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Malevich, Popova, Kandinsky, Chagall-these are the names that typically come to mind when someone mentions the Russian avant-garde in its early twentieth century heyday. In her book Exploring Color: Olga Rozanova and the Early Russian Avant-Garde, 1910-1918, art historian Nina Gurianova adds a new name to the old list by paying tribute to Olga Rozanova, a lesser known artist, and showing how she helped pioneer developments in futurism, suprematism and the role of color in painting.
Olga Rozanova (1886-1918) left behind a legacy of art, poetry and theoretical articles that provides a key to understanding the cultural ferment of the early avant-garde movement in Russia. Her collaboration with the poet Aleksei Kruchenykh sought to overcome the boundaries that separate poetry from art. The two worked together on various projects, mostly editions of lithographic futurist books, enthused by the idea that words should serve as visual symbols that lack any specific meaning.
Rozanova was a founding member of the "Union of Youth" organization of artists and published articulations of the theoretical foundations of her art in the journal Supremus, founded by Kazimir Malevich. In her article "The Bases of the New Creation and the Reasons Why It Is Misunderstood," Rozanova defines the process of creation in terms of three stages: the intuitive principle, individual transformation of the visible and abstract creation.
Rozanova's art ran through a whole gamut of styles. Early works depict people in everyday settings such as parks or cafs. Disjointed combinations of overlapping, spiraling objects mark Rozanova's shift towards futurism. Rozanova's suprematist paintings lack any semblance to the naturalistic scenes of her earlier works. Her textile designs and simple shapes recall Malevich's abstract geometrical configurations and her planes of overlapping color bring to mind the paintings of Sonia Delaunay.
Gurianova's book is the first full-length study of Rozanova. Her accumulation of a vast number of primary sources-letters, articles, manifestos-is, along with a detailed chronology of Rozanova's life, the crowning achievement of the work. Gurianova's remarks about the evolution of avant-garde styles from long-standing traditions in art and literature are insightful. In her chapter on "The Futurist Shift," Gurianova draws a connection between Rozanova's lithographs made to embellish Kruchenykh's narrative poem Game in Hell and the "denizens of the underworld" of Gogol and Pushkin. Noting how Rozanova, in one of these lithographs, "Naked Witch with a Broom," plays with physical forms, assigning a witch's head to a devil's body and vice versa, Gurianova develops a key theme, the "play principle." Gurianova further identifies this displacement of objects and their parts as a typical futurist device.
Some of Gurianova's observations are difficult to understand. In her last chapter, "Exploring Color," Gurianova writes that Rozanova's "transrational poetry is always based on two or three phonemes that she varies and arranges, playing on 'vocalic' and 'consonantal' rhymes, much as in a musical tude." Gurianova's attempt to compare the elements of art to the phonemes of language and the notes of music is confusing and does little to explain Rozanova's work.
Gurianova's free-flowing style-the loose structure of her ideas and her frequent digressions-makes her writing difficult to follow. She frequently pastes together quotes from poets, authors and painters connected to Rozanova without relating them to her arguments and the explanations she provides are often as vague as the quotes themselves. Fortunately, Gurianova provides a thorough chronology of Rozanova's life and includes several of Rozanova's articles, which help to clarify some of the theoretical underpinnings of the succession of -isms with which Rozanova was associated. However, Gurianova's analyses are convoluted and somewhat garbled (part of the blame may fall on the translator, Charles Rougle.)
Despite these flaws, Gurianova succeeds in providing a glimpse into the life of an artist who continually sought new forms and new means of expression in her work. She makes the important point that Rozanova's career "reflects in miniature the fate of the early Russian avant-garde, which was driven by an inexorable and constant striving for renewal and a denial of previous achievements."
Olga Rozanova's work will be included in Amazons of the Avant-Garde, a retrospective of six women artists of the Russian constructivist movement, opening at the Guggenheim in New York this September.
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