The United States of Artists

On February 19th, an exhibit called “The American Artists from The Russian Empire” will be displayed at the Russian Museum of Art. Anna Tolstov learns the meaning behind the exhibit’s strange name.

It is hardly necessary to prove that geographical locations such as Russian Paris or Russian Berlin are located on a world culture historical map. But it seems that these are the settlements that the Russian Museum of Art had in mind for the series of shows called “The Art of Russian Émigrés,” dedicated to the wide export of artistic talents, which the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union have conceived in the beginning of the twentieth century. This project began in 2003 during the museum’s 300th year anniversary when the main museums of the second capital, St. Petersburg, did not complain about the finances and lived in a certain Guggenheim expositional style. The Russian Museum received a lot of attention with the “Russian Paris” exhibit. The Russian-Jewish colony of Montparnasse, the residents of The Beehive and the habitués of La Rotonde, those behind the journal of “The World of Art,” the masters of the Dyagilev’s times, the Russian companions and muses, French Larionov and Goncharov, the Dadaist Sergey Sharshun, the abstractionist Serge Polyakov, Andre Lansky and Nicolas de Stall – all of them, gathered together for the first time in one display. Here, it became obvious that this diverse collection, with the exception of the transcending objects of Mark Shagal and Haim Sutin, is the “Russian Paris.”

After “Paris,” the Russian Museum promised “Berlin” and “New York.” It was clear early on that the “Russian Berlin” will be partly about Munich (Anton Ashbe and Simon Hollosy studios where half of Russian avant-gardes were retaught, Munich’s “Dark Blue Horseman” and Vasily Kandinsky’s invention of abstract art), partly about Bauhaus and constructivism, partly about the new substantialism and Nikolai Zagrekov. What will the “Russian New York” be like? It is impossible to guess. “Berlin” at the Russian Museum is still being planned, and “New York” has turned into an exhibit with a careful name: “The American Artists from the Russian Empire.”

It is difficult to be more precise. In fact, there are some fifty painters and sculptors whose works have been brought to St. Petersburg from the American collections of the Metropolitan, the Whitney, the Washington National Gallery, the Art Institute of Chicago, private collections, and other galleries. Only one thing unites these works together and that is the birthplace listed in their passports: the Russian Empire.

They are the protagonists of Sotheby’s and Christie’s, the Russian merchants: Boris Anisfeld, Sergey Sudeikin, Boris Grigoriev, David Burliuk, and Nicolai Fechin. These emigrants fled from the February and the October revolutions and its consequences. They are those who became the pride and joy of the American avant-garde: Mark Rothko, Louise Nevelson, Max Weber. Emigrants who most likely didn’t speak Russian because they were taken away from the Russian Empire while still children – far away from the Jewish pogroms, characteristics of settling, the societal norms, inability to study in capitals. They are the abandoned cosmopolitans, the stars of the western art that does not relate to any concrete national style: Alexander Archipenko, Naum Gabo, Jacque Lipschitz, Mane-Katz, Zadkin. All of them, having studied in Paris or Munich, having traveled all over the world, ended up in America. They went to Europe from Russia for the reasons stated above and to the U.S. because of the spread of fascism across Europe. Some, like the great Archipenko, stayed there to become “American sculptors,” as he is described in many books, and some simply stayed there during WWII and then returned to France.

Each of these personalities presented at the exhibit have become a part of the American culture in their own right. In America, the abstract artist Mark Rothko is not any less significant than Jackson Pollock or Andy Warhol. A Manhattan square was named after the Amazon avant-garde artist, Louise Nevelson, whose abstract sculptures and assemblies are pictured on U.S. postal stamps. Max Weber, who is not widely known outside of the New World, is admired as much as Vladimir Favorsky here. All the greats have studied under him, including Mark Rothko. From the artists such as Zadkin, Lipschitz and Gabo came all of the American modern plastic sculptures.

Those who left Russia as already-matured artists had the hardest time adjusting. Anisfeld and Grigoriev, who were first accepted with great enthusiasm, were limited to teaching. They weren’t able to have a successful career of a free artist because both seemed “too Russian.” Sergey Sudeikin was also “too Russian,” but he was appreciated at the Met, on Broadway and in Hollywood for that reason. Everywhere where his theatrical talents of the Russian style were needed, Americans have imagined it from the “Russian Seasons” of Sergey Dyagilev.

It is difficult to attribute strong ties of the Russian culture to the American artists from the Russian Empire. It is hopeless to look for the influence of Olga Rozanov’s compositions in Mark Rothko’s abstractions. To say that Alex Lieberman (at the exhibit, he illustrated the later abstractionism), the legendary art-director of Vogue and eventually of the whole Conde Nast empire, introduced a special Russian elegance to the American journal design is absurd. This elegance was acquired in France from Andre Lotte and August Perret.

It is true that Luis Lozowik was a fervent propagandist of constructivism. He studied it in Germany with El Lizzitsky and even went to the USSR to get acquainted with Rodchenko and Tatlin. Then again, who in the early 1920’s hadn’t gone to Soviet Russia? Yes, many Russian émigrés were liberal, were a part of the John Read’s Club and were proud of the fact that they were born in the country where the infamous ten days that shook the world happened. Who from the 1930’s French, German or Spanish avant-garde artists wasn’t a revolutionary? For example, the progressive American artist, Ben Shahn, was highly esteemed by the Soviet art critics because they mistakenly accepted his picturesque series of “Sacco and Vanzetti’s Passions” as a depiction of a socialist realism. A friend to the Soviet Union, he never was. Because he was simply too busy condemning fascism and the race of arms, he never got to the “Passions of Kameneev and Zinoviev.”

It seems that for many, being Russian was only important to their personal mythology, at least that was the case of the classic abstract expressionist Archil Gorky. Gorky, also known as Vostanik-Manuk Adoyan, though not born in the Russian Empire but in the Ottoman, fled from the Armenian Golgotha and contrived Russian roots for himself, taking the last name of Gorky, swearing that he was Maxim Gorky’s nephew. It seems that he was most comfortable in the circles of the Jewish artists from Russia. Probably, they were the kindred spirits who lived in fear of the pogroms from childhood.

Unlike “Russian Paris” or “Russian Berlin,” “Russian America” doesn’t have the sense of unity. Immigrants in the country of immigrants, the Russian Americans were completely dissolved there. In fact, in the Russian classical literature – of Chernishevsky and Dostoevsky – America became a bewitching place from which people either never came back (as though Atlantis, separating that world from this one), or came back changed, not as humans but as “demons.” In such observance and artistic logic, the exhibit shows how the artists who ended up in America died in one culture and were reborn in another.

Here is a character study of John Graham who came to the U.S. in 1920 at the age of 36. From then on, he becomes an artist, an avant-garde experimentalist, a part of the abstract expressionists circle (it was he who acquainted Jackson Pollock with his future wife Lee Krasner). Born as Ivan Dombrowsky, before 1920, he was a Polish nobleman, an officer of first Imperial and then the White Army, a member of Boris Savinkov’s underground counter revolutionary group for the protection of land and freedom. In 1918, he was arrested in Moscow, thrown in prison to wait his execution and then released thanks to a petition of the Polish embassy and an oath to never oppose the Soviet authority. He kept his word, left for America and turned a new page in his life. He addressed the Russian theme only once. In 1942, he drew a series of paintings depicting the fighters of the Red Army. He portrayed them similar to Michael Larionov’s soldiers dressed in the WWI uniforms.

And still, “The American Artists from the Russian Empire” is a magnificent project. It is not about the imposing appearances, the new facts and the returned names. It simply shows us that in an epoch of declarative tolerance and respect for national subcultures, there is no “Russian,” “Italian” and “German” America. That it is one, uniform and indivisible.

About this publication

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply