text only database on XX century russian art


Charlotte Douglas. Suprematist embroidered ornament. Art Journal, Spring 1995 v54 n1 p42(4)

 COPYRIGHT 1995 College Art Association

In the winter of 1917, a few weeks after the Bolsheviks had taken Moscow in several days of fierce street fighting, the Second Modern Decorative Arts Exhibition opened at the Mikhailova Salon in the center of the city. On display were four hundred works designed by sixteen artists, sewn and embroidered by peasant women of the Ukrainian town of Verbovka.(1) Kazimir Malevich, Alexandra Exter, Olga Rozanova, Liubov Popova, and other members of the artistic avant-garde exhibited ornamented handbags, belts, collars, pillows, and lengths of embroidered fabric. Many of the designs were Suprematist in style, related to the geometric abstraction developed by Malevich two years earlier. One of the many visitors to this popular exhibition was the American theater critic Oliver M. Sayler, who was in Moscow gathering material for books on Russia. Sayler had his camera with him and took seventeen photographs of the show; six of these photographs, previously unpublished, are presented here.(2)

The photographs document the Russian avant-garde's intense involvement in ornament and fabric design, an involvement that began well before the Bolshevik revolution. Artists had inherited this interest from centuries of peasant decoration in Russia, as well as from the Western-influenced Arts and Crafts movement and Art Nouveau. In the years from about 1908 to 1933, Russian artists produced embroidered and printed modern designs as an alternative to the native folk patterns and traditional floral designs that were the mainstay of the domestic textile industry.

Before the mid 1920s the collaboration of peasant women with modern artists was largely responsible for the proliferation and exhibition of modern fabric in Russia. Women from the Ukrainian villages of Skoptsy and Verbovka were among several such groups actively engaged in a revival of handicrafts before the war.(3) The Skoptsy sewers reclaimed the patterns of antique carpets and embroidery and produced new folk designs. In Verbovka the revivalist intentions were not as pronounced. Organized with the help of Exter in 1912, the Verbovka women worked with both fine artists and folk painters and transferred motifs directly from original drawings and paintings to needlework charts. They also sewed articles of clothing - dresses, scarves, sashes, and handbags - and they intended eventually to move into printed textiles and decorative paper. During World War I the needleworkers of Verbovka, working from designs provided by artists, produced some of the earliest avant-garde fabrics.

Exter and Natalia Goncharova had pursued the decorative arts from the beginning of their careers; both exhibited embroidery as fine art as early as 1908. Goncharova, at her solo exhibition in the summer of 1913, showed, in addition to paintings, designs for over a hundred embroidery motifs and women's outfits. Rozanova's Cubo-Futurist embroidery designs from the same year are, like her paintings, energetic and gestural, but more completely abstract.

World War I was a major impetus to work on fabric. Germany declared war on Russia more than three years before the Bolshevik Revolution. Rural villages were stricken extremely hard, and finding that they had an organization already in place, local women frequently attempted to lessen the burden by the production and sale of handwork.

The war also dramatically increased the design of decorated fabric by the avant-garde. The Modern Decorative Art exhibition at the fashionable Lemerse Gallery in Moscow, in November 1915, showed forty items designed by Exter; embroidery by the artist Xenia Boguslavskaia; embroidered pillows and scarves by her husband, Ivan Puni (Pougny); four handbags, eleven designs for embroidery, and other items by the painter Georgy Yakulov; as well as handwork and designs by provincial artists. Malevich contributed designs for two scarves and a pillow. Most of the actual needlework was done by the women from Skoptsy and Verbovka.(4)

It is interesting to note that the November 1915 exhibition in Moscow preceded by only a month the famous 0.10. The Last Futurist Exhibition in Petrograd, which was organized by Puni, Boguslavskaia, and Malevich, and which introduced Suprematist painting to the public. We know that Malevich had been seeking broad application of his new style since the previous spring, so it is possible that Suprematist works first appeared in public not as paintings, but as needlework or sketches for needlework in the Modern Decorative Art exhibition.(5)

Applied work by the avant-garde was shown again simultaneously with 0.10; it was exhibited together with the Symbolist and Style Moderne work of the Abramtsevo and Talashkino art colonies. On the very days when the holiday crowds in Petrograd were gasping at the radical sculpture and painting of 0.10, those in Moscow could attend the Industrial Arts exhibition, where alongside Art Nouveau fabric designs and Russian revival-style dishes, vases, and ceramic mythological creatures were shown dress designs, pillows, lampshades, handbags, and decorative applique by Yakulov, Exter, Puni, and Boguslavskaia.(6)

When the 0.10 exhibition closed early in 1916, Popova, Rozanova, Nadezhda Udaltsova, and Vera Pestel abandoned Cubo-Futurism for Suprematism and began to work with Malesvich to propagate the new style through a journal called Supremus. This periodical was never, in fact, published, falling victim to the worsening war and finally to the February Revolution in 1917, but, as planned, it had a section exclusively devoted to Suprematist clothing and embroidery designs.

The mythic energy unleashed by Malevich's Suprematism was especially strong when it was applied to decoration. Like the cosmic and spiritual associations of folk motifs, Suprematist forms on fabric carried a meaningful element. Just as in the paintings, the colored rectangles were meant to indicate an advanced consciousness of the universe or to be emblematic of an unseen world. Not only did the Suprematists aspire to make completely objectless painting, but they also immediately decided to remake the entire visual world in the Suprematist mode, an idea that after the Bolshevik revolution would acquire political significance.

The 1915 exhibition catalogues mentioned ambitious plans for printed textiles. But 1916 was a grindingly difficult year in Russia, and means of production came to a halt. The military situation on the Russian front was disastrous. In Moscow there was no fuel and little food. Antigovernment strikes brought the railroads and other forms of transportation to a halt. Because of workers' strikes the factories in the leading textile town, Ivanovo-Voznesensk (near Moscow), ceased to function. Other factories in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and production centers throughout the country closed their doors until the end of the civil war in 1921. In the interval, little cloth was produced, printed or not.

But handwork still was possible, and amid the chaos of everyday life the avant-garde continued to produce designs for hand-decorated fabric and clothing. In fact, 1916 turned out to be an exceptional year for avant-garde embroidery and applique. Hundreds of designs were produced by virtually every member of the avant-garde, and their work was shown at several major exhibitions. In 1916 and 1917 designs for fabric decoration make up a large proportion of all the Russian avant-garde work done on paper.

The Second Modern Decorative Arts Exhibition of the Verbovka group opened at the Mikhailova Salon at 11 Bolshaia Dmitrovka, near the Moscow Art Theater, on December 19 (6), 1917.(7) The artists from the first show in 1915 were now joined by Rozanova, Pestel, Popova, and Udaltsova. The sewing was again done by the village women. Many of the four hundred small items and fabric designs exhibited were based on the vocabulary developed in the Supremus group. Composed of colorful bars, squares, triangles, and other geometric shapes embroidered or appliqued on solid grounds, they sometimes appear to float in "planetary" clusters . Other designs are static, the repeated abstract patterns evocative of the more traditional small motifs of floral printed fabric . Many of the designs are complex, composed of six or more small elements in alternating color combinations. Adjacent, superimposed, and intersecting rectangles are pierced by acute triangles, and parallel rows of chain stitching are used to create textured and "shaded" areas. Contemporary reviewers remarked on the embroidery's bright and unusual combinations of colors, as well as its success with the public:

What hits one in the eye at this exhibition is the joyful brilliance of the blinding colors (of the silks), put together in the most audacious combinations. . . . Here is no cheap cliche, here each thing bears the personal taste of the artist. . . . It is curious that the public, which is outraged by their paintings, readily buys up pillows, bookcovers, etc., which very often are just about exact copies of the Suprematists' pictures.(8)

Popova attempted to translate the complex compositions of her paintings directly into the stitched medium . Pieced sections of fabric are embroidered with contrasting colors, forming shaded planes and circular shapes similar to those in her architectonic paintings. An applique by Udaltsova is a compact composition of overlapping planes .(9)Handbags - regarded as unique and portable artistic compositions - were of special interest to the avant-garde. Rozanova's are eccentrically shaped and display linear designs on contrasting grounds . They are related to, but not copies of, her paintings of the same period and follow quite closely her sketches now in the Russian Museum .Not all the participants in the Second Modern Decorative Arts Exhibition were women. The same three men who had taken part in the first Verbovka exhibition - Yakulov, Puni, and Malevich - appeared here again. Yakulov sent eight works and Malevich contributed designs for seventeen items, including nine pillows and four handbags. A photograph of one of Malevich's Suprematist pillows shows a simplified and flopped version of a major oil painting of the same period. According to the catalogue, Puni contributed sixty-five works, including twenty-four handbags and eight designs for printed fabric. As an added attraction to the exhibition, the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky gave a public lecture on the significance of fabric design.(10)

World War I, the two revolutions, and the civil war did not disrupt the pace of innovation in Russian fabric design. Under new slogans of revolution, internationalism, and classlessness, Suprematist and Constructivist design continued until the late 1920s, when geometric design - on clothing or any other fabric - became politically suspect, and was forced out by a younger generation of artists.

Suprematist design then acquired an even greater importance for Malevich. In his late portraits it has emblematic, philosophical, and even counterrevolutionary significance. In 1934 Malevich painted a splendid portrait of the Leningrad theater designer Elizaveta Iakovleva . Dressed in a cadmium yellow hat and a coat with a Suprematist collar, she slyly exhibits a bright red Suprematist handbag. This painting has recently been discovered. Most of the actual fabric and other articles have been lost or destroyed. We must be grateful indeed for Sayler's photographs.(11)


1. Katalog 2-i vystavki sovremennago dekorativnago iskusstva, exh. cat. (Moscow: Mikhailova Salon. 1917).

2. The two books by Sayler that resulted from this trip were Russia White or Red, 1919, and The Russian Theater under the Revolution, 1920, both published in Boston by Little, Brown, & Company. Sayler's photographs of the Second Modern Decorative Arts Exhibition were not included in either book; six are reproduced in this article as figs. 1-6.

3. Skoptsy was downstream on the other side of the Dniepr River from Kiev. Verbovka is south of Cherkassy near the town of Chigirin.

4. Katalog vystavki sovremennogo dekorativnago iskusstva. Vyshivki i kovry po eskizam khudozhnikov (Moscow: Lemerse Gallery, 1915).

5. For a more general discussion tithe close connection between modern embroidery and abstraction, see Sharlotta Duglas, "Bespredmentnost i dekorativnost," Voprosy iskusstvoznaniia 2-3 (1993): 96-106.

6. Katalog vystavki khudozhestvennoi industrii, exh. cat. (Moscow: Lemerse Gallery, 1915).

7. Dates are given here according to the Western calendar with Russian dates in parentheses. Bolshaia Dmitrovka is now Pushkinskaia ulitsa (Pushkin Street).

8. "Pu vystavkam," Rannee utro, December 21 (8), 1917, 3.

9. The attributions of these works are based on sketches and other known works by the artists. Except in a few cases the items apparently were moved for photographing and so lost correspondence with their catalogue designations.

10. Mayakovsky spoke at the gallery on December 30 (17), 1917.

11. On the later industrial fabric motifs, see Charlotte Douglas, "Russian Textile Design 1928-1933," in The Great Utopia: The Russian and Soviet Avant-Garde 1915-1932. exh. cat. (New York: Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 1992), 634-48.

CHARLOTTE DOUGLAS, associate professor at New York University's Institute of Fine Arts and chair of the Department of Russian and Slavic Studies, wrote Kazimir Malevich (Abrams, 1994).