock, bitter sibling rivalries, bloody battles, awful punishments and the complex relationship of kingship and papal authority. Eventually Henry secures both lands and brings a certain peace and order. His triumph, then, is to marry Matilda of Scotland, with whom he has a legitimate male heir, William Aetheling and a daughter Matilda.

I love Spencer’s imagined description of the charming and handsome seventeen-year-old William:

“Drawing on the aristocratic fashions of the time, we can guess how William Aetheling was turned out when he waited in Barfleur to make his sea passage home. If we picture him swathed in the finest sil shirt and tunic, with a fur-trimmed brocaded cloak thrown over his shoulders – to combine magnificence with warmth – we are probably not too far from the truth. If, in addition, he was following the fashion that had taken root during his grandfather’s rule of England and was still in vogue, his shoes would have been long with pointed toes.”

Part Two is titled Disaster: the White Ship, on which William was travelling from Normandy to England, met with a mighty collision against a rock. As water rushed in, William’s bodyguards got him onto a rowing boat. However, hearing his half-sister’s screams as the ship splintered further and both crew and passengers were hurled into the freezing sea, William made them turn the little boat back to try and rescue her. Those flailing in the water grabbed on to the returning boat, seeking safety, yet ultimately pulling everyone down into the water. Henry I’s dream of securing long-lasting peace, so that England and Normandy might be passed down to his legitimate son, had been shattered.

The third part of the book, Chaos, tells of the anarchy as lands on both sides of the Channel return once again to on-going rivalry, battles and bloodshed. The shipwreck had a huge impact on the course of history leading, on Henry I’s death, to the unsettled reign of King Stephen.

There is an extremely poignant manuscript image of Henry mourning the death of his son:

British Library, Royal MS 20 A.ii, fol. 6v. https://bl.uk/manuscripts/Viewer.aspx?ref=royal_ms_20_a_ii_f006v

You may have seen or read that Charles Spencer has been taking scientific diving teams out to the site of the shipwreck to learn if anything of the ship might remain, which really would be extraordinary, and rather exciting.

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As a postscript, there’s a great article by Simon Heffer:

Medieval church paintings were the PowerPoint presentations of their day (telegraph.co.uk)

in which he concludes: “With luck, as churches continue to be repaired, more such ancient masterpieces will be found, their glaze protecting them from centuries of whitewash; and once more our ancestors will speak directly to us.”

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Research series: Russian Art and Artists (15): Suprematism – Malevich, Rozanova and Popova

We’ve seen over the last few episodes that, since Diaghilev’s comment in 1905 that “we are witnessing the greatest historic hour of reckoning, of things coming to an end in the name of a new unknown culture”, the Russian art world became a site of rapid, experimental change through the work of artists such as Goncharova, Chagall, Kandinsky and many others. This explosion of painting was linked to the work of modernists right across Europe – Van Gogh, Gauguin, Picasso – adopted into and transformed by the Russian context of ideas, culture, philosophy and indeed the increasingly unstable political situation.

With the outbreak of war in 1914, links with European artists were cut but, within Russia, the avant-garde continue their radical experimentation.

Out on the streets there were strikes and demonstrations. The news from the war is that tens of thousands of men – barely trained, barely armed – are dying en masse at the front. It becomes clear that Tsar Nicholas is clueless at military strategy and that the Tsarina is influencing social policy by way of the disreputable figure of Rasputin. The strikes and demonstrations grow louder, increasingly political as left-wing activists, especially the Bolsheviks, rally citizens towards revolution.

Meanwhile, artist Kazimir Malevich (1879-1935) has been quietly cooking up a revolution of his own…

Malevich: Peasant Women in Church [1911; Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam]

As with the other Russian avant-garde artists, Malevich had explored Symbolism, Impressionism and by 1911 a Post-Impressionist “Primitivism” akin to that of Natalya Goncharova. These brusque paintings were very much part of a radical art movement that intended to shock the viewer with their non-naturalist depictions and roughly-textured painting. With its roots in Paul Gauguin’s pictures of Brittany and the villagers of Pont-Aven from the 1880s, Malevich’s “Peasant Women in Church” also reflects – especially by way of the mask-like faces – the more recent work of Picasso, in particular perhaps Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.

Paul Gauguin: Breton Peasant Women [1894; Musee d’Orsay, Paris]

& Pablo Picasso: Les Demoiselles d’Avignon [1907; Museum of Modern Art, New York]

What is fascinating about Malevich’s “Peasant Women in Church” canvas is what is on the other side of it. Note how the peasant women are painted really quite sculpturally, they are rotund, their arms and bodies look solid… well on the ‘verso’ of this painting, we find Malevich, just one year later, moving away from that brusque, textured primitivism to take on, via a version of Cubism, a much cleaner sculptural, and uniquely cylindrical style:

Malevich: The Woodcutter [1912; Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam]

The human form has been radically simplified, yet one feels the woodcutter’s strength; he is a monumental figure reflecting his importance in village life. All around him are cylindrical logs – neither background nor foreground – integrating the figure into his work, this very moment of concentration. It’s a delicious patterning of distinct, clearly formed shapes, and they have a sense of movement and dynamism.

Malevich: Taking in the Rye [1912; Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam]

The paintings strike one as extraordinarily modern – that tubularity, the almost metallic sheen – and yet fascinatingly they depict the changing of the seasons and the traditional rural work that has been done since time immemorial. If there is a sense of ‘futurism’ here, it is far from the machinery, urbanisation, transport and war of the Italian Futurists. Closer to that sense of speed and dynamism of the city, and the fragmentation of modern life is:

Malevich: The Knifegrinder [[1913; Yale University]

“The workman sharpens his knives at the foot of a flight of steps, visible upper and lower right… The arc of the steps curves around the knifegrinder, whose rhythmic movements Malevich has indicated by the repetition of the foot upon the pedal, the repetition of fingers and hands and the duplication of the nose and other facial features. The grinding machine provides the pivot of the composition [as] the rhythm of rotation appears to spread out like ripples from the centre of the machine animating the flight of steps…” [John Milner: Kazimir Malevich and the Art of Geometry, 1996].

Through all this Cubo-Futurist experimentation, Malevich is searching for something: he wants to release art from matters of representation, from the depiction of nature and so-called reality. And, in 1913, he staged an opera at the Futurists Theatre called “Victory Over the Sun”.

Left: Poster advertising “The World’s First Four Productions of Futurist Theatre” at Luna Park Theatre, St Petersburg, 2nd-5th December 1913, including “Victory Over the Sun”.

Right: “The Aviator” painted by Malevich in 1914 [Russian Museum]

The main thrust of Victory Over the Sun, is that the sun represents nature, logic and rationality (the Enlightenment) and therefore the past and present. Victory will represent the future, and its hero is the Aviator or the New Man, of the future, a Traveller in time and space who was later painted by Malevich full of symbolic references. He wears a top hat with a ‘0’ on it from which come beams of light; the Zero might represent a starting point. The playing card in his hand might represent chance and the Tarot (which fascinated Malevich).

Understanding the painting can get rather complicated, for example the ray of light illuminates and splits some lettering which, together, in Russian spell “apteka” meaning “chemist” – the KA might refer to the character of a traveller in a poem, and/or to the Egyptian belief in the afterlife. Certainly there are layers of meaning, the images relating to language and words as well as possibly fellow Futurist poets involved in Victory Over the Sun.

The costumes for the Opera were designed by Malevich: they are quite bizarre visually with patches of bright colour, and also bizarre in effect: some of the colours would be illuminated by the stage-lighting, and so fragmenting the image on stage, moreover the costumes were made of soft fabric, undermining their solidity.

Malevich’s costume designs: State Museum of Theatre and Music, Saint Petersburg.

The Opera itself was bombastic and absurd. Unsurprisingly it had a mixed reception, some criticised its lunacy, others delighted in its eccentricity. Malevich himself was thrilled with it all, see: Victory Over the Sun for more detail.

As we can see from these newspaper images, Malevich’s backdrops were as peculiar as his costumes; and they include something very important. Joseph Kiblitsky of the State Russian Museum notes that the outline of a square appears in the first, second and third scenes, then, in the fifth, a pure black square on a white plane. It was the first time Malevich had depicted any type of black square. In the play, the image simply symbolises the victory over the sun, like an eclipse, the black covering the white. But for Malevich it seems there was more to it. Like a scientist in a laboratory, he had come about something by chance but that he knows is valuable. Throughout 1914 he experiments…

Malevich: Composition with ‘Mona Lisa’ [1914; State Russian Museum]

The words on the canvas: “chastichnoe” means partial; “zametnie” means eclipse; “peredatsa kvartina v moskva” means we have surpassed the picture in Moscow. Note how the image of the Mona Lisa has been crossed through and torn, it almost disappears in the cascade of Cubist squares – it is a partial eclipse of the old art. In solitude and secrecy, Malevich continues working in his studio and then, in 1915, there was an extraordinary exhibition:

0.10: The Last Futurist Exhibition [December 1915; St Petersburg (renamed Petrograd)]

It must have been bewildering to any common viewer that happened to be passing by! And, displayed on the corner – just as a Russian would hang an icon – is Black Square.

Malevich: Black Square [1915; Tretyakov Gallery]

It’s an icon, the likes of which we had never seen before: the icon of a new world order, a new means of making art. Malevich has stripped away all representation and left us with nothing, a void, a blank, a black square. He called it the Zero of form (remember The Aviator’s top hat?).

Black Square seems to erase, end, annihilate all the paintings that went before. It is the end of art.

If the traditional Orthodox icon was our connection to the heavenly, then to what does Black Square connect us?

Outer-space? Nothingness?

It is worth noting that Black Square has no horizon: hang the painting any way you want and it remains a black square floating on a field of white – Malevich has released the artist from gravity.

But above all it is just, simply, a black square – a geometric, mathematical form. Unsullied by nature or politics or human history and society. It is pure. “It is the face of new art. The Square is a living, royal infant” said Malevich:

“It is everything.”

The photograph of the exhibition shows there were other paintings too: the Black Square had given Malevich entry into the development of a new purely artistic alphabet: squares, crosses, circles and so on. Releasing us from the chains of Art History, this is Suprematism – painting founded on pure artistic forms.

Black Circle [1915; State Russian Museum]; White on White [1918; MoMA, New York]

So what does Malevich, and other artists inspired by his work, do with these new forms? The development is rapid. From the bold simple forms we soon move into formations of complex, dynamic planes, shapes and colours:

The painting at the Tate is a marvellous example: we can see a white on white triangular form around, over, under which other shapes are floating in various directions, some are coming forward, whilst others cross over (reminding us again of the impact of the costumes and backdrops in Victory Over the Sun).

Importantly too, colour is kept within the forms and very much part of the dynamic ‘non-gravity space’ within the picture frame.

We can turn to other artists who took up Malevich’s Suprematist ideas and created The Supremus Group, including Olga Rozanova (1886-1918) who I would call a Suprematist Colourist:

Non-Objective Composition (Suprematism) [1916; Fine Arts Museum, Yekaterinburg]

Rozanova uses both bold and more subtle colours, from stark red to gentle peach and lilac; and note how at the bottom left she has ‘quoted’ Black Square.

Rozanova: Non-Objective Composition (Flight of an Aeroplane) [1916; Fine Arts Museum, Samara]

“Throughout Rozanova’s career, colour remained her chief concern. In sophisticated abstract paintings [those shown above], she reveals a ‘discordant concordance’ of interactive coloured planes to reveal her own variant of Suprematism based on the dominant role of colour.” [Nina Gurianova in “Amazons of the Avant-Garde”, Royal Academy, 1999].

For Rozanova, it is colour that has the dynamism Malevich attributes to shape; her work blazes with colour, contrasts that create movement and rhythm. Her aim was “to convey the immaterial essence of colour, its inner energy and luminosity…”

For Liubov Popova (1889-1924), shape and colour were certainly central, but it is perhaps a combination of texture and structure that stands out in many of her Suprematist paintings, which she called ‘architectonic’

This “Painterly Architectonic” at the National Gallery of Scotland is described as: “characterized by dynamic, overlapping planes which seem to float in space. The coloured diagonal shapes in this painting suggest movement but also a sense of balance. The modelling of the shapes suggests a light source from outside the frame.”

That latter statement suggest something quite different to anything found in Malevich’s Suprematism; the Gallery seems to be suggesting that Popova imaging her abstractions as physical architecture out in the ‘real world’. And that, perhaps, is why she is so interested in texture – faktura – the actual material of the painting, which would lead her towards Constructivism, yet another aspect of the radical avant-garde in Russia, as we will see next time.

Describing the art of Liubov Popova in “The Russian Experiment in Art 1863-1922”, Camilla Gray notes how difficult it is to categorise the works such as the Architectonic Paintings from 1918 below, yet how exciting they are:

“They are often executed on a rough board, and the angular forms in strong blues, green and reds are brushed in on this crude, raw surface, leaving the impression of a lightning-swift movement, a darting, breathless meeting of forces…”

Russian Art & Artists 15 – Suprematism

Thank you for reading this episode of our ‘gentle’ research into Russian Art & Artists! If you are able to ‘donate’ that would be marvellous – many thanks and all best wishes.

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Our next episode:

Russian Art & Artists (16): Constructivism and Tatlin’s Tower

will be published by Sunday 25th July 2021

Let’s finish, though, with two gorgeous colour sketches by Olga Rozanova [1917; private c/o Wikimedia]:

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