Light and color in art of utopian vision

A glowing, red sphere that gleams out of a black background is a remarkable depiction of the non-material: of light and energy. Painted by Ivan Kliun in 1923, «Red Light, Spherical Composition» is a spare yet overpowering image that captures the utopian experiments made by the so-called Russian avant-garde in the 1910s and 1920s. It reflects the unique affinity that artists of the time developed with science and technology and their quest for a universal artistic language that expressed universal phenomena. An art with scientific laws and concepts that would revolutionalize both art and – like science – society. In their analysis of their properties of painting, the Russian avant-gardists paid special attention to light and color, for it was those two non-material properties that best fit their vision of abstraction. Moreover, light and color lay behind natural, universal phenomena that were the property of science: They related to space, energy, electricity and movement. «Light and Color in the Russian Avant-Garde» is an exceptional exhibition that unravels the unique investigations that the Russian artists of the early 20th century made into the very language of art. The exhibition opened earlier this fall at the State Museum of Contemporary Art (SMCA) in Thessaloniki and draws from the Costakis collection of avant-garde works owned by the museum. The presentation at its home museum follows a two-stop tour, first at the Martin Gropius Bau Museum in Berlin and then at Vienna’s Museum of Modern Art – Ludwig Collection. Both exhibitions met with enthusiastic press coverage (a full page in London’s Financial Times and articles in Liberation and Frankfurter Allgemeine are examples) and high attendance figures. Ten separate themes on light and color help the viewer obtain a general and clear understanding of the complicated theories that developed among the Russian avant-gardists. On each of the opposite ends of the spectacular color combinations lie black and white as investigated by Suprematism’s brainchild, Kazimir Malevich. His black paintings claimed the right of color to exist as an independent and self-sufficient property of painting; they carried the notion of abstraction to an extreme and described space with the sparest of means. From black, Malevich gradually proceeded to his white paintings: «The blue of the sky has been conquered by the Suprematist system, has been breached, and has passed into the white beyond as the true, real conception of eternity, and has therefore been liberated from the sky’s colored background,» Malevich wrote in 1919. Other artists took a different, perhaps less «purist» approach to color and light. Mikhail Larionov experimented with Rayism, which studied how light rays that are reflected from an object’s surface intersect to create forms in space. Ivan Kliun and other artists such as Ivan Kudriashev and Mikhail Plaksin focused on the inner luminosity of a painting as a metaphor for the luminescence in cosmic space. The futuristic, scientific perspective that the Russian avant-garde artists took to light and color was not without a study of Russian religious icons and folk art. It was this balance of the new and the old, the scientific and the mystical, that made their art so radical and innovative, yet also so mystical. Utopia is, after all, the realm of both religion and science. In this period in history and this part of the world, it was also the realm of art. Light and color were vital words in this utopian, visual vocabulary. At the State Museum of Contemporary Art (Lazariston Monastery, 21 Kolokotroni, Thessaloniki, 2310.589.140) through February 6. A voluminous book with specialized research material on the subject complements the exhibition. George Costakis, an unusual collector One of the sections in the exhibition at the State Museum of Contemporary Art focuses on George Costakis, the man that put together this formidable collection, thus helping to make the art of the Russian avant-garde known internationally. George Costakis was born in Moscow in 1913. His father was a Greek merchant from Zakynthos who had moved to Russia with his family. Costakis worked as a driver for the Greek Embassy, then for the Finnish and Canadian embassies. One of his responsibilities was to show foreign diplomats around the city’s antique shops, a practice that enhanced his interest in art. A man with unusual foresight and feeling for art, Costakis began collecting works of the Russian avant-garde during Stalin’s regime, when this kind of art was rejected and censored. Costakis unearthed works from the most unlikely places – his daughter Aliki recounts in the exhibition’s catalog how one of them was actually used as a kitchen wax cloth – and rescued them from destruction. His flat in Moscow became a virtual museum and, from the late 1960s, the collection was opened to the public and all sorts of visitors, many of them renowned personalities (Edward Kennedy was one of them) from the West. It was also in the early ’60s that Camilla Grey wrote about the significance of the Russian avant-garde in her book «The Great Experience.» Together with the Costakis collection, the book helped pave the way for the exposure of the Russian avant-garde to the rest of the world and led to the first major exhibition held in 1977 at the Dusseldorf Art Museum, followed a few years later by New York’s Guggenheim Museum exhibition. In the late ’70s Costakis came to Greece. Before leaving Russia he agreed with the Russian government to leave one half of his collection at the State Tretyakov Gallery and to take the rest with him. Although he wanted his half of the collection to remain in Greece, the Greek State did not take the necessary action. Costakis died in 1990. He did not live to see the large exhibition organized by the National Gallery in Athens, nor the purchase of the collection by the Greek State that finally happened in 2000. The Greek part of the collection consists of 1275 pieces – Popova, Nikritin, Kliun and Klucis are each represented by more than 60 works. The State Museum of Contemporary Art in Thessaloniki (and its director Miltiades Papanikolaou), which owns the collection since its purchase by the Greek State, has unraveled various facets of the Russian avant-garde and enhanced international research on this fascinating period in 20th century art.