Russian Abstraction: Ahead of its Time

El Lissitzky, Proun 8 Stellungen [Proun 8 Positions], 1923, oil and gouache with metal foil on canvas, 139.3 x 139.3 cm diagonal. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Photo © NGC

When George Costakis took on a clerical job at the Canadian embassy in Moscow in 1943, he already had a small collection of antiques and minor Dutch masters, purchased for a song over the preceding decade. The son of Greek immigrants to Russia, Costakis had little formal education, and certainly none in art history. He possessed an engaging personality, however, as well as a naturally refined eye, and a good lead on an art dealer.

Just three years later, Costakis discovered the work of Olga Rozanova, Kazimir Malevich, Vladimir Tatlin and El Lissitzky. These and other artists were part of a new wave experimenting with simple geometric shapes and industrial materials, pushing abstraction in new directions. Compared with Costakis’ Dutch paintings, which had begun to look dull and brown, the modern works made his heart leap. “When I brought these things home and put them down” he once said, “the windows opened, the sunlight burst into the room and from that moment I decided to get rid of everything and start collecting the avant-garde.”

Now, several works from the remarkable Costakis collection are on view at the National Gallery in the Masterpiece in Focus exhibition, The Advent of Abstraction: Russia, 1914–1923. The show features 67 objects — including drawings, collages, sculptures and paintings, along with letters, magazines, books, photographs and even a musical instrument. Most are on loan from international private and public collections — including New York’s Museum of Modern Art and the State Museum of Contemporary Art in Thessaloniki, Greece, which holds the Costakis collection. 

Ivan Kliun, Non-Objective Relief, 1916, wood, iron and wax, on wooden plate. Private collection

The main draw, however, is a display of seven major works by key figures of the Russian avant-garde: Rozanova, Malevich, Tatlin, El Lissitzky, Lyubov Popova, Ilya Chashnik and Ivan Kliun. The show offers NGC visitors a valuable opportunity to view these rare and radical works together for the first time. In a tour of the gallery space, guest curator Andréi Nakov, a distinguished expert on the Russian avant-garde, said, “You can be sure this is an exhibition that won’t be seen again.” 

The catalyst for the exhibition was Lissitzky’s dynamic oil painting, Proun 8 Stellungen (Proun 8 Positions) (1923). Acquired by the National Gallery in 1973, it has never before been presented within the context of other Russian avant-garde works. The square canvas, installed on the diagonal, features a large black circle and other geometric forms floating on a neutral beige background. As the title suggests, the work can be oriented in any of eight positions. “It’s an important painting,” says Nakov, “but because of its location and its fragility it has not often appeared in publications or touring exhibitions.” 

It is, however, an ideal subject for the Gallery’s Masterpiece in Focus series, says NGC Associate Curator of Canadian Art, Adam Welch, who collaborated with Nakov on The Advent of Abstraction. “We’re always looking to deepen our understanding of works in the collection,” he told NGC Magazine, “and this was an opportunity to provide a context for our Lissitzky painting by building the pre-history.”

Born in Russia in 1890, El Lissitzky studied architecture in Germany before returning home at the start of the First World War. While teaching at the revolutionary Vitebsk School of Art in Belarus, he met the influential Malevich, and turned to non-objective art. Beginning in 1919, Lissitzky titled all his non-objective works Proun, an acronym for his utopian “Project for the Affirmation of the New.”

The context for his Proun 8 Stellungen is explored through the two works on view by Tatlin and Malevich. Tatlin made his relief sculpture Synthetico-static composition (non-objective relief) in 1914, largely from found industrial materials — hence the word “synthetic” in the title. He was inspired by a visit earlier that year to Paris, where he saw Picasso’s Cubist constructions made of objects reassembled into abstracted still-lifes. After returning to Russia, Tatlin began producing works that went beyond Picasso’s abstractions to focus on the inherent material qualities of objects. Thus Constructivism was born. 

Kazimir Malevich, Suprematism Magnetic Composition, 1916, oil on canvas. Private collection

Malevich’s painting Suprematism Magnetic Composition (1916) features a powerful red triangle, centred against a pure white ground. With this simple geometric shape, Malevich was reacting against an art that had become “obscured by the accumulation of things,” as he wrote in his 1915 Suprematist manifesto. For him, the white background represented the “freedom of the infinite.”

As a teacher at the Vitebsk School from 1919 to 1922, Malevich had a profound influence, not only on Lissitzky, but also on other artists in the exhibition. His student Ilya Chashnik, for instance, created a series of taut lines and textured rectangles in his oil painting Suprematist Composition (1922–1923). To represent the “freedom of the infinite,” however, Chashnik preferred a black background to Malevich’s white.

The presence of Liubov Popova and Olga Rozanova in the exhibition demonstrates that women artists played a significant role in the Russian avant-garde. Popova’s Painterly architectonic (1916) is part of a series of paintings she created featuring the geometric shapes and white grounds typical of Suprematism, but with overlapping and intersecting planes that reflect aspects of Constructivism. Visitors may be familiar with Popova’s Cubist painting The Pianist (1915), currently hanging in the European Galleries.

Olga Rozanova, text by Aleksei Kruchenykh, Vselenskaia Voina [Universal War], 1916, 11 pages from book with 11 collages; paper and fabric collage on paper, printed covers; text pages. State Museum of Contemporary Art – Costakis Collection, Thessaloniki, Greece

And then there are Olga Rozanova’s colourful abstract collages, made to illustrate the Futurist poem The Universal War (1916). Considered one of the most innovative artists of the Russian avant-garde, Rozanova was one of its first members to be associated with Futurism, the Italian avant-garde art movement that celebrated the dynamism of the modern world. She briefly joined the Suprematists in 1916, but always maintained her own approach to art. Her lively collages anticipate Matisse’s cut-outs by thirty years, and her remarkable 1917 painting, Green Stripe, pre-dates by a half-century another famous stripe painting: Barnett Newman’s Voice of Fire, now in the national collection. Green Stripe was the first avant-garde work acquired by George Costakis. 

“It boggles the mind,” says Welch, “that in the 1910s women artists were in such prominent positions in these artistic circles in Russia, and that artists like Popova, Rosanova, as well as Alexandra Exter, were driving many of the discussions and were quite experimental in their work.”

Display case with magazine work by El Lissitzky

These works set the stage for the NGC’s magnificent Lissitzky painting. They also evoke an extraordinary era coloured by war, revolution, the advent of Communism and the founding of the Soviet Union. Under the Stalinist regime, all of these artists disappeared, driven to state-supported activities and sometimes to premature death. Malevich was imprisoned for two months in 1930, accused of spying for the Germans, and died in 1935. “His work was quite literally taken off museum walls,” says Welch. 

Without a doubt, the names of these artists should be more familiar to us today than they are. “Tatlin went to visit Picasso,” says Welch, “came back to Moscow and took Picasso’s reliefs one step further, making completely non-objective art. But he’s not nearly as well-known as Picasso. So, had the political situation not been what it was, Tatlin, Malevich, Popova and Rosanova may have been as storied as Picasso and Matisse.” The Advent of Abstraction is helping to set the story straight. 

On view at the National Gallery of Canada until March 12, 2017, The Advent of Abstraction: Russian, 1914–1923, is one of several North American exhibitions organized to coincide with the centennial of the 1917 Russian revolution. The catalogue for the show, with texts by Andréi Nakov, is available from the NGC Boutique.

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