Revolution and innovation in the work of Solomon Nikritin

In most avant-garde art of the first half of the 20th century, utopia is probably a key word. This was a period when art became synonymous with grand projects, leading to social and political transformations much needed at a time when the world was swept by wars and revolutions. Art was a tool for change, an instrument that served a purpose. Artists narrowed their aims with the precision of a scientist and worked as intellectuals, carefully formulating new ideas and politically driven manifestos. Avant-garde art prioritized the betterment of society; it had intellectual content, thrust and urgency. These traits are most typically evident in the so-called Russian avant-garde and in the work of one of its youngest artists, Solomon Nikritin. More than 400 of his works are presented in the first retrospective exhibition on the artist ever held, organized by the State Museum of Contemporary Art in Thessaloniki in an inaugural collaboration with the State Tretyakov Gallery of Moscow. Under the general supervision of Miltiades Papanikolaou and Lidya Iovleva, directors of the State Museum and the Tretyakov, respectively, the exhibition’s curatorial work was bequeathed to a committee of specialists: John E. Bowlt, a professor at the University of California, Nicoletta Misler, Maria Tsantsanoglou and Natalia Adaskina. The display «Spheres of Light, Stations of Darkness – The Art of Solomon Nikritin (1898-1965)» is an impressive exhibition that draws on the Costakis collection of avant-garde art, a large part of which was bought by the State Museum of Contemporary Art. A rare collection, it has helped give the museum international clout, particularly through the efforts of its director, Miltiades Papanikolaou, who has mounted various exhibitions thus highlighting the museum’s acquisitions and helping to advance international research on the field. The catalogs of each exhibition, including Solomon Nikritin’s monograph (the first to be published), offer a probing analysis into aspects of the Russian avant-garde and are substantial additions to the field’s bibliography. The supplementary catalog helps place in context what is an intellectually complex body of work. Indeed, going through the exhibition, one has the impression of viewing intellectual ideas and social projects expressed via a visual medium. It is perhaps this complexity that explains why Nikritin was mostly known in artistic circles – he had the reputation of being an eccentric artist and an underground philosopher but never acquired wider fame. The fact that he abstained from the official art of socialist realism in the 1930s also added to his exclusion. Solomon Nikritin belongs to the lesser-known, second generation of Russian avant-garde art (He was 32 years younger than Kandinsky, 17 younger than Goncharova and 19 years younger than Malevich). In the 1920s, which is one of the earliest and most interesting phases of Nikritin’s work, both suprematism and constructivism had begun to fade and the second generation of the Russian avant-gardists strove toward a new, revolutionary art that attempted to redefine the notion of realism in art in a revolutionary, rather than traditional, academic context (this may explain why Nikritin’s art is far more figurative compared to Russian avant-garde art of the previous generation). Although indebted to his predecessors, Nikritin did not share their views: For example, he disagreed with the constructivists and their belief that artists should produce mass-produced, useful things. Nikritin developed his own system in which philosophy, sociology and art were the constituents of an organic whole. The crossover between the arts – particularly the relationship between painting, photography, film and architecture, which were new forms of art – remained a focus throughout his career and one of his most major concerns. «Tectonics: The Connection of Painting and Architecture,» from 1919, is one of his earliest and most important works (and one of the highlights of the exhibition) that indicates this interest. Film and theater were other fields Nikritin investigated in relationship to painting. In the 1920s, Nikritin became one of the founding members of Projectionism, an avant-garde group that worked with experimental theater, particularly as regards movement and sound. Nikritin developed the theory of «projectionism,» an abtruse theory whose main principle requires that an artist create the projects or designs of works that anyone can take part in realizing. He also organized the Projectionism-based Electro-Organism, a group of artists whose principal task was to disseminate energy and, above all, light energy. Nikritin worked in an analytical, scientific-like way, developing theories upon which he based his art. In the early 1930s for example, he developed the theory of «polyrealism» which he described as «the expression of a given stage in the growth and development of proletariat art.» Most of these theories are esoteric and non-apparent in his works, at least not to a modern audience, removed as it is from the spirit of post-revolutionary Russia. What is evident, however, is Nikritin’s obsession with working in sets of series, often exhausting his theme through invariable sketches and drawings. Nikritin placed emphasis on the process of making art and the process of perception rather than on any end product. He believed in an unfolding sequence of events that makes each work flow from the one preceding it and based his method of creativity on that concept. This analysis is what makes his art esoteric and its full range of meaning difficult to absorb. But even out of its historical context, Nikritin’s art makes ample sense. Its communist political content – often bordering on propaganda – is apparent, as its attack on the bourgeoisie. Nikritin paints a dark image of the world but his vision is still full of hope, a hope for change and revolution. It is perhaps this utopia that makes his art so compelling to view. Solomon Nikritin’s work is at the State Museum of Contemporary Art (Lazariston Monastery, 21 Kolokotroni, tel 2310.58.91.40) through March 20.