Light and color in the avant-garde

In their utopian quest for an art that was both new and universal, the Russian avant-garde artists of the early 20th century began an investigation into the very properties of painting and sculpture itself. Using their knowledge of science, and with a clearly positivist approach, they analyzed the methods, techniques and characteristics of art in the belief that discovering the laws of painting would help to produce a new kind of art that would capture the essence of reality while also having social resonance. Light and color were two of the most fundamental aspects of painting that they analyzed. Their diversified investigations in the area are fully analyzed in «Light and Color in the Russian Avant-Garde: The Costakis Collection from the State Museum of Contemporary Art in Thessaloniki,» a voluminous catalog released by DuMont Publishers in Germany. The catalog is published on the occasion of an exhibition on the same theme that presents masterpieces from the Costakis Collection of the State Museum of Contemporary Art in Thessaloniki and was held at Berlin’s Martin Gropius Bau Museum earlier this winter. Presently at its second stop – at the Museum of Modern Art – Ludwig Museum in Vienna – the exhibition will be shown in Thessaloniki in late June. The catalog is one more example of the excellently researched publications that the museum produces for each exhibition it organizes and also shows its efforts to create a network of international collaborators and specialists in the field. Written in German with full translations in both English and Greek at the back, this fully illustrated catalog analyzes different aspects of the use of color and light by the Russian avant-gardists but also contains original texts by some of the artists themselves. Among them, Wasilly Kandinsky’s writings on the «Effects of Color,» Ivan Kliun’s «Color Art» and Kazimir Malevich’s «Light and Color» show the deep theoretical concerns that preoccupied the progressive Russian artists at the time. In spite of their specialized angle, the catalog’s essays make pleasant and most informative reading, and are to the point, dense and flowing. In a rather graphic way, the catalog begins with an essay on the use of «Black» and ends with Kazimir Malevich’s essay on Suprematism, an essay which ends with a celebration of white. Both the catalog and the exhibition should be placed within the museum’s broader context of advancing research on this internationally seminal art collection, which the Greek State finally bought in 2000 for the sum of 14.2 billion drachmas (41.7 million euros). An introduction by State Museum Director Miltiades Papanikolaou maps out in detail the steps leading to this acquisition and writes about how the collection became gradually known outside the Soviet Union. The first showing of the collection was held at the Dusseldorf Art Museum in 1977, followed by a major exhibition at New York’s Guggenheim in 1981. The museum owns a part of the Costakis Collection, which was divided in half in 1978 with one half remaining at the State Tretyakov Gallery. The first major exhibition of the Costakis Collection in Athens was held at the National Gallery in 1995. Since then, the State Museum of Contemporary Art has helped advance research in the area. «Light and Color» is an important step in this direction.

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