Where Did Women Flourish? In Russian Avant-Garde

Of the many avant-garde movements that flourished in Europe–and, for that matter, on this side of the Atlantic, too–in the first two decades of the 20th century, only one can be said to have included a significant number of women among its leading talents. This distinction belongs to the modernist movement in the visual arts that flourished in Russia in the decade preceding the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 and enjoyed a brief period of support by the Soviet regime, before succumbing to a government crackdown in the 1920′s.

In this halcyon era of the Russian avant-garde, several women did indeed make important contributions to the early achievements of abstract art and to its antecedent innovations in Cubist and Futurist painting, which in Russia were quickly conflated into a Cubo-Futurist school. It is to the work of six of these painters that the current exhibition called Amazons of the Avant-Garde , at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, is devoted: Alexandra Exter, Natalia Goncharova, Liubov Popova, Olga Rozanova, Varvara Stepanova and Nadezhda Udaltsova.

None of these artists will be entirely new to anyone who has seen the many survey exhibitions of the Russian avant-garde that have been organized in Western Europe and the United States since the late 1970′s, but only one of the artists–Liubov Popova–has lately been the subject of a retrospective exhibition in New York. This was the show organized by Magdalena Dabrowski at the Museum of Modern Art in 1991. Amazons includes a number of paintings that have not been seen before in this country.

As with their more numerous male contemporaries in the Russian avant-garde, it would be a mistake to assume that all are of equal artistic interest. The stars of the show are Alexandra Exter (1882-1949), who was Ukrainian; Liubov Popova (1889-1924), who, like Exter, was celebrated for her modernist theater sets and costumes as well as her paintings; and Olga Rozanova (1886-1918), who had the shortest career, dying at the age of 32, but who created some of the group’s most radical abstractions, inventing pictorial forms and formats the likes of which were not to be seen again until the Color-Field and Minimalist movements of the 1960′s. Her Green Stripe (Color Painting) (1917), in the current show, anticipates Barnett Newman’s vertical “zip” abstractions by 30-odd years.

Nadezhda Udaltsova (1885-1961) also painted some very fine Cubist pictures, but was more hesitant in making the radical leap into pure abstraction. It is only in the three small gouaches of 1916, in the current selection of her work, that she commands authority as an abstractionist. Varvara Stepanova (1894-1958) is the dullest painter of the group. It is only in her free-wheeling abstract watercolor illustrations for modernist Russian poetry that she reveals a distinct lyrical gift. Her semi-abstract figurative pictures barely pass muster as art-school Cubism.

Natalia Goncharova (1881-1962) stands somewhat apart from the others, having left Russia to settle permanently in Paris prior to the 1917 revolution. Like her lifelong companion, Mikhail Larionov–with whom she lived from 1900, when they were students in Moscow, but whom she did not marry until 1955–she is better known today as a designer for Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes . Yet as early as 1912, her gifts as a painter were recognized by Roger Fry, who included her work that year in the Second Post-Impressionist Exhibition in London. It would be interesting to know exactly which paintings Fry included, for the pre-1913 pictures in the current show are of very mixed quality. Sabbath (1912) is a kind of Chagall minus the magic, though an earlier Self-Portrait with Yellow Lilies (1907) has a good deal of charm. Airplane Over a Train (1913), however, is a first-rate example of Cubo-Futurist Russian modernism. Yet she soon gave up painting altogether in favor of ballet design.

The sections of the exhibition devoted to Exter, Popova and Rozanova are not only marvelous in themselves, but make one eager to see retrospectives devoted to Exter and Rozanova on the same scale as the Popova show at MoMA. In the big surveys of the Russian avant-garde, priority is usually given to Exter’s theater design at the expense of her paintings; this Amazons show thus brings together more of her paintings than I had seen before, and leave one in no doubt about her accomplishments in this medium–but one would still like to see more. She too, by the way, defected to Paris, but not until the crackdown on modernism was in full swing in 1924. In Paris, she taught at Fernand Léger’s Académie Moderne and designed costumes for seven ballets by Bronislava Nijinska’s Théâtre Choréographique.

Rozanova remains the most poignant figure of the group. In the big exhibitions of the Russian avant-garde that I have seen in Los Angeles, Paris, London and Washington, her paintings, even when most severely abstract, always struck me as far more delicate and poetic, more originally conceived and more beautifully executed, than the pictures of most of her Russian contemporaries. She had the liveliest mind, too. Had she lived and been able to emigrate to escape the consequences of the revolution, she might well have become a major figure in the history of abstract art. As it was, however, none of these six painters ever quite attained that status–which is to say, they never ascended to the level of achievement and influence commanded by the great pioneers of abstract art, Kandinsky, Mondrian and Malevich.

It remains to speculate as to why it was in backward Russia, of all places, that women achieved such unusual prominence in an avant-garde movement so largely dominated by male talent. My own guess is that this development had much to do with the liberal bourgeois culture that flourished in certain intellectual circles in Russia in the decades preceding the 1917 revolution. It’s true, of course, that most of these women were true believers in the revolution, both before it took place and for a few years after it began to transform Russian society.(Only Goncharova, I believe, was politically opposed to the Bolsheviks.) But none of them was a product of the revolution. Theirs was precisely the kind of international cosmopolitan culture that Lenin abhorred and Stalin destroyed in Russia, but only Exter and Goncharova were lucky enough to make their escape from the political and cultural consequences of the revolution.

Be all that as it may, Amazons of the Avant-Garde is an exhibition that is not to be missed, and it remains on view at the Guggenheim Museum, Fifth Avenue at 89th Street, through Jan. 7, 2001.