Amazons of the Avant-Garde: Five Female Russian Artists You’ve Never Heard Of
Following our review of Zinaida Serebryakova’s exhibition at the Tretyakov, we take a look at the careers of five other female artists who have made major contributions to Russian cultural history.
1. Natalia Goncharova (1881-1962)
Goncharova’s rich career frequently courted controversy. She scandalised Moscow society for being the first woman in the city to wear trousers and had her work censored on multiple occasions; in 1909, on the grounds of the ‘pornographic’ content of her paintings, (simply because they featured nude figures, which males artists had been painting for centuries) and again in 1914 when she was accused of blasphemy by the Orthodox church for a painting entitled ‘Evangelists’. Her large-scale retrospective in Moscow in 1913, in which she exhibited over 700 works, demonstrated to public and critics alike that she was, unquestionably, one of the greatest painterly talents that Russia had ever produced.
Key work: The Cyclist 1913.
This painting embodies the Futurist obsession with speed – the blurred lines of the cyclist try to capture the experience of forms in motion on the canvas, and the indeterminate distinction between the cyclist and the bike fuses the distinction between man and machine.
2. Aleksandr Exter (1882-1949)
Glamorous, wealthy and born into a prestigious family – Exter was an unlikely Revolutionary artist, but her experimental streak and indefatigable output made her one of the pivotal members of the Russian avant-garde. True to the revolutionary principles, Exter was intent on breaking down the boundaries between ‘high’ and ‘low’ art, and therefore her diverse career was devoted not only painting, but an amazing array of design projects.
Key work: Costume design for an inhabitant of Mars for Aelita Film, 1924
Exter created countless costume designs for film and theatre, but it’s her sci-fi studies for the film Aelita which truly display her flair and imagination. This silent film tells the story of a rocket trip to Mars, and Exter created suitably shiny, silver, Art-Deco inspired costumes for the lead characters which truly embody the Bolshevik tendency to blur scientific fact with scientific fiction.
3. Vera Mukhina (1889-53)
You’ll doubtlessly be familiar with Mukhina’s work, even if not with her name. A former assistant to Exter, she became one of most famous sculptors in the Soviet Union, teaching at the prestigious VkhUTEMAS art school and receiving the Stalin prize for her monumental sculpture.
Key work: Worker and Kolkhoz Woman (1937)
One of the most iconic works of monumental Soviet statue – towering at over thirty metres of stainless steel – Worker and Kolkhoz Woman depicts two workers raising a hammer and sickle. With its bold forms, referencing both Classical statue and Art Deco – the sculpture has become shorthand for Socialist Realism.
4. Varvara Stepanova (1894-1958)
A key member of the Constructivist movement, Stepanova first found fame with her abstract paintings. She soon decided that only utilitarian objects were needed by the Revolution, however, and that her art needed to be made useful if it was to be made at all. She swiftly diversified into textile design, recreating her paintings in a newly functional mode by printing her geometric patterns onto clothing design.
Key work: Design for Sportsclothes, 1923
These four unisex sports outfits feature the bold, simple shapes and colours which Stepanova used on her canvases. Here they are intended for a new mode of Soviet citizen and hence, sportswear became a deeply ideological mode of design, as it was believed that clothes could mould their wearer into a new way of life – active, energetic and devoid of gender bias.
5. Yelena Polenova (1850-1898)
Polenova was a painter and graphic artist in the folk art style popular of the late nineteenth century. Her success is remarkable given that she was working during a time at which women were still not admitted into the Imperial Art Academy, forcing her to learn her trade through private lessons alone. During the 1880s, she worked at the Abramtsevo colony, a legendary artistic retreat where many of Russia’s most famous artists (including Mikhail Vrubel) sought to develop a mode of art which turned away from the Westernising tendencies popular in Russia since Peter the Great, and celebrate instead their national heritage, by reviving crafts and indigenous arts.
Key work: The Beast, (1889)
Polenova is now most famous for her wonderful book design. She created countless illustrations for Russian fairytales. These truly embody her desire to turn back to the influence of her native country rather than imitating the West, and her unique, highly ornamental embodies the aesthetics of art nouveau and have become the defining images of many Russian ckazki.
This blog was brought to you by Kamila, currently studying Russian at Liden and Denz