The beginning of the 20th century was still marked by the dominance of major imperial forces, the Russian empire being the most prolific one. The society governed by the sovereign and framed by the Christian moral was in fact very much divided by class with a large chunk of the population suffering from poverty - the fact relevant for the understanding of what happened one year before the end of World War I.
Although a conservative environment, the Russian cultural sphere nurtured numerous historically highly ranked writers who became critical of the society and the situation naturally reflected on visual arts with a generation of practitioners willing to break the cannon. By flirting with the local tradition and interpreting it in novel, modern fashion, Russian artists started paving the way for an avant-garde that was indeed extremely fruitful until the 1930s.
Being modern also meant creating a space for women so they can engage in arts shoulder to shoulder with their male peers. This gender balance came to special prominence after the Russians experienced the great transformation with the October revolution in 1917, when the empire was aborted and a new formation called the Soviet Union was proclaimed.
Before this momentous event, the avant-garde artists experimented with Cubism and Futurism while forming their own versions of these movements or inventing entirely autonomous movements such as Neo-primitivism, Suprematism, and Constructivism. This outstanding production and extraordinary dedication to experimentation with numerous media sadly ended after Joseph Stalin came to rule and the Soviet Union proclaimed Socialist Realism as a new cultural and artistic paradigm.
The women artists stood at the forefront of the avant-garde wave especially after 1917; some of them were among the most influential pioneers, while others were socially engaged and embraced the feminist stance in a new society. To revisit their domains, we selected seven of them who contributed most to the development of Russian art throughout the first three decades of the 20th century.
Laura Engelstein takes a historic approach to defining the powerful women that dominated the Russian avant-garde in late 19th and early 20th century. This text traces the genealogy of the Modern Russian woman from the patriarchic monarchy that became dominant in the late 16th century, to the Soviet future (and hoped-for equality) that awaited the women artists of the Russian avant-garde. Taking a deeper look into the lives of Alexandra Exter, Natalia Goncharova, Liubov Popova, Olga Rozanova, Varvara Stepanova, and Nadezhda Udaltsova this essay explores their formative experiences and emphasizes the role of the arts-and-crafts movement in the propagation of women’s art.
Featured image: Olga Rozanova - Hand Fan, Design for Verbovka, 1917. Watercolor on paper. Dimensions - Height: 13.3 cm (5.2 in); Width: 19.3 cm (7.5 in). Private collection. Image creative commons.
The astonishing, multifold practice of Natalia Goncharova (1881 – 1962) serves as one of the finest examples of pre-WW II avant-grade activity. She expressed herself in different media starting from painting, writing, illustration, costume, and set design. Alongside her partner and equally established artist Mikhail Larionov, Goncharova acted as one of the most prominent figures of the Russian art scene before the October Revolution, the pioneering practitioner of Cubo-Futurism, and a founding member of radical artistic groups Jack of Diamonds (1909–1911), and Donkey's Tail (1912–1913). Together with Larionov she invented Rayonism and was also a member of an Expressionist art movement Der Blaue Reiter.
In 1921 Goncahreva moved to Paris and lived there until her death. There she managed to be equally influential as a driving force behind the Union des Artistes Russes, and leading costume designer for the Ballets Russes.
Featured image: Natalia Goncharova - Cyclist, 1913. Oil on canvas. 78 cm (30.7 in) x 105 cm (41.3 in). Collection Russian Museum. Image creative commons.
Lyubov Popova (1889 –1924) was another Russian avant-garde artist who came to prominence before the October revolution as a prone practitioner of Cubism, Suprematism, and later on Constructivism. Her painterly style was influenced by the Cubist painters Henri Le Fauconnier and Jean Metzinger, as well as Alexander Archipenko and Ossip Zadkine - all of them she met while studying in Paris.
Back in Russia, Popova collaborated with Tatlin, Udaltsova, and the Vesnin brothers. As the first Cubo-Futurist female painter, she came up with the term "painterly architectonics." Popova was very active at the pre-revolution avant-garde exhibitions, and in 1916 she became a member of the Supremus group founded by Kazimir Malevich. The artist also produced numerous fabric designs and worked on Agitprop books and posters, and she continued painting abstract works until 1921.
Featured image: Lyubov Popova - The Pianist, 1914. 106.5 cm (41.9 in) x 88.7 cm (34.9 in). Collection National Gallery of Canada. Image creative commons.
Aleksandra Ekster (1882 – 1949), also known as Alexandra Exter, was a Russian painter and designer best known for her unique approach to costume design. Under the influence of Picasso, Braque, and others, she developed a distinct pictorial language in a manner of Cubo-futurism and Constructivism. Between 1915–1916, she worked in the peasant craft cooperatives in the Russian countryside along with Kazimir Malevich, Liubov Popova, Ivan Puni, and others.
In 1924 Ekster moved to Paris, where she initially started teaching at the Academie Moderne, and then from 1926 to 1930 at Fernand Léger's Académie d'Art Contemporain. In 1933, she started working on manuscripts (gouache on paper) that marked the peak of her career. From 1936 until her untimely death, she worked as a book illustrator for the publishing company Flammarion in Paris. Aleksandra Ekster is also noted as an influencer of the Art Deco movement.
Featured image: Alexandra Exter - Costume design for Romeo and Juliette, 1921. Image creative commons.
Vera Mukhina (1889 –1953) is often described as the queen of Soviet sculpture. After arriving in Moscow, she studied at several private art schools, then moved to Paris in 1912 where she attended the Académie de la Grande Chaumière and during that period traveled to Italy to explore Renaissance art.
In 1914 Mukhina returned to Moscow in the summer and as WW I started she began working as a nurse in a military hospital. Between 1915 and 1916, the artist worked as an assistant to Aleksandra Ekster at Alexander Tairov's Chamber Theater in Moscow, and after the October revolution, Mukhina followed the Lenin plan of monumental propaganda and in 1918 she completed her first state commission dedicated to the educator and publicist Nikolay Ivanovich Novikov. Within this framework, she also released numerous created sketches and monuments. Although she continued working in a Cubist manner, by the 1920s Mukhina gained recognition as one of the Soviet Union's most acclaimed sculptors, and a leading proponent of Socialist realism.
From 1926 to 1927 Mukhina taught at the famous state school Vkhutemas (similar to Bauhaus), and from 1927 to 1930 at the higher art and technical institute Vkhutein. The artist gained international fame for her 1937 grand-scale sculpture Worker and Kolkhoz Woman.
Featured image: Vera Mukhina - Worker and Kolkhoz Woman, the USSR pavilion at the 1937 World's Fair in Paris. Image creative commons.
Olga Rozanova (1886 –1918) was an established Russian avant-garde artist who experimented with Suprematism, Neo-Primitivism, and Cubo-Futurism. By 1910 she was well-positioned in Russian art circles. After moving to St. Petersburg Rozanova joined Soyuz Molodyozhi (Union of Youth) in 1911, and was affiliated with the mentioned Donkey's Tail art group led by Mikhail Larionov and Natalia Goncharova. She flirted very much with Cubo-Futurist ideas, though Futurism prevailed.
In 1912 Rozanova was introduced to the concept of zaum, an imaginary language with no fixed meanings via poet Aleksei Kruchenykh. That is how she started writing poetry that was followed by her illustrations. Later on, she became part of the avant-garde group Supremus led by former fellow Cubo-Futurist Kazimir Malevich. Between 1917 to 1918, she produced a series of non-objective paintings which she called tsv'etopis'. In 1918 she passed away at the age of 32 in Moscow after contracting a cold while working on preparations for the first anniversary of the October Revolution.
Featured image: Olga Rozanova - Metronome, 1915. Oil on canvas. 46 cm (18.1 in) x 33 cm (12.9 in). Collection Tretyakov Gallery. Image creative commons.
Varvara Stepanova (1894 - 1958) was a multitalented artist and a major proponent of Constructivism. Under the direct influence of Futurism and Cubism, she formed a unique visual language that was expressed through a poster, set, and costume design. She studied under Jean Metzinger at Académie de La Palette and was a collaborator and partner of Aleksander Rodchenko with whom she lived in a flat owned by Wassily Kandinsky before the October Revolution. In 1921, together with Aleksei Gan, and Rodchenko, Stepanova formed the first Working Group of Constructivists. Stepanova’s overall contribution to Russian avant-garde is marked by constant experimentation and technological innovation in terms of media and means of production.
Featured image: Varvara Stepanova and Alexander Rodchenko. Image creative commons.
Although less known than the previous six female Russian artists, Kseniya Boguslavskaya (1892 – 1972) was an equally important proponent of the Russian avant-garde. She was an artist, poet, and interior decorator; the partner of an established painter Ivan Puni whom she married in 1913 after coming back from studying in Paris. The couple's St. Petersburg apartment was the meeting point for avant-garde artists and poets. In 1914 Boguslavskaya and Puni published the Cubo-futurist booklet Roaring Parnassus, and the following year she became a member of the Supremus art group and was also a member of Jack of Diamonds (1919) and Mir iskusstva (1916–1918).
In 1919 the artist and her husband fled the Soviet Union, settling in Berlin from 1919 to 1923, where she worked as a scene designer for the Russian-German cabaret called Der Blaue Vogel and for the Russian Romantic Theatre. After 1923 Boguslavskaya lived with her husband in Paris until the rest of her life.
Featured image: Olga Rozanova - Kseniya Boguslavskaya and Kazimir Malevich at the Last Futurist Exhibition of Paintings 0,10, 1915-16 Petrograd. Image creative commons.