Pioneers. Women of the Russian avant-garde

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From 1 March to 16 June the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum is hosting the exhibition entitled Pioneers. Women of the Russian Avant-garde. A tribute to those artists who became trailblazers in the creation and development of new artistic languages at the start of the last century. Works by Natalia Goncharova, Alexandra Exter, Olga Rozanova, Nadesha Udaltsova, Liubov Popova, Varvara Stepanova and Sonia Delaunay, together with texts, photographs and biographies, are displayed in this exquisite show, which brings together the influence of foreign avant-garde trends and aspects of Russian culture. All the women featured had a shared interest in expanding their artistic ideas to everyday objects, taking art beyond the canvass, designing books, textiles, theatrical sets and fashion (it is no surprise that they were the precursors of the Vhutemas — the Russian state Higher Art and Technical Studios — and the German Bauhaus.)

An age of rupture with the established order

Art is ever a detector of phenomena, of trends. To understand what happened and why this new vision appeared in the evolution of art, pushing ahead of human evolution, it is helpful to take a look at history. This period, the start of a new century, seems to have been affected and shaped by the end of the previous age, a period rife with confusion and atavism.

With the dawn of the new century, many events herald a storm of radical change in terms of politics: World War I (1914-1918), The Russian Revolution (February and October of 1917 in the Julian calendar of Tsarsit Russia). But there was also change in social norms, morality, religion, science, the traditional order of things, customs and of course in art. Groundbreaking experimental art, which demands an opening up to avant-garde ideas, emerges as a new way of approaching and revisiting convention. In the twilight of an age marked by deep-rooted power structures and huge inequality, a time of schism, the advent of social struggle and a conquering spirit of renewed ideas, established convention had melted into a wide open sea. To destabilize and lay the ground for inevitable reform were the overall objectives.

Just as the war brought everything crashing to the ground, the break with established order in art extended to all that had once seemed sacrosanct: a rupture with visual norms or lines, the questioning of recognizable visual form and greater interest in colour.

Avant garde Russia

Before the socio-economic revolution in Russia, a need for spiritual revolution in art had already made itself felt, discreetly and spontaneously. Artists dared to explore new ground and began to experiment with innovative forms of expression; it was a dialogue and environment stimulated by cosmopolitanism, fruit of contact with Paris, at that time the cradle of radical developments in art. Women take on an active, relevant role from which, until then, they had been excluded; they had even been prohibited from entering the official academies of art and were forced to study in private schools. These circumstances, however, were perhaps advantageous as women, unlike their male colleagues, did not have to break free of strict academic norms. The many barriers imposed on women in the high arts (architecture, painting and sculpture, all art forms based on drawing, which took its very own revolutionary path) set them free in the so-called “lesser arts.” Women played a decisive role in these and perhaps this was the key ingredient: they were not afraid to innovate and, unrestrained by prejudice, maintained a common interest in taking art beyond the limits of a canvass to transform everyday, utilitarian objects into artworks. In this way, evolving naturally, they also became the producers and standard-bearers of the most radically avant-garde. Have you ever seen the quilt Sonia Delaunay made for her son? A work of art to cover a new life. Because, for her, art was life and life, art.  

Exposition: Pioneers. Women of the Russian avant-gardePioneras at the Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza from 1 March to 16 June 2019.

Curator: Ana Ruiz del Árbol

Photography: Oscar Rivilla

Translation: Rebekah Jane Rhodes

Music: Dr Symptosizer

Hair&Makeup: Jose Sande

Art director: Carolina Verd


Main picture, picture 2 and 3: shoes by Pura López, courtesy from Finally Press

Picture 4: dress by Psophia; shoes by Pura López, courtesy from Finally Press