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" A Slap in the Face! Futurists in Russia"
2007-03-27 until 2007-06-10
Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art
UK United Kingdom
The first exhibition in England to focus on the complex and fascinating relationship between Russian and Italian Futurism is to be held at the Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art, 39a Canonbury Square, London N1, from Wednesday 28 March until Sunday 10 June 2007. A long overdue and comprehensive examination of the subject, A Slap in the Face! Futurists in Russia explores the energetic, creative and occasionally violent encounter of East and West in the arena of avant-garde art. These were cultural movements with powerful national characteristics.
After founding Futurism in 1909, F. T. Marinetti’s ambition was to establish an international Futurist movement that would develop his own group’s activities, achievements and interests. Futurist ideas were familiar to Russian artists through translations of manifestos and newspaper articles, yet Marinetti’s visit to the country in 1914 provoked mixed responses. While many artists admired his revolutionary zeal others, such as Mikhail Larionov, resented his apparent desire to establish an outpost of his movement. He vehemently resisted Marinetti’s influence in much the same way as the British Vorticists were to do, even suggesting that the Italian visitor should be pelted with rotten eggs upon his arrival.
Despite the unquestionable influence of Marinetti and his followers on Russian artists – particularly apparent in works such as Natalia Goncharova’s Cyclist of 1913, in which the legs of the figure are multiplied to suggest rapid pedalling – their work was marked by genuine aesthetic differences that frequently seem to contradict the label ‘Futurist’. While both movements were fascinated with the urban environment and the machine, Russian Futurism was equally interested in folk art and rural themes, as illustrated by Larionov’s series of soldier paintings and Spring 1912. Russian concepts such as the ‘Futurist peasant’ had no equivalent, or place, in Marinetti’s urban fantasies.
A greater emphasis upon primitivism was also apparent in the deliberate roughness and crudity of Russian Futurist books. These possessed a distinctly ‘home-made’ quality, being printed on coarse paper and containing handwritten texts that were in marked contrast to the more polished typographical compositions characteristic of Italian authors and designers at the time. The manifesto ‘A Slap in the Face of Public Taste’ (1912), from which this exhibition derives its title, was bound in sackcloth. The concept of zaum, or ‘transrational’, language likewise expressed a seemingly paradoxical ‘Futurist’ fascination with primitivism in its return to the very dawn of language and exploration of the expressive potential of pure sounds, free of any accepted logical meanings.
Other distinctive Russian tendencies such as ‘Rayism’ are represented in Goncharova’s The Forest, c.1913, and Larionov’s Blue Rayism 1912. Rayism was formulated by Goncharova and Larionov around 1912 and was grounded in the principle that we perceive objects by means of the rays of light they reflect. It was these rays that the artists aimed to depict, transforming humble still
lifes and landscapes into explosive clusters of light and shards of colour. Cubo-Futurism, another distinctly Russian blend of influences from France and Italy incorporating indigenous linguistic and iconographical elements, is represented by a fine portrait by Lyubov Popova and Cubist Still Life by Kazimir Malevich who later went on to develop the radical theories of Suprematism, the most famous example of which is his Black Square.
The theme of war is also addressed, again with Italian comparisons. Goncharova’s dramatic portfolio Mystical Images of War will be displayed alongside Alexei Kruchenykh’s Universal War, with its beautiful series of delicate tissue paper collages by Olga Rozanova. This opens up an important theme within Russian Futurism that has been eclipsed by an interest in the subsequent revolutionary period and the emergence of Constructivism. Of particular interest in this context is the content, language, music and design for the Futurist opera Victory over the Sun produced by Mikhail Matyushin, Kruchenykh and Malevich. This project, realised in 1913, will be contrasted with El Lissitzky’s series of post-revolutionary lithographic designs for the same work in order to explore the reasons why it remained such an important piece for the Russian avant-garde. The theatre was in fact a continual source of inspiration and employment for many Russian artists, particularly Larionov and Goncharova, who worked for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, when they encountered artists such as Giacomo Balla, Marinetti, Picasso and Fortunato Depero. A number of Goncharova’s vivid Theatrical Portraits will be displayed alongside a stunning selection of costumes for ballets such as Les Noces, Soleil du Nuit and The Rite of Spring.
The emphasis of the exhibition is very much on the phenomenon of Russian Futurism, but later developments such as Suprematism and Constructivism are acknowledged in collages and photomontages by El Lissitzky and designs and constructions by Alexander Rodchenko.
The exhibition draws upon works from the Musée national d’art moderne, Paris, the Thyssen-Bornemisza collection, the Costakis Collection, Tate Modern, the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the British Library and numerous private collections from Europe, the United States and the UK. It represents an unparalleled opportunity for British audiences to see important, but rarely seen, examples of Italian and Russian Futurist art in the intimate surroundings of this London gallery.
A Slap in the Face! Futurists in Russia has been organised in conjunction with the Hatton Gallery at Newcastle University, where it will be on display from 23 June to 18 August 2007. The exhibition is curated by John Milner, Professor Emeritus in Art History at Newcastle University who is currently teaching courses on Russian art at the Courtauld Institute of Art, London. Professor Milner has published many books on Russian art, including Vladimir Tatlin and the Russian Avant-garde (1983), Kazimir Malevich and the Art of Geometry (1996) and A Dictionary of Russian and Soviet Artists, 1420-1970 (1999).
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