Curatorial project: "Petrov-Vodkin's Circle"

From June to September 2016 in The State Russian museum exhibition “Petrov-Vodkin’s Circle”

Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin exerted a large influence on a wide circle of his contemporaries. An elder artistic colleague for some, for others he was a teacher in the most direct sense, one who imparted to them his “objective method” of comprehending the physical world, his “science of seeing”. Petrov-Vodkin’s career as an educator began in the 1910s, when Léon Bakst recommended him as his successor at the School of Yelizaveta Zvantseva, known for the high quality of its students. This is when the Petrov-Vodkin Circle, first consisting of Nadezhda Lermontova (more a comrade-in-arms than a follower), Favsta Shikhmanova, Raisa Kotovich-Borisyak and Magda Nachman, began to form.

This exhibition will show the “Zvantsevans” for the first time as an integral phenomenon in which the stylistic interests of the age, above all Symbolism and then-nascent Expressionism, found their reflection. Petrov-Vodkin’s circle expanded greatly in the 1920s. At the Academy of Fine Arts, where he taught from 1918 onwards (through all its renamings and reorganizations—as VKhUTEMAS, VKhUTEIN and INPII), his system based on three-color theory, spherical perspective and the “problem of motion” was studied by practically every first-year student in every department. Closest of all to Petrov-Vodkin were the young artists who enjoyed direct personal contacts with their mentor.

When discussing Petrov-Vodkin’s educational work, it’s essential to distinguish between two concepts, namely: 1) the relationship of young artists to his school in its methodological aspect, and 2) Petrov-Vodkin’s profound personal influence on their work. Recently unearthed student works (some during this exhibition’s preparation) by Alexei Zernov, Tatyana Kupervasser, Maria Lomakina, Gerasim Efros, Yevgenia Blagoveshchenskaya and others testify to the school’s high professional standards, confirming the master’s assertion that he “didn’t engender dilettantes”. Especially noteworthy is the fact that the student works, above all the nude portraits, transcend mere representation to achieve an imagery with its own distinct, independent significance. We hope that the works of multiple young artists embodying Petrov-Vodkin’s objective method, many being shown for the first time, or for the first time in this context, will be a revelation for museumgoers.

However, the master’s inner circle also included those who, while preserving an internal kinship with their teacher, blossomed into fully independent artists. Leonid Chupyatov, Pavel Golubyatnikov, Pyotr Sokolov, Vladimir Dmitriev and the prematurely deceased Alexander Lappo-Danilevsky, among others, remained in direct creative dialogue with Petrov-Vodkin throughout their lives. And Petrov-Vodkin’s circle can be extended yet further, to those artists who departed quite far from the particular themes that concerned their teacher but retained his taste for optical structurization in their work. This is evident both in the visual-spatial structure of their images and in their organization of the viewing process, i. e. the viewer’s “navigation within the picture”. These Petrov-Vodkinian structural features are easily readable in the work of Alexander Samokhvalov, Alexei Pakhomov, Israel Lizak, Vladimir Malagis, Yevgenia Evenbakh and Alexei Zernov. And Petrov-Vodkin’s influence on these artists doesn’t end here.

Researchers have justly called Petrov-Vodkin a person and artist of “archetypal mentality”. This term can be understood as the sum total of “subjective-semantic and situational motives” with whose aid the artist experienced and interpreted reality. The stability of Petrov-Vodkin’s archetypes (“motherhood”, for example) arises from their rootedness in traditional Russian artistic perception, making them a lasting feature of our country’s artistic life over the course of many decades, including the late 1920s and the 1930s. Even those highly individual artists whose dynamic development carried them far away from Petrov-Vodkin on the stylistic level still preserved these archetypal ties. And in the context of today’s reevaluation of art of this period, an elucidation of such ties could harbor significant historico-cultural potential. In particular, to alter accepted notions about Symbolism’s place in the post-avant-garde period. Not to mention the impact the material might have on the debate over various realisms in interbellum European art.

As we’ve seen, then, the conception of Petrov Vodkin’s Circle presented in this exhibition is flexible and many-sided, designed to assimilate new materials and interpretations as they appear.

Aleksander Borovski