This exhibition is dedicated to illuminating the role of women in Russian art.
A love of creative work and mastery of craft have shone through in various articles made by both rural and urban women. These women were quite skilled at needlework, sculpting and decorating clay and wooden toys, knitting scarves and shawls, and decorating towels and tablecloths with enchanting patterns. The comfort and beauty of a home depended completely on the taste and expertise of the mistress of the house. But in the 18th and especially the 19th centuries, it was becoming much more common for a woman to want to occupy herself with something other than her household.
It was also at this time that practicing the arts became fashionable in Russia. Royal and aristocratic households began inviting professional artists to teach drawing, watercolour and oil painting. The growing desire of women to attain equal rights manifested in them demanding the opportunity to receive an arts education in specialized schools. In 1842, the St Petersburg Drawing School opened a Women’s Department. By the end of the 1840s, talented young women were permitted to study at the Academy of Arts, although initially only as listeners (not taking exams or receiving diplomas).
From the 1850s to the 188Os, many art schools – not only those in the major cities of St Petersburg and Moscow, but also institutions in smaller towns – began accepting female students. With these opportunities now widely available, we see at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century a blossoming of the work of women artists. They begin showing their work at exhibitions and joining various societies and associations alongside male artists.
The thematic and stylistic richness of Russian art extended to art done by women as well. Some worked in the classical tradition (Zinaida Serebryakova, Anna Ostroumova-Lebedeva, Anna Golubkina), while others, having worked in Cubism, Futurism, and Primitivism (Natalia Goncharova), master and begin developing various forms of non-objectivity (Olga Rozanova, Lyubov Popova, Alexandra Exter).
Having accepted the social revolution of 1917 as a sign of renewal in all spheres of life, female artists became some of the most active participants in transforming the environment. Using the groundbreaking innovations of the first two decades of the 20th century, women artists designed clothing, ceramics, theatre sets, and public buildings. In the hopes of creating a new consciousness among the proletariat and peasants, victorious in their revolution, women artists offered society anti-bourgeois answers in their work. Some used unexpected materials (such as Sofya Dymshits-Tolstaya’s glass and sand), while others, like sisters Maria and Ksenia Ender, used their paintings to manifest the results of their investigations into how people perceive color, light, and sound.
During the period from the early 1930s to the mid-196Os, when all investigations and experiments in the Soviet Union ceased due to the totalitarian ideology, female artists felt the pressure just as much as their male counterparts. Many of them were imprisoned. The label of “formalist” precluded any innovative artists from engaging with the public. These limitations did not shut down the creative process, however. Many of the artists that were forced into the underground at that time were women (Alisa Poret, Tatyana Glebova, Anna Leporskaya, Pelageya Shuriga). They continued developing ideas conceived by the avant-garde of the early 20th century- Kazimir Malevich, Vladimir Tatlin, Mikhail Matiushin – while at the same time creating their own styles and unique thematic preferences.
Beginning in the era of the so-called “thaw” – a period that saw the removal of many ideological prohibitions – and lasting up until the present day, exhibition halls have been filled with paintings, sculptures, and installations from women artists working in all types of genres and styles.
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Antonina Gmurzynska was perhaps the first Western collector to show a deep and serious interest in the Russian art of the first decades of the 20th century, and her collection was very well known to art connoisseurs. Items from it have often been exhibited in various countries, and published in books, catalogues and albums.
For several decades now Krystyna Gmurzynska, daughter of Antonina, has been continuing and developing what her mother had started, and during this time the collection has, of course, changed. Some things are now in other hands, and some names and works that were unknown in the 1950s-1970s, when Antonina was collecting Russian art, became available and were acquired by Krystyna.
The theme of Female Artists in Russia does not form a special section as such in this collection. However, it turns out that quite a considerable number of exceptional artists in Russia were, in fact, women. Thus, Krystyna Gmurzynska’s collection provides a welcome supplement to the female theme displayed in this year’s exhibitions.
It includes works by artists who are rarely found elsewhere, such as Elena Guro (1877-1913), Xenia (1895(94?)-1955) and Maria Ender (1897-1942) and Anastasia Akhtyrko (1902-1968). Some female artists, such as Antonina Sofronova (1892-1966), are represented by a whole series of works that are known just by individual drawings in other collections. Many of the works in the Gmurzynska collection reveal unknown pages in the artistic careers of famous masters. Kazimir Malevich, for example, worked during the last few years of his life on the decoration of architectural structures. One of his faithful students and helpers was Anna Leporskaya, and together they produced a project for decorating the Red Theatre in Leningrad (1931-1932). Malevich’s concept consisted of an entirely new non-objective approach to decorating public spaces. In a letter from Malevich to Leporskaya his specific colouristic treatment is indicated with complete clarity. In this same letter we can see Malevich’s inflexible demand: if his idea was altered in any way he would abandon the project. The sketches for the decoration of the Red Theatre that are in the Gmurzynska collection, are extremely important illustrations of what the interiors could have looked like if the theatre had not burnt down in 1932.
This relatively small exhibition, showing a small part of the Gmurzynska collection that is devoted to female artists in Russia, displays a fitting complement to the Women Artists exhibition.