Seeing Is Believing

Bursting the frame: Natalia Goncharova's irrepressible Peasants Gathering Grapes (1912).Photo: courtesy of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum

The title is tacky and misleading. Amazons of the Avant-Garde: Alexandra Exter, Natalia Goncharova, Liubov Popova, Olga Rozanova, Varvara Stepanova, and Nadezhda Udaltsova suggests that these six Russian artists were a group; they weren’t. It also suggests that they were heroic figures who triumphed against all odds over the gender discrimination prevalent in early-twentieth-century Russia. The catalogue makes clear, however, that these women did not see themselves in conflict with the male artists with whom they worked, exhibited, and lived: “Their relationships with their male colleagues,” writes co-curator John E. Bowlt, “seem to have been remarkably harmonious, collaborative, and fruitful.” Referring to Goncharova’s relationship with the painter Mikhail Larionov, art historian Jane A. Sharp notes: “Memoirs of colleagues and friends underscore the reciprocity of their relationship and the central place it occupied in Moscow’s bohemian circles.”

While “Amazons,” at the Guggenheim, is somewhat compromised by the tension between the hype of the title and the show’s scholarly seriousness, it brings to New York many wonderful paintings, and its main point will stick. The strength of woman artists in Russia between 1905 and 1920 has been recognized for some time, but hearing about it, or getting glimpses of it, is one thing; seeing it is another. With just over 70 artworks, the exhibition is too limited, but it is big enough to leave no doubt that these artists really were that good. The confidence, readiness, and zest in their paintings are astonishing and a reminder of why the Russian avant-garde inspired and haunted artists throughout the twentieth century.

The exhibition begins, appropriately, with Goncharova, the oldest (born in 1881) and most enterprising, polemical, and mercurial of the six. During the tumultuous pre-revolutionary years, Goncharova seems to have changed pictorial styles almost as often as clothes. In 1907, she painted an impishly brash naturalistic self-portrait, and in 1907-08 an expressionistic tribute to the labor and loyalty of the Russian peasant. In 1910, she used a soberly iconic style to paint Apocalypse (Elder With Seven Stars), one of her controversial interpretations of Christian themes.

Goncharova’s 1912 Peasants Gathering Grapes is an unforgettable and emblematic work marked by Pablo Picasso’s early Cubism as well as by Scythian statuary and other Eastern artistic traditions. Its two monumental figures, seemingly male and female but perhaps with genders as yet unformed, are so much bigger than the five-foot-tall canvas in which they are as cramped as basketball players in an attic that they seem irrepressible. Their sun-baked bodies work in tandem in the pre-dawn darkness of an obscure landscape that could be the budding scaffolding of a new city, a different world. The next year, however, Goncharova shifted again, this time composing with fractured planes, her new image of nature no longer marked by the peasant’s slow, indomitable rhythms but by urban dynamism and speed. The exhibition abruptly drops her in 1914, when she left for Paris (where she wrote, designed theater sets, and sometimes repainted her Russian works).

This first of the two parts of the exhibition ends with the equally compelling and mischievous Stepanova, thirteen years younger than Goncharova and the youngest artist in the show. The people in her 1920 paintings are of a kind children might draw – with empty moon faces, and legs and arms shaped like sticks or rectangles. They suggest human beings as industrial parts or as musical notes or instruments. They dance and work, play and are played. Stepanova, a poet of exuberance and freedom, believed in the creative potential of disorder and anarchy (the word she liked was transrational). Her paintings reaffirm human individuality even as the machinelike anonymity of her figures now seems to augur the assault on the individual by the Russian state.

Goncharova, Rozanova, Exter, and Stepanova made paintings that immediately evoke realities outside of painting: rural tradition, urban dynamism, the energies of nature, or the power of machines. By contrast, Popova, whose work, along with Udaltsova’s, is shown on a different floor, made paintings that need to be approached through the language of painting and taken on their own terms. Her great 1921 abstraction Spatial-Force Construction demands sustained attention to line, shape, color, and edge. While concentrating on the density and velocity of a diagonal – or on the way a red curve, white crescent, or brown triangle emerges and interacts and claims a section of the surface – the painting reveals itself as a thought process, as a producer of consciousness, and as a signpost to a different space, perhaps a fourth dimension.

What is stunningly evident in this show is the spiritual conviction of artists who have been discussed primarily in social and political terms. It’s hard to do justice to their paintings without using a word that makes most art professionals cringe: love. These artists were passionate about color and light. Their light has a striking warmth and glow, even a sweetness. Because of its physicality, it has a tactility and availability that the light in Cubism and Futurism, which strongly influenced the Russian avant-garde, rarely if ever has. All of these painters, aware of Russian icons and steeped in one or another strain of Russian mysticism, believed that through light and color they could tap essential sources of transformation – spiritual but also social – and through their paintings, share that transforming power with ordinary people.

Unfortunately, the show offers little evidence – only a handful of photographs – that these six artists also produced work that was connected to everyday life. Bowlt, who organized the exhibition with Matthew Drutt of the Guggenheim and Zelfira Tregulova, an independent Russian curator, acknowledges the oversight when he writes that the show “concentrates on studio paintings at the expense of the applied arts in which the six women also excelled, including designs for books, textiles, fashion, ceramics, and the stage.” How much richer the show would have been had it included such pragmatic work to show how the artists might have brought people unfamiliar with art to their paintings; explained how Popova thought about the lines and surfaces of her poster and book designs; or made clear what role the meditative or analytic attention many of their works required played in the greater cultural renewal to which they were committed. While “Amazons of the Avant-Garde” affirms the stature of these artists, and thus their place in art history, it also narrows their cultural impact by detaching them from the realities of their time and the breadth of their ambition.

Seeing Is Believing