Russians blaze a trail to Athens

When in 1981 the Guggenheim Museum in New York made the first US presentation of the famed Costakis collection of early 20th-century Russian avant-garde, one of the curators in charge of the exhibition felt so stunned by the artistic worth of the collection as to say that several chapters in the history of 20th-century art would have to be rewritten on the basis of this new material. Gifted with an extraordinary eye for art, George Costakis, an employee at the Canadian Embassy in Moscow when he began collecting Russian avant-garde in the late 1940s, saved from oblivion works that belong to one of the most creative periods in 20th-century art. A fine selection of this art is presented in «Five Seasons of the Russian Avant-Garde,» an exhibition which opens today at the Museum of Cycladic Art. The exhibition has been organized by the Thessaloniki State Museum of Contemporary Art, owner of a significant portion of the Costakis collection since 2000, when it was purchased by the Greek state (the Tretyakov Gallery owns the greater part of the collection). It is curated by Maria Tsantsanoglou, director of the contemporary art museum and an expert on the Russian avant-garde. A version of the current exhibition will be presented in the fall at the Maillol Museum in Paris. This will mark the beginning of an international tour of the Costakis collection. London’s Tate Museum and the Stedelijk Museum are stops in the collection’s tour orgainzed by the Thessaloniki museum. The exhibition Each of the five works that introduce the viewer to the exhibition represents one of the «five seasons» which are unraveled in five different exhibition halls: «The Years Before, 1900-1915» shows the connections between Russian art and the artistic movements in Paris. Many of the Russian artists traveled to the French metropolis while others had access to the latest developments through reproductions and the flourishing – at the time – Russian typography. The effect of post-impressionism, symbolism, cubism and orphism is evident in many of the works produced in the period. Kazimir Malevich’s «Portrait of a Lady» from 1915 carries the imprints of fauvism. There is also Malevich’s «Woman in Childbirth,» an unusual, modern work that is distantly evocative of art nouveau and symbolism. In this section one will also find a small painting of an outdoor bench by Elena Guro. It is one of the few remaining specimens of her work. «The Traveling Years, 1910-1915» marks the beginning of a new visual language that focuses not on the subject but on the properties of painting themselves: form, color, shape, texture. A work by Aleksei Morgunov is representative of the period. This is also when cubo-futurism was born, an exclusively Russian movement in art which combines the fragmented forms of cubism with the dynamic thrust of futurism. In this section most works are by women artists. Liubov Popova’s large «Traveling Woman» from 1915 is one of the most impressive, a masterly composition of diagonals, triangular forms and movement. «The Mystical Years 1915-1921» is when Suprematism became established and when philosophical and spiritual ideas were developed in relationship to art. Founded by Malevich, Suprematism is about the supremacy of pure form. Non-objective, also known as abstract art, prevails and minimal shapes are supposed to capture the essence of art and meaning. Malevich renounced all his former figurative works and covered them with the typical black quadrilateral (variations in white and red followed). «Black Square» from 1915 is one of his earliest works. There are also bare, geometric compositions by Solomon Nikritin and Ivan Kliun. The artists working in St Petersburg, among them Mikhail Matiushin and Pavel Filonov did not paint the austere geometric forms preferred by their peers in Moscow but produced shapes that are closer to the organic, flowing shapes of nature. Filonov also developed an interest in the prismatic effect of crystals which he tried to reproduce in painting, as in his work «Head» from 1925-26 which is included in the exhibition and is the only work of the artist that exists outside Russia. In «The Ideological Years, 1921-1928» that follow, artists turn away from an esoteric, mystical approach toward more practical objectives. Constructivism, the major movement of the time, aims at putting art to the use of the social good. Art retains its utopian character but the utopia in question is not the attainment of some higher, intellectual concept but an art in line with the goals of the October Revolution, an art integrated into everyday life. Many artists during that period worked in the applied arts, producing designs for graphics and houseware. Vladimir Tatlin, the founder of Constructivism, experimented on a manually operated flying machine, the so-called Letatlin. On display is the elegant construction «Wing Strut for Letatlin.» In «The Years After, 1928-1934» the Russian avant-garde declines. Under Stalin’s regime and the official art of socialist realism, the avant-garde was seen either as retrograde or as elitist and formalist; artists who had broken new ground with their visionary experiments were persecuted. Some turned to figuration and produced paintings in a primitivist style. Aleksandr Drevin’s «Woman with Long Hair» from 1930-31 is an example of the return to a conventional mode. But the quest for new ways of painting and experiments with progressive ideas never ceased. In 1943, Aleksandr Rodchenko produced «Expressive Rhythm» a work that anticipated Jackson Pollock’s famous drip paintings that were not born until 1947. Rodchenko’s work closes the exhibition on an optimistic note. It sums up the achievements of the preceding years and symbolizes the impact that the art produced in Russia at the time has had on our appraisal of 20th-century art. «Five Seasons of the Russian Avant-Garde,» Cycladic Art Museum, 4 N. Douka, 210.722.8321, to 20/10.