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  3. Consider purchasing my books. Culture War: Art, Identity Politics and Cultural Entryism (2019, Societas/Imprint Academic), Iconoclasm, Identity Politics and the Erasure of History (2020, Societas/Imprint Academic) and Artivism: The Battle for Museums in the Era of Postmodernism (2022, Societas/Imprint Academic) are available via the publisher’s website here. Women and Art: A Post-Feminist View (2022, Academica Press) is available via the publisher’s website here. Degas and Magritte (both 2022, Prestel) and all the other books mentioned are available via bookshops and book-selling websites. Other books by me include fiction, verse and art published by Aloes Books, Golconda, Bottle of Smoke Press and Pig Ear Press. These books can be bought here https://www.bournbrookmag.com/books/.
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AA

Aristotle on storytelling

The latest book in Princeton’s Ancient Wisdom for Modern Readers is advice from Aristotle to poets and dramatists. Aristotle (384-322 BC) was Plato’s most brilliant student and tutor to Alexander the Great. He is one of the great ancient thinkers, whose ideas have permeated philosophy, science and art for two thousand years, although his ideas come down to us in fragmented and diluted form. This volume takes extracts from the Poetics, an important statement of ancient aesthetics. Aristotle described all literature (and storytelling) as based in mimesis. He set out the importance of appropriate length of a story and that stories must have a beginning, middle and end. Spectacle must be subordinate to plot. Plot takes precedence over character. Conflict between allies and inside family is more compelling than that between strangers. Tragedy comes from a great man undone by weakness.

Translator and editor of this volume, Philip Freeman of Pepperdine University, explains the difficulties with Aristotle’s texts. “The Greek text of the Poetics as Aristotle wrote it consists of unpolished lecture notes, not a finished literary work like the dialogues of his teacher Plato. The text also has missing words and sentences, with other parts annotated, rearranged, and in general jumbled by copyists over the centuries more than most manuscripts from the ancient world. The result is a book that will leave even the best classical scholars at times scratching their heads in confusion.”[i]  

Aristotle’s observations on fiction have been very influential and have become the rules that one must know, even if in order to subvert them. The idea that a story needs good and bad characters, acting to change a situation and a clear conclusion seems to be one thing that scriptwriters and financiers of Marvel and DC movies, and American television series, need to re-learn. The serial nature of high-budget cinematic and televisual drama has destroyed Aristotle’s recommendation and left us with a legacy of stories designed to be unended and ever ready for disappointing (but lucrative) prequels, sequels and reboots. In an age when scriptwriters do not believe in heroes and villains – except when they have politicians to champion or decry on Twitter – the power of essential elements of storytelling need to be reinforced. The terrible comic-book action-hero stories come from writers being ignorant (or defying) the advice to make a tragedy from “a serious error in a noble kind of person”[ii].

American comedy writers need reminding that “Comedy, as we have said, is an imitation of inferior people.”[iii] The most effective comedies explore the pitiful pathos and hubris of inferior people. Curb Your Enthusiasm presents the failings of a fictional Larry David character who cannot control his resentment, selfishness and worst instincts. The writers, directors and actors in that series are clear about the central character’s inferiority without sacrificing his humanity and relatability. In all failed comedies we find an unwillingness to expose weaknesses of character or to allow those characters to ultimately fail or remain disgraced. Aristotle warns us not to go too far. “Comic characters are not cruel or vicious, but laughable […] Being laughable is a shortcoming or disgrace that doesn’t involve serious pain or destruction.”

The comedy requires the incorporation of the morality tale and that means judging and being permitted to condemn flaws and types of person. In a mass-media world that fights shy of mocking oddity and absurdity – and refuses to accept traditional descriptions of sin and flaws as valid – the moral core of comedy becomes compromised or suppressed. It is regrettable that – contrary to his ideas on tragedy – Aristotle’s thoughts on comedy are mostly lost.

The tragedy is best when compact; the epic needs a greater space of time within the story. In some ways, Aristotle goes against the current fashion. Those brought up in an age of method acting will find foreign the observation, “[T]he goal of an actor on the stage is not to imitate character. Character is instead a by-product of action. Action and plot are what a tragedy is about.” We might differ on the need for characters to explicitly state their reasoning. This falls into the trap of exposition – telling not showing. It is often more stimulating and realistic for characters to conceal motivation or reveal it indirectly and against their will contra Aristotle’s assertion “speeches in a play in which the speaker doesn’t choose or make a clear choice do not express character”. The audience reading the subtext and inferring motivation is satisfying because it demands the audience use empathy, life experience and analysis rather than simply passively absorbing.

Other sections discussion language, grammar and speech and the Greek poetic metres. There is advise for writers and critics and comparisons between art and writing. The merits of epics and tragedies are weighed. The notes are thorough and informative. As usual in series, the introduction and notes are in English; the main text is in the original language (Greek) with parallel English translation. How to Tell a Story forms a worthy addition to Princeton’s classics library.

Aristotle, Philip Freeman (trans., introduction), How to Tell a Story, Princeton University Press, 2022, cloth spine hardback, 264pp, English/Greek text, $16.95/£12.99, ISBN 978 0 691 20527 4

(c) Alexander Adams 2022

To find links to my books and writings visit https://linktr.ee/alexanderadamsartist

AA interviewed live on YouTube, 22 Sep.

I shall interviewed live by Professor Ed Dutton on The Jolly Heretic YouTube channel live tonight, 19h00 UK/14h00 EST. Subjects will include the politics of museums and my book “Artivism”. The stream will be live and you can submit questions. Watch a recording here:

Magic or explanation in art (Francis Bacon)

A new book about Francis Bacon’s paintings, raises the question “Does explaining art remove its magic?”

During his lifetime, British painter Francis Bacon (1909-1992) kept private the photographs that he used as inspirations for his powerful paintings of the human figure and animals. Preferring not to give precise sources or explain his painting process, Bacon instead offered his paintings without discussion. Even his titles (“Study of a Figure”, “Seated Figure”, “Dog”) revealed little. Since his death, the discovery of thousands of photographs from books, newspapers and other sources have been studied by art historians.

Art historian Katharina Günther goes a good way to proving her opening hypothesis in Francis Bacon: In the Mirror of Photography. Collecting, Preparatory Practice and Painting (De Gruyter, Berlin, 2022, 445pp, fully illus., hardback, £52, ISBN: 978 3110 720 624) that “Bacon’s iconography stems from the pre-existing, mostly lens-based imagery he collected in his studios for this purpose […] [This is] a well-rehearsed, deliberate, and consistent appropriation practice. In fact, it may well be that all his paintings were based on photographic material, a claim which has been made in the past, without, however, underpinning it with any data. Second, the working process can be deciphered by carefully investigating Bacon’s working documents and environments, through comparative analysis of the source item and the finished canvas, and by tracing the appropriation process from one to the other. […] We may then detect and interpret recurring patterns and methodologies, providing us with an in-depth insight into Bacon’s creative process, which will help us better understand his work.”(p. 10)  

Her book examines the source photographs found in Bacon’s studio and links them to specific paintings, providing liberal illustration and discussion. The book (which is pleasurable, thoughtful and a compliment to the reader’s intelligence) definitely broadens and deepens our understanding of the art, but it may not benefit the art or our experience of it as art. Understanding and appreciating are not necessarily synonymous. Consider the magic trick. If we know the mechanical devices, sleights of hand, misdirection, showmanship and other elements deployed to fool us, we certainly know more about the trick, but the magic – what we value in the magic trick – is gone. Experiencing the sensation of wonder is why we love magic – that brief feeling of shock and surprise accompanied by incomprehension that allows us to unlock something childlike and delightful within us. Even if we understand on an essential level that we are being deceived, we briefly believe in powers beyond knowing. Magic startles us from our habitual assumptions about the world and ourselves. Aesthetic philosophers have sometimes compared the transformative experience of encountering art or nature of amazing beauty or novelty as akin to a religious experience. We might be able to determine a particular pattern of synaptic stimulation to the experience of ecstasy, but that does not explain the experience’s significance. Magic, art, sex and religious ecstasy all open our minds to a rare state of pleasure, one that stands to some degree antipathetic to mere knowing.

In the work of Günther and other art historians, there is an obvious struggle. Let us take the study of Bacon’s photographic sources as our example. On the one hand, all historians and critics who have long considered the matter conclude that Bacon was deeply influenced by photographs, not least on the authority of Bacon’s interview statements on the matter. On the other hand, Bacon deprecated photography as an art form and refused to be specific about how he used photography. Historians have also been reluctant to pin down too closely paintings to exact sources, perhaps finding the process reductive and demeaning. So, the paradoxical situation has developed that everyone acknowledges that photography was important to Bacon but few want to commit to writing about exact links, sometimes talking about the atmosphere of the studio and the general stimulation produced by such a working environment. During the artist’s lifetime, his personal disapproval of such discussions (he never allowed anyone to examine the studio material during his lifetime) directed discussion; since his death, this field has been opened but (as Günther notes) few have stepped in and drawn specific links.

Bacon was, quite understandably, protective of his creative process. He must have been concerned that in an age of professional art historians, museum archives, recorded interviews and extensive publication, the story of the making of art would reduce the mysterious power of his paintings. It was the paintings he chose to make his final statements, unqualified by sketches or documentation of preparatory stages. In such circumstances, Bacon’s preference to conceal his exact working methods is understandable and compatible with his intention to allow his paintings to live and die by the amount (and nature) of appreciation they received as art. Despite Günther’s claim, “[T]his is the line of enquiry that should be pursued – not to diminish Bacon’s art but to highlight a highly creative and unique working process”(p. 35), it is difficult to see such scrutiny as other than a dilution. Once informed, we cannot approach a Bacon painting innocent of its origins and open to its startling novelty and raw emotional force. We become conditioned to see the experience of that painting as the culmination of a process of image acquisition, adaptation and translocation. We not so naïve as to consider a painting to be conceived and executed ex nihilo, but to have our experience of the art so altered by considerations outside of the meeting an observing subject and observed object inevitably leads to a lessening of power – even if that power were actually illusory, self-serving and a manifestation of the aesthetics of art as pure, detached, disinterested communion.  

The degree to which artists protect the secrecy of their working methods is a matter of debate. In an age when so much more is recordable and archive culture is more developed (and monetised), the artist has to consider how many traces to leave behind. Does one keep or dispose of sketches and diagrams? Does one number or date working material? Does one keep secret photographs? If these photographs are digital only, how secure is their future without a printed version? Does one keep a list of books consulted or seek to consign to oblivion the reading background of the creator? Would anyone viewing the finished art consider that art finished if that observer had access to all of the sketches, notes and initial stages of that finished art? Such material turns the culminating painting into part of a process – a stage in a narrative.  

I had this discussion with an art historian friend of mine, with me taking the role of an artist keen to preserve the mystery of my finished art, emphasising the argument that expansion of art parameters to include preparatory material was often regrettable. I suggested that (specifically in the case of Bacon’s art) presentation and discussion of source material inevitably diminished the power of the art because of this “narrativizing” effect of contextualisation. His argument was that addition of extra information and material was not diminution (or subtraction) of the status of the art and that it was the duty of historians, collectors and acquaintances of the artist to preserve as much material, documentation and recollections as possible for the benefit of future scholars and biographers. I see his point but I also see mine. Yes, it is a benefit for the historian, biographer and other expositors of art to have as much information and as many sources and stages preserved. But also, yes, if one wants to appreciate the power of art, nothing is needed other than the work itself. Indeed, part of the force (dare I say, magical force?) of cave painting or Cycladic sculpture is that pervasive and impenetrable ignorance we have about the working conditions, motifs and ideas of the original makers and audience of this art.

As both an artist and an art critic/historian, I see this dilemma acutely. What I decide with regard to preserving my own preparatory materials and elucidating the process of making, I have not decided. As an artist, I think that silence can be infinitely more expressive than any word or sign, which limits both listener and speaker. Yet, as a writer of books such as “Degas” (Prestel, 2022) and “Magritte” (Prestel, 2022) and a forthcoming volume, I eagerly consume all the sources I can find about my subjects. There may be no easy answer, perhaps there can be no answer at all, but it seems necessary to consider this dilemma.

Katharina Günther, Francis Bacon: In the Mirror of Photography. Collecting, Preparatory Practice and Painting, De Gruyter, Berlin, 2022, 445pp, fully illus., hardback, £52, ISBN: 978 3110 720 624

(c) 2022 Alexander Adams

To see may art and books visit http://www.alexanderadams.art

To support my writing donate here: https://ko-fi.com/alexanderadams

Romanticism and National Character

[Image: Edvard Munch (1863-1944), At the Deathbed, 1895, Oil and tempera on unprimed canvas, 90.2 x 123.3 cm, KODE Bergen Art Museum, The Rasmus Meyer Collection]

Two recent exhibitions and catalogues prompted reflections on the role of geography and national character in the production and reception of Romanticism. This article will be in three parts. The first is a discussion of the exhibitions and catalogues; the second discusses the character of Romanticism, especially in relation to national character; the third explores the idea of national character and northern countries in relation to Romanticism, national myths and nationalism.

Part I: Romanticism and the Nordic Character

The recent exhibition of the paintings of Edvard Munch (1863-1944) showed Munch as a painter of the human essence, dealing with recurrent eternal themes: love, desire, loss, grief, fear, wonder. This is pretty much the standard approach for the artist – not least because of his Frieze of Life project, which conceived of life in such terms – but is no less true or important for us when we stand before Munch’s great art. The Frieze of Life (conceived 1889, exhibited 1902) was a series of paintings which would portray the progress of life for a person, presented in tableaux from different stages, incidents or situations in a life. This included Sphinx (Woman Three Stages)*, At the Deathbed*, Evening on Karl Johan Street*, Jealousy*, Melancholy*, Anxiety, Ashes, Puberty, The Lonely Ones, Despair, The Kiss, The Voice, The Dance of Life, Separation and The Scream (all 1892-1900). The marked paintings were included in the exhibition Edvard Munch: Masterpieces from Bergen (27 May–5 September 2022, Courtauld Gallery, London).

Munch’s Frieze of Life was both universal and personal, being drawn from some of his own experiences of eternally recurring situations. At the Deathbed (1895) was a rendering of the death of his sister Sophie, in 1877, which itself echoed the death of their mother in 1868. Munch’s observations of the complicated and turbulent private lives of associates in bohemian Christiania and Berlin gave him ample material for paintings on the subject of despair and jealousy, including suicide, murder, infidelity. Man and Woman (1898) shows a man slumped in despair under the gaze of a nude woman, positioned above him. In Munch’s world, the woman is supreme, the decider, slayer of men. She can withhold or divert her favours, rendering the male suitor pathetic or redundant. Munch has been seen as a misogynist. If he is so – and there is a case for that reading – he sees women with the power to be fickle and decide the fate of men of the highest calibre. (“Woman, who at one and the same time can be a saint, a whore and unhappily devoted.”) The artist’s own private life provided enough drama for several lifetimes. His affairs and break ups – including an incident where a mistress shot one of his fingers – were proof of the recurrence of suffering due to carnal passion. His Death of Marat (1907, not exhibited) shows Munch lying on a bloodied bed, assassinated by his lover Tulla Larsen who faces us nude, indomitable and proud.

[Image: Edvard Munch (1863-1944), Melancholy, 1894 – 96, Oil on canvas, 80 x 100.5 cm, KODE Bergen Art Museum, The Rasmus
Meyer Collection]

As the catalogue authors point out, Munch’s psychodrama is definitely presented to position the artist in the starkest of situations, exploiting the actual events and weaving in them myth and history to elevate the art. We should not see this exaggeration as egotism but instead as the desire to make art that rises to the heroism of the greatest works in the canon. Munch serves his art, even if that means showing himself as more pitiable and weaker than he was. He is an actor in a stage play of his own life, where he plays himself. In this performance, Munch makes situations clearer than they were, gesturing emphatically and condensing action into symbolic tableaux. This emphatic power – found so distinctively in the heavy outlines, assertive painterliness and simplicity of forms – is one aspect that has contributed to the definition of Munch as a proto-Expressionist, if not the first Expressionist (along with Van Gogh).

In the exhibition and catalogue, Munch grows from realism (defiance of art conventions to get at living reality) to Symbolism, which provided him with an ur-reality, that primordial truth that exists below surfaces. Munch’s aim was to be truthful about the unchanging realities of the lives of men and women, by dispensing with anecdote, qualification and specificity. His dramas of eternal man and eternal woman (not forgetting eternal child) have much in common with Romanticism and that movement’s drive to set aside convention, religion and public morals to uncover truths. Romanticism, the intellectual and artistic forerunner of Symbolism, rejected the recent accretions of social, technological and religious understanding, in order to find hidden things within human nature. This is, of course, as much an extension of Enlightenment science and philosophy as it is a refutation of it. Burke’s examination of the physiological dimensions of our responses to stimuli beautiful or sublime, was an assertion of the value (and application) of biological science and nascent psychological investigation. We shall come back to the nature of Romanticism in Part II.

[Image: Edvard Munch (1863-1944), Woman in Three Stages, 1894, Oil on canvas, KODE Bergen Art Museum, The Rasmus Meyer Collection]

The catalogue (Barnaby Wright (ed.), Edvard Munch: Masterpieces from Bergen, Paul Holberton, 2022) documents closely the actions of collector Rasmus Meyer (1858-1916), who personally knew Munch and bought work directly from his studio, with the express intention of building a permanent collection that would be maintained after the death of collector and artist. We see how patronage established handsome collections of the best art by certain exceptional artists and how this was left as a legacy to inform descendants’ understanding and taste. It is fair to say that Munch’s art has lodged deeply in the mental landscape of Scandinavians and the wider population which responds to the memorable and assertive images that have a hold over us, even if we are not inhabitants of Norway. This is not least due to the commitment of Norwegian collectors, who saw Munch as an exponent of the new modern school and showed that Norway was a serious independent country capable of contributing to the flow of European culture.

Another exhibition which raised issues of the importance of place and people to the Romantic movement and its ideals was Dreams of Freedom: Romanticism in Russia and Germany (22 April-8 August 2021, State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, 2 October 2021-6 June 2022, Staatliche Kunstammlungen Dresden). The exhibition covers art by German, Russian and Scandinavian artists working in the Romantic idiom, mostly with links to Dresden. The period selected is from 1800 to the 1890s. (It is reviewed here from the catalogue.)

At the turn of the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries, there was a mania for German stories, verse, painting, music and philosophy among Russian intellectuals, social liberals and Romantics. Germany looked to be a model for intellectual refinement and imaginative exploits, with Dresden as the city held in highest esteem. The catalogue has a chronology of the connections between Russians and Germans in Dresden during the Nineteenth Century. This includes military and diplomatic events during the Napoleonic Wars, when Russia defeated Napoleon at the Battle of Kulm. Dresden was a crossroads for Mitteleuropa and functioned as a site for mingling of German and Russian painters. For cultural tourists of the age – not least those on the Grand Tour – went to Dresden for its architecture (as “Florence on the Elbe”) and its picture gallery (which contained Raphael’s Sistine Madonna (1512-3)). Local artists and academy were poorly regarded in first decade of the Nineteenth Century. Matters improved when Caspar David Friedrich was member of the academy in 1816, though the consensus that many of Dresden painters were derivative.   

[Image: Caspar David Friedrich, Two Men Contemplating the Moon, 1819–1820, Albertinum, Dresden State Art Collections]

In the catalogue and exhibition, Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840) is the towering presence. He was admired in his time by many. Grand Duke Nikolai Pavlovich (future Tsar Nicholas I) bought paintings from Friedrich’s studio when he visited Dresden and today there are nine paintings by him in the Hermitage. Friedrich’s symbolic landscapes – constructed from nature studies with added figures, buildings and subject to exaggeration and adaptation – are seen as pictorial poetry and as religious allegory. His paintings were seen as examples of the national genius of the German people, especially by nationalists in later eras.

This was at a time – after the violence caesura of the republican and anti-clericalist French Revolution showed that the organising principles of states did not have to be royal or religious – when national identity was becoming increasingly important. Old empires were split into nations and bishoprics and duchies were swallowed into larger states; the old glue of feudal structures and regional trading networks was dissolved as we see the rise of the nation state. Loyalty was no longer a chain of mutual duties in a strict hierarchy culminating in a monarch or prince of the Church; it became a collective project of an ethnic folk organised under the authority of a centralised and unified, with a group cause being self-determination and control of lands settled by kinsmen.   

[Image: Johan Christian Dahl, View of Dresden at Full Moon, 1839, Albertinum, Dresden State Art Collections]

Friedrich and Norwegian landscape painter Johan Christian Dahl (1788-1855) (a friend and colleague of Friedrich’s in Dresden, whose work also features in the exhibition) became more themselves and better embodiments of their nations when separated from their homelands. “In Romanticism, the idea of homeland arises out of a loss. It was not until they were in foreign lands that leading artists discovered how their identity was shaped by their origins. In Dresden, Caspar David Friedrich, who hailed from Pomerania, was seen as northern German – not only in his choice of subjects, such as the Baltic Sea and megalithic tombs, but also on account of his demure and withdrawn demeanour. It was not until he was in Rome that Johan Christian Dahl developed into a painter of harsh Norwegian nature.” National character, like all other assessments, is understood comparatively. The paintings of Friedrich are full of travellers and observers briefly inhabiting unpopulated places. The coasts, cliffs, mountains, forests and ruins are not places where one lives, rather they are places one encounters the dramatic, ineffable and sublime. The tomb of prehistoric man allows modern man to reflect on the human condition of mortality. The theme and iconography are as important as the appearance of the picture.

We will look at the importance of nationalism to Romanticism in parts II and III. Let us examine here the range of the art exhibited in the display and the connections between German and Russian Romanticism. The selection of Friedrich paintings, not least from Russian museums, is excellent and  it is engrossing to see these paintings reproduced so large and clear. Carl Gustav Carus (1789-1869) is a great and devoted disciple of Friedrich. His motifs and approach is similar to Friedrich’s – figures on a boat, wanderers in wild landscapes in moonlight, mountain views – but his handling is much simpler, flatter and less crisp. When he attempts the more dramatic – a stormy sea, closer to the art of Dahl – he fails. It is hard to see him as more than a poor man’s Friedrich, at least on this showing.

Carl Blechen (1898-1840) is more original and intense. Gothic Church Ruins (1826) shows a figure asleep in a church (or cathedral) not so much overtaken by nature but fused with natural terrain. The floor of the building is a rocky brook. Saplings emerge from stone parapets, echoing the slender spandrels of the Gothic windows below, a beautiful piece of visual rhyme. The ruin was a staple of fine art and literature made by the Romantics. The work of nature and of man is fused in the ruin. Man’s architecture is altered by the forces of nature and the passage of time, presenting the observer with a representation which reminds him of the limits of man’s abilities. This confrontation between man, nature and time is at the heart of the Romantic aesthetic, which attributes less to God, assigning the cosmos to forces which are not necessarily divine. Awe is generated by contemplation of the mighty sublime. The Romantic aesthetic also includes the advancement of artistic ideas concerning melancholy, grief, morbidity, dissolution, decay, entropy and disease. Blechen’s dramatic landscapes and building paintings in oil and ink-wash are richly satisfying and he can be classed in the second rank, just below Friedrich and Dahl.

The Nazarene movement is represented by Edward von Steinle (1810-1886), Wilhelm Schadow (1789-1862), Johann Friedrich Overbeck (1789-1869). Their weaknesses in handling and painterly presence are present in the selected examples; notwithstanding the deliberate archaism of the Nazarene movement, these are stiff and flat as paintings. The portraits seem notably weaker than the landscapes. Ferdinand Hartmann (1774-1842) is a curiosity. He is not a natural painter. His modelling of figures and drapery is crude, his lighting is rudimentary, his composition lacks nuance and sophistication and we have no sense of inhabiting the pictorial space. Yet, his two images here – a kneeling woman holding a dish and death as a skeleton stealing children from a sleeping mother’s bed – are impressively memorable and bold, perhaps precisely because they are so direct (even naïve) as paintings. Romantic painter Philipp Otto Runge (1777-1810) is represented by a self-portrait and his Times of Day print series, which has always seemed to me (in previous viewings) rather chilly and meretricious.

Much better are the landscapes and ruin paintings of Ernst Ferdinand Oehme (1797-1855). Cathedral in Winter (1821) is a nocturne of worshippers arriving for an evening service on a snowy night at a Gothic Cathedral; the only warm hues being those of the light within the building, indicating the salvation and comfort afforded by Christian worship. Dahl  was famous for his nocturnes and View of Dresden (1839) is one of his finest. It shows Dresden’s famous skyline, with shredded clouds obscuring a full moon, reflections on the river brighter than the few paltry lights of a fire or lamp. It reminds one of what has been taken from us by the saturation of artificial illumination in not only our cities but suburbs, industrial outskirts and motorways. There is something humbling and inducive of meditative contemplation about observing a landscape by moonlight.  

[Image: Maxim Nikiforovich Vorobiev, The Oak Fractured by Lightning (the Storm), 1842, State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow]

The cover of the catalogue features a detail from Maksim Nikiforovich Vorobyov’s Oak, Shattered by Lightning (Thunderstorm) (1842), which shows a tree cleft in two by a curving lightning bolt. Yet the detail does not do the drama of the picture – or the daring of the painter – its due. The motif takes up barely half the painting and is on the right side. The left side is almost blank – a haze of waves whipped to spume and a distance flicker of lighting from a murky sky. It is extremely audacious. However it would not be accurate to state that the most striking works here are entirely from Russians, but these paintings will be barely known by even connoisseurs of Romantic art in the West. Vorobyov is one of the finds of the exhibition, for a Westerner.  

The painting of Alexander Andreyevich Ivanov is a prominent presence in this exhibition. It is ironic that the most striking piece by him is a half-length seated Portrait of Vittoria Marini (late 1840s) rather than his mythological or religious scenes. The spatial ambiguity of the sitter’s left hand, which seems to rest on the cheek, yet anatomical understanding and absence of shadows from the head suggest is not the case, is quite a curious solution: the hand is both touching the cheek and held forward. It seems quite close in atmosphere, approach, palette and handling to the paintings of the 1920s and 1930s by Lotte Laserstein (1898-1993). Grand claims are made for Aleksei Gavrilovich Venetsianov (1780-1847) but they are not borne out by this selection. Only the very simple and warm-hued Harvesting. Summer (mid-1820s) – showing a seated peasant resting from harvest, light falling on her back – is enchanting and fresh. Portraits of peasants range from the touching to the trite. 

[Image: Alexei Venetsianov, Harvesting. Summer, Mid-1820s, State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow]

Of the Russians we get none of the Peredvizhniki (Передви́жники, Wanderer) movement. Enthusiasts will sorely miss their grandeur and intensity. Ivan Aivazovsky (1817-1900) is very poorly served by one lacklustre marine. He was the greatest of the Russian Empire’s painter of the period. Was he largely omitted because he was a painter of seascapes and also an ethnic Armenian? There is no dearth of wonderful paintings by him in Russian museums. Was he too difficult to integrate into the narrative? This is a shame because Aivazovsky is a painter he should be exhibited and discussed more often, although is better known in Germany than elsewhere on the Continent.  

The exhibition gathered material relating to Dresden’s most famous painting, Raphael’s Sistine Madonna. The painting was bought by Frederick Augustus II in 1754. The catalogue reproduces the many German and Russian copies and illustrates watercolours of stately interiors that housed full-size copies. Both Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy had copies of the painting in their homes, although Tolstoy later became averse to Raphael.  

Overall, both catalogues explain the hold of Romantic subjectivism and humanistic individualism on Norwegians Munch and Dahl and German and Russian painters. Next, we will look more closely at Romanticism before examining how nationalism and Romanticism became intertwined.

To read part II for free visit my Substack account here.

Dreams of Freedom: Romanticism in Russia and Germany (22 April-8 August 2021, State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, 2 October 2021-6 June 2022, Staatliche Kunstammlungen Dresden)

Edvard Munch: Masterpieces from Bergen (27 May – 5 September 2022, Courtauld Gallery, London)

Barnaby Wright (ed.), Edvard Munch: Masterpieces from Bergen, Paul Holberton, London, May 2022, paperback, 136pp, 60 col. Illus., £25, ISBN 978 1 913645 27 4

Staatliche Kunstammlungen Dresden (ed.), Dreams of Freedom: Romanticism in Russia and Germany, Hirmer Verlag, Munich, 2022, hardback, 360pp, 300 col. Illus., £49.95, ISBN 978 3 7774 35831

“Pre-Raphaelite Artists Were Actually Very Modern”

“Visitors to the current exhibition Pre-Raphaelites: Drawings & Watercolours (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, closes 27 November) will encounter some surprisingly contemporary sides to these Victorian artists. Having affairs, taking drugs, chasing famous actresses, developing new fashion and spending long hours outdoing each other with the most outré interior design, these Victorians were like the denizens of today’s coolest districts.

“The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB) were a group of British artists who worked from the 1850s to around 1900 who used different styles that resembled England’s pre-Renaissance (hence “before Raphael”) aesthetic. The throng of artists had varied interests but came together in a loose association as the PRB under the guiding influence of author, art critic and (extremely skilled) amateur artist John Ruskin (1819-1900).

“The works on paper in this Ashmolean’s exhibition are rarely shown due to the light sensitivity of the delicate pieces. The display includes art by all the most well-known of the PRB: Gabriel Dante Rossetti, John Everett Millais, Edward Burne-Jones, Ford Madox Brown, William Morris, John William Waterhouse, and William Holman Hunt. There are many pieces by less famous artists too, including women…”

Read the full review at whynow? here: https://whynow.co.uk/read/pre-raphaelites-modern-oxford-exhibition

New publication “Magritte” (Prestel)

I am pleased to announce the publication of my new book “Magritte”, published by Prestel (Penguin Random House), 2022, 112pp, fully col. illus., paperback, £9.95/$14.95. Available for order now.

“This revelatory examination of the Surrealist master updates prevailing theories about Magritte’s life and beliefs, and offers a surprising new assessment of an artist who strived for anonymity rather than fame.

“Throughout his career, Magritte subverted expectations about artists in the world by disguising himself as an unremarkable member of the bourgeoisie. While the public mined his work for symbolism and deep meaning, the truth is, that with Magritte, what you see is what you get. What readers will get with this gorgeous volume is a deeply engaging overview of Magritte’s entire career, and an eloquent argument that his Surrealist masterpieces were simply an extension of the Romantic tradition.

“Chronologically arranged, this volume features fullpage reproductions of thirty-five works, each paired with a concise text that highlights its significance in Magritte’s catalog. In addition to greatest hits, such as Time Transfixed, 1938; The Treachery of Images, 1929; and The Lovers, 1928, the inclusion of several lesser-known works provides an overview of the range and character of Magritte’s art. Readers will become acquainted with the main figures in the artist’s life, including relatives, colleagues, rivals, and they will see how Magritte’s relationships with collectors and dealers led to the production of particular works, as well as how his theories about painting evolved over the years. Across this compact but utterly satisfying book, Magritte’s exquisite use of color, his grasp of collage and composition, and his superb gifts for invention and mood are luminously and thrillingly in evidence.”

“Sunken Island”: First photographs of new book

First photographs of the new anthology “Sunken Island” have been released. The book presents my verse and illustrations and was edited by me. Here are details:

“As Great Britain emerges from pandemic lockdown and enters the post-Brexit era, British culture finds itself at a crossroads. On topics such as governance national independence, community, migration and the preservation of cultural heritage, profound questions are being asked with renewed urgency.

“This anthology of new poems brings together established and newly emerging poets in a rich collection. Using a variety of styles, the poets explore modern life, the recent experiences of lockdown and rioting and the changing faces of our cities and countryside. Verse here also delves into deep history, by addressing primordial themes of nature, the seasons and the struggle for life.

“Sunken Island: An Anthology of British Poetry contains new unpublished verse by Nicholas Murray, A Robert Lee, Alexander Adams, S D Wickett, Daniel Gustafson, Benjamin Afer, Columba and Rahul Gupta.

“Edited and illustrated by Alexander Adams, with a foreword by William Clouston, Sunken Island reaffirms that poetry can play an important role in illuminating essential subjects with wit, passion and erudition, formulating propositions about our existence in ways that are deeply personal as well as universal.”

Sunken Island: An Anthology of British Poetry, The Bournbrook Press, 2022, 60pp, mono illus., paperback, £12.50. The book is available for pre-order today here: https://www.bournbrookmag.com/press

If you would like to order previous books of verse by me, you can order from the same page. These other books are On Dead Mountain (2015), On Art (2018), On Art II (2020) and After/Apres Francis Bacon (2022). Each features unique poems and illustrations.

Women and British Modernism

James Scott’s new book The Women Who Shaped Modern Art in Britain looks at key figures in the Modernist movement in Great Britain over the Twentieth Century. These include Helen Sutherland (collector), Winifred Nicholson (artist), Lucy Wertheim (collector, dealer), Nicolete Gray (curator, scholar, collector), Myfanwy Piper (critic, editor), Margaret Gardiner (collector), Barbara Hepworth (artist), Peggy Guggenheim (collector, dealer), Erica Brausen (dealer) and Helen Lessore (dealer). The lives and works of these individuals sometimes intertwined, as Scott recounts. The author does not neglect the men whose art and activities bound them together. Scott wisely decides not to separate the characters, instead combining them into a single continuous narrative, with some chapters focusing on individuals or movements. This review will not discuss each figure individually, as some of them are already well known.

Helen Sutherland (1881-1965) was an heiress who followed the family tradition of collecting art. Her father’s preference was for Pre-Raphaelite drawings, hers was Modernism. She bought Seurat, Christopher Wood, Ben Nicholson, Henry Moore and Winifred Nicholson, starting in the early 1920s, many purchases coming via the Beaux Arts and Mayor galleries. The Nicholsons’ combination of daintiness, flatness and unobtrusive subject matter made their Modernism more austere and refined than the paintings of the Bloomsbury Group. Sutherland knew writer James (Jim) Ede and poet-artist David Jones.  

Lucy Wertheim (1882-1971) was a collector and dealer based in Manchester. She had married a Belgian shipping magnate, which meant she travelled to Belgium and France frequently, which was how she met Walter Sickert. As well as buying his paintings, she worked closely with Frances Hodgkin. By 1929, she was also collecting sculptures by Henry Moore and Hepworth. She was also a collector and dealer of Wood’s before his suicide.

Nicolete Gray (née Binyon) (1911-1997) was the daughter of poet and art critic Laurence Binyon. She read history at Oxford University, which was where she met David Jones and became romantically involved with him. Jones, an unworldly loner, was an unsuitable match and Nicolete married another man in 1933. She was friends with another Oxford undergraduate Myfanwy Piper (née Evans; 1911-1997), who would marry John Piper, a leading Neo-Romantic painter. Myfanwy would be the editor of the leading inter-war journal promoting abstract art. Axis: a quarterly review of contemporary abstract painting and sculpture, which ran eight issues from 1935 to 1937, was a showcase for new British abstract art. It would also be a key link between avant-garde artists in Britain and the Continent. Abstraction had trouble gaining credibility, prominence and patronage in Britain, in contrast to the situation in Europe. Gray organised the 1936 Abstract and Concrete exhibition which brought together abstract art by Alexander Calder, Giacometti, Kandinsky, Naum Gabo, Miró, Mondrian and Jean Hélion next to pieces by Piper, Moore, Ben Nicholson and Hepworth for the first time in Britain, at a venue in Oxford.

Margaret Gardiner (1904-2005) became a collector and friend of Hepworth, Nicholson and John Skeaping. Gardiner and Sutherland became entangled in the messy affair between Nicholson and Hepworth, which was made all the more difficult because of their respect Winifred. Gardiner paid for life-saving medical treatment for Hepworth’s daughter. The formation of the Unit One group and the subsequent exhibition cemented the seriousness of British abstract artists and indicated an alternative to Neo-Romanticism, Surrealism and social realism as non-academic schools of painting for British artists. These artists and their patrons would be a support network for Mondrian, Gropius, Breuer, Moholy-Nagy, Gabo and other avant-garde artists and architects (many associated with the Bauhaus, which was closed by the Nazi government in August 1933) who fled to London from the rising shadow of the Nazis. Other refugees included Kokoschka, Schwitters and Heartfield.

Erica Brausen (1908-1992) is best known today as the first dedicated dealer of Francis Bacon. Scott notes that Brausen had a similar origin to Lea Bondi Jaray, Annely Juda and Ala Story, in that they were all female European emigrées who went into the art trade in the 1930s and 1940s. Jaray, Juda and Story were Jewish, while Brausen was not, although she did assist Jews seeking to escape Europe. Many in the fine arts were involved in the war effort. Some served in the military or worked for the government. Others raised money through auctions, exhibitions and publications.

Scott’s narrative sets out an alternative to Bloomsbury – the Hampstead/St Ives set – as a complicated network of intellectual, artistic, personal and romantic connections between members of the avant-garde in inter-war Britain. Scott makes a lively guide, well-informed and always seeking to draw meaning from intersections of group members. Scott has particular thesis regarding the unique qualities and conditions of women, which comes as something of a relief. He uses the stories and documentation of women’s actions within this network as a way to take a fresh perspective on the development of inter-war British Modernism, centred on London. This works well, as the author is not forced to fit observations into a polemical framework and he allows the subjects to be as various as they were, without drawing forced comparisons between them. Readers will find the index invaluable for finding references to specific individuals in such a complicated narrative.

There are many excellent illustrations of art that was made and bought by the women discussed here. Disappointingly, there are no locations given for the art works, making it impossible (using this book alone) to trace the subsequent provenance of art that passed through the hands of the collectors discussed in this entertaining book.

James Scott, Frances Spalding (foreword), The Women Who Shaped Modern Art in Britain, Unicorn, 2021, hardback, 288pp, fully illus., £25, ISBN 978 191 349 1871

To read my ideas on the relationship between women and the arts, check out my book “Women & Art: A Post-Feminist View”, details here: https://alexanderadamsart.wordpress.com/2022/07/28/new-publication-women-art-a-post-feminist-view/

(c) 2022 Alexander Adams

To see my art and books visit www.alexanderadams.art

New publication: “Artivism: The Battle for Museums in the Era of Postmodernism”

I am delighted to announce the publication of Artivism: The Battle for Museums in the Era of Postmodernism.

Here are the details:”From Banksy to Extinction Rebellion, artivism (activism through art) is the art of our era. From international biennale to newspaper pages, artivism is everywhere. Both inside museums and on the streets, global artivism spreads political messages and raises social issues, capturing attention with shocking protests and weird stunts. Yet, is this fusion of art and activism all it seems? Are artivist messages as subversive and anti-authoritarian we assume they are? How has the art trade commodified protest and how have activists parasitised art venues? Is artivism actually an arm of the establishment?

“Using artist statements, theoretical writings, statistical data, historical analysis and insider testimony, British art critic Alexander Adams examines the origins, aims and spread of artivism. He uncovers troubling ethical infractions within public organisations and a culture of complacent self-congratulation in the arts. His findings suggest the perception of artivism – the most influential art practice of the twenty-first century – as a grassroots humanitarian movement could not be more misleading. Adams concludes that artivism erodes the principles underpinning museums, putting their existence at risk.”

Alexander Adams, Artivism: The Battle for Museums in the Era of Postmodernism, Imprint Academic, 2 August 2022, 200pp, paperback, mono illus., £14.95, Kindle version available

Available worldwide from bookshops, bookselling websites and the publisher here: http://books.imprint.co.uk/book/?gcoi=71157100177520

I do have a few copies available for sale and signature. 

Russian vanguardists: Nadezhda Dobychina & Klavdia Mikhailova

During the heyday of Modernism, one of the centres was Russia. Artists from St Petersburg and Moscow travelled to Western Europe, especially Paris, and encountered Modernism first hand as it was produced and exhibited. Until the outbreak of war on 1 August 1914, Russian artists could travel fairly freely to the West, and word of Western Modernism was circulating in the small groups of vanguardist connoisseurs and creators in Russia. The Golden Fleece salons and Jack of Diamonds exhibitions gave Russian creators an opportunity to exhibit their own Modernism, sometimes alongside foreign pioneers. The October Revolution of 1917 further isolated Russian artists and severely limited importation of international art.

The authors note that although Berthe Weill is noted as the first prominent female gallerist who promoted Modernism, there were two other female dealers working in the 1910s. Nadezhda Dobychina and Klavdia Mikhailova are two other pioneers who deserve consideration. It seems that their later obscurity is mainly due to the rejection and suppression of Russian Modernism under Stalinism in the USSR. This book covers their lives and work and the reception of Modernism in Russia of the 1910s.

“At the beginning of the twentieth century, private commercial art galleries were still a novelty in Russia. Collectors and art lovers acquired fine art at auctions, in antique shops, at the exhibitions organised by the Imperial Academy of Arts in St Petersburg and by various art societies or directly from the artists’ studios.” Dobychina and Mikhailova would contribute to the expansion of the public platforms for new art.

In this period we see thr

Klavdia Ivanovna Mikhailova (née Suvirova) (1875-1942) was from a wealthy Muscovite merchant family, who studied art at Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture, from 1891 to 1896. She trained as a painter in the school of the Peredvizhniki (Wanderers), which combined Symbolism and social realism. Klavdia met her husband Ivan Mikhailov at art school. While Ivan came to realise his future was in promoting and selling – rather than making – art, Klavdia remained a full-time painter until 1912. She exhibited widely in group exhibitions, sold work and was well reviewed. (An extract from a laudatory review is reprinted.) By this time, she was producing landscapes in a Post-Impressionist style, using metallic paints. Her sister Olga followed a similar career path through the same art school but was stricken by mental health conditions which left her increasingly unable to function normally. In 1907, Mikhailova met Mikhail Larionov and Natalia Goncharova, when she exhibited with them. This would set her in good stead to act as a promoter of their art.

Nadezhda Evseevna Dobychina (born Ginda-Neka Seyevna Fishman; 1884-1950) was from a poor Jewish family. She moved to St Petersburg to study biology, changing her name to evade social prejudice and legal restrictions faced by Jews. She met her future husband Petr at university. She also met Nikolay Kulbin, an artist and vigorous promoter of Russian Modernism. Kulbin founded Triangle: The Art and Psychology Group, which functioned between 1907 and 1910, exhibiting Symbolist and Post-Impressionist paintings by Russians. Dobychina was the secretary of the group, doing much of the business and organisational work for Triangle. The assertive primitivism of the art and presentation (on walls covered by sackcloth) of their Moscow exhibition drew critical derision and considerable crowds, as well as garnering around 50 sales.

Dobychina and Mikhailova opened their businesses (independently) in 1912. Dobychina’s Art Bureau (in St Petersburg, centre of court and politics) and Mikhailova’s Art Salon (in Moscow, centre of commerce) took advantage of the wave of Russian Modernism. This included art in the styles of Cubism, Futurism, Rayism, Primitivism, as well as the last vestiges of Symbolism. Dobychina’s Art Bureau broke with the smartness of the French-style salon – French culture, emulated and transmitted by the Romanov court, dominated high culture in Russia – and instead put forward a more Modernist attitude and aesthetic. She hosted displays of Futurist art, musical recitals and readings of avant-garde writings, including by Mayakovsky, in her house in a poor part of the city. Dobychina did this due to personal commitment rather than income and was very poor at this time. In 1913, a windfall allowed her to move to a larger house in a more central location.

In contrast, Mikhailova used an inheritance from her father to open her Art Salon in a rented premises located in a prestigious street in Moscow. This was a thoroughly commercial affair – requiring paid entry – that she ran while continuing to produce pictures as a painter. The luxuriously appointed gallery was designed as an art-display space and had skylight illumination, electricity, a telephone and separate male and female lavatories. It would be a hub of commerce and aesthetic vanguardism until it was confiscated and nationalised by the Soviet authorities in 1918.

An early exhibition by Mikhailova was a memorial display (1912-3) of the nationalist allegories of the hugely popular and respected Mikhail Vrubel (1856-1910). Vrubel was considered a nationalist hero but also a technical precursor to High Modernism, with his use of flattened planes in composition and his defiance of academic convention. As such, Vrubel could be presented as a pioneer of Russian Modernism but one that conservatives could appreciate as a patriot. It was a canny choice and one planned to coincide with a large retrospective of Vrubel’s art held by the New Society of Artists in St Petersburg. The subject of Mikhailova’s exhibition were studies for The Dream Princess (1896), a giant mural which had proved controversial when first exhibited, and therefore a subject that had some recognisability for the general public.  

A subsequent exhibition of Parisian Modernism (including van Dongen, Dufy, Friesz, Gris, Léger, Marquet, Matisse, Picasso and Vallotton) was a popular success, despite – as the authors note – Mikhailova apparently never travelling to Paris nor having direct contact with the artists. The intermediary she used is unknown. The popularity seems to have been due to those who had read about these artists but never seen examples and came to absorb or mock. The critical reception was negative, recommending viewers to seek out the degeneracy and lunacy on display before fashion changed and swept it into obscurity.

When Larionov rented her gallery to mount the provocative Target exhibition of the so-called Donkey’s Tail group, the event attracted widespread criticism. The exhibition featured radical paintings by Larionov, Goncharova, Niko Pirosmani, Aleksandr Shevchenko, Kazimir Malevich and Marc Chagall. Larionov declared that the exhibition would inaugurate a new art style called Rayism, which was a form of Futurism with invented rays of light forming linear/crystalline designs on a flattened picture surface.

[Image: Natalia Goncharova, Cats: Rayist Perception in Rose, Black and Yellow, 1913, oil on canvas, 85 x 85 cm, Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York.]

The parallel presentation of the naïve figuration of Pirosmani is interpreted here as an effort by Larionov to link untutored native talent with new avant-garde styles in a move to take the initiative from Paris. In effect, Larionov used the exhibition at Mikhailova’s gallery as an opportunity to assert Russian supremacy (and independence) in the vanguard of Modernism.

Dobychina turned to exhibiting woodcuts and photographs, featuring the minor arts, which educated visitors even if the exhibitions did prove very profitable. The memorial exhibition of Ian Tsioglinski (1858-1913), the Polish Impressionist, had a substantial catalogue and was a commercial success. The fame and income from this exhibition of more conservative art would be parlayed into backing for avant-garde art. Mikhailova’s solo exhibition for Goncharova, which was a major retrospective of 761 works, with a catalogue and running from September and November 1913, was a hit. The exhibition (reduced in scale) transferred to Dobychina’s gallery in St Petersburg, where pictures with religious subjects were briefly confiscated by the police, on grounds of blasphemy. The two gallerists apparently never interacted directly, with the artist and Larionov doing the curation and organisation.    

The war cut off the dealers from advanced art in Paris and (understandably) curtailed plans to exhibit German art. The disruption to internal transport, blockage to supplies and the relocation of artists impaired cultural life in Russia. A number of artists (including Larionov, Shevchenko and Malevich) were drafted for military service. Dobychina held an exhibition to raise money for an infirmary for artists injured during the hostilities. She also looked eastward, organising an exhibition of art, including printmaking. When she displayed Chagall, whose art she bought for her private collection, the critics criticised his romantic scenes and paintings of village life as too detached from the harsh reality of life. Chagall was condemned as being an escapist and therefore socially irresponsible. In the middle of the war, Dobychina was diagnosed with tuberculosis of the bone.

The greatest achievement of Dobychina was 0,10: The Last Futurist Exhibition of Paintings was held in her Art Bureau in newly renamed Petrograd, between December 1915 to January 1916. It hosted a ground-breaking exhibition of art by Vladimir Tatlin, Malevich, Ivan Kliun, Lyubov Popova, Olga Rozanova, Ksenia Boguslavkaia, Natan Altman, Marie Vassilieff and others. Kliun and Tatlin exhibited multi-media abstract reliefs. The most remarkable aspect was the extensive display of Suprematist abstract paintings by Malevich. In fact, that dominance antagonised other exhibitors, who considered Malevich presumptuous. Rozanova claimed that she (not Malevich) had invented Suprematism.   

The October 1917 Revolution was the last in a sequence of upheavals stretching back to 1905. When it became clear that the Bolsheviks would implement socialism, artists and art dealers, like all citizens, had to decide how to respond. Dobychina indicated that she would not oppose the politics of the Bolsheviks in her Art Bureau. Mikhailova did not oppose (or at least prevent) political slogans appearing on the walls of her Art Salon during the last Jack of Diamonds exhibition at the end of 1917, after the ascendence of the Bolsheviks.

The nationalisation of much private property and cultural production extinguished much of the commercial side of the avant-garde – or rather creators transferred to serve communes, local institutions or the local and national authorities. Initially, it looked to the avant-garde that they now had the ear of those in power and a direct line to funds and venues. They would be commissioned to decorate new social housing, carve the statues for stadia and produce posters to inspire workers to contribute their labour to common lot. What happened initially was civil war, social disruption, soaring inflation and the closure of many cultural institutions for the next two years.

However, when attention returned to culture, it would be the creators of art who would be the tools of the state and the state would dictate the content and style of art, severely limiting the scope of artistic expression. Then, in the era of Stalinism, artists could fall from favour for political, personal or stylistic reasons. Some, like Aleksandr Drevin (1889-1938), who exhibited with Dobychina, were liquidated during Stalin’s purges. Drevin was one of the prominent Latvians killed in the anti-Latvian purge of 1937-8. Mikhailova herself, deprived of her gallery, returned to the profession of painting. Without the chance of exhibiting Symbolist paintings of fairy stories, Mikhailova painted in the prescribed Socialist Realist style. This apparently left her bitter and demoralised, reliant on old colleagues to petition authorities on her behalf. Dobychina lost her Art Bureau. So both businesses started in 1912 and were closed in 1918. Dobychina would become head of exhibitions at the House of Arts, Petrograd, then moved to the Society of Encouragement of the Arts and later the State Russian Museum. Other administrative jobs in the museum and film-production sector followed, where her early achievements in the avant-garde were overlooked or dismissed. It may also that during the era of Socialist Realism, she may have downplayed her commitment to art that was graded as bourgeois and Formalist. She died in 1950.   

The authors – both experts on Russian art – have woven together the story of these two serious promoters of Russian Modernism into an enlightening and engaging book with many illustrations. The illustration of individual artists, collectors and intellectuals, and of some of the art exhibited, makes the account even more vivid. The book has been supported by the Kroll Family Trust, which extends a long-standing family interest in art, especially in Russian Modernism. The investment has been well rewarded with this book, which will be welcomed by anyone interested in Russian Modernism and women’s roles in the arts of the twentieth century.

Natalia Budanova, Natalia Murray, Two Women of the Russian Avant-Garde: Nadezhda Dobychina and Klavdia Mikhailova, Unicorn/Kroll Family Trust, 2022, hardback, 230pp + x, fully illus., £30, ISBN 978 1 913491 27 7

To read my perspective on the interaction between female artists, feminism, the art market and art criticism/history, read my book “Women and Art: A Post-Feminist View”. Details given here

(c) 2022 Alexander Adams

To see my books and art visit www.alexanderadams.art