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Art that’s both bold and brave

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Issue 1679


Art that’s both bold and brave

By Chanie Rosenberg

“AMAZONS OF the Avant-Garde” is an exhibition of work by Russian women artists from the early years of the 20th century. If you are in London between now and 6 February it is a must. A sense of excitement runs through the whole of the exhibition from the moment you go in.

The exhibition shows the work of six pioneering women artists. It spans the years 1907-21, from the aftermath of the 1905 revolution in Russia to the impact of the 1917 workers’ revolution and after. The huge social explosions of the time inspired, however indirectly, upheavals in people’s intellectual and emotional lives. Working women’s struggles for sexual liberation, which began with big factory workers’ strikes in the 1890s, also inspired greater self confidence amongst women in general.

Artists in the West were predominantly male at the time. Women artists often had to display their work under the name of a husband, father or brother. Not so in Russia. Never before, or since, has a group of female artists had such an impact on the world of art. The paintings of Liubov Popova, Nadezhda Udalt sova, Olga Rozanova, Alexandra Exter, Varvara Stepanova and Natalia Goncharova are all featured in the Royal Academy exhibition.

These women artists rebelled against the rule of the autocratic tsars who dominated Russia until 1917. They cocked a snook at conventional artists in ivory towers. They shocked the establishment with their outlandish clothes and the symbols they wore. They painted their faces and decked their hair and bodies with vegetables, flowers, spoons and other objects. They were intellectually and artistically bold and shocking. As Olga Rozanova said, they sought “new bases of artistic creation”. Moreover, when revolution gripped Russia in 1917 they embraced it heart and soul.

The exhibition shows the women’s paintings. But they also created magnificent and astonishingly modern theatre sets and costumes. They designed book covers, posters and textiles. They sought to tear down the walls that existed between art and industry and art and nature. Other revolutionary artists had dreamt of doing this before, like William Morris in the 19th century.

But to begin to make that dream a reality took the socialist revolution of 1917 that was devoted to the liberation all human needs. It was short lived. But the “Amazons of the avant-garde” devoted their creative lives to bringing about that vision. That is why this small exhibition is so exciting-and worth paying the entry price.

  • “Amazons of the Avant-Garde” is at the Royal Academy of Arts, Burlington House, Piccadilly, London W1, price 6.50. For more details telephone 020 7300 8000.

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