First AA exhibition in London for a decade: July 2023

I am pleased to announce that my art will be exhibited in London for the first time in a decade. From 3 to 9 July, my paintings will be included in a group exhibition in central London. The paintings and a new lithographic print will be available for purchase. There will also be catalogues and other books by me available there. To get details visit the exhibition website here:

Goya and the Enlightenment

Francisco Goya (1746-1828) is typically seen as supportive of the Enlightenment in terms of his scepticism about religion, monarchy and hierarchy. He is held up as a member (or at least fellow traveller) of the reformist liberals of Spain, who sought to reduce the influence of the Catholic Church and supported the French Revolution. It was this group that was riven by mixed responses to the Napoleonic occupation and the French-imposed client kingship of Joseph Bonaparte (r. 1808-13). Although Goya decried the sadism of the Peninsular War (1808-14) and protested the deaths of Spaniards at the hands of the French and their supporters, he also served that regime. Nonetheless, despite Goya’s late pessimism and apocalyptic visions, he is seen as aligned with the Enlightenment.

Professor Anthony J. Cascardi of University of California, Berkeley discerns contradictions in the way Goya is viewed in the context of the Enlightenment. “I take exception to the standard view that relies predominantly on Goya’s darkest images to establish his relevance for modernity, and I suggest instead that his work invites us to consider the critical role of art with respect to the modern social and historical worlds, worlds of which it is nonetheless a part.” In Francisco de Goya and the Art of Critique, Cascardi argues, “Goya’s position was one of distance both from the superstitions and backwardness of the Spanish past and from the promises offered by the Enlightenment. It seems quite plausible that the project of critique that runs throughout his work was informed by the need to maintain a distance from both these alternatives.” Cascardi detects this distance in the way Goya complicates and contradicts pictorial conventions, most particularly in the forms within which Goya worked. Cascardi takes one definition of Modernism as the critical distancing of the art from the ”social and material bases on which it is made.”

There is implicit criticisms of men who become foolish by attempting to be what they are not and cannot become – found in images of people acting in foolish ways and animals adopting pretensions to humanity. Goya’s exposure of their foolishness is an implicit rejection of the Enlightenment’s assertion that men are equal in potential and that their natures are formed by circumstance. To aspire to a station and nature that is not assigned by birth is worthy of mockery, Goya’s art asserts. While Goya may condemn the excesses of superstition and human fallibility, he recognises that they are unavoidable and not elements that can be left behind following sufficient advances in knowledge, education and social change. He is sceptical about the power of social restraint to alter man; he sees dark, destructive potential for violence latent in man, perceptible in his nightmares and his responses to crime, war and chaos.

Goya has a tragic view of man, as inherently flawed by sinfulness, weakness and mortality, doomed to fall short, never perfectible. So although Goya may have been troubled by what he characterised in his art as the excesses of religion, his outlook is closer to that of a religious person than an atheist humanist. It must be admitted that his partiality to the liberal faction situates Goya as a natural sceptic rather than a man of faith. Suspicion of the rationalisation of existence and desacralisation of human life that the Enlightenment brought may have led Goya to paint his History paintings The Second of May, 1808 (1814) and The Third of May, 1808 (1814). In the former, madrileños rise up against the mameluke cavalry supporting the Bonapartist regime and, in the latter, these rebels are executed by a firing squad by night the following day.

[Image: Goya, The Third of May, 1808, oil on canvas]

Once the human being is no longer a child of God and an ensouled being, rationalism finds no bar to the greater good being used to justify selective brutality by authorities (in these paintings), just as the absence of charity and mercy allows the savagery of extra-judicial killings and torture (in the Disasters of War).

Goya’s criticism of mindless adherence to tradition can be found in many areas of Goya’s output. In the Caprichos suite, a supercilious donkey studies a family genealogy, finding other donkeys like him. He seems to condemn corporal punishment in a an etching of a child being beaten, with a comparison between the ugly mother and the innocent boy, who (in this eternal chain) will become ugly in turn, beating his own children. Insensibility to evidence and logic leads to ignorance and baseless fears. As the title states, The Sleep of Reason Breeds Monsters, people are prey to instincts when conscious thinking is absent. This view can be both an endorsement of Enlightenment values (man must be educated and liberated from irrationality) and in conflict with them (man will never be free of ingrained fears and untrammelled imagination). Goya sees lack of self-knowledge as a key trait distributed throughout society, even in the educated classes. As critics have observed, this is perhaps more sceptical of the Enlightenment than an outright rejection of the validity of its project. As Cascardi notes, the Enlightenment itself had unresolved contradictions, so support for the Enlightenment is fraught with ambiguities. Not least, “Goya was aware of the grim irony of a situation in which the forces of “Enlightened” France were the perpetrators of bestial violence [during the Peninsular War specifically].”

Cascardi takes Kant as his exemplar of Enlightenment thought, with particular focus upon Kant’s centring of reason as essential to value judgments, specifically in art and morality. For Goya too, reason was central to his views of humanity, with a more pessimistic outlook distancing him from Kant’s idea of the primacy of rational autonomy. Goya is not only sceptical but also unruly, disrupting what is expected. His narratives often contradict the ostensible subject of the picture, not least in the way the depicted people fall short of their roles as noble, judge, priest and so forth. Cascardi notes that Goya’s sense of reason is not simply related to his social criticism but to his distanced responses to the conventions of Renaissance art, which were grounded on rationality, reason, clear narrative and illusionism.

To explain this, here is a passage on the technique distances viewer from subject:

“[C]onsider The Third of May, 1808 and some of the Disasters of War […] Through a technique that uncannily anticipates the ways in which mechanically reproduced images are cropped or cut in the photographic and cinematic fields, the effect of the frame in such works is to implicate art itself in the very violence it helps disclose. Because the perspective of the unseen perpetrators of the violence is as compelling as the perspective of the viewer external to the image the viewer is implicated in the violence of these images in a remarkably unsettling way. Thus, rather than read Goya’s efforts in The Third of May, 1808 and the Disasters of War solely in moral terms – as claiming secure access to a universal perspective on good and evil that would allow him to criticize the atrocities of history from the “outside,” it is more promising to consider the ethical challenges they pose and especially to consider those challenges as epitomized in the vexed relationship between the external spectator and the implicit violence that the exercise of any autonomous framing power seems to create.”

[Image: Goya, Witches’ Sabbath, 1821-3, oil on plaster]

For Cascardi, Goya is either the first modern artist or an analogue or prototype of the same, something he shies away from stating plainly, instead asserting this indirectly by writing, “Goya may not be described not as the first modern artist, but as an artist engaged in refusing to adopt an independent ethics for painting or, indeed, for art in general. […] A certain self-consciousness is of course integral to this effort.” The author thinks that the Black Paintings – murals made by Goya at La Quinta del Sordo, his private farmhouse outside Madrid, notable for their dramatic, brutal and pessimistic content – may have been inspired by a viewing of an early magic lantern projection device. The series may also have been painted by the artist after meditating on Burke’s treatise on the sublime, translated into Spanish in 1807. The book concludes with thoughts on Goya’s treatment of beauty, a subject much less pressing or dominant in the literature than that on ugliness. Cascardi relates Goya’s art of beauty to that of sympathy, linking Goya to Enlightenment philosophy David Hume.

The author is well informed, thoughtful and writes with the minimum of jargon. Although the ideas are perhaps a little too complex and philosophically-based to resonate with all readers (that is, the casual Goya enthusiast), readers not conversant with the ideas of the Enlightenment and later will gain more understanding of the depth and ambiguity of Goya’s art. The illustrations are plentiful, the book (with fine paper and a cloth binding) a pleasure to handle. Overall, this book can be recommended to anyone intending to investigate Goya beyond the common facts and landmark events of his times.  

Anthony J. Cascardi, Francisco de Goya and the Art of Critique, 2022, Zone Books, Brooklyn, distr. Princeton University Press, 368pp, mono/col. illus., £35, ISBN 978 1942 130697 

Zdzislaw Beksiński and the Tyranny of Taste

[Zdzislaw Beksiński, oil on panel, not exhibited]

Last week I visited the Museum of the Archdiocese of Warsaw (, which has a varied and interesting collection of art, antiques, liturgical regalia and church-related archive material. This is a review of only two temporary exhibitions at the museum.

Beksiński from the Anny and Piotra Dmochowskich Collection (June 2021-June 2024) is the group of notable paintings by Zdzislaw Beksiński (1929-2005) paintings, owned by his French dealers. The paintings range from 1970 to the year before the artist’s murder, which was a senseless impulsive killing of an elderly man over a trivial sum. It is hard to detach appreciation of Beksiński’s paintings with the difficult life of the painter. The death of the artist’s wife, the suicide of the artist’s son and the trauma of war, economic decline and social turmoil, which spanned Beksiński’s adult life – as well as his violent death – all seem in congruence with his images of suffering, desolation and entropy. Crucifixes abound, as do mummified personages, bandaged figures. Bones of strange creatures litter misty plains, tendrils of crimson vegetation expand like bloody stains, as powerful winds shred cloths as large as buildings. Bodies exist but we have no inkling of their existence outside of the singular images. Do they have language? What do they eat and how do they reproduce? Are they in pain? Is what we see normal in their world? Who built the strange structures that fill the vistas? So alien are these personages that we cannot map on to them motivation or even agency.

Beksiński loved to describe surfaces in intricate detail, especially the vegetable, textile and petrological. The flatness of figures in the 1990s is an affinity with the immediate post-war style of Modernists, found in Poland and elsewhere. Lighting effects can be somewhat cursory and the ubiquitous smoke/cloud/mist effects are an easy way of concentrating attention on to motifs, which are the sole objects within some paintings. With Magritte, we get the mundane made magical; with Beksiński, we get the macabre made real. The fantastic has wrinkles, texture and discoloration.

Beksiński trained in architecture and the interface between buildings, plants and bodies are a staple of the paintings; they are in some ways close to his contemporary H.R. Giger, best known for his visual conceptualisation of the creatures and environments of the original Alien movie (1979). Beksiński is drawn to the monumental, with the inclusion of tiny figures or trees that turn the central personage into a giant or a structure into a colossal edifice, tall as a mountain. These are scenes that defy reason and explanation, which adds to their cheerless quality, although we may be thrilled at the sublime spectacle of strangeness and massiveness.

[Zdzislaw Beksiński, oil on panel, 1985, 100 x 98 cm, exhibited]

When intimacy appears in Beksiński’s oeuvre, it is of a particularly poignant sort. A 1984 painting here shows two humanoids embracing; they are gnarled, naked and vulnerable, finding solace in one another. We cannot help but think of them as outcasts, using our own bodies as references points. A point of comparison might be the graphic art of Hans Bellmer, whose art featured figures with rearranged anatomies engaging in sexual congress. We do best to class Beksiński as a latter-day Surrealist, as his art involves the incongruous, the fantastic, the sexual and impossible; it is troubling and opens up to us alternative worlds, drawing out unobvious connections. Connections between Beksiński and Bellmer are numerous, ones I would like to discuss at length in future.   

[Zdzislaw Beksiński, oil on panel, 1984, 100 x 97 cm, exhibited]

Beksiński’s fantastic faces with deformities or odd combinations are generally the weakest of his art; they seem five-finger exercises in variant making, with relatively little thought given to the impression of the finished painting. What are his weaknesses? Cheap sensationalism, reversion to the familiar, the tendency to obscure as a way as avoiding problem solving, a jejune proclivity to provoke. There is entropy and decay but little we can see that could be called action or dynamic energy. However, the better qualities of his art – its emotional force, inventiveness, memorability, originality, consistency of worldview, congruence of technique, image and mood – surpass those failings.

[Zdzislaw Beksiński, oil on panel, 1979, 73 x 87 cm, exhibited]

These 27 paintings are all oil on board, mainly rectangular, roughly 80 x 60 cm to 130 x 100 cm. The surfaces are quite smooth, in contrast with Beksiński’s early paintings, which were standard Modernist painterly pictures with sgraffito. The surfaces are not inert, as image-driven (rather than material-driven) art often is, with a pleasing attention to the qualities of paint – smooth but not slick. His palette is effectively varied, with earth and cold hues predominating. It is never lively or pretty. Beksiński’s art lacking all humour or wit, but that comes with a refreshing earnestness and absence of irony.

The paintings are accompanied by an exhibition of photographs, taken by Beksiński early in his career, mainly in the 1950s and 1960s (9 March-11 June 2023). These range from the quirky to bleak. There are portraits, some using special effects and montage, some head shots set against large areas on blank space. There are some female nude torsos and some images of industrial entropy, such a mangled chain-link fence. It is not difficult to discern continuation of themes, images and mood from these photographs in the later paintings. I do not know photography well enough to state whether these examples are very distinguished but they do seem typical of mid-century avant-garde photography and reference points for Beksiński’s visual thinking and preferences.  

Beksiński was relatively reclusive and did not travel much. Much of his work was sold via his Paris gallery. None of the paintings have titles and Beksiński was reluctant to discuss the interpretation of his art and here we encounter a fault line in the reception. Art critics are wary about discussing what they call art that is not truly fine art because it is too popular, too involved with traditional technique, too close to genre culture in terms of imagery (and fanbase). The interiority of Beksiński’s world – and the very fact it does seem a world – places Beksiński outside the arena of fine art. There are a number a reasons why Bosch is taken seriously but Beksiński is not. One is simply time; Beksiński is simply too close to us to have artistic weight. Another reason is that Bosch’s visions are connected to an obscure aspect of Christian theology, whereas Beksiński’s cosmology (if he has one) is private and unarticulated, without the sanction of religion or spirituality. Also, it has to be said that Beksiński’s art is limited by its lack of potential redemption, joy and emotional range.  

This is the first time I have seen Beksiński’s paintings or photographs face to face, despite him being a well-known and influential contemporary artist for decades. You would not encounter this art in any ACE-funded venue in Great Britain. The tyranny of good taste keeps from us art that has been pigeonholed as popular and genre. That might be unremarkable where you had thriving independent venues that bucked such standards and was willing to explore art not approved by the curatorial class, but in our country there is little independence, outside of some commercial galleries and a handful of co-operative spaces. Yet, viewed in its own terms, why should Beksiński be beyond the pale? I take Glenn Brown to be one of the best of living painters and there are more than a few parallels between his painting and that of Beksiński: the technical accomplishment, faultless technique, a preference for smooth grounds, a use of indeterminate pictorial depth, lack of ironic distance, a taste for the bizarre. Is it so gauche to compare the pair? Personally, I would rather spend an hour with Brown or Beksiński’s paintings than with that by any of the Turner Prize nominees of the last decade.

[Zdzislaw Beksiński, oil on panel, not exhibited]

Why should a conceptual stunt be any more highly regarded than the powerful images and strange worlds of Beksiński? Accepting the seriousness of Beksiński and H.R. Giger does not mean accepting Beryl Cook and Jack Vettriano. We should not automatically accord to the painter of fear and bleakness a greater degree of respect than that to a satirical, decorative or comfort-producing painter, that would be just another form of unthinking snobbery. We should not shy away from being discriminating and from shunning and ridiculing art that we find execrable, but only acting like so once we have thought through our objections. It is commonly assumed that we act on emotion and deep affinity and that we rationalise our taste only post hoc with intellectual explanations. That may be so, but such discussion at least helps us (and others) to comprehend what might be our values and taste, even if we come to such understanding in a veiled indirect manner.   

Is Beksiński taken less seriously as an artist because he is classed as a horror or sci-fi artist than a fine artist? Does his lack of formal training – especially when coupled with his masterful technique – irk mainstream critics? Doubtless the advent of the internet was both the best and worst thing that happened to the reception of Beksiński’s work. It allowed his imagery to circulate widely and led to recognition, but it also spawned a host of inferior imitators, most amateur (all distributing their work on social-media and art-sharing website) which led to fatigue with Beksiński-type imagery.  

It seems that not only snobbery but the self-consciousness of critics that prevents us from expanding our definitions of fine art to encompass the popular painter. “Fine Art” is now in the hands of administrators who loath technical accomplishments and consider aesthetics an imaginary game played by connoisseurs. Why not look to image makers of distinction now that State Art has adopted Amnesiac Art as its vehicle for soft diplomatic power (abroad) and demoralisation of the population (domestically)? We are despised by this cadre. We have nothing to lose in throwing off the shackles of “good taste” of those apparatchiks, if compliance means denying the better part of what art is capable, namely, its capacity to transport us emotionally, the aspiration towards beauty, the development of craftsmanship, the value of the canon, the primacy of the art not the artist (and his skin colour). All these things delighted our forebears and draw derisive coldness from apparatchiks. Keeping the self-conscious, conspicuously educated art-appreciators corralled in this zone of Fine Art (one subject to constant adjustment) is a way of preventing them from forming their own taste, expressing their values, rejecting arbitrary administrative authority and laughing at what appears in State Art venues.

We art lovers are now unpersons; it is time we took up the freedom of the unperson, that is, to have our own standards and be unafraid to express them. After all, who among us will be invited to teach at university, helm a civic museum, advise a government body or become a director of the Arts Council? Why should we care what such officials think about our views? Shouldn’t we want to distance ourselves as much as possible from those gimlet-eyed fanatics and thoughtless drones? Refusing to become independent even after the ritual humiliation of our craft and tradition is the sign of a broken hopeless people. Against all evidence, I hope we are not at that debased level.

“Further thoughts on Vermeer”

“Further to my review of the current Vermeer exhibition (in The Jackdaw), I give some thoughts on issues the catalogue raises. A full review of the current Vermeer exhibition (Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, 10 February-4 June 2023; reviewed from the catalogue) will appear in The Jackdaw, May 2023 issue. (To buy that issue, subscribe here.) This present article presents further reflections on Vermeer, in the light of the exhibition.

“The large catalogue (320pp) includes an illustrated list of Vermeer’s 36 or 37 paintings. There are no known drawings. There are no particular surprises. The terrible Young Woman Seated at a Virginal (c. 1670-2; Leiden Collection, New York) is still treated as authentic, when at least some of it is not. I adjudge the head, hands and wall to be posthumously completed; remarkably, technical analysis shows that the canvas comes from a bolt that Vermeer had already used for an authenticated painting and that the wretched yellow shawl is consistent with techniques and materials common to Vermeer’s established oeuvre. Girl with a Flute (c. 1664-7) is still considered on the fringes of Vermeer’s art. It is very poor but the materials and technique are of Vermeer. There is the idea that this is a work made under his supervision. Yet the conventional wisdom is that Vermeer had no studio or assistants (other than his older children doing paint grinding), so whom does this “circle of Vermeer” consist? No suggestions are put forward…”  

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THE JACKDAW was founded in 2000. It is the UK’s leading independent fine arts newsletter, published 6 times per year. It publishes news, investigative journalism, opinion pieces, reviews of books and exhibitions, satire, exhibition listings, obituaries, letters and artist statements (with illustrations), covering fine art, architecture, public art and museum policy. For over 20 years THE JACKDAW has been a vital outlet for critics, journalists and artists to expose corruption, mismanagement and insider dealing in the art world, especially in the UK public arts scene. I write exclusive content in multiple pieces for every issue.

THE JACKDAW has been withdrawn from sale from every museum shop in the UK because of its trenchant criticism (most of it from working artists) of the arts establishment. It urgently needs new subscribers to continue. Visit here to read some content and subscribe to the print edition of THE JACKDAW here: It is available to subscribers worldwide and covers American, Australian and European events in addition to its focus on the UK.

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Image as Protest: Joy Gerrard, Paula Rego

[Image: Joy Gerrard, Abortion Rights Protest after Roe versus Wade falls, (Philadelphia. June 24 2022), 2022 / Ink on paper / 24.4 x 37.5 cm. Courtesy Joy Gerrard and Cristea Roberts Gallery, London © Joy Gerrard]

Art grounded on political protest by Irish artist Joy Gerrard (b. 1971) and Dame Paula Rego RA (1935-2022) is being exhibited in Image as Protest, at Cristea Roberts Gallery, London. Rego’s prints are on the subject of back-street abortions and female genital mutilation (FGM or female circumcision). Gerrard’s paintings in black and white are of crowds, after source photographs that are taken from a high vantage point, including aerial photography. At a distance, the multitudes become cloud-like or similar to pebbles on a beach, occupying a street, scattered over a road junction or public square. Only when the fray at the edges do they gain more recognisably human form. Otherwise, the group remains a pullulating mass, dehumanised at a distance.

In some, we get to see simple faces, mouths caught open in the act of chanting. Her technique is effective. Colour would distract and confuse us. The care taken to depict the settings (buildings, street markings, skies) gives the crowds greater veracity, as we see the phenomenon occurring in a convincing setting. There is talk in a recent catalogue of the influence of Constable. That is not convincing. What happens is that any skilled artist who lavishes care and time on making art must seem to have some commonalities with preceding artists. There are large paintings on canvas and some articulated screens, called “barriers”. These larger paintings are less effective. Ink-wash/watercolour always works better in a reduced field and compressed space; on a large scale, its unsubstantiality is unsatisfying. It is something to do with the ratio of medium presence to ground presence.  

Gerrard’s art reminds us of the surveillance of the state (official as well as covert), as well as the medium of the mass broadcast media, which is how the spectacle of the crowd is recorded and transmitted nationally and internationally. It is primarily through spectacle that the mass gathering operates and that is done through recorded media of the photograph and video recording. The disruption, violence, graffiti and closure of thoroughfares is an additional element but it is impact of the visual that lasts longest and becomes an argumentation element. For example, the nationwide demonstration against the proposed allied invasion of Iraq in 2003 is cited as the largest ever public demonstration (dispersed over numerous locations) and the force of the argument is amplified by the sheer numbers present at those events, supported by pictorial representations of it. It supports the argument that the legitimacy of a cause is indicated by the number of supporters, the visual density of the crowd, its capacity to fill and immobilise major streets and squares in a modern city. It is rhetorical device, as are these paintings of crowds and Rego prints centred on lone figures.  

[Image: Joy Gerrard, Women, Rights, Freedom, Rally for protestors in Iran (Berlin, October 22, 2022), 2022 / Ink on paper / 29 x 34 cm. Courtesy Joy Gerrard and Cristea Roberts Gallery, London © Joy Gerrard.]

Gerrard’s images of crowds often lack pictorial context. At a great distance, an aerial photograph cannot distinguish between an anti-lockdown protest and the Capitol Building 6 January gathering from a pro-abortion rally or BLM protest. Unless slogans are placed in the painting on visible placards or banners or identifiable flags are shown, context only emerges in titles or captions. So the art is visually ambiguous. It is not generally inherent in the composition of the elements or their handling. In a painting without visible slogans, flags, symbols or individual personnel, the meaning of the gathering is not only ambiguous, it is actually irrelevant. More than that, it is interchangeable and manipulatable. There is a reliance of title to supply meaning. (‘Our Abortions’ (Brooklyn Bridge, New York. May 14, 2022); Women, Rights, Freedom, Rally for protestors in Iran (Berlin, October 22, 2022), etc.) Change the caption from “pro-BLM rally” to “anti-lockdown protest” and you have changed the connotations of the event depicted. Only with careful research (by comparing the painting with source photographs) would the deception be detectable. Art, rather than holding up a true mirror to reality – the verum speculum advocated by the Schoolmen philosophers – becomes a tool for lying.

[Image: Paula Rego, Untitled 5, 1999, Etching / Paper and Image 38 x 48.0 cm / Edition of 17. © Ostrich Arts Ltd. Courtesy Ostrich Arts Ltd and Cristea Roberts Gallery, London]

Rego’s eight Untitled etchings (1999-2000) are small and show pregnant women posed in position they would adopt while trying to induce a miscarriage. Women spread their legs around chair, squat over bowls, lie awkwardly with a wristwatch nearby. Blood trickles from their vagina. The squalor of the women and the indomitability of the metal pail awaiting its contents makes a strong impression. Rego elicits sympathy by showing the rough indignities of approximations of back-street abortions. This is done by portraying the suffering as wholly the mothers’. The blood is her blood, the pain is her pain, she is made ugly and animal like by these processes. The child’s suffering is not quantified because it is invisible, literally hidden within the woman. Visually, it does not exist, therefore is hard to care because of the leap of imagination that would be required. The counter argument – that the injustice is not illegal abortion but abortion itself – is not approached. This partial argument (concealing the full consequences or the other parts of the consideration) extends to the unseen undepicted corollary of clean, clinical, anaesthetised abortions – something that requires no fewer pails of blood and body parts than illegal abortions do.

The series was made to be reproduced in the Portuguese press in the run up to the referendum on the legalisation of abortion. It is claimed that the illustrations were powerful enough to sway the electorate, who voted in favour of legalisation. It would take a tough opponent of abortion not to feel pity for the subjects here. In other prints, the danger to women’s lives from botched abortions is presented in the form of puppet theatres, with caricatural figures and dolls, including real people. The series is joined by two large colour aquatint etchings. In one, a group of grotesque figures, some based on dolls or puppets, is heaped up in a nocturnal scene. One female figure has her legs cruelly trussed together. The artist has dripped red watercolour on it to imply blood.

[Image: Paula Rego, Little Brides with their mother, 2009-2010, Etching with aquatint and spit-bite, Paper and Image 46.4 x 55.4 cm / Edition of 35. © Ostrich Arts Ltd. Courtesy Ostrich Arts Ltd and Cristea Roberts Gallery, London]

Circumcision (2009) is Rego’s depiction of a child undergoing FGM shows the girl being held down while the three women impassively undertake their task. The characters’ expressions are akin to those of women doing the unpleasant but necessary acts of slaughtering of an animal or gutting a carcase. It is an image that provokes a reaction of repulsion and anger, doing so because it refuses to directly depict the bloody violence, which would repulse the viewer into averting their gaze. Through modulation Rego implies but does not describe. However, notice a telling sleight of hand. In Great Britain, FGM is a practice primarily carried out by migrants of sub-Saharan African descent. The child is black but the three women holding her and damaging her genitals are white. In truth, these women would almost always be black. Yet, Rego must have realised that picture of a black child being mutilated by black woman would have presented FGM as an act done by black African adults to black African children, which (in statistical terms) it is. Rego’s liberal conscious prevented her from showing the truth – that FGM (by geographic and religious distribution) is overwhelmingly a black African practice. Rego’s deliberate distortion unwittingly reveals a truth. Namely, that it is precisely the fact that it is migrant groups and non-white individuals who perpetrate this crime that has meant that there are so few prosecutions by the English system where white liberals (who staff the majority of positions in public education, social services and the judiciary) are terrified of being accused of racial insensitivity.

Long practice instilled in Rego absolute confidence in herself and in the commanding presence that well-executed figure drawing has. She had limitations, but within her chosen field she was successful. Gerrard’s paintings also work but obliquely and in ways that are more out of the control of the artist. Whereas Rego made her images from nothing other than her imagination and good use of experience, models and materials, Gerrard finds her images and recognises their potential, perhaps not understanding the mechanisms that operate upon her instincts. Either approach – to summon out of nothing or to find and adapt something pre-existing – is legitimate for an artist, though it tends to impart different qualities.  

I would urge everyone interested in rhetoric in the visual arts to visit the exhibition, setting aside their personal views on the subject of abortion. Cristea Roberts Gallery are to be commended for putting on such a show, which is a touch more controversial than perhaps the staff realised in the planning.

Image as Protest: Joy Gerrard & Paula Rego, Cristea Roberts Gallery, London (27 January-4 March 2023)

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“Frank Auerbach: The Sitters”

[NICOLA BENSLEY, FRANK AUERBACH: A MORNING IN THE STUDIO, 2015, Eight silver gelatin prints, 50.8 × 40.6 cm / 20 × 16 in (sheet), edition of 25. Copyright Nicola Bensley,]

A substantial exhibition of paintings by School of London painter Frank Auerbach (b. 1931) is now reaching its last days. (23 September-16 December 2022, Piano Nobile, 96/129 Portland Road, London, W11 4LW, This review is from the catalogue only.

Auerbach was born in Berlin and arrived in England in 1939. He studied painting at Borough Polytechnic by David Bomberg (1947-53, alongside Leon Kossoff), St Martin’s Art School (1948-52) and the Royal College of Art (1952-5). He became friends with Lucian Freud, Francis Bacon and R.B. Kitaj who became the nucleus of the School of London, which upheld the engagement with traditional painting techniques, figuration and the primacy of the human body (especially in the form of portraiture) as the prime subject of art.

[Frank Auerbach, HEAD OF CATHERINE LAMPERT II, 1978-79, Charcoal and black chalk on paper, 57.4 × 77 cm / 221⁄8 × 30 ¼ in. Copyright Frank Auerbach.]

Like other painters in the London School, Auerbach left many of his sitters unnamed. As with other artists, in their last years and posthumously, identities and biographical details emerge about the sitters. This comes with the process of historical, biographical and archive research that accompanies the elevation of the art to the status of classic. Also, as sitters die, pictures they owned enter the secondary market. Researchers make a point of asking for memoirs by and interviews with sitters. Biographers also seek out primary information from sitters.

Auerbach’s approach is to create a picture over multiple sessions from life, sometimes reworking the entire painting or drawing each time. He would often scrap a panel clean of paint and work from scratch in a following session. Over 40 or so sessions, a sheet of paper might be erased of its charcoal or graphite marks so often that is becomes rubbed right through, then patched be before the drawing is finished. The sprezzatura finish to the paintings belies the concentration put into each over a prolonged period, although the visible surface paint maybe indeed have been applied in one session. The impasto is so thick that it takes months to dry to state in which it can be hung vertically without slipping. An oil painting sometimes takes many years to dry, sometimes taking on a shrivelled appearance. A more schematic approach using encaustic wax would eliminate paint shrinkage, but Auerbach is not that type of painter.

The notes here relate to known portraits subjects of Auerbach, whether or not their pictures are among the exhibits at Piano Nobile. Some – such as Kossoff and Freud – are famous; others – such as curator and author Catherine Lampert – are known associates of the artist. Other initials reappear in exhibition listings over years without viewers knowing the identities. Julia is Auerbach’s wife and E.O.W. is Stella West, one of Auerbach’s lovers. Is usual, the reason artist’s conceal the identities of sitters and models is because exposure brings to light the tangled skein of personal affairs, failings in fidelity and awkward chronology. Is it any wonder that artists prefer to keep such information concealed for as long as possible. Auerbach’s determination is also shown in his loyalty to sitters; he has worked with some for decades.      

[Frank Auerbach, Head of E.O.W., 1972, Oil on board, 27.9 × 35.6 cm / 11 × 14 in. Copyright Frank Auerbach]

Another sitter was Sandra Fisher, artist, muse and wife of Kitaj. Kitaj produced a memorable pastel of Sandra and Auerbach seated at a table (illustrated here). Sandra also sat to Auerbach, here in one drawing and one painting. Naturally, Auerbach’s sitters have been taken from individuals in the art world. Stephen Finer and Laurie Owen are painter colleagues; James Kirkman was an art dealer; David Landau is an art collector. Michael Podro the painter met before he began his career as an art historian, when they were both art students. Podro and his wife Charlotte collected Auerbach and were painted and drawn by him; Podro wrote about Auerbach – the essay is reprinted here. There is are discussions of the Podro-Auerbach friendship by Natasha Podro, Michael’s daughter, and by Luke Farey. The introductory material is a short foreword, a brief essay by art critic and portrait subject William Feaver and an interview with the artist by Martin Gayford; the latter are both old pieces (dating from 2009 and 2001 respectively), although the interview includes unpublished parts. There are commentaries that accompany the 41 paintings and drawings by Auerbach. There are new comments and information about sitters and their experiences of posing for Auerbach.

There also are eight photographs of Auerbach in his studio, shot by Nicola Bensley in one morning in 2015. The studio is famously small and spartan, situated in the Mornington Crescent (near Euston) and was previously occupied by (consecutively) Kossoff, Gustav Metzger and Frances Hodgkins. Auerbach’s studio is not as famous as Bacon or Freud’s but is an important part of the creation process. He has worked in the studio almost every day since moving there in 1954. As with Freud, sitters mention the powerful impression the studio makes upon them. The small, paint-encrusted cell is the site of most of his painting. Like Freud, Auerbach wrestles with paintings, displaying signs of frustration and tension as the image (usually) fails to cohere.

What of new art? There is a self-portrait drawing from 2020 – very light in touch and tonality – and we are promised further unpublished works in an updating of Feaver’s catalogue raisonné of Auerbach’s paintings, published this year. There is also a new head, which is daring; the black calligraphy seems quite detached to the slurred yellow brushwork below. The self-portrait drawings have a degree of liberation and dignity, as if the artist had freed himself of his previous penchant for Rembrandtian gloom and dramatic chiaroscuro.

[Frank Auerbach, S E L F – P O R T R A I T, 2 0 2 0, Graphite, white chalk and Indian ink on paper, 75.8 × 58.4 cm / 297⁄8 × 23 in. Copyright Frank Auerbach]

The book gives a good overview of the artist’s achievements, presenting new information and publishing unseen art. It provides thorough provenances and exhibition/literature history for each piece; a chronology is also included. The production quality is very high. Getting the full intensity of the colour range is often tricky with Auerbach and this catalogue gets commendably close to the originals. Although the price of this book is high, it will become a coveted treasure for Auerbach connoisseurs.

William Feaver, Martin Gayford, Luke Farey, et al., Frank Auerbach: The Sitters, Piano Nobile Publications, 2022, cloth hardback with paper-band wrapper, 176pp, fully illus., £100, ISBN 978 1901192629

“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:

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:

(c) 2022 Alexander Adams

To see my art and books visit

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