L’Avant-Garde Russe & Le Futurisme à Paris

November 18, 2008By Heidi EllisonArchive

No Time
Like the Future

“Architectonique Picturale à la Planche Jaune” (1916) by Ljubov Popova.

At a time when Russian art is at the center of a storm of censorship – as incredible as it may seem, in October French customs authorities seized photos of Russian performance artist Oleg Kulik posing naked as a dog, as he likes to do, declaring them pornographic and zoophilic, from the gallery exhibiting them at Paris’s FIAC contemporary art fair, while the Russian government itself refused to allow some works by its own artists to be shown in last year’s “Sots Art” exhibition at the Maison Rouge in Paris – it is interesting to go back to the early 20th century and see what Russian artists were up to before the dark years between 1934 and 1972, when the state controlled what they were allowed to produce.

A glimpse of those effervescent years before the curtain dropped on free expression can be had at the Musée Maillol, which is presenting “L’Avant-Garde Russe dans la Collection Costakis,” an interesting counterpoint to the Centre Pompidou’s current show, “Le Futurisme à Paris: Une Avant-Garde Explosive.”

The Centre Pompidou’s exhibition traces the way the Italian Futurists challenged and broke away from Cubism, adding speed, color and movement to its static fractured forms, and then how Futurists from various countries influenced and reabsorbed Cubism to create a sort of hybrid called Cubo-Futurism, perhaps best represented by Marcel Duchamp’s famed “Nude Descending a Staircase,” which he described as “a Cubist interpretation of a Futurist formula.”

The title of the Pompidou exhibition, “Futurism in Paris,” is misleading: while the show reproduces the pivotal exhibition of the Italian Futurists held at the Galerie Bernheim-Jeune in Paris in 1912 and the Cubist reaction to it – the Salon de la Section d’Or held in Paris a few months later, where poet Guillaume Appolinaire declared the birth of “Orphism,” a synthesis of Cubist and Futurist principles – the show is more about the evolution of Futurism and its relation to Cubism than what was happening in Paris (only one French painter, Félix del Marle, took up pure Futurism). It also takes side trips to London (where Cubo-Futurism was called “Vorticism”) and Russia to show how the battle between the two movements was panning out there.

The Musée Maillol show includes many works illustrating the same process of cross-fertilization taking place between Cubism and Futurism in Russia, and much more, through works from the collection of Georges Costakis (1913-90), a chauffeur for the Canadian Embassy in Moscow who began collecting the forbidden works of early-20th-century Russian avant-garde artists in the 1940s. Harassed by the Soviet authorities, he left the country in the late 1970s with half of his collection (the Soviets took the other half), which now belongs to the Greek government.

This amateur of modest means, the only person in Russia at the time to collect the works of these artists, may be credited with saving some of them from oblivion. Many of these paintings still look radical today in the way they break up space and opt for pure abstraction. Among the more recognizable names are Kasimir Malevich, Alexander Rodchenko, El Lissitzky and Vladimir Tatlin.

These artists were well-aware of what the Cubists were up to in Paris at the time. The influence of Cubism and Futurism, which they were quick to synthesize, is apparent in their work, with many examples in this show, but they also went off in their own directions. In 1915, Malevitch invented Suprematism, “non-objective” art with geometrical forms and pure color (the show includes some of his early, Gauguin-influenced figurative works as well as his later, purely abstract pieces). Meanwhile, the Constructivists, including Rodchenko, Gustav Klotsis, Lissitzky and Tatlin, were putting their aesthetic principles to practical use by applying them to everything from buildings and posters (some handsome, oh-so-modern-looking examples are part of this show) to tea services.

One surprising piece in the show is a rare non-Constructivist work by Rodtchenko: a “drip” painting dating from 1943-44, several years before Jackson Pollock (check out this cool Web site – you can make your own drip painting on the homepage with your mouse) supposedly invented the “drip and splash” technique in 1947.

The standout of this exhibition – both in terms of the number of pieces and their quality – is Ljubov Popova (1889-1924), whose work here embraces all the evolutions and revolutions her country was going through in her lifetime. She seems to have excelled at all she touched, from painting to typography to fabric design.

Heidi Ellison

Musée Maillol: 61, rue de Grenelle, 75007 Paris. Métro: Rue de Bac. Tel.: 01 42 22 59 58. Through March 2. www.museemaillol.com

Centre Pompidou: Place Georges Pompidou, 75004 Paris. Tel.: 01 44 78 12 33. Open 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Closed Tuesday and May 1. Métro: Rambuteau. Admission: €10-€12. Through January 26. www.centrepompidou.fr

© 2008 Paris Update

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