Amazons of the Avant-Garde:

Alexandra Exter, Natalia Goncharova, Liubov Popova, Olga Rozanova, Varvara Stepanova, and Nadezhda Udaltsova

by Donald Goddard

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Natalia Goncharova
Natalia Goncharova
Self-Portrait with Yellow Lillies,
oil on canvas - 77 x 58.2 cm

In 1992-93, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York City, along with the State Tretiakov Museum in Moscow and the State Russian Museum in St. Petersburg, presented a massive exhibition called "The Great Utopia: The Russian and Soviet Avant-Garde, 1915-1932," which included works by five of the six women in the Guggenheim's current "Amazons of the Avant-Garde." Curiously, the latter show has less works by those women, though their impact is differently and more powerfully understood. The only "Amazon" not included in the earlier show was Natalia Goncharova, presumably because she and her long-time companion, Mikhail Larionov, left Russia for good in 1915, but despite the fact that she (and Larionov) are considered key members of the avant-garde and remained, into the 1920s, sympathetic to the new regime in their homeland. In other words, "avant-garde" has a somewhat different meaning in each case. The earlier show, of which I have only seen the catalogue, has Kasimir Malevich and Vladimir Tatlin as its seminal figures and the non-objective paintings of Suprematism as its starting point, with some slight indications of Cubist and Futurist precedents. The current show starts, at least with Goncharova, in 1907, focuses a good deal on Cubist and Futurist works, and also continues beyond the Revolution into the 1920s.

The time before 1915 was one of great ferment throughout Russia during which the visual arts and poetry particularly were undergoing tremendous changes, parallel to but not necessarily identified with changes in the political and social fabric of the country. Somehow, beginning with Malevich's Red Square (Painterly Realism: Peasant Woman in Two Dimensions) of 1915, as the "Utopia" show did, establishes a rather harsh ideological edge for the entire enterprise of Russian art during the period that followed, which is then, in retrospect, confirmed and hardened under the increasing rigidity of Soviet rule. Something was lost in that approach. The reality of life, and subsequently of art, was indeed harsh, but there was a depth of human complexity and persistence that tends to be overshadowed and overlooked.

What was lost is found in "Amazons of the Avant-Garde." Exhibitions devoted strictly to women artists might seem pointless, or worse, counterproductive--as argumentation, in legal terms; as overcompensation for all the shows dominated by male artists; or as admissions of isolation and defeat. But there are larger issues here, as there often are when the point is made of showing only women. The curse of maleness, of hurtling headlong toward a goal of existential perfection, which might even turn out to be agony, is lifted. It is not that male artists necessarily hurtle in this manner, but that they are thought to gain their strength from doing so. It is the myth of art--of the hero.

Olga Rozanova
Olga Rozanova
Portrait of a Lady in Pink
(Portrait of Anna Rozanova, the Artist's Sister),
oil on canvas, 113 x 139 cm
Museum of Visual Arts, Ekaterinburg

In the light of women's art, at least that which has not been infected by the myth, the monolithic view of art as a measure of history breaks down. No more so than in the time around the Russian Revolution of 1917, when women played an unusually powerful role in the formation of ideas and idealism. Goncharova was particularly important, the star of several shows (from some of which her work was removed by police), a center of critical attention, and the subject of three one-person exhibitions, including one in Moscow in 1913 that showed 760 of her works. While there might have been fewer women artists, they were a constant force, in exhibitions, critical notice, and invention, between 1910 and the early 1920s.

Rozanova, like Goncharova, battled for her primacy, and in 1918 Malevich called her the "only true Suprematist." While women artists were fiercely independent and conscious of one another's accomplishments, they also worked closely with men, as John Bowlt notes in his catalogue essay, "without professional jealousy." Goncharova and Larionov, of course, were together throughout their careers, even through their great poverty in the 1940s and '50s and beyond their marriage in 1955. Popova worked closely with Tatlin and the painter Alexander Vesnin. Rozanova created a series of Cubo-Futurist books in 1913-14 with the poet Alexei Kruchenykh, and in 1916 guided him in making collages for an album called Universal War. Stepanova collaborated with poets (Kruchenykh, Velimir Khlebnikov, and Vladimir Mayakovsky), worked on her own experiments in automatic and phonetic writing, and then joined her companion Alexander Rodchenko on a variety of projects. And Udaltsova was allied with Tatlin (with whom she later split), with Vesnin and Rodchenko, and finally with the painter Alexander Drevin, whom she married in 1919.

In this plethora of activity and relationships, the art of men becomes more interesting, from pre-Revolution through Revolution. Male artists regain their humanity in the company of women. Malevich's Red Square and Tatlin's Monument to the Third International are no longer the unchangeable or inviolable symbols of a new order, but moments of idealistic confabulation in a constantly changing history.

There is something doctrinaire and absolutist about Malevich's devotion to the square, and the whole period in art (and in politics) was certainly characterized by battles of doctrines, but there was also a lot more going on, even in his own work, and that can be understood by partially circumventing the idea of Supremus and focusing on the work of women artists. That is something like going around American Pop Art and Minimalism to get to the work of women artists in the 1960s and '70s.
Varvara Stepanova
Varvara Stepanova
Illustration for the Poem "Zigra Ar,"
watercolor on paper - 18.8 x 16 cm.
Private collection

Goncharova's Self-Portrait with Yellow Lilies was painted in the same year, 1907, as Pablo Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, and seems at first rather slight by comparison. It is much smaller, of course, and more conventional in its delineation of the figure and space; the subject is prim and proper. And yet it is in some respects more daring. Picasso's women are awesome, even fearsome; they represent a variation on the traditional composition with nudes, even up through Paul Cézanne's Great Bathers of the late 1890s, an attack on conventional narrative and aesthetic values, and a compassion for the undervalued lives of prostitutes, partly through the spiritualized intercession of African art, which Picasso had recently discovered.

Figuratively and literally, Picasso revolutionized painting. He became the sacred monster, the creator of time and space, of solid and void. The merely human is kept at a distance, and in the process often sentimentalized, as in the patheticized figures of the Blue and Rose periods. Goncharova's view is more intimate. The figure exists in time and space, in the cycle of her own paintings on the back wall and of the flowers that have been cut. She is between the rough geometry and brushstrokes of the paintings and the organic shapes and brilliant colors of the flowers, not a sacred monster but a human presence, the artist as her own model, and as part of the structure of her own art, I think for the first time.

Olga Rozanova does something similar in her 1911 Portrait of a Lady in Pink (the Artist's Sister, Anna Rozanova), though not directly in reference to herself as an artist. The person, Rozanova's sister, is fully present, gazing straight at the viewer. Her presence is almost outlandishly emphasized, by the size of her hat, the color of her dress, the curve and color of the couch, the classically half-reclining odalisque pose, the bared legs, the hand turned back toward her collarbone, the gesticulating red and yellow flowers, the swooping and gathering of so many motifs, the glare of her eyes. She is almost ridiculously expressive, something like a Matisse figure with personality or a Kirchner figure without angst. Everything is there in the room; no hiding behind the picture plane.

Liubov Popova
Liubov Popova
Traveling Woman, 1915
oil on canvas - 158.5 x 123 cm.
Art Col Ltd. (George Costakis Collection)
This was just the beginning. Stepanova was born slightly later, but most of the women, like the men artists of the period, underwent transformations through Cubism, Futurism, some aspects of German Expressionism, non-objective art, and production arts that became important in the revolutionary phase. They came from Russia, Ukraine, and Lithuania; sought inspiration from the arts of their own countries; and were central figures mostly in Moscow but also in St. Petersburg (Petrograd, Leningrad). Exter traveled widely in France and Italy from 1909 through 1914 and was acquainted with Guillaume Apollinaire, Georges Braque, Picasso, and Ardengo Soffici. Popova spent time in Italy and France in 1910 and 1914 and with Udaltsova studied under Metzinger, Le Fauconnier, and Segonzac in Paris in 1912-13. Works were sent to exhibitions in Paris, Munich, Berlin, and Rome; Russians collected contemporary French art; and there were contacts with western European artists visiting Russia.

Russian painting between 1912 and 1915, including that of Malevich, Ivan Puni, Ivan Kliun, and most of the women in this exhibition, is often described as a belated or peculiar version of Cubism or Futurism or both, as though those developments belonged to their originators or their countries of origin, or as though, in another age, Albrecht Dürer had been less worthy of consideration because of his (belated?) attachment to Italian Renaissance art. Actually, Marcel Duchamp and Juan Gris each did something extraordinary with Cubism, beyond the founders, despite being belated. And so did the Russians, with both Cubism and Futurism. Goncharova and Malevich, particularly, held to a powerful identification both with the hypnotic spirituality of traditional Russian icons and with the timeless energy of peasant life and work.

Exter and Rozanova suffused their pictorial structures with startling evanescences of color, unlike the subdued work of the original Cubists. All of them created incredibly dynamic, swirling compositions, perhaps combining Cubism and Futurism, in which larger, almost characterological structures (in the sense of Asian languages) are apparent. Rozanova in 1913-16, and especially Stepanova in 1918, made word pictures in which the words and abstract images seem to emerge from the same energy source, and indeed words in all the Russian Cubo-Futurist paintings have a kind of magical, primordial quality that is not present in the more wit-oriented products of the French school.

But the most startling distinction of these works is their complexity, their insistence on accounting for everything. There is much in both the analytic and synthetic phases of Picasso's and Braque's Cubism that is left vague and unattended. Their subjects are traditional portraits and still lifes placed at the center, in the conventional manner, of the rectangular format. Analytic Cubist paintings represent a new pictorial reality in which the object is dissected and transformed into a pattern of interconnected planes. They are insistently representational--they depend on it--but there are only a few hints, besides the title, as to what is represented. The planes, or facets, are transparent, hatched with small, regular brushstrokes that create an overall impressionistic space, suggesting a reality beyond. At the same time these planes fade away and remain unexplorable, flat on the surface. Synthetic Cubism corrects this indeterminacy with very obvious head and guitar shapes, for instance, and actual pieces of newspapers and wallpaper, but this now reconstituted reality remains without context, except by inference with that of the boulevard, the café, the circus, and other modes of entertainment.
Nadezhda Udaltsova
Nadezhda Udaltsova
oil on canvas - 135 x 116 cm.
State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg

The multiple levels of meaning that Cubism suggested in the first place were only finally realized by Gris and Duchamp who, in very different manners, achieved a new kind of illusionistic space, beyond the flat surface of the painting, that demands intellectual and emotional involvement.

And so it is for the women artists in this exhibition and their compatriots. Their subjects are more likely to be active and contextual--Rozanova's Fire in the City, Popova's Traveling Woman, Udaltsova's Restaurant, etc.--perhaps through their contact with Italian Futurism. They occasionally deal with art subjects--still lifes, portraits--but are more usually concerned with a totality of experience, for instance that of peasants and workers in Goncharova's early "primitivist" work and Malevich's early Cubist work. As simultaneity became a possibility, through Cubism and Futurism, and then an imperative, the Russians took that to mean that concatenations of mind as well as the cacaphony of city, war, machines, speed, etc. could be represented and structured, almost to the point of Surrealism in some cases.

In Airplane Over a Train (1913), Goncharova joined earth and sky, two eras of invention, two machines in a single spiritual space and single, almost comic image. Malevich combined a cow and a violin in one painting (1913) and in another brought together top-hatted figure, fish, sword, red spoon, candle, Orthodox church, ladder, saw, and several words (1914). Popova's Traveling Woman (1915) occupies every corner of the canvas. She and her surroundings are everywhere, represented by waves of hair, a hand, steps, and words, and they are resolved in and activated by a structure of arcs and lines that intersect with larger arcs and a narrow vertical triangle down the center of the painting. No matter how much one looks there is always more. Everything has meaning. Everything is invested with energy.

Subsequently, that energy and its structure was transmuted into non-objectivity: Rayism for Larionov and Goncharova; Suprematism for Malevich, paralleled by Rozanova, Exter, Popova, and Udaltsova; and eventually Constructivism for Tatlin, Rodchenko, Exter, Popova, and Stepanova. In Rayism, Larionov and Goncharova developed an abstract pantheism based on the energy of machinery, light and growth, and their work retained somewhat recognizable imagery. But in Suprematism, the world of the painting became as perfectly two-dimensional as the world outside the painting is three-dimensional, "nothing in between," as Rozanova wrote in 1915. The shading of objects, so prominent in earlier work, fades away with the objects themselves. In several paintings of 1914 by Malevich and of 1915 by Rozanova (here The Moderne Movie Theater), squares and triangles invade spaces otherwise occupied by images and words. In subsequent work the layered multitudes of very specific, detailed images were completely replaced by collations of colored squares, rectangles, triangles, and arcs (seldom circles, which are perhaps too suggestive of completion). Nonetheless, these compositions remain supremely representational, though on a different stratum of ideation, the earliest of them even retaining associations with specific subject matter.

Non-Objective Composition
Olga Rozanova
Flight of an Airplane (Non-Objective Composition) ,
oil on canvas - 118 x 101 cm.
Art Museum, Samara

Some Suprematist paintings by Malevich in 1915 are subtitled Boy with Knapsack, Airplane Flying, Football Player, and Peasant Woman, suggesting a corollary between inhabiting the world and inhabiting a painting. Rozanova did Non-Objective Composition (Flight of an Airplane) in 1915 or 1916, which does not illustrate flight but rather creates a realm in which flight, the marshaling of forces to reverse gravity, might be possible.

At the time, Rozanova challenged Malevich's primacy as the inventor of non-objectivity, which he called Suprematism. In 1915 she wrote to her lover and collaborator Alexei Kruchenykh that "objectivity and non-objectivity are not two different tendencies in one art, but two different arts," and indeed Rozanova and Kruchenykh had been creating books of poetry and art which allowed words and images to be non-objective forms without deliberately eliminating the objective world. So the results, between Malevich and Rozanova, and between male and female artists in general, are quite different. Malevich (and Kliun and Puni) created universes of forms that intersect in very discrete ways or over distances, whether narrow or wide.

A shape represents a phenomenon unknowably distinct from every other shape phenomenon and related only by proximity or intersection. In one sense his ultimate Suprematist statement is White Square on White of 1918, in which relationship and identity, between square and square, white and white, are pushed to the extreme. Rozanova, on the other hand, along with Exter, Popova, and Udaltsova, created paintings in which color shapes cluster and overlap in extraordinary profusion. They relate in depth as well as on the surface, unavoidably taking up space and even interlocking at times. Colors are not imposed, or reduced, like those of Malevich, but seem to derive from a sense of the world as it is, in keeping with Rozanova's belief that "Figurative art has been born of a love of color."

Color Painting
Olga Rozanova
Color Painting (Non-Objective Composition) ,
oil on canvas - 62.5 x 40.5 cm.
State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg

Both trends, toward reduction and profusion, followed first hopeful, then often torturous paths through Constructivism and Soviet Agitprop. Rozanova, who died in 1918, missed those opportunities but created several of the most extraordinary works of modern painting during the last year of her life. In these "color paintings," light becomes the source, or medium, of color, which seems to absorb and merge every color that has ever been experienced in the world. One painting in this show looks very much like a Mark Rothko of the 1960s, another, Green Stripe, like a Barnett Newman. They glow from within, somehow replicating the complexity of life with great simplicity. The Guggenheim catalogue quotes Alexander Rodchenko from his "Posthumous Word" on Rozanova: "Was it not you who wanted to light up the world in cascades of color? Was it not you who proposed projecting color compositions into the ether. . . . You thought of creating color through light." And the author, Nina Gurianova, goes on to say, "Perhaps, after all, Rozanova was the only Suprematist able to combine 'cosmic' disharmony with the human dimension, and the spiritual, mystical and mental with the emotional, intuitive, and sensual."

Donald Goddard © 2000

"Amazons of the Avant-Garde" was shown at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 1071 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY

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