Alpha and Omega of Francis Bacon

Daniel Farson’s The Gilded Gutter Life of Francis Bacon (1993) and James Birch’s Bacon in Moscow (2022) together form the Alpha and Omega of Francis Bacon, comprising (respectively) the first and most recent of books posthumously recounting the life and actions of Francis Bacon (1909-1992).

Alpha

Re-reading Farson’s The Gilded Gutter Life of Francis Bacon, first published one year after the artist’s death and in preparation during his lifetime, reminds me of my first reading. I was at Goldsmiths College, studying fine art. I bought the first paperback edition as soon as it came out and read it quickly, hungrily searching out new facts about the painter. It is hard for people today to remember how little one knew about Bacon in 1993. His date of birth was vague, he was hard to pin down socially and politically. He had spiked the lengthy explanatory notes in his 1985 Tate retrospective catalogue, leaving the illustrated paintings commandingly inscrutable. All one knew was from The Brutality of Fact, his famous book of interviews with David Sylvester, and newspaper articles. Some of the latter recounted details such as the timing of the deaths of his lovers Peter Lacy and George Dyer, and a 1970 court case when Bacon was prosecuted for possessing cannabis. (Likely left by a visitor or planted by George Dyer, who tipped off the police as an act of revenge against the artist.) Although Bacon’s life and character were fairly well known within his circle and the drinking circuit of Soho, the average person who read books on his art up to his death would have known almost nothing, other than a few dispersed comments in memoirs.

Then, within months of Bacon’s death in April 1992, came Farson’s memoir – a treasure chest of personal first-hand memories and unknown data. It was the first time we encountered Bacon’s celebrated toast “Real pain for your sham friends, Champagne for your real friends!”, his cutting remarks about rival painters, his arrogance and generosity. We learned about his friendship, then later rivalry, with Lucian Freud. For years all one knew was that the pair were close and had painted each other; now one found out about how close they were originally and how estranged they became. We discovered that he owned Bacon’s celebrated painting of wrestlers. A similar fate befell Bacon’s closer working relationship with Graham Sutherland. What came as revelatory in 1993, has now become established points in any biographical sketch of Bacon.

It Farson’s memoir of Bacon, we find confirmation of how strictly he controlled the authorised disclosures about his art and life. The tale of how the painter first consented to collaborate with the author, then later withdrew permission, has been confirmed as a pattern, according to the experiences of other authors. Farson published his private letters for the first time. The biggest revelations came in descriptions of Bacon’s affairs with Lacy, Dyer and Edwards. Farson with either more discreet – or less informed – with regard to José Capelo, Bacon’s last lover.

The tales of Bacon in the 1950s – Farson first met him in 1951 – give us a snapshot of Soho when few but bohemians lived to excess in post-war austerity Britain. “Soho was a revelation, with the discovery of people who behaved outrageously without a twinge of guilt and drank so recklessly that when they met the next morning they asked each other if they needed to apologise for the day before. Friends who had fought the previous night returned to the pub arm in arm. The camaraderie of the morning after has never been better.”

Gilded Gutter Life became a bible for the Young British Artists. Damien Hirst, Marc Quinn, Sarah Lucas, Tracey Emin and many other luminaries in their 20s and 30s lived through the 1990s acting out Bacon’s big-drinking, high-living, fine-dining, partner-swapping, hard-swearing bonhomie, fuelled by easy money during the bubble of Cool Britannia and the attitudes of Loaded. The Colony Room was their unofficial headquarters and became incorporated into their mythos. One could not read an account of bacchanals held at gallery private views or Soho public houses without the shadow of Bacon looming as the paterfamilias of hedonistic excess. Hirst bought Bacon’s classic 1933 Crucifixion and later started painting in Baconian style. On the Way to Work, Hirst’s book of interviews with Gordon Burn, apes The Brutality of Fact.  

How is it as an account? It is extremely lively and the fact that Farson moved in the same circles of Soho and the London homosexual demi-monde imparts a great deal of familiarity and intimacy. It is particularly telling in the description of the immediate post-war period, as death had already claimed many of the painters’ early confreres before his death, curtailing the potential of published memoirs by them that might have revealed more about Bacon. Farson was no painter, so we get few insights into Bacon’s techniques and ideas. We do find out about Bacon’s engagement with others’ art and his subjects. Farson’s exposure of Bacon’s catty barbs (delivered in private) regarding living artists and abstract painting show Bacon’s surprising jealousy and insecurity regarding recent art. Was this the legacy of a self-trained artist, one worried that his absence of art education and his technical unconventionality would be surpassed by the expertise of others? Was Bacon concerned to conceal his debt to abstract painters (such as Rothko) behind blanket dismissals? His library showed how much attention he paid to artists he never acknowledged. Not that Bacon was under an obligation to provide an apologia for his art and his inspirations, however, it is fascinating that he was so active in covering up and dismissing influences and mentors, which does betray – or at least imply – Bacon’s sensitivity towards his debts.   

There seem some questionable judgements. “Though he was personally a masochist, his art had little to do with physical violence or the violence of war as so many assume.” He goes on to say that the violence of life is what Bacon intended to evoke through his vigorous technique. We should remember that Farson did not have access to the photographic material in the studio relating to crime scenes, boxing, mob murders and war journalism. Had he subsequently had such access, Farson may have qualified that observation, if not entirely retracted it. Also the comment about Bacon dying in Madrid when “he had the love of a young Spaniard” seems an incomplete reading of the situation by April 1992. I noticed some slips, such as “James Land” for biographer James Lord, “Manuria” for Hotel Muniria, Tangiers and “Sundlea” for Sundela boards. How many more mundane ones escaped fact checking at the time? Regardless of these quibbles, Gilded Gutter Life stands up as an entertaining and indiscrete memoir of mid-century Soho that vividly and unsparingly captured Bacon’s character.

Omega

James Birch is a gallerist and curator who was the catalyst to one of the most remarkable exhibitions in recent history: the 1988 Bacon exhibition in Moscow. Birch grew up in Wivenhoe, Suffolk, where his family knew local artists Denis Wirth-Miller and Richard Chopping. They were artists who left London in 1940s and were friends with Bacon. Bacon was a frequent visitor to Wivenhoe, even purchasing a small house there, which he rarely used, and so the young James became the honorary godson of the three artists. Birch had established his own gallery by the early 1980s and by the end of the decade was searching for a way to promote his artists. A contact recommended he contact Russian fixer Sergei Klokov, who could arrange to take Birch’s artists to Moscow. No new Western art had been exhibited in the USSR for 40 years. Although the exhibition would not sell, it would cause a sensation. As it turned out, the exhibition would be purely of Bacon’s paintings. Bacon in Moscow is the story of that exhibition.

Birch’s recounts the unending bureaucracy and obscure protocols of Russia in the last years of the Soviet Union. He describes touring galleries where avant-garde was not welcome and artists were unwilling to speak unguardedly in the presence of KGB-informant translators. He writes of the poverty and shabbiness of the people and the streets; his hotel room had a fridge that did not work and a bathtub with no plug. He was aware that everything he said and did was being monitored and reported to the security services. He sees the thawing of the communist cultural ice, as Perestroika led to the first auction of contemporary art in Moscow. Old systems of control were breaking down and the influence of capitalism rapidly changing people made miserable and poor by communism. The Bacon exhibition came to be seen as indicative of that watershed that would usher in a new age.

Although the exhibition has formed part of biographies, Birch is able to give us unexpected information. The Russians had initially wanted an exhibition of Andy Warhol. Birch was unable to get past Warhol’s entourage to put the proposal to the artist. Most fascinating of all is more information on the estrangement that had developed by 1987 between Bacon and Marlborough, his long-standing dealer. Bacon had been approached by a number of galleries looking to tempt him away from Marlborough, the star of which was somewhat faded by this time. Dealings involving paying off the artist’s gambling debts and paying him advances and been balanced by Bacon selling work privately, contrary to verbal agreements with Marlborough. Other transactions may have compromised both artist and gallery, which may have been the deciding factor that kept the two parties together until his death. The Estate of Bacon parted from Marlborough on acrimonious terms not long after Bacon’s death.

Birch explains that the negotiations over the Moscow exhibition nearly foundered because of ill feeling between artist and Marlborough. The exhibition could only proceed with the gallery’s co-operation, as well as the gallery potentially underwriting the cost of insurance and transport – a tidy sum that neither Birch’s gallery nor the Central House of Artists/Union of Artists, Moscow could pay. Eventually, Marlborough paid the costs and the British Council advanced its prestige by claiming more of a part in the planning than was due to it. The introduction of British cultural diplomats was to add further murkiness and complications to the circumstances. Birch found himself manoeuvred out of the credit for an event of which he was the main organiser. He was never sure how much to trust Klokov and wondered about the veracity of everything he was told by Russians. He found himself smitten with Elena Khudiakova, a beautiful model and fashion designer, who accompanied Klokov. He gradually comes to the realisation that Elena was a compulsive liar, someone who was desperate to escape the Soviet system but (when she moved to London) unable to properly live outside it. Birch was later told that Elena was a KGB informant.

The exhibition, which opened in September 1988, was a sensation. Thousands queued to gain entry. The 5,000 catalogues sold briskly and over 400,000 visitors saw the exhibition, which attracted worldwide attention. Soviet artists and art enthusiasts, who had never expected to see Bacon’s art (or any modern Western art) in person, were electrified by the paintings. Bacon never visited the exhibition, despite planning to do so. He wanted to attend the vernissage and then visit the Rembrandts at the Hermitage. Chronic asthma was cited as the reason in the official announcement for his absence. Birch reveals more of the story. It seems that David Sylvester, piqued at having been overlooked to write the catalogue essay, made Bacon so nervous regarding his security that the artist changed his plans. The combination of worries over safety and health decided Bacon’s mind against going, a decision he apparently later regretted.  

Birch is honest about his shortcomings and mistakes, which renders him a sympathetic narrator. We see the story through his eyes, never being quite sure of where he stood with inscrutable Russians, uncommunicative bureaucrats and fickle imperious artist. In that immediacy, Birch’s account is very similar to Farson’s and the comparison is favourable to both accounts. The many photographs taken during the event and preparations give a strong flavour of how Birch experienced Moscow in 1987-8. A valuable service is the inclusion of colour images of the paintings included in the exhibition and some of the comments in the visitors’ book. Bacon in Moscow provides an amusing, revealing and frank account of a historic event and will be welcomed by historians, Bacon fans and casual readers.

Daniel Farson, The Gilded Gutter Life of Francis Bacon, Vintage Books, London, 1994 (1993), paperback, mono illus., 279pp + viii, £12.99, ISBN 978 0 099 30781 5

James Birch, Michael Hodges, Bacon in Moscow, Cheerio/Profile, London, 2022, hardback, col. and mono illus., 204pp, £17.99, ISBN 978 1 788 16974 5

(c) 2023 Alexander Adams

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

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

Ivan Morozov, Russian Art Collector

Ivan Morozov (1871-1921) was a wealthy Russian textile merchant who is best remembered today for his collection of Impressionist, Post-Impressionist and early Modernist art. In this biography, Russian art historian Natalyam Semenova seeks to resurrect the man who made the collection. Morozov is often spoken of in conjunction with his famous compatriot, businessman and supporter of the French avant-garde Sergei Shchukin (1854-1936). In many ways, their fates were intertwined. Both were Muscovites who made their income from manufacturing and trading, both visited Paris and met avant-garde artists personally and bought their art at the start of their careers. Both had their collections and properties confiscated by the Soviet government upon the 1917 Revolution without compensation. Both men died in exile in Paris.

Shchukin has been honoured and understood better (not least with a big exhibition of his collection 2016-7 at the Fondation Louis Vuitton, Paris), now this biography fleshes out the elusive figure of Morozov. (Semenova previously wrote a biography of Shchukin.) Evidence is that Morozov was deliberately reticent about his private life, giving only a single interview towards the end of his life. (It is reprinted in full here.) He seemed camera shy and averse to publicity. This biography coincides with an exhibition of the Morozov collection at Fondation Louis Vuitton, Paris (22 September 2021-22 February 2022).

The Morozovs were descended from an Old Believer family of serfs who had made their fortune making and selling fabric over the course of the Nineteenth Century. Ivan’s mother was Varvara Khludova (1848-1917) of another wealthy cloth manufacturing family, the Khludovs. She married Abram Morozov (1839-1882) in 1869. Ivan was born in 1871. The marriage was cut short by Abram’s death through tertiary syphilis, a painful, humiliating and untreatable death. With a considerable legacy, the widow Morozov immersed herself in charity and philanthropy, especially for educational causes and treatment of the insane. Semenova paints the life of immense wealth, Russian Orthodox observance and civic duty in late Tsarist Russia, using quotes from the memoirs, diaries and letters of the participants. The benefits of wealth were attended by the duties of arts patronage and social fixtures.

Mikhail Morozov, Ivan’s older brother, was a noted biographer and critic. He was also an enthusiastic collector of new Russian painting and the first prominent supporter of Mikhail Vrubel (1856-1910), a Symbolist who made paintings on historical, literary and religious subjects. A voracious glutton and drinker – as well as an impetuous collector – Mikhail Morozov died in 1903, but his legacy as a collector was taken up by his brother Ivan.  The third brother Arseny, died in 1908 following a drunken shooting accident.

Ivan Morozov studied chemistry at Zurich University (1892-4) and painted landscapes to relax. He took classes from Konstantin Korozov (1861-1939), Impressionist landscapist. Ivan worked in the family’s mill (Tver Textile Mill Company) but art collecting became his overriding passion and pastime. Following his brother’s example, Ivan started buying paintings in 1900. It seems Morozov was influenced in his collecting by connoisseur of modern painting, Sergei Vinogradov, a landscape painter. Unlike Shchukin, Morozov purchased art by Russians. These included famed Russian Modernists such as Larionov, Goncharova and Chagall, who need no introduction to Western art lovers but other figures are less familiar, some of whom belonged to the Wanderers Group (Peredvizhniki). Isaac Levitan (1860-1900), whose landscape paintings can best be described as tonalist in character, died young. Valentin Serov (1865-1911) was one of Russia’s great realists, capable of painting truthfully and with panache. He was a famed portraitist who developed a bravura manner, inflected by realism. His portrait of Morozov is on the book cover. Vrubel was also another artist Morozov collected.

However, it is for his collection of Ecole de Paris that Morozov is best remembered. He bought art by Manet, Monet, Pissarro, Degas, Van Gogh (Night Café (1888)), Renoir, Cézanne, Maillol, the Independants (Post-Impressionists) and the Fauves. Morozov bought La Grenouillère (1869) by Renoir, an outstanding early Impressionist painting. He paid a very hefty 200,000 francs for a total of six Renoirs. He developed a passion for Gauguin paintings of Tahiti. He even progressed (cautiously) to freshly made and aesthetically challenging paintings by Vuillard, Bonnard, Picasso (the Rose-period Young Acrobat on Ball (1906)) and Matisse (still-lifes and Moroccan scenes). Profits from manufacturing uniforms for the catastrophic Russo-Japanese War of 1905 gave Morozov vast wealth to spend.

In total, Morozov bought 486 paintings and 30 sculptures. The sculptures included ones by Rodin, Maillol and Matisse. However, not all his collecting was of the highest discernment. His (early) taste for bar scenes of the demi-monde led to the acquisition of a large number of scenes by forgotten non-entities of voguish Cosmopolitan Realism (Guignet, Lempereur, Lissac, Morrice). To house this collection, he built a mansion in Moscow and commissioned Maurice Denis to paint mural panels. Denis travelled to Moscow to install the work, which proved a disappointment as the artist had not properly assessed the setting. Shchukin weekly opened his home to art lovers, allowing them a glimpse of the most advanced paintings that Paris had to offer. These experiences would help form the outlook of the Russian avant-garde. Morozov, in contrast, kept his mansion closed and his personal life secret.

“Can we see Shchukin and Morozov as competitors? Hardly. There were no instances of one poaching a painting from the other, although in respect of some artists their tastes coincided almost entirely. The main difference was in their approach to collecting. Morozov preferred to ‘wait, rather than rush in and make mistakes’, as Boris Ternovets put it. He was incredibly discriminating and thorough, carefully considering which work of each artist he would choose as representative, where exactly he would hang the canvas, and how it would fit in with the others. Sergei Shchukin gave not a moment’s thought to such matters.”

The Great War led to disruption to Morozov’s business and the general society. Travelling to Paris was out of the question. Come the 1917 revolution, Morozov’s mansion was occupied and his art confiscated by the state. Not that the state was sure what to make of the non-realist art – partly a daring strike against convention and partly bourgeois degeneracy. But it was property that had, at least, monetary value. Gangs of Communists and Anarchists stole, defaced and destroyed valuable art, books and furniture, ostentatiously demeaning the property of their former social superiors. Morozov initially stayed on, attempting to protect the collection which was no longer his. For whatever reason, he fled the USSR in 1919, travelling with his wife and daughter. He died in 1921, his (unwilling) contribution to Russian (and Soviet) culture went unrecognised.

Semenova narrates the crude and capricious treatment of the collection in the Soviet era. Morozov’s mansion was turned into a museum, with one floor converted into flats. The collection was later split up and moved. The Tretyakov Gallery got the best of Morozov and Shchukin’s collections. In 1933 a number of paintings were sold to provide valuable foreign currency, leading to the sale of Van Gogh’s Night Café, eventually to join the collection of Yale University – a matter of recent litigation.

The book includes an index, family tree and endnotes. The book is well illustrated with period photographs and a colour-plate section shows some of the masterpieces of Morozov’s collection. This book is a tribute to the commitment of a patron of the arts and a timely warning about the arbitrary power of the state to destroy and mishandle material that would have been better protected by a private owner.  

Natalya Semenova, Arch Tait (trans.), Morozov: The Story of a Family and a Lost Collection, Yale University Press, 17 November 2020, hardback, 288pp, 29 col./27 mono illus., $32.50/£25, ISBN 9780300249828

© 2021 Alexander Adams

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


“The evolutions of revolutionary architecture”

“The neologism is beloved of technocracies, cults and dictatorships; the regime of the USSR had traits of all three tendencies. The lexicon of the USSR sprouted neologisms like mushrooms: Cominform, Comintern, Glavlit, Gosplan, Komsomol, Proletkult, Sovnarkom. VKhUTEMAS was an abbreviation of Higher Art and Technical Studios, a Bolshevik-founded art training school founded in Moscow in 1920. It was set up alongside the even more shortlived INKhUK Institute of Artistic Culture(Institut Khudozhestvennoy Kultury/Институт Художественной Культуры), which only existed from 1920 until 1924, by IZO-Narkompros, the Department of Fine Arts of the People’s Commissariat for Education. Despite being backed by the state, it failed to survive as long as the Bauhaus…”

Read the full 3-book review at The Brazen Head here: https://brazen-head.org/2021/06/11/the-evolutions-of-revolutionary-architecture/

Late Stalinism: Marxist Magic Realism

“In Late Stalinism: The Aesthetics of Power, Evgeny Dobrenko (professor of Russian studies at University of Sheffield) characterises Late Stalinism as a state of low-level civil war with the overt features of “aggressive nationalism […] anti-Semitism, anti-Americanism, imperialism”. That imperialism extended both outside the USSR (the Eastern Bloc) and inside the USSR, by suppressing the distinct cultural identities of non-Russian states. Stalinist culture was propaganda made during the Cold War, created for the purpose of maintaining the status quo domestically and internationally, preventing escalation to military conflict (externally) and political dissent (internally).

“Andrei Zhdanov’s 1934 definition is “Socialist Realism, as the fundamental method of Soviet artistic literature and literary criticism, demands of the artist a truthful, historically concrete portrayal of reality in its revolutionary development….”

Read the full review on The Critic website here: https://thecritic.co.uk/marxist-magic-realism/

Publication: Iconoclasm, Identity Politics and the Erasure of History

Adams2_draft_cover (1)
 
I am pleased to announce the publication of my new book.
 
 
Alexander Adams, Professor Frank Furedi (foreword), Iconoclasm, Identity Politics and the Erasure of History, (Societas) Imprint Academic (UK/US, distr. worldwide), paperback/e-book, 170pp (approx.), £14.95/$29.90, illustrated by the author, mono illus., published worldwide 6 October 2020
 
 
Iconoclasm, Identity Politics and the Erasure of History surveys the origins, uses and manifestations of iconoclasm in history, art and public culture. It examines the various causes and uses of image/property defacement as a tool of political, national, religious and artistic process. This is one of the first books to examine the outbreak of iconoclasm in Europe and North America in the summer of 2020 in the context of previous outbreaks, and it examines the implications of iconoclasm as a form of control, censorship and expression.
 
 
The book contains detailed discussion of the history of iconoclasm in the following areas: Egypt, Byzantium, England, France, Switzerland, the Low Countries, Mexico, Wahhabism/ISIS/Taliban, Nazi/post-unification Germany, Spain, Russia, Ukraine, China and USA. The phenomenon of art vandalism and defacement as an artistic strategy are analysed. The book contains a discussion of the 2020 iconoclasm, Confederate monuments and identity politics, including a thorough list of monuments destroyed or removed. It is fully footnoted and written in a clear, accessible style.
 
 
 
 
The book is available for purchase from the publisher’s website (UK and USA), via internet booksellers internationally and usual book retailers.
 
 
 
To view my books and art, visit www.alexanderadams.art

Natela Iankoshvili

Autumn at Kiziki

[Image: Natela Iankoshvili, Autumn at Kiziki (1976), oil on canvas, 80 x 80 cm | 31 1/2 x 31 1/2 in. Courtesy Galerie Kornfeld, Berlin]

Natela Iankoshvili (1918-2007) is one of the most prominent painters of Georgia, former state of USSR. This survey of Iankoshvili’s painting is published by Hirmer and Galerie Kornfeld, the Berlin gallery representing her estate. This book is a good guide to the life and work of this celebrated Georgian artist. Essays outline the artist’s biography and career, her work as an illustrator, the important support her marriage provided, her achievements in a Georgian context and contemporary reactions to her art. The publication includes a chronology and a bibliography. The selection of illustrated paintings covers broadly 1960 to her last years. (The only weakness of the catalogue is that a few of the illustrations are not crisp enough.)

Iankoshvili was born on 30 August 1918. In 1937 she entered the Academy of Art, Tiblisi and graduated in 1943, in the midst of World War II. She destroyed the art of her student and early years, which was Socialist Realist in character, later stating that it seemed artificial and insincere to her. One of the few paintings to escape the flames was the 1951 realist portrait of her husband Lado Avaliani (1913-1998), a noted author and biographer.

By 1960, when her solo exhibition (of 250 paintings) at the Georgian State Gallery of Painting (National Gallery) took place, her mature personal style was established, in which she painted over 2,000 pictures. The exhibition of 250 paintings was a breakthrough for her and a significant distinction for any Georgian artist, let alone a female painter. Iankoshvili’s mature painting is characterised by vigorous application of paint, heavy impasto, use of broad brushes and palette knives, strong local colour, an Expressionist palette and lack of academic finish. She frequently used square-format canvases. The paintings appear to be painted in a direct manner in few sessions, maybe only one. The artist commonly painted and drew over black or dark green backgrounds. (An example of a drawing employing this technique is a portrait – real or imagined – of a black Cuban.) The landscapes were principally black with motifs depicted in pungent colour. Her landscapes are remembered, invented and reconfigured. A particularly effective one is Landscape of Shatili from Above (1985), which the artist in green over black – almost without another hue, a few touches of yellow blended in the green.

Shales Forest in Kakheti

[Image: Natela Iankoshvili, Shales Forest in Kakheti (1987), oil on canvas, 110 x 75 cm | 43 1/3 x 29 1/2 in. Courtesy Galerie Kornfeld, Berlin]

Her subjects were not typical genres of official Soviet painters: local landscapes, wildlife, portraits of exotic figures rather than workers or party officials. She did also paint portraits of authors she admired, including Ana Kalandadze and Boris Pasternak. Depicting glamorous women in bourgeois costumes was a clear rejection of the official aesthetic and a way of connecting to Western European painting and art of the pre-Modern era and thus an act of defiance – albeit not a dangerous one by the 1960s. Her attachment to the religious and vernacular architecture and traditions of Georgia also distanced her from Socialist Realism. The cerebral light-filled optimism of an everlasting present of official Soviet art is supplanted in Iankoshvili’s art by a darkly luminescent night, redolent of intrigue, romance and history.

Authors note that Iankoshvili took inspiration for her work on black grounds from Niko Pirosmani (1862-1918), a famed Georgian painter. Pirosmani’s painting is not dissimilar to that of Douanier Rousseau’s primitivist painting. He used black sail canvas because he could not afford proper artist’s materials. In allying her practice to Pirosmani’s, Iankoshvili can be seen as drawing upon her Georgian heritage and seeking to take vitality from folk art, uncontaminated by the political correctness of her time. Another guiding light was the art of El Greco. His colours, sense of movement and spatial ambiguity seem points of attraction for the Georgian. Her 1965-6 illustrations to the epic poem The Knight in the Panther’s Skin were done on black paper.

The year after her landmark 1960 exhibition, Iankoshvili was one of the artists who travelled to Cuba and Mexico in 1961 on a state-sponsored mission for the collaboration between the nations’ artists. She was attracted by the racial variety of the people and the lush vegetation and fauna of the island.

Iankoshvili had numerous exhibitions in exhibitions within the USSR and, from 1976 onwards, exhibited internationally. In 1977 she was awarded a gold medal for a portrait by her exhibited in Paris. In 1995 she received the Shota Rustaveli State Prize and the following year she was awarded the Medal of Honour of the State of Georgia. In 2000 a museum dedicated to her art opened in Tiblisi. Contemporaries commented that the painter’s attitude towards commerce seemed to be a blend idealism, cussedness and naivety: she gave away pictures rather than selling them, limiting the exposure her art would have generated through commercial dissemination, especially after the demise of the USSR in 1991. In recent years, her art has been shown worldwide, championed by Galerie Kornfeld, Berlin.

Iankoshvili’s individualism (which expressed itself in her decision to forego the official style and thereby limiting her opportunities for official commissions) is as important as her art. Although she benefited eventually from taking such a brave decision in the long run, her initial choice seems to have been based on a question of conscience. In the West today, we are too cynical. Our default response to acts of conscience and risk-taking in the face of consensus are to diminish them as careerism or motivated by materialism or ulterior motives. We should be more responsive and respectful of acts of honest conscience.

Enigma

[Image: Natela Iankoshvili, Enigma (1983), oil on canvas, 125 x 155 cm | 49 1/4 x 61 in. Courtesy Galerie Kornfeld, Berlin]

Her art (developed independently) parallels the 1970s and 1980s school of German, Italian and American Neo-Expressionism. The directness, vigour, romanticism and glamour of her art shrugs off the caginess of art based on systems, unashamedly embracing the subjects of the past without apology and self-consciousness. For artists seeking an antidote to the irony and insincerity of Post-Modernism, art such as Iankoshvili’s is a route to an alternative future. Regardless of what one thinks of her art, Iankoshvili’s heroic individualism and love of art was in direct opposition to the anonymity and utilitarianism of Socialist Realism of the 1940s, yet it also (inadvertently) opposes the caution of Conceptualism, the irony of Post-Modernism and the utilitarianism of artivism of today.

The vitality, humanity and complete commitment to the principle of art-for-art’s-sake are what can make Natela Iankoshvili an inspiration for future artists who wish to reject the sterile cynicism of today’s art movements.

Mamuka Bliadze, Natela Iankoshvili: An Artist’s Life between Coercion and Freedom, Galerie Kornfeld, Berlin/Hirmer (distr. Hirmer), 2020, hardback, 160pp, 66 col. illus., £32, ISBN 978 3 7774 3513 8

 

© 2020 Alexander Adams

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

“The Melancholy of Obsolete Futures”

“Brutalism has seen a surge in interest among young people keen on bold uncompromising Modernist design. Whole books of moody photographic studies of concrete buildings are snapped up by fans of urban life and retro design. A crop of new books explores the Brutalism of socialist states.

“While Constructivism and avant-gardism in fine art came to prominence during the October Revolution, it was suppressed in favour of Socialist Realism by the mid-1930s. In architecture more adventurous forms and materials persisted, although in the minority. Under Stalin there was a degree of stylistic conformity and austerity, yet adventurous architecture was not seen as “bourgeois formalism” as it was in art. Following the death of Stalin in 1953, historicism receded and a greater variety of art, design and architecture (including Modernist architecture) became possible. While supposedly for the masses, many of the showpiece constructions were moribund from the start: inverted ziggurat hotels that were barely occupied and shopping centres with few consumer goods to offer. Much of this architecture was completed less than a decade before the economic and political collapse of the Eastern Bloc….”

Read the full review online at The Critic here: https://thecritic.co.uk/melancholy-of-obsolete-futures/

Women as Creators and Subjects in Soviet Art

YANSON-MANIZER SCULPTURE  ULANOVA

[Image: Sculptor Elena Yanson-Manizer (1890–1971) working on the portrait of Galina Ulanova as Odette from the ballet ‘Swan Lake’]

The Government of the proletarian dictatorship, together with the Communist Party and trade unions, is of course leaving no stone unturned in the effort to overcome the backward ideas of men and women. […] That will mean freedom for the woman from the old household drudgery and dependence on man. That enables her to exercise to the full her talents and inclinations.

So stated Lenin. The advantages that middle-class women had secured in the decades before the Russian Revolution were not to be reserved to them alone. In the USSR, gender equality would be extended to all in a classless society. It was made clear by Party statements that women would be liberated whether or not they wanted to be. This meant work outside the home. However, as the husbands would also be working and there would no established support network of paid domestic help, this effectively doubled the workload of working women, with no extra support. Key workers would be moved around the country without consideration for their family life, imposing burdens on those remaining regarding childcare. The mother in the USSR was faced with less choice over how to live her life than before the Revolution. She had less control over the raising and education of her children, less free time and she had to – as all citizens of the USSR did – recognise she was no longer a private individual.

While there were such restrictions, women received access to improved educational opportunities. In the early years of the USSR, women had the chance to participate in careers that had been male-only preserves. One of these was not fine art, which had been open to women for many decades. However, barriers of cost and class that had prevented all but women of the wealthiest families from training at academies were removed by the new Soviet regime. Theoretically, women artists were permitted to exercise their skills to the utmost, free of financial restrictions.

Soviet Women and Their Art includes essays dealing with Soviet women as the subjects and producers of art in the USSR, from 1917 to the dissolution of the state in 1991. Profiles describe the lives and work of female artists and illustrations give us an idea of the character of their art.

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[Image: Alexandra Exter, City at Night (1919), oil on canvas, 88 × 71 cm. State Russian Museum, St Petersburg, Russia / Bridgeman Images]

In early years of the Revolution, women artists flourished. There were already many women involved in the advanced art scene of the major cities. Cubism, Cubo-futurism, Suprematism and Constructivism were all current during the 1910s, some instances predating the 1917 Revolution by years. Natalia Goncharova (1881-1962) is omitted from the profile section because her story is woven into an essay deals with avant-gardism. This tale includes Ksenia Boguslavskaia, Alexandra Exter (1882-1949), Nadezhda Udaltsova (1885-1961), Natalia Davydova, Evgeniia Pribylskaia, Varvara Stepanova (1894-1958) and Lyubov Popova (1889-1924). These creators or fine art and applied art worked on numerous publications, exhibitions and collaborative production before and after the October Revolution. It was a sense of community of likeminded artists that motivated this co-operation. After the Revolution, such community action was not so much mandated as officially authorised and encouraged. These collaborations included plays, ballets and parades. Early theorists suggested that complete social revolution and the smashing of traditions would be reflected in (and be promoted by) art of revolutionary character. Thus avant-garde art was the vanguard of an era of absolute change in all areas of human existence.

In a form of arts-and-crafts ethic, a number of fine artists produced designs for textiles, clothing, fabrics and household objects. This movement parallels the leftist-inspired Bauhaus. There were a number of close ties between the political and artistic left-wing movements of USSR and Germany during the 1917-1933 period before the advent of National Socialism.

p29

[Image: Olga Rozanova, Ksenia Boguslavskaia and Kazimir Malevich at the Last Futurist 0.10 Exhibition, December 1915, Petrograd. Photo © Russian State Archive of Literature and Art, Moscow /Bridgeman Images]

The greatest star and most painful loss to the Russian avant-garde movement of the era was Olga Rozanova (1886-1918). She was deeply involved in advanced painting. In 1912 she was making angular strongly coloured figurative paintings drawing from Fauvism and Expressionism. At an accelerating speed she cycled through other styles. The following year she was making Cubo-Futurist still-lifes and street views. By 1916 she was experimenting with Suprematism, pioneered by Malevich. She approached abstraction and by 1917 she had produced a fascinating, hypnotic painting Green Stripe, which is a vertical emerald stripe on a white ground. It presages Barnett Newman formally but it is more complex. Its irregular transparency in the edges of the stripe suggests some form that is both a strong presence and an emanation. It suggests two white walls converging or dissolving.

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[Image: Olga Rozanova, Green Stripe (1917), oil on canvas, 71.2 x 49cm. Kremlin State Museum, Rostov, Russia – Godong/Alamy Stock Photo]

Rozanova died aged only 32, which some have ascribed to her exertions to complete a decorative project in November 1918. There would be great value in a proper retrospective in the West and a comprehensive English-language catalogue of Rozanova’s art. She is the single best Russian avant-gardist artist not well known in the West. For preference, I rate her higher than Goncharova.

By the mid-1920s there was serious political resistance to such avant-garde art. The problem was of accessibility. Art that was abstract or highly stylised began to be condemned at the highest level as “bourgeois formalism”. In other words, advanced art was the games of educated elites that excluded and alienated the uninitiated, such as the ordinary peasant, soldier and factory worker. This theoretical objection to avant-gardism was solidified into Party policy by 1936. At that time, the main purpose of Soviet Communism was the preservation of the USSR and advancement of the material condition of the people. Rather than being a style as such, it was a principle that placed style below content, message below form, the political above the private, the recognisable above the strange, the direct above the ambiguous. No longer would artists strive for a cosmic universal language of liberation of humanity; instead, artists would work to advance the interests of Socialism as an extension of the development of the nation. The result was realist art that was patriotic, positive, uncritical, easy to understand, attractive and unchallenging. This meant that avant-garde artists had to adapt their style or cease producing art. Artists who were educated at this time were trained under the tenets of Socialist Realism.

Socialist Realism was not an actual style, so there was latitude for personal adaptation and incorporation of old or foreign influences. Anyone studying the range of art produced by officially supported artists will note the variety of styles though they will also note the absence of variation in tone and content – a complete absence of satire, humour, tragedy and criticism regarding life in the USSR. Soviet women artists had no immunity from the ravages of the political persecution. Their close relatives were imprisoned, exiled or executed. Some were driven to suicide or silence. Others relinquished their commitment to abstraction and turned to conventional subjects acceptable to the Union of Soviet Artists.

The most celebrated woman artist, and one of the most respected artists in the Socialist Realism era, was sculptor Vera Mukhina (1889-1953). She studied under Antoine Bourdelle in Paris (1912-4), the most advanced sculptor of the era, and at Académies Colarossi, de la Palette and de la Grande Chaumière. She made statues primarily by modelling and casting in bronze. Early influences seem to École de Paris sculptors such as Bourdelle, Lipchitz and Picasso, as well Boccioni and the Futurists. She adapted to the expectations of the Socialist Realism and produced her own form of academic realism. This extended to heroic realism, found most prominently in Worker and Kolkhoz Woman, her gigantic figures (24.5m tall) for the Soviet pavilion at the 1937 Paris World Fair.

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[Image: Vera Mukhina (1889–1953), Worker and Kolkhoz Woman (1937), stainless steel, H. 24.5 m. Photo © Peter Phipp / Travelshots / Bridgeman Images]

It was a triumph of propaganda and became an iconic symbol for both the USSR and for socialism. It has to be acknowledged as a brilliant achievement in its attempt to stir emotion and inspire belief. Her various figure sculptures are illustrated. Generally, her art is not bellicose or stentorian in tone. One notable characteristic is her fidelity to life in the form of commitment to working with the nude figure. Overcoming the official tendency to produce anti-erotic depictions of figures and her commitment to working from life were major contributions. Her work in glass led to other artists following this practice. Her art is worth knowing beyond the iconic Worker and Kolkhoz Woman.

In an essay looking at the role of women in the new nation, the authors note the importance of fizkultura (physical culture) in society. Both men and women were expected to be physically fit and able to perform the tasks the state required of them, be they gymnastics, military service, dancing, working in the fields or factory, excelling in sports or mothering – always group or social activities. Men should be prepared for defence of their country. The demonstrations of co-ordinated gymnastics or military parades bonded individuals into units, drilled them to follow commands, awed participants and spectators and demonstrated the control of the state over its subjects. It was both practical and ideological. It was an expression of solidarity and unity of purpose. Fizkultura was also associated to the demonstration of the superiority of Communism through athletics and sports. These new subjects allowed Soviet artists to use semi-nude figures in action, overcoming state disapproval of academic history, mythological and the sensual nude as subjects. People engaged in sports were a particularly productive subject for sculptors. There is nothing stylistically or thematically to distinguish female from male sculptors. Leading male painters of the female nude were Arkady Plastov (1893-1972), Alexander Samokhvalov (1894-1971) and Aleksandr Deineka (1899-1969).

Three female ideals of the USSR were the lean lithe adolescent, the resolute factory worker and the sturdy fertile peasant. There was a premium placed upon the asexual: the athlete was narrow-hipped, small-breasted and with short hair; the factory worker wore unisex practical clothing and no make-up; the peasant mother was stoic and generous but was dutiful rather than attractive, more mother than wife. In each archetype individuality was reduced. In portraits we have the richness, tenderness of feeling and psychological insight of the best art of all ages and countries, but in the tradition of Social Realism there was a tendency to treat figures in scenes as archetypes.

The death of Stalin led to a period of political and social reform was called the Khrushchev Thaw. In the arts this meant a loosening of restrictions. Abstract or “non-objective” art became acceptable even if it did not become part of official projects or murals. Although the subsequent stagnation of the Brezhnev era led to the halting or retraction of some economic and social reforms of the late 1950s and early 1960s, there seems to have been little appetite for the restoration of heroic realism or the more anodyne forms of Socialist Realism at that time. An example of this new freedom may be found in the art of Lydia Masterkova (1927-2008). Her art informel, which incorporates tachiste and Abstract Expressionist elements into abstract paintings and drawings, is much closer to the mainstream of Western European art of the time than the art of her Socialist Realist predecessors. She attempts to recapture the commitment to development of the plastic content of art seen in the 1910s avant-gardism. She eventually emigrated to France.

One area of unresolved ambiguity that involved women and the arts was the ballet. Although Russian ballet was an import of French courtly culture, and was reserved for Russian royalty, it developed its own traditions and standards which made it unique and revered worldwide. So although the Party disapproved of the origins and conventions of ballet – not least its reliance on stories and music replete with bourgeois morals – the Party could make the ballet (especially the Bolshoi Ballet and Ballets Russes) available to the people as a form of Russian culture. The government of the USSR was also aware of the cachet of Russian ballet and how the art form could be used in soft diplomacy through foreign tours.

p151

[Image: Zinaida  Serebryakova, Portrait of A.A. Cherkesova-Benois with her Son Alexander (1922), oil on canvas, 80 × 68 cm. State Russian Museum, St Petersburg – Photo © 2018 Scala, Florence]

Zinaida Serebryakova (1884-1967) specialised in ballet scenes, mostly focusing upon the practice and preparation rather than the performance. Her paintings are not idealistic and do not engage in the ambitious technical and formal aspects of Degas’s paintings of dancers. Instead they attractive, complex and emotionally sympathetic portrayals of women at work. The dressing room tableaux allowed Serebryakova to paint partial nudes which have a delight of the sensual without being sexual or gratuitous. Serebryakova was also an extremely accomplished painter of portraits and still-lifes. Again, like Rozanova, Serebryakova is a painter whose work deserves greater recognition. Although she lived in Paris from 1924 onwards, her early work is in public collections in Russia, and it is this which is illustrated and discussed in the book.

An essay discusses appearances of women in the art of Soviet era, including as military personnel, workers, athletes and mothers, as well as pictures where their roles are unstated. Other essays discuss female sculptors and the final stage of Soviet art from the 1960s to 1991. This was an era when the unofficial artists worked outside of the Union of Soviet Artists and official exhibitions and commission competitions to produce art of abstract, conceptual or non-conformist character. They existed in a half-world. They were neither persecuted nor approved; unable to publicly exhibit, their activities were confined to private showings for private networks of supporters and colleagues. At this time, Valentina Kropivnitskaya (1924-2008) produced elaborate drawings of Russian settings inhabited by quasi-human beings. They have a Surrealistic character, with the detailed foliage and clear detail that one associates with dreams. By the time feminist theory reached Soviet artists and began to appear in art there, the Soviet Union was on the point of dissolution.

The book omits poster art in favour of the fine arts. Although propaganda has been covered in other publications, it might have been useful to mention women’s involvement in propaganda production. Perhaps more could have been written about female self-portraits. The book is a fine summary of the subject and includes much art that will be unfamiliar to Western readers. While the illustrations are generally good, inexplicably there are some weak photographs of art works that were better reproduced in Unicorn’s recent Art of the Soviet Union. It is puzzling that the better quality images were not reused in this book.

Edit: To read a longer version of this review (and 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

Rena Lavery, Ivan Lindsay, et al., Soviet Women and Their Art: The Spirit of Equality, Unicorn, 12 April 2019, paperback, col. illus., 224pp, £19.99, ISBN 978 1 911 604 761

© 2019 Alexander Adams

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

Utopia & Collapse: Metsamor

Utopia_Collapse_p-191_observation-deck

[Image: Observation deck at the pond © Katharina Roters]

In 1966, Soviet authorities decided to situate a nuclear power station in the Soviet Socialist Republic of Armenia. Armenian architect Martin Mikaelyan, assisted by Karen Tiraturyan and Griman Hovespyan, designed an entire city of Metsamor from scratch to provide residences for power-plant workers. The site was near an ancient settlement and rural villages but was on previously agricultural land. The power station was situated 4 km from the city and 15 km from the Turkish border. Work on the city and power plant began in 1969. Metsamor is an atomograd – an atomic city, developed in a way similar to the other single-function urban centres of science cities, academic cities and military cities in the USSR. The USSR had no restrictions in term of permission or public expectation and could therefore exercise complete control over the location and design of new cities. The design of Metsamor would include different zones of housing and public buildings. The centrally planned organisation of the city was apparent in the decision to use a central boiler for heating, with a communal laundry and bathhouse planned.

The first phase was executed and the power station was made operational in 1974. However, the city was never completed. A severe earthquake in 1988 and the dissolution of the USSR sealed the fate of the project. The political and economic support for the Metsamor had already peaked by 1990. The completed city was intended to house a population of 36,000. The actual population level reached a maximum in 1989 (11,959). Although the station produces 40% of Armenia’s electricity supply, the town population is decreasing, now down to an estimated 8,000 (as of 2016). The small population is living with facilities that it cannot adequately use and which are falling into decay and abandonment. The contrast between, on one hand, the optimism of the plan and the assertiveness of the execution and, on the other hand, the incomplete state and dilapidation of town is poignant.

Utopia_Collapse_p-69_rare-facade_1971

Utopia & Collapse. Rethinking Metsamor: The Armenian Atomic City publishes the plans, architectural drawings and archive photographs of the city alongside new photographs of the current condition of the city. Chapters cover the types of buildings, setting out specifications and notable features. Expert essays examine Metsamor specifically and discuss the metaphorical aspects of this stalled utopian project. There are essays on Martin Mikaelyan and a testimony from a long-term resident of Metsamor. For anyone with an interest in Brutalism and Soviet architecture and society, Utopia & Collapse will be a rewarding read. Not least, the new photographs form a melancholy and beautiful journalistic essay on the plight of people dealing with the ramifications of grandiose top-down central planning and economic stagnation. The views of abandoned buildings – with their littered corridors, emptied rooms and crumbling concrete – are juxtaposed with images of the current residents living in buildings modified in haphazard fashion.

The post-Socialist era saw the liberation of building restrictions. This led to the building of extensions (some multi-storey) attached to the back of properties. The city was redistricted – a tacit acknowledgement that the full plan would never be fully carried out. The removal of municipal control of maintenance has generated gaps, conflict and uncertainty with regard to common spaces in shared buildings. Property owners sometimes refuse to cooperate to clean and maintain common areas – a particular drawback in a settlement consisting largely of shared buildings. Open spaces have been neglected or appropriated by families.

All this is in stark contrast to the original plans. There was a city centre placed between the main residential area with kindergartens and a smaller residential area with a school. This original centre is site of the House of Culture, Music School and hotel. In the post-Soviet era locals found that this division – especially with the city in its current unpopulated state – was unsuitable and formed an ad hoc centre in the middle of the main residential zone, featuring small shops.

Utopia_Collapse_p-73_power-plant

[Image: View on the city with power plant in the background © Katharina Roters]

The majority of residential buildings were five-storey, five-storey-linked and nine-storey apartment blocks. These were from standardised designs, using prefabricated components including concrete panels and reinforced concrete pillars and beams. This was usual for Soviet-era construction. All had open balconies, most of which have now been covered. Photographs show the mosaic appearance of different panels, blocks, tarpaulins and windows. These blocks were elevated on pillars, allowing free access for pedestrians below the buildings. The ground level was left open until the proliferation of cars and the deterioration of the Soviet system around 1990, which led to open space being used for parking and being partitioned for commercial use. The linked buildings were blocks connected by multi-level walkways. These were arranged around common courtyards, with curved paths and water features, both made from concrete.

The nine-storey buildings had lifts. Soviet typology regulations stipulated provision of two lifts for buildings over nine-storeys, thus the limiting of Metsamor’s tallest structures to nine storeys was a cost-efficiency measure. The balconies of these are closed and incorporate kitchens. The interconnectedness of the courtyards, provision of walking spaces below apartment blocks and the relatively small low-rise accommodation all worked well. Build control is not discussed but this was often low quality in the USSR. Post-Soviet modifications have not been unsuccessful and the incomplete nature of the city has provided residents with a degree of flexibility. It is the absence of funds for maintenance, lack of varied economic activity and low population which are Metsamor’s principle problems.

On the eastern and northern edges of the city were the sports complex and hospital. The large sporting centre (opened in 1980) is now partially overgrown. Its outdoor pool is drained and matted with weeds. The interior basketball court is still used but most of the structures have been proved too costly to maintain. The city has a strange lopsided imbalance due to the absences of important buildings, facilities and people – that ghostly quality of a city hosting fewer than 15% of its envisaged inhabitants. A spectacular tall water tower – elegant in a clean Brutalist fashion – was never built. (A design for it is illustrated.) Construction on a whole residential district was not started.

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The five-storey hotel was designed with guest-room windows orientated to face holy Mount Ararat, tantalisingly just outside Armenia’s borders. Between Metsamor and snow-capped Mount Ararat are the giant cooling towers of the nuclear power plant. (The plant itself is not photographed or described in this book.) The hotel had a capacity for 130 guests but now only the lower floor is used, with the upper floors abandoned. The House of Culture (designed 1975, construction commenced 1979, completed 1986) is one of the few buildings kept in its unmodified original state and in reasonable condition. It is the most important communal building for the populace and well attended for events. The building houses the town library and art school.

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[Image: Interior view of the House of Culture © Katharina Roters]

There are some photographs which are heartening. The shots of the functional schools and kindergartens show fresh paint in pastel shades on re-plastered walls after renovation. The shabby Spartan kitchen displays a form of genteel dignity in making do with restricted means. The Music School and House of Culture are cared for as well as possible. Instead of the proposed Museum of Nuclear Power, a church was built in the 2000s, funded by ex-patriate Armenians. Yet the moribund character of the ghost city with its vacant buildings cannot help but recall for viewers Pripyat, the abandoned atomograd of Chernobyl nuclear power plant.

The views of walls peeling paint, swimming pools missing tiles, climbing frames reduced to rusted skeletons and the graffiti has been incised on the plaster walls (the city seems relatively free of spray-paint defacement) make a deep impact. The books of photographs of the collapsing cinemas, decaying ballrooms and overrun townhouses in Detroit speak of the decline of an urban centre due to social and economic decline. Utopia & Collapse speaks of the failure of ideological totalitarianism and also the progressivist ideal of completely designed and controlled system being imposed on people. The project of Modernism – most apparent in the Brutalist architecture and centralised urban planning – offers profound problems for us in that it must work against human nature and the propensity of people to want to adapt, personalise and revise in an improvisatory manner. Both the decline of urban centres due to diminution of heavy industry in Detroit and the vulnerability of Modernist schemes in the face of changing political reality in Metsamor provide us with insights into life.

Metsamor faces seemingly inevitable decline, with its population is dwindling. The 1988 earthquake did not damage the power plant but it prompted concern that future earthquakes could cause serious damage. With obsolescence looming, closure of the nuclear power plant has been suggested for 2026. Although the Soviet experiment may be seen a distant event, its legacy casts a long shadow over the lives and land of today.

 

Katharina Roters, Sarhat Petrosyan (eds.), Utopia & Collapse. Rethinking Metsamor: The Armenian Atomic City, Park Books, 2018, 236pp, 229 col./82 mono illus., €48, ISBN 978 3 03860 094 7

© 2019 Alexander Adams

View my art and books on www.alexanderadams.art