By reexamining the works of women artists who were active in Russian avant-garde art, this essay attempts to establish their place within art history. Almost 30 women artists can be named as active participants in Russian avant-garde art, and these women were closely engaged near the centre of the art movement. Here, the larger context is provided by the radical changes taking place in Russian society at the time, led by the ideologies of the socialist revolution. Women artists were not excluded from the societal call for women to join in the revolution as proletariat warriors.
However, despite such appearances, there are many examples of women artists in revolutionary Russia who failed to break completely from their supporting roles or peripheral positions in the male-centred avant-garde art movement. Women, while still confined to roles defined by patriarchal conventions, were at the same time burdened by social duties imposed under the pretext of social participation; hence, in some aspects, women bore an even greater load than before. Despite their active participation, women
were designated to positions subordinate to men; even in later art history, they are described as mere inserts within a history of avant-garde art led by men. This paper reviews the works of five major women artists who were at the vanguard of Russian avant-garde art to more fairly evaluate their position in the art of those times.
Alexandra Exter(1882-1949) was a seminal avant-garde artist who moved across Russia, France, and Italy, experimenting and popularizing Cubo-Futurism. In addition, through her activities in education and curating, she was an important leader of Ukrainian avant-garde art, spreading new art in the Ukraine. Her rhythmical city landscapes fused the principles of Futurism with experiments in the form of Cubism, merged with traditional Ukrainian
colours. Exter took the foreign trends she encountered and reinterpreted them through her own roots and in so doing eventually extended into abstract art. She revealed herself to be a total artist, applying her painterly experiments to stage and wardrobe design for various projects including Salome(by Oscar Wilde, 1917).
Along with her husband Mikhail Larionov, Natalia Goncharova(1881-1962) presented the Rayonist Manifesto in 1913 to become a founding member of the movement. Although Goncharova is said to have received the full support of her husband, she also played an independent role within the avant-garde circles in Moscow. Especially in realizing avant-garde art theory through her works, Goncharova was much more proactive than her husband. The geometrical structures of Cubism, the dynamic ‘force-lines’ of Futurism,
and the colours of Orphism all came together in her paintings, which were almost like a blueprint for the Rayonist Manifesto, clarified into a final form integrating those three trends.
Based on her writings on abstract art theory in 1913, it was already evident that Olga Rozanova(1886-1918) was one of the leaders guiding Russian avant-garde art into the abstract art movement. She deeply sympathized with Malevich’s Suprematism, and Malevich in turn believed in her so much that he hailed her the “only true Suprematist.”
However, Rozanova proposed a Suprematism through colour, and realized this in her works; in this respect she can be distinguished from Malevich. The simplified colour fields and colour bands that formed her later works surpassed Malevich and presaged the colour field abstract paintings of the mid to late 20th century. Rozanova also developed pictopoésie, which fused together painting with ‘zaum’, a trend that influenced the Russian avantgarde
literature of the era. She worked as a book designer as well.
Through a series entitled Painterly Architectonics, Liubov Popova(1889-1924) provided a prototype for Constructivist painting. To her, more than anything, painting was a kind of architectural structure built of elements such as space, lines, colours, movement, and texture. Rather than viewing art as a representation of the mind, she firmly held to the Constructivist view of art as the construction of material elements. Especially after the 1917 revolution, she followed the route of Constructivism that identified artistic revolution
with social revolution and gradually progressed into Productivism, which linked art to industrialization. During this period she also engaged in stage design. Her stage for Fernand Crommelynck’s play The Magnanimous Cuckold(1922) was a typically Constructivist design as it was closely fused with the acting, and also could be easily assembled and transported.
Another Constructivist artist, Varvara Stepanova(1894-1958), experimented from the beginning with the concept of total art through picto-poésie, which combined art with literature. Her works are similar to Rozanova, but with letters and forms more organically 152 woven to create an integrated picture. In addition, Stepanova created pictures combining abstract forms with human figures through which she realized true Constructivist methods by actively employing functional tools like the ruler and compass and mechanical processes such as stenciling. She also turned to Productivist art by way of the revolution. In addition, she participated actively in stage art; her stage design for Alexander Sukhovo-Kobylin’s play The Death of Tarelkin(1922), along with Popova’s work, remains a representative example of Constructivist stage design.
The activities of women artists like these account for a major part of the history of Russian avant-garde art. In particular, following the revolution, a shift occurred towards a total art encompassing all art genres and an everyday art that sought to fuse art into life, and in this process, the role of women artists certainly cannot be overlooked. Women were not simply followers of male artists, but created their own forms; and especially in those realms traditionally assigned to women, such as textile and clothing design, women played an even more leading role.
The demands of art and society at the time brought about women’s participation, and with this, women not only gained entry into the male sanctuary of art, they also became catalysts for changing that sanctuary. More than anything, women’s fluid ability to move freely between art and everyday life resulted in the ‘secularization’ of ‘sacred’ art. All this might be blasphemous if viewed through the filter of the ‘high art’ rhetoric of modernism,
but through a different filter of ‘art within life’, it is a very delightful rebellion. If Russian avant-garde art—which has been constructed as the axis of modernism and thus reduced to the single aspect of being the origin of abstract painting—is scrutinized from a different perspective, women and their place will surface. Likewise, if we focus on the women,
Russian avant-garde art will emerge with a different face, revealing a true avant-garde spirit that goes beyond the internal formal experiments of abstract art and strives to expand into realms external to art.
This alternative view suggests that perhaps women were on the frontlines of the revolution. It is possible that art in revolutionary Russia was led by the Amazons of the Avant-Garde, as in the title of the Guggenheim exhibition. At the least, it is clear that women were there ‘together’ with the men. While women could not be active ‘subjects’ in the ‘great’ utopia dreamed of by men, they were artist-subjects of another kind, who dreamed of ‘another’ utopia, and thus created another face of avant-garde art.