Russian avant-garde art dissected

  • 2014-09-03
  • By TBT staff

RIGA - The name Gustavs Klucis (1895-1938) is well-known to European museums, but the world-famous Constructivist’s relation to Latvia is often left unmentioned. Along with a unique collection from the Latvian National Library, the show of his works will also display pieces from other European museums.
With Riga’s status the cultural capital of Europe 2014, it is important to highlight the Latvian contribution to European culture. This is the largest show of Klucis’ works ever exhibited in his home country.

Klucis had the courage to go down the path in art that attracted him most, believing that his creative and civic-minded goals were compatible with the state in which he lived and created, and with the aims of its society. After the 1917 Bolshevik coup (the October Revolution), which subjected Russian society to an enormous social experiment, the young artist was under the illusion that this new society would provide fertile ground for his artistic development and creative experiments.

Today we are privileged to be able to look back and assess the historical events of the 20th century, which caused the experimental art of the Constructivists to be transformed into an ideological tool of Soviet power. Finding himself at the epicenter of these events, Klucis unfortunately failed to predict the dangers that the new authorities’ cultural policies posed to society and his own freedom of creativity and expression. Whether due to political naivete or inspired by creative enthusiasm, Klucis paid the highest price - his very life, perishing in Stalin’s Great Terror along with thousands of other Latvians living in Russia at the time.

In the almost 20 years of creative life Klucis spent in Moscow, his art went through the full cycle of manipulation by the totalitarian state: from illusory creative freedom to involvement in the building of the new state and official recognition, followed by censor-dictated praise to the new totalitarian regime and, finally, the state’s clampdown on the avant-garde. Because of this, in the evaluation of Klucis’ artistic legacy it is impossible to avoid discussing the artist’s relationship with the Soviet authorities, the freedom of personal choice, and social accountability.
However, it is more important to understand his art as a unified whole rather than draw a line between the “right” and “wrong” Klucis; the artist’s body of work is marked by qualities that have survived the test of time and place him among the most outstanding artistic figures of the 20th century.

The artist is recognized internationally as a pioneer of the Russian avant-garde. Few people know he was born in Latvia and that the artist’s largest and most comprehensive collection is housed in the Latvian National Museum of Art. The collection was established in 1959 after the exhibition on work by Latvian Red Rifleman artists was organized in the State Museum of Latvian and Russian Art (today – the Latvian National Museum of Art).

In the exhibition, works by Klucis, Aleksandrs Drevins and other artists who had lived in Moscow between the two world wars were on view for the first time in an almost twenty year period, when the names of these artists murdered by the Stalinist regime had been literally erased from the annals of art history.
After the close of the exhibition, Klucis’ widow, Valentina Kulagina (1902 - 1987), donated a significant number of the artist’s works to the museum: photomontages, drawings and design projects from the Constructivist period, posters, examples of book design and watercolors, as well as photographs and a unique sketch album.

The exhibition “Anatomy of an Experiment” is currently the most comprehensive retrospective on his native land. On view along with the LNMA collection are artworks and documentary photographs from a number of the museums’ and private collections: George Costakis (1913–1990) collection at the State Museum of Contemporary Art in Thessaloniki; State Tretyakov Gallery and State V. Mayakovsky Museum in Moscow; Latvian War Museum; Gustavs Klucis’ family archive; Cajasol Obra Social and VIMCORSA Viviendas Municipales collections in Spain; private collections in Latvia – art collection of Dr. Guntis Belevics and Mukusala Art Salon collection.

Gustavs Klucis exhibition “Anatomy of an Experiment”
Aug. 23 – Oct. 26
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