Despite contemporary political events, it certainly is a good time to buy, sell, and simply look at Russian art. The New York Times recently reported record sales of Russian art at Sotheby’s and Christies, especially of the modernist masters like Kazemir Malevich and Nicolai Fechin, and, in New York, the recently opened Gallery Shchukin has just debuted a new exhibition devoted to Russian avant-garde artists of the early 20th century. “In Other Worlds: The Art of the Russian Avant-Garde” draws from the collection of Nikolay and Marina Shchukin, the gallery’s founders, and successfully demonstrates how Russian artists were influenced by, and subsequently adopted and modified, prevailing artistic trends from Europe such as Cubism, Futurism, Fauvism, and Expressionism. Amid the often-soulless contemporary art found in neighboring Chelsea galleries, the exhibition at Shchukin is eye-popping and bracing.
It’s difficult to briefly sum up the European modernist movements, but, suffice it to say, they were manifestations of the technological, economic, and cultural changes occurring in Europe at the turn of the 20th century. Fauvist and Expressionist artists gloried in vibrant color and frenetic brushstrokes to probe spiritual and emotional states, celebrated nature and primitivism, and critiqued modern industrial life. Cubists’ aesthetic experimentations sought to challenge modes of image-making as well as perception, and Italian Futurists, in contrast to the Fauves and Expressionists, celebrated the speed and energy of modern life. Regardless of their perspective, industrialization and modernity were the avant-garde’s focus.
Russian artists became aware of these developments in France, Italy, and Germany through Moscow and St. Petersburg galleries as well as Russian collectors’ buying and displaying of this new art. Several also traveled to these places, such as Wasily Kandinsky, who spent a great deal of time in Germany, and Kliment Red’ko, who traveled to Paris and became a friend of Picasso.
Shchukin’s collection ably demonstrates how Russian artists adopted some of the vocabulary of the European avant-garde but chose to filter it through their own experiences or abandon concerns that were of no use to them. There are several pieces by Kazemir Malevich, who got rid of Cubism’s connections to reality and went completely abstract in his Suprematist compositions. The Kandinsky piece is from the artist’s early period, marrying Expressionist color with Russian folk imagery. Alexandra Exter’s work embraces the Western interest in primitivism and the saturated colors of Robert and Sonia Delauney, but evinces cleaner lines and purer form.
Some of the more revelatory work comes from Aleksai Kruchenykh and Olga Rozanova (the two artists married in 1916). The work of the former, a Russian poet, prefigures Dadaist techniques and concerns from decades later –his collages incorporate texts and play with the way words look and sound. The collages reference traditional Russian foods, and are experimental and playful. Rozanova’s experimentations with Cubo-Futurist painting eventually veered into complete abstraction and a focus on the weight and power of pure color.
The exhibition is neatly wrapped up with a look at the work of Gustav Klucis, who chose to marry his Constructivist aesthetic leanings with the role of art-as-propaganda; his photocollage works celebrating the Russian Revolution incorporate themes of socialism, labor, and scientific management. His support of the Revolution later translated to support of Stalin, demonstrating how Russian artists had to figure out how to come to terms with their new political reality.
After the Revolution innovative art floundered, as anything Western or “modern” was viewed with suspicion, but this certainly does not negate the importance of the work produced by early 20th-century avant-garde Russian artists. It makes their work even more compelling, as it reminds us of what the fecund possibilities of art are when free of political constraints.
Article by Kristen Osborne