Six women who shook the world
Amazons of the avant-garde: Exter, Goncharova, Popova, Rozanova, Stepanova, Udaltsova at the Royal Academy
This sparkling group of paintings is a great way to brighten up a dark December day.
Far from being historical artefacts, they shimmer and dance before the eyes with jewel-like colours. Each artist has a distinct personality as shown by the wonderfully crafted and textured paintings on canvas and wood.
More than that, these works are lasting evidence of a unique period in the history of our century. For the first time, certainly in Europe, north America and the far-flung Russian empire, women played a key role in a decisive artistic movement.
This fact continues to astonish as illustrated by Norman Rosenthal of the Royal Academy who opened the show : "These were not women," he said emphatically, "they were artists."
He was right to stress that the six painters on display were artists first and foremost. But they were special because their work was on an equal level, and sometimes even higher than that of their male contemporaries, who were often also their partners. It was perhaps because they did not consider themselves as a "women's movement" or "feminists" that they became so great.
Why, historian Ekaterina Dyogot asks in the exhibition catalogue, have there been great women artists?
The answer for the "Amazons", as they were dubbed, lies in the special cultural conditions which arose in Russia during the early years of this century. At the top of society was the repressive Tsarist autocracy which continued to live in the images of medievalism and religious orthodoxy.
But below the decadent aristocracy, a revolution was taking place in the world of art and culture in and around Moscow and St Petersburg.
It was to these centres that the women in this exhibition were drawn. All except Stepanova came from wealthy families and had economic independence.
They were amongst the "new women" who began to appear at this time – independent females who began to enter professions such as medicine, law and art.
They travelled extensively through Europe, many working as artists in Paris, which in the pre-war years was a crucible of the modern movement. Their paintings from 1912-1915 show a fruitful symbiosis between Russian and European avant-garde movements.
All six were inspired by the Cubism of Picasso and Braque. The Cubo-Futurist break-down of forms passes over to a synthetic simplification of planes. They took part in a revolution in art which one of its first historians, Camilla Gray, called The Great Experiment.
This ran parallel to the social and political changes in Russia between 1905 and 1917, and in many ways foreshadowed the Bolshevik revolution.
Olga Rozanova's Non-Objective Compositions of 1916 are works of grandeur and beauty rivalling those of Kandinsky and Malevich. In 1917, the year of the successful socialist revolution, she made Green Stripe, one of the most daring simplifications of abstract form ever. The simple vertical band shimmers at the edges, vibrating in the white space around it. The intense green at the centre seems to move within a translucent skin. While it first appears straight up and down there are subtle variations of colour which give the painting a mysterious organic feeling.
While Rozanova achieved a high sense of pictorial movement, Popova specialised in what she termed Painterly Architectonics. The play of spatial planes and illusions of three dimensions appear in the most powerful way in her canvases from 1917-1921. For a few years, between 1917 and the death of Lenin in 1924, freedom and new ideas transformed all the arts – embracing painting, sculpture, architecture, music, theatre, textile design, poetry and literature.
The artistic innovation which began with pioneering artists such as Goncharova suddenly acquired a much broader, popular scope which broke free from the moneyed middle classes and sought to transform the life of the masses.
The subsequent fate of the "Amazons" is a microcosm of what happened to the avant-garde of the revolution itself. Out of the six, Rozanova and Popova died tragically young of illness, Goncharova and Exter remained abroad. Udaltsova's father was killed in 1918 and her husband executed in 1938. She and Stepanova played down their involvement with the avant-garde as the Stalinist terror set in.
This review first appeared in Socialist Future