Russian vanguardists: Nadezhda Dobychina & Klavdia Mikhailova

Alexander Adams

Alexander Adams

Alexander Adams is an artist, critic and poet, based in the UK. He writes art criticism for The Critic, Standpoint, Apollo, Burlington Magazine, Print Quarterly, Printmaking Today, The Jackdaw and other publications. He publishes articles on censorship and free speech, as well as book reviews, on Spiked-Online.

During the heyday of Modernism, one of the centres was Russia. Artists from St Petersburg and Moscow travelled to Western Europe, especially Paris, and encountered Modernism first hand as it was produced and exhibited. Until the outbreak of war on 1 August 1914, Russian artists could travel fairly freely to the West, and word of Western Modernism was circulating in the small groups of vanguardist connoisseurs and creators in Russia. The Golden Fleece salons and Jack of Diamonds exhibitions gave Russian creators an opportunity to exhibit their own Modernism, sometimes alongside foreign pioneers. The October Revolution of 1917 further isolated Russian artists and severely limited importation of international art.

The authors note that although Berthe Weill is noted as the first prominent female gallerist who promoted Modernism, there were two other female dealers working in the 1910s. Nadezhda Dobychina and Klavdia Mikhailova are two other pioneers who deserve consideration. It seems that their later obscurity is mainly due to the rejection and suppression of Russian Modernism under Stalinism in the USSR. This book covers their lives and work and the reception of Modernism in Russia of the 1910s.

“At the beginning of the twentieth century, private commercial art galleries were still a novelty in Russia. Collectors and art lovers acquired fine art at auctions, in antique shops, at the exhibitions organised by the Imperial Academy of Arts in St Petersburg and by various art societies or directly from the artists’ studios.” Dobychina and Mikhailova would contribute to the expansion of the public platforms for new art.

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Klavdia Ivanovna Mikhailova (née Suvirova) (1875-1942) was from a wealthy Muscovite merchant family, who studied art at Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture, from 1891 to 1896. She trained as a painter in the school of the Peredvizhniki (Wanderers), which combined Symbolism and social realism. Klavdia met her husband Ivan Mikhailov at art school. While Ivan came to realise his future was in promoting and selling – rather than making – art, Klavdia remained a full-time painter until 1912. She exhibited widely in group exhibitions, sold work and was well reviewed. (An extract from a laudatory review is reprinted.) By this time, she was producing landscapes in a Post-Impressionist style, using metallic paints. Her sister Olga followed a similar career path through the same art school but was stricken by mental health conditions which left her increasingly unable to function normally. In 1907, Mikhailova met Mikhail Larionov and Natalia Goncharova, when she exhibited with them. This would set her in good stead to act as a promoter of their art.

Nadezhda Evseevna Dobychina (born Ginda-Neka Seyevna Fishman; 1884-1950) was from a poor Jewish family. She moved to St Petersburg to study biology, changing her name to evade social prejudice and legal restrictions faced by Jews. She met her future husband Petr at university. She also met Nikolay Kulbin, an artist and vigorous promoter of Russian Modernism. Kulbin founded Triangle: The Art and Psychology Group, which functioned between 1907 and 1910, exhibiting Symbolist and Post-Impressionist paintings by Russians. Dobychina was the secretary of the group, doing much of the business and organisational work for Triangle. The assertive primitivism of the art and presentation (on walls covered by sackcloth) of their Moscow exhibition drew critical derision and considerable crowds, as well as garnering around 50 sales.

Dobychina and Mikhailova opened their businesses (independently) in 1912. Dobychina’s Art Bureau (in St Petersburg, centre of court and politics) and Mikhailova’s Art Salon (in Moscow, centre of commerce) took advantage of the wave of Russian Modernism. This included art in the styles of Cubism, Futurism, Rayism, Primitivism, as well as the last vestiges of Symbolism. Dobychina’s Art Bureau broke with the smartness of the French-style salon – French culture, emulated and transmitted by the Romanov court, dominated high culture in Russia – and instead put forward a more Modernist attitude and aesthetic. She hosted displays of Futurist art, musical recitals and readings of avant-garde writings, including by Mayakovsky, in her house in a poor part of the city. Dobychina did this due to personal commitment rather than income and was very poor at this time. In 1913, a windfall allowed her to move to a larger house in a more central location.

In contrast, Mikhailova used an inheritance from her father to open her Art Salon in a rented premises located in a prestigious street in Moscow. This was a thoroughly commercial affair – requiring paid entry – that she ran while continuing to produce pictures as a painter. The luxuriously appointed gallery was designed as an art-display space and had skylight illumination, electricity, a telephone and separate male and female lavatories. It would be a hub of commerce and aesthetic vanguardism until it was confiscated and nationalised by the Soviet authorities in 1918.

An early exhibition by Mikhailova was a memorial display (1912-3) of the nationalist allegories of the hugely popular and respected Mikhail Vrubel (1856-1910). Vrubel was considered a nationalist hero but also a technical precursor to High Modernism, with his use of flattened planes in composition and his defiance of academic convention. As such, Vrubel could be presented as a pioneer of Russian Modernism but one that conservatives could appreciate as a patriot. It was a canny choice and one planned to coincide with a large retrospective of Vrubel’s art held by the New Society of Artists in St Petersburg. The subject of Mikhailova’s exhibition were studies for The Dream Princess (1896), a giant mural which had proved controversial when first exhibited, and therefore a subject that had some recognisability for the general public.  

A subsequent exhibition of Parisian Modernism (including van Dongen, Dufy, Friesz, Gris, Léger, Marquet, Matisse, Picasso and Vallotton) was a popular success, despite – as the authors note – Mikhailova apparently never travelling to Paris nor having direct contact with the artists. The intermediary she used is unknown. The popularity seems to have been due to those who had read about these artists but never seen examples and came to absorb or mock. The critical reception was negative, recommending viewers to seek out the degeneracy and lunacy on display before fashion changed and swept it into obscurity.

When Larionov rented her gallery to mount the provocative Target exhibition of the so-called Donkey’s Tail group, the event attracted widespread criticism. The exhibition featured radical paintings by Larionov, Goncharova, Niko Pirosmani, Aleksandr Shevchenko, Kazimir Malevich and Marc Chagall. Larionov declared that the exhibition would inaugurate a new art style called Rayism, which was a form of Futurism with invented rays of light forming linear/crystalline designs on a flattened picture surface.

[Image: Natalia Goncharova, Cats: Rayist Perception in Rose, Black and Yellow, 1913, oil on canvas, 85 x 85 cm, Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York.]

The parallel presentation of the naïve figuration of Pirosmani is interpreted here as an effort by Larionov to link untutored native talent with new avant-garde styles in a move to take the initiative from Paris. In effect, Larionov used the exhibition at Mikhailova’s gallery as an opportunity to assert Russian supremacy (and independence) in the vanguard of Modernism.

Dobychina turned to exhibiting woodcuts and photographs, featuring the minor arts, which educated visitors even if the exhibitions did prove very profitable. The memorial exhibition of Ian Tsioglinski (1858-1913), the Polish Impressionist, had a substantial catalogue and was a commercial success. The fame and income from this exhibition of more conservative art would be parlayed into backing for avant-garde art. Mikhailova’s solo exhibition for Goncharova, which was a major retrospective of 761 works, with a catalogue and running from September and November 1913, was a hit. The exhibition (reduced in scale) transferred to Dobychina’s gallery in St Petersburg, where pictures with religious subjects were briefly confiscated by the police, on grounds of blasphemy. The two gallerists apparently never interacted directly, with the artist and Larionov doing the curation and organisation.    

The war cut off the dealers from advanced art in Paris and (understandably) curtailed plans to exhibit German art. The disruption to internal transport, blockage to supplies and the relocation of artists impaired cultural life in Russia. A number of artists (including Larionov, Shevchenko and Malevich) were drafted for military service. Dobychina held an exhibition to raise money for an infirmary for artists injured during the hostilities. She also looked eastward, organising an exhibition of art, including printmaking. When she displayed Chagall, whose art she bought for her private collection, the critics criticised his romantic scenes and paintings of village life as too detached from the harsh reality of life. Chagall was condemned as being an escapist and therefore socially irresponsible. In the middle of the war, Dobychina was diagnosed with tuberculosis of the bone.

The greatest achievement of Dobychina was 0,10: The Last Futurist Exhibition of Paintings was held in her Art Bureau in newly renamed Petrograd, between December 1915 to January 1916. It hosted a ground-breaking exhibition of art by Vladimir Tatlin, Malevich, Ivan Kliun, Lyubov Popova, Olga Rozanova, Ksenia Boguslavkaia, Natan Altman, Marie Vassilieff and others. Kliun and Tatlin exhibited multi-media abstract reliefs. The most remarkable aspect was the extensive display of Suprematist abstract paintings by Malevich. In fact, that dominance antagonised other exhibitors, who considered Malevich presumptuous. Rozanova claimed that she (not Malevich) had invented Suprematism.   

The October 1917 Revolution was the last in a sequence of upheavals stretching back to 1905. When it became clear that the Bolsheviks would implement socialism, artists and art dealers, like all citizens, had to decide how to respond. Dobychina indicated that she would not oppose the politics of the Bolsheviks in her Art Bureau. Mikhailova did not oppose (or at least prevent) political slogans appearing on the walls of her Art Salon during the last Jack of Diamonds exhibition at the end of 1917, after the ascendence of the Bolsheviks.

The nationalisation of much private property and cultural production extinguished much of the commercial side of the avant-garde – or rather creators transferred to serve communes, local institutions or the local and national authorities. Initially, it looked to the avant-garde that they now had the ear of those in power and a direct line to funds and venues. They would be commissioned to decorate new social housing, carve the statues for stadia and produce posters to inspire workers to contribute their labour to common lot. What happened initially was civil war, social disruption, soaring inflation and the closure of many cultural institutions for the next two years.

However, when attention returned to culture, it would be the creators of art who would be the tools of the state and the state would dictate the content and style of art, severely limiting the scope of artistic expression. Then, in the era of Stalinism, artists could fall from favour for political, personal or stylistic reasons. Some, like Aleksandr Drevin (1889-1938), who exhibited with Dobychina, were liquidated during Stalin’s purges. Drevin was one of the prominent Latvians killed in the anti-Latvian purge of 1937-8. Mikhailova herself, deprived of her gallery, returned to the profession of painting. Without the chance of exhibiting Symbolist paintings of fairy stories, Mikhailova painted in the prescribed Socialist Realist style. This apparently left her bitter and demoralised, reliant on old colleagues to petition authorities on her behalf. Dobychina lost her Art Bureau. So both businesses started in 1912 and were closed in 1918. Dobychina would become head of exhibitions at the House of Arts, Petrograd, then moved to the Society of Encouragement of the Arts and later the State Russian Museum. Other administrative jobs in the museum and film-production sector followed, where her early achievements in the avant-garde were overlooked or dismissed. It may also that during the era of Socialist Realism, she may have downplayed her commitment to art that was graded as bourgeois and Formalist. She died in 1950.   

The authors – both experts on Russian art – have woven together the story of these two serious promoters of Russian Modernism into an enlightening and engaging book with many illustrations. The illustration of individual artists, collectors and intellectuals, and of some of the art exhibited, makes the account even more vivid. The book has been supported by the Kroll Family Trust, which extends a long-standing family interest in art, especially in Russian Modernism. The investment has been well rewarded with this book, which will be welcomed by anyone interested in Russian Modernism and women’s roles in the arts of the twentieth century.

Natalia Budanova, Natalia Murray, Two Women of the Russian Avant-Garde: Nadezhda Dobychina and Klavdia Mikhailova, Unicorn/Kroll Family Trust, 2022, hardback, 230pp + x, fully illus., £30, ISBN 978 1 913491 27 7

To read my perspective on the interaction between female artists, feminism, the art market and art criticism/history, read my book “Women and Art: A Post-Feminist View”. Details given here

(c) 2022 Alexander Adams

To see my books and art visit www.alexanderadams.art