Hammer and Paintbrush

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According to ancient Greek mythology, the Amazons were a race of female warriors who refused to be dominated or ruled by men. They were outsiders, feared for their independence of mind, body and spirit. So when at the turn of the 20th century a group of six female Russian artists developed their own iconoclastic style, contemporary colleagues and critics dubbed them Amazons. The exhibition "Amazons of the Avant-Garde" at London's Royal Academy chronicles the work of these freethinking revolutionaries, who often scandalized Russian society with their ground-breaking paintings and equally ground-breaking lifestyles.

Organized by the New York-based Guggenheim Foundation, "Amazons of the Avant-Garde" draws work from over 30 public and private collections, including 16 Russian regional museums, some of which is being shown in the West for the first time. The show focuses on how this group often anticipated trends that later become highly influential elsewhere in Europe and America. Olga Rozanova's Jack of Hearts (1912-15), for example, from the series Playing Cards, is an almost surrealist image of this card. With its elongated nose and sharply contrasting colors contoured in black-gray grisaille, it epitomizes the fusion of Cubism and Futurism at a time when Picasso had only just begun creating his fragmented portraits that seem to be painted from many angles at once. Rozanova also anticipated some aspects of the Minimalist movement, as shown in her extraordinarily simple and clear Green Stripe (1917). The painting, a vertical translucent green tube on a shimmering white background, is described by Matthew Drutt, associate curator at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, as "one of the most remarkably adventurous and visually stimulating paintings of that era."

The best-known female Russian artist of her generation--and probably the most radical--was Natalia Goncharova. She scandalized the bourgeoisie, scoffing at social convention by cross- dressing and being arrested, tried and subsequently acquitted on charges of pornography for exhibiting nude life studies. Her dark and moody neo-primitive religious images, captured in paintings like Apocalypse (1910-11), were considered blasphemous, while only a few years later her pioneering Cubo-Futurist Airplane over a Train (1913) melds the masculinity of industrial machinery with the feminine contours of light and color.

Another star of the Russian avant-garde, Alexandra Exter, was in fact Ukrainian. She traveled frequently in Ukraine, Russia, Italy and France, where she mingled socially with the likes of Picasso and Braque. Her wonderful Composition (Genoa 1912-14), a classical Italian landscape translated into the abstract language of Cubism, is light and futuristic, while the later Cityscape (1916) is bolder and more vibrant in color and density.

Another extraordinary painting is Liubov Popova's Traveling Woman (1915). Full of depth and light, this hard-edged assembly of sharp angles resembles shattered pieces of colored glass, embracing both Cubist influences from Western Europe and the artist's own dynamic style. By the 1920's Popova was experimenting with mixed media. In her Spatial-Force Construction (1921), she combines oil with marble dust on plywood, thus creating a grittier texture and vibrancy through the use of bold red curves that contrast with muddy browns and bright whites.

Popova and Nadezhda Udaltsova trained together and share a similarity of style. Udaltsova's Composition, in which the figures have a robotic look, breaks down the picture until the basic cubes of color and light resemble a complicated jigsaw puzzle. The exhibition also includes Varvara Stepanova's amusing matchstick-style human figures and her geometric paintings, inspired by Zaum, the experimental language invented by Russian poet Alexei Kruchenykh at the beginning of the century.

But as these artists were perfecting their craft, Russia itself was on the verge of revolution, a political and social tumult that eventually scattered the women and ended the golden age of the Russian avant-garde. Popova and Rozanova both died in their 30s of illnesses exacerbated by war and the breakdown of the country's infrastructure. Exter and Goncharova emigrated to Paris, while Stepanova and Udaltsova remained in Russia eking out a living as textile, fashion and costume designers. But while the revolution of Lenin and Stalin has petered out, the artistic revolution brought about by these Amazons of the avant-garde lives on.