Amazons of the Avant-Garde: Alexandra Exter, Natalia Goncharova, Liubov Popova, Olga Rozanova, Varvara Stepanova, and Nadezhda Udaltsov
Curated by John E. Bowlt, Matthew Drutt, and Zelfira Tregulova. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, September 14, 2000 – January 10, 2001
On January 11th 1927, after visiting the Moscow Museum of Painting and encountering its collection of works of the Russian avant-garde, Walter Benjamin wrote in his diary: “Their stuff is worthless. Just like most of the things hanging in the three rooms, they seem to be massively influenced by Parisian and Berlin painting of the same period which they copy without skill”. But did they merely copy? The legacy and innovations of early 20th century European avant-garde have indeed loomed large over the “provincial” followers of its pioneering charisma. In the eager consumption and digestion of Parisian news, the formative binary of center and periphery seemed to provide the main axis of distribution. In Russia, visual artists who since Peter the Great oriented themselves in accordance with the Parisian point of reference as opposed to the indigenous one, were situated, firmly it appeared, in the peripheral, derivative side of this binary. Historically, it was in the collective achievement of what has come to be known under the umbrella-title as the “Russian avant-garde,” that this unidirectional relationship was questioned, complicated, and finally reversed. The Guggenheim museum exhibition “Amazons of the avant-garde” is an attempt to show the genesis of this reversal, as Matthew Drutt, one of the curators, writes in his introduction to the accompanying catalogue: “The exhibition celebrates the evolution of modern Russian painting from the 1900s through the early 1920s exemplified by six artists who were at the center of that history.”
Taking the elevator to the top floor, past the red tape signaling the spaces closed off in preparation for an odd bedfellow–the Giorgio Armani show–and into a narrow hallway, the visitor comes face to face with photographic portraits of the six artists represented, grounding the viewing experience in personal identity/fiction, in lives lived and portrayed, in the eerie power of photographic documentation. Beginning with Natalia Goncharova, the oldest of the six, each of the artists has a room of her own, carved out of the scant area left by the fashion extravaganza, and inhibited by the uneasy exhibition space of Frank Lloyd Wright’s spiraling construction. Goncharova’s room is dominated by the somber moods and angular shapes of her Biblical compositions from the early teens, like the iconic, quattro-partite The Evangelists (1911), and her later Rayonnist work–such as Cats of 1913. Alexandra Exter’s space is divided between the contrasting styles of harsh, highly saturated color as in Composition of 1914 (recalling the criticism leveled against her by Ferdinand Leger–her excessive use of color), and the washed-out, diluted half-tonalities of works such as The Bridge of 1912-14, with over-reaching cubist-influenced configurations throughout. The small room dedicated to Olga Rozanova’s work was, to me, a revelation, affording the greatest pleasure of the entire exhibition. First, there were the bold color combinations and the myriad art-historical references (David’s Mme. Recamier; Goya’s Maja Vestida; Manet’s Olympia to name a few in a winding tradition) of the early, German-Expressionism influenced Portrait of a Lady in Pink (the Artist’s Sister) from 1911. Then, the later work, such as the Non-Objective Composition (Color Painting) of 1917, stuns the viewer with its brilliantly worked out faktura and abstract forms whose color scheme echoes the figurative piece described above. Last on the first level is Varvara Stepanova’s room, governed by large canvases of geometric automaton-like figure compositions, such as Musicians of 1920. The remaining duo–Liubov Popova and Nadezhda Udaltsova–share the level below. Popova’s work discloses a pronounced Futurist influence, a play of letter and image, with pieces such as Traveling Woman of 1915. One of her more interesting works is a much later dated dynamic abstract composition, the Spatial Force Construction (1921). The palpable materiality of industrial dust used in this work, and its thick plywood base in lieu of the conventional canvas, cite a range of art-historical traditions, from icons to Constructivism. Finally, the neighboring work of Udaltsova, with canvases such as the Red Figure (1915), concludes the exhibition with an oscillation between varying degrees of figuration, in pieces whose strongest influence is, ultimately, Cubism.
As Benjamin acerbically observed in the 1920s, when the early Russian avant-garde was not yet designated to its lofty state as representative of artistic evolution, before it became firmly entrenched in critical discourse, and beyond personal considerations of particular aesthetic judgement, the issue of influence and originality was at the core of its agenda and existence. Russian critics, poets, and writers of the time were all eager to inaugurate a unique Russian voice. Benedikt Livshits, the originator of the de-contextualized, unfortunate title of the present exhibition, proclaimed that “the grafting of French culture on these real Amazons merely endowed them with a great resistance to the ‘poison’ of the West” ; Marina Tsvetaeva in her essay on Goncharova addressed the painter as a “Russian genius” ; Alexander Rodchenko celebrated the “Light from the East [that] bears with it a new attitude” . However, the desire for the new was tempered by the realization of the undeniably mixed origins of this fledgling art, echoing the equally foreign etymological root (from the Greek glossa ) for that very Russian voice– golos.
In a way, the canvases in “Amazons” reinforce the center/periphery binary; they present the majority of the artists as provincial cubists, their work as derivative. Goncharova in Peasants Gathering Grapes (1912), Popova in Composition with Figures (1913), Exter in Still life, Bowl of Cherries (1914) grapple with the analytical conception of the interaction of figure and space and often prove to misinterpret it.
Oddly enough, partly to blame for this misrepresentation is the team of curators. An exhibition that zones in and focuses on a single episode is commendable for its historic rigor, but it sadly deforms and undermines not only the mass reception of the Russian avant-garde today, but its entire aim and signification as a project as well.
Walking through the exhibition, one experiences the uncanny feeling of being kept away from something. For myself, it evoked a nearly nostalgic sensation of a kid in a late 1970s Soviet candy store, sprinkled with printed promises of delicious treats, while observing with deepening gloom the empty shelves strewn with dried up crumbs of marmelad, and the sour faces of the employees. In a systematic, disappointing repetition, every wall text in the exhibition ends with a proclamation of the featured artist’s eventual abandonment of easel painting, with a scintillating comment on that artist’s incorporation of various design mediums–fashion, theatre, books, etc.–into her artistic production. This opening up of the field of art had ideological underpinnings in the revolutionary rhetoric and the utopian drive of the time; in the avant-garde’s intention, to quote Peter Bürger’s now cliched formulation, to integrate art into the praxis of life; in the ideas of Gesamtkunstwerk and the appeal to traditional craft. Whether today we think of the attempt of the Russian avant-garde to reconnect life and art as a nostalgic last gasp, or as a nearly tyrannical doctrine of creation, it is its plurality of media, its break with the old shackles of ‘high’ and ‘low’, that is its salient characteristic. “Amazons,” however, prefers to throw a veil over this innovation, to hint at it, but never show it. The boundaries set by the exhibition, its focus on “painting” could have accommodated some of the wider production–for example Exter’s theatre design (present “in spirit” as it were, in the form of a single toothless black-and-white photograph) which is, in fact, nominally ‘painting,’ albeit on paper. But so are Stepanova’s mistitled “illustrations”–her search for an integrated system of representation for word and image in the editions of alogical poetry, such as Zigra Ar (1918)–that are included in the show. The chronological limits of the exhibition are an equally ineffective explanation of the motivations for the exclusion of works in different media, for many were well under way by the late 1910s. What could have been the guidelines to dictate such curatorial peculiarity?
This criticism extends to the gender orientation of the exhibition as well, although its curators might have had noble intentions to right the gender wrongs. While the prominent role of women in the Russian avant-garde has been established by scholarship, the present show, instead of consolidating it, might, in fact, undermine it. Are these indeed “amazons,” setting out, with severed breasts, to overthrow the patriarchal order of the art world? Is the exhibition intended to position the women apart and different from the men? Or did they, as the wall text seems to suggest, participate and collaborate with the men? The lack of critical attention of the exhibition to its very subject matter–gender–was further foregrounded by its readily psychobiographic thrust. The contradictory messages of the opening piece–Goncharova’s 1907 Self-Portrait –and the adjacent wall text may serve as an example. Although she depicts herself holding a bouquet of lilies, and not a palette, Goncharova’s image fully functions in a tradition of ‘self-portrait-as-artist.’ The self-referential quotation of her own work in the background, the assertion of power through the forceful grip of the hand holding the flowers, all attest to the métier, the identity of the portrayed. Destabilizing this reading is the introductory wall text–Goncharova’s risqué private life, her penchant for cross dressing and androgyny, her relationship with Mikhail Larionov, are the first facts submitted to the public, setting up a sensationalist, scandal-seeking tone, where the governing reasoning seems to be “she’s racy, ergo she’s interesting.” Yet again, Life emerges as a profitable selling point for Art.
Bringing together canvases from such obscure locations as Ekaterinburg, Krasnodar, Ufa, and Nizhnii Tagil, to name a few, the curatorial team led by John Bowlt deserves just praise for its Sherlock-Holmesian tenacity in recovering the dispersed remains of the Russian avant-garde, dismantled and exiled to provincial museums by the executors of official Soviet aesthetic. These varied pieces, many on view in the West for the first time, aim to retrace the major developments that occurred in Russian easel painting in the first two decades of a century that is no longer ours. The usual suspects, in the guise of the European ‘isms’, Post-Impressionism, Cubism, Futurism, et.al., are all assembled in the line-up, bearing multiple witness to the artistic meanderings of the artists that produced them, while their not-quite-so-high-art counterparts are conspicuously missing. It is in this very omission of history, and the staid preference for easel painting, that the problem lies.