Amazons of the Avant-Garde features the pioneering Modernism of six artists—Alexandra Exter, Natalia Goncharova, Liubov Popova, Olga Rozanova, Varvara Stepanova, and Nadezhda Udaltsova—all of whom shared an ambition to discover what Rozanova described as "new bases of artistic creation." This exhibition explores the vital role that each artist played in the formation of a radical cultural enterprise-the art of the Russian avant-garde-through an examination of their original and independent approaches to art making. In doing so, the exhibition traces the evolution of modern Russian painting from Neo-Primitivism, Cubo-Futurism, and Rayism to Suprematism and Constructivism.
Alexandra Exter (1882–1949) traveled regularly between the Ukraine, Russia, France, and Italy, and served as an important emissary between the Russian avant-garde and artists in Western Europe. Paintings such as The Bridge (Sèvres), 1912, and Venice, 1915, exemplify the importance of her geographic and cultural interests. Exter's experimentations with such diverse sources of stylistic influence as folk art (Ukrainian embroidery), Cubism, Futurism, and Simultanism culminated in her magnificent non-objective works of 1917-18, such as Composition. Movement of Planes. Although painting remained her primary medium, Exter also applied her stylistic innovations to book illustration, cinema, ceramics, and theater.
Natalia Goncharova's (1881–1962) paintings of peasants, religious subjects (Pillars of Salt, 1908), machinery, and the countryside (Rayist Lilies, 1913) demonstrate the breadth and richness of her vision. Although influenced by Post-Impressionism, Goncharova derived true inspiration from Russian medieval art, peasant embroidery, the lubok (hand-colored print), and stone stele (baba), which she applied to her painting, set design, and graphic work. Peasants Gathering Grapes, 1912, is a convincing paraphrase of these ethnographic influences. Goncharova maintained a radical spirit in both her art and her behavior, shocking the public with her casual cross-dressing and open cohabitation with artist Mikhail Larionov. Her unconventional depictions of religious subjects, as in The Evangelists (in Four Parts), 1911, resulted in the removal of her work from more than one exhibition.
Liubov Popova (1889–1924) produced some of the most important Cubist works of the Russian avant-garde. A student of Le Fauconnier and Metzinger in Paris, her deft assimilation of the Cubist aesthetic is evident in such works as Composition with Figures, 1913. Popova was also interested in incorporating other approaches into her work, such as Futurism (Italian Still-Life, 1914, is dedicated to the Futurists), Suprematism, the reliefs of Tatlin, and even Renaissance art and the Orientalism of Samarkand. These disparate sources informed Popova's unique resolutions of form and color, crystallized in the dynamic reliefs and architectonic paintings of the late 1910s, such as Painterly Architectonics, 1917. Like Exter and Stepanova, Popova eventually came to believe that abstract painting had reached an impasse and later devoted herself primarily to stage, textile, and book design.
Unlike most of the artists represented in this exhibition, Olga Rozanova (1886–1918) lived and worked in St. Petersburg rather than in Moscow. She never visited Europe, but was certainly aware of the Modernist trends developing there. Indeed, Fire in the City (Cityscape), 1914, emulates the apocalyptic dynamism of Futurist art. More synthetic works, such as Pub (Auction), 1914, demonstrate Rozanova's strong interest in Cubism as well as in Malevich's transrational (zaum) paintings. For Rozanova, color was the essence and justification of abstract painting, and she referred to her pictorial system as "color painting," a term that points to her primary goal of creating images that did not rely on external referents for their meaning or subject matter.
Varvara Stepanova (1894–1958) represented a second generation of the avant-garde, one in strong sympathy with the October Revolution, and it is in this context of agitational art that she is best remembered. The Soviet requisite for accessibility and utilitarianism in art appealed to her and husband Alexander Rodchenko, with whom she often collaborated. Like Exter and Popova, Stepanova proclaimed her commitment to giving the new political and cultural order visual form by applying Constructivist principles to stage, publication, and clothing designs, as well as to painting. In Five Figures on a White Background, 1920, for example, Stepanova mechanizes the human form as an illustration of the efficiency and strength of the ideal Soviet in the new proletarian state.
Also included here are examples of Stepanova's visual poetry, inspired by the zaum poetry of Kruchenykh, with which she sought to establish an organic connection between the shape and sound of her language and its spectral accompaniment.
With Popova, Nadezhda Udaltsova (1885–1961) attended the Académie de La Palette, quickly assimilating the principles of Cubism from Le Fauconnier and Metzinger. The two artists' shared commitment to Cubism is exemplified by a comparison of two 1913 works: Udaltsova's Composition and Popova's Composition with Figures are both precise interpretations of the Cubist syntax. Like Stepanova, Udaltsova was committed to working representationally, and exhibited with the Jack of Diamonds group, who emphasized the importance of Cézanne and Picasso. Although she did some work with Suprematist fabrics and taught textile design, Udaltsova's primary interest continued to be painting throughout her artistic career, despite the Post-Revolutionary pressure to adapt the fine arts to utility.
Associate Curator for Research