Rozanova, Olga (1886–1918)

views updated

Rozanova, Olga (1886–1918)

Prominent Russian avant-garde painter who devoted her final years to developing a form of art appropriate to the society created by the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. Name variations: Rosanova. Pronunciation: Roe-ZAHN-ova. Born Olga Vladimirovna Rozanova at Malenki, Vladimir Province, in 1886; died of diphtheria in Moscow on November 8, 1918; daughter of Vladimir Rozanov; attended Bolshakov School and Stroganov Institute, Moscow, 1904–10, Zvantseva School of Art, St. Petersburg, 1912–13; married Alexei Kruchenykh (a poet), in 1916.

Moved to Moscow to study art (1904); exhibited works in St. Petersburg with Union of Youth (1910); moved from Moscow to St. Petersburg (1911); began to illustrate her future husband's books (1912); wrote major manifesto on her artistic principles (1913); exhibited paintings at "Free Futurist Exhibition" in Rome (1914); exhibited first non-objective painting (1915); helped organize Supremus group, adopted Suprematism, used collage technique for Universal War (1916); joined IZO and Proletkult (1918); posthumous exhibition of her work in Moscow (1919).

Major works:

The Poet (Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, 1912); Factory and Bridge (NY, 1912); Dissonance, Man in the Street (Hutton Gallery, NY, 1913); Nonobjective Composition (State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg, 1914); Workbox (Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, 1915); Non-Objective Composition (Collages from Universal War, Tretiakov Gallery, Moscow, 1916); Green Stripe (Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, 1917).

Olga Rozanova was a leading Russian painter in the first two decades of the 20th century. Like many of her contemporaries such as Liubov Popova , she absorbed the changing impulses of the larger world of European art, for example working in both Cubist and Futurist styles between 1913 and 1916. By those years, she had followed other leading Russian artists to the opinion that art had to go far beyond the mere representation of visible objects. In the view of a number of critics, though she never traveled outside her own country, Rozanova brought original personal elements to the various genres in which she created her art.

Rozanova did particularly memorable work as the illustrator for books produced during the war by her husband, the Futurist poet Alexei Kruchenykh, whom she married in 1916. With the outbreak of revolution in 1917, she threw herself enthusiastically into the heated political environment. During the short time left to her before she died of diphtheria in 1918, the young painter and illustrator worked actively in the new artists' groups that developed under the aegis of Russia's Bolshevik government.

Russia in the early 20th century, the country in which Rozanova grew to adulthood and took her place in the artistic world, contained a troubled society on the brink of vast changes. Ruled by an inept monarch, Nicholas II, the political system was divorced from the needs of Russia's population with its masses of impoverished peasants. Its growing percentage of factory workers, themselves peasants recently transplanted from the villages of the country, lived in urban squalor. Shaken by defeat in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–05, the old order in Russia was directly threatened by several varieties of committed revolutionaries. Those who saw the peasantry as the engine of revolution, the Populists, had been disrupting Russian life—even employing assassination of government leaders to do so—since the 1870s. The revolutionary threat was augmented in the 1890s by the emergence of a Marxist revolutionary movement. With such daring and talented leaders as V.I. Lenin and Leon Trotsky, the extreme Bolshevik faction of Marxists succeeded in coming to power in November 1917.

The art world was a lively part of this turbulent society. It welcomed the entry of women painters like Popova, Alexandra Exter , and Natalia Goncharova . Both traditional Russian folk art and the latest developments to arrive from Paris, the Continent's capital of the arts, stimulated the minds and paint brushes of Russia's artists. Rozanova was an important component within this section of Russian life.

At a time when Russian artists had a plethora of influences from which to choose, Rozanova managed to tap many of the new currents. In the view of some critics, she followed the path set down by her colleagues, but others find that she maintained a high degree of individuality. A basic view of her work came in 1962 from Camilla Gray , who found Rozanova's role on the Russian avant-garde scene "not that of an innovator, but … [that] of a talented follower." Such a view of Rozanova's limited role as an innovator may be overstated. More recently, she has been ranked more highly. For example, when Vasily Rakitin, a noted art historian, introduced her work to an exhibition of Russian avant-garde artists in Cologne in 1979, he characterized Rozanova vividly. For him, she was "artistically independent to the point of audacity," a painter who "absorbed everything and depended virtually on nobody."

Olga Rozanova was born in 1886 in the small town of Malenki in Vladimir Province northeast of Moscow. Details about her early life are scanty, but she is known to have moved to Moscow to study art around 1904, pursuing her studies there until 1910. She began in a private studio, the Bolshakov Art School, then entered the Stroganov School of Applied Art. In 1911, she moved to St. Petersburg, Russia's capital city. There she plunged into the world of avant-garde art. She also continued her education at St. Petersburg's Zvantseva Art School in 1912 and 1913.

She loved to contravene herself, and enter heart and soul into the new. It was only her premature death that finally stopped Rozanova's forward march.

—Vasily Rakitin

Rozanova took a key step in her career when she joined the Union of Youth in St. Petersburg. This was an important group of young artists, all of them enthusiastically committed to breaking with the conventions of the past. Through her membership, Rozanova came into contact with the most active artists in Russia. These included Goncharova and David Burliuk. In the words of M.N. Yablonskaya, the stimulation provided by the Union of Youth led Rozanova to conclude that she would not pursue a course of study abroad. Thus, both before and during her brief period as a leading artist, she distinguished herself from other major figures in her country's art world by the fact that she never left Russia.

The Union of Youth became far more than a round table for avant-garde painters. It soon had sections for dramatists and musicians, and, in 1913, the "Gilea" group of avant-garde poets joined as well. One of these poets, Kruchenykh, played a growing role in Rozanova's life, first as an artistic collaborator, then as her husband.

Along with many of her contemporaries, Rozanova absorbed the ideas of Cubism and, especially, Futurism. Cubism arrived in Russia from France and featured the effort to view objects, such as faces, simultaneously from a number of different angles. Futurism, on the other hand, originated in Italy and was characterized by an interest in showing the dynamism of modern life, featuring representations of objects in motion. Both reached Russia shortly before the outbreak of war in 1914. The young Rozanova, still only in her 20s, was a poet as well as a painter, and she helped promote Futurism with her writing as well as her work in the visual arts.

In her fundamental statement of her artistic principles, "The Bases of the New Creation and the Reasons Why It is Misunderstood," published in 1913, she eloquently defended the guidelines of the avant-garde. "Only modern art," she wrote, "has advocated the full and serious importance of such principles as pictorial dynamism, volume and equilibrium." To the conservatives of the art world, she declared boldly, "Messrs arts critics and veterans of the old art are being true to themselves in their fatal fear of what is beautiful and continually renewing itself." Thus, the artist must proceed confidently to explore the new. "The future of art," she insisted, "will be assured only when the thirst for eternal renewal in the artist's soul becomes inexhaustible." Rozanova did not confine her defense of modern art to the written page. As a speaker as well as an artist, she took a leading role in the Union of Youth's efforts to defend free artistic expression in public debate.

In the opinion of Margaret Betz , the basic shift from representational art to one "which virtually obliterated all references to the phenomenal world" began in Russia in 1912 and 1913 in the production of prints. Similar developments in painting ensued. According to Betz, Rozanova not only participated in this move of Russian modernists toward abstraction, but "left perhaps the clearest line of development" of the change in her lithographs of March 1913, published in the Union of Youth magazine. The same 1913 issue brought her essay "The Bases of the New Creation" before the public.

The prints, notably three containing remnants of landscape painting, show how Rozanova's eye was searching for a deeper reality. Great sweeping curves combined with a rearrangement of real objects—putting a utility pole above a bridge, for example—to move away from representation. In these and in similar works produced in late 1913 and early 1914, Rozanova may have set a basis for Kasimir Malevich, generally considered the father of Russian abstract art, to move forward into the complete abstraction of the form he called "Suprematism." Ironically, as Betz puts it, Rozanova apparently hesitated after establishing herself as a pioneer in the move to abstraction; she then followed her mentor Malevich when he was the first to muster the courage for the ultimate step away from representational art.

In the wartime years, travel outside Russia was impossible, but the artistic scene within the country continued to be lively. For example, regular gatherings took place in the apartment of Lev Bruni in St. Petersburg (renamed Petrograd at the start of the war); Rozanova and other leading artists traveled between Moscow and Petrograd to keep their colleagues linked to artistic developments in Russia's two great urban centers. She participated in several of the avant-garde exhibitions of the time, including the Tramway V exhibition in Petrograd in March 1915 and The Store exhibit in Moscow in March 1916. For the 0.10 exhibit in Petrograd in January 1916, she produced a number of abstract sculptures. These have since disappeared, although several of her sketches for them have survived.

Before Malevich and Rozanova both moved on to abstract art, he was her mentor as she developed her style in Cubism and Futurism. Malevich had been profoundly influenced by leading French Cubists such as Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque in 1913 and 1914. His use of a collage effect, in which objects like photographs and newspaper clippings appear to overlap one another to give depth to a painting's surface, was a technique typical of Cubism. Rozanova employed it in works like Workbox and Hairdresser's, both completed in 1915.

There was, however, no clear break between the periods in which Rozanova worked in Cubism and Futurism. As one of her colleagues put it, "Rozanova does not take the essence from these tendencies, but only their means of expression." An important Futurist work by Rozanova entitled Geography was painted in 1914–15. It showed the interior of a machine, a typical Futurist device. It also followed the Futurist technique of inserting letters of the alphabet and parts of words into the painting. In this case, Rozanova used letters of both the Western and the Cyrillic alphabets to suggest the words "France," "Amerique," "Paris," and "England." Her Futurist work Composition of Shining Objects, presented at the 1915 "Exhibition of Leftist Trends" in Petrograd, was a more abstract example of her ongoing exploration of this style.

In her continuing investigation of different artistic possibilities, Rozanova turned to abstract painting. Her principal mentor remained Malevich,

and she took her place as a key member of his Suprematist group. According to Yablonskaya, it was in the years 1915 and 1916 that Rozanova followed Malevich into complete abstraction, "a mystical, non-objective style of painting which he named 'Suprematism.'" Her stature within Malevich's Suprematist coterie can be seen in her role as Malevich's executive secretary for his stillborn journal Supremus. Her work on Supremus, even though the journal did not come to actual publication, led her into the area of applied art. In preparing the section of Supremus devoted to these issues, she designed embroidery and textiles. These new ventures were to become important following the Bolshevik Revolution of November 1917, when Rozanova and other leading artists redirected their skills to serve the practical needs of Russia's masses.

But her originality, even in the realm of abstract painting, shone through in her emphatic use of color. A notable example of this was her 1917 painting Green Stripe, in which a single, multihued green stripe runs vertically down the center of a painting against a cream-colored background. Her love for color and her desire to incorporate it into both her Cubist and Suprematist work has been emphasized by such art critics as Larissa Zhadova . Even in her collages, according to Zhadova, Rozanova placed "combinations of pink to lilac or pink to red ranges with blues, sometimes accompanied by striking chords of yellows and greens."

In cooperation with Alexei Kruchenykh, Rozanova served as illustrator for several books of Futurist poetry from 1913 to 1916. Just as her painting in these years encompassed both Futurism and Cubism, so too did her style of illustrating Kruchenykh's works. Her work on the 1913 book A Forestly Rapid, for example, employed the techniques of Futurism, but by 1915, when she did the illustrations for Transrational Book, Cubism became the dominant genre. In 1916, in illustrating Kruchenykh's Universal War, Rozanova moved on to Suprematism and employed abstract forms. In this effort, she used actual collages to accompany the 12 poems that made up her husband's book. This remarkable artistic product had to be turned out by hand, one copy at a time. Against a background of paper colored dark blue, Rozanova placed her collages consisting of fabric and semi-transparent paper. As usual, she added an intensely personal note, in this case varying the Suprematist style. In one of the prints, consisting of geometrical shapes placed in a dynamic relationship with one another, she placed silhouettes of both a man and an airplane, thereby bringing earthly shapes into the austere abstraction of Suprematism.

Rozanova later recalled the feelings that accompanied her work on Universal War, suggesting that her future political radicalism had its origins in her reaction to the bloody conflict in which Russia was engaged. "The war did its business with us," she wrote, and "changing the world to a new speed, it gave a malignant background to our lives, against which everything seemed tragic or insignificant."

The turbulent Russia that followed the Bolshevik Revolution of November 1917 saw many young artists rally to the new, radical regime. "Believing that art belonged to the proletariat and should reflect the essential elements of industrial and urban life," according to Whitney Chadwick , Rozanova stood in the center of such circles. In 1918, the new government created a Department of Fine Arts (IZO) as part of the Commissariat for Public Education. Artists like Rozanova, who were sympathetic to the aims of the revolution, gathered in this organization. With the financial help of the government, IZO set up dozens of art museums throughout the country.

Rozanova also participated in the "Higher Technical-Artist Studios," known by their Russian abbreviation as Vkhutemas. These were training institutions for the country's future artists. Shortly before her death, she founded and led the Industrial Art Section of IZO. Despite the chaotic conditions, as the revolution developed into the Civil War that raged over much of the country, she traveled extensively to build up a system of industrial art centers where the principles of the revolution could be applied in fields such as textiles and woodworking. Her journeys took her hundreds of miles outside Moscow to remote locales such as Bogorodsk and Ivanovo-Voznesensk.

A further sign of Rozanova's commitment to the revolution was her membership in Proletkult. Intended to create a proletarian culture appropriate for a society that had brought the workers and their representatives to power, the organization drew the support of sympathetic artists like Rozanova. A fundamental view of Proletkult was that the art of a proletarian society like Soviet Russia could be produced only by the proletariat, i.e., the factory workers. This meant that Rozanova accepted the view that much of the artistic heritage of the past had to be discarded.

Russia's population in the years following the upheaval of 1917 was decimated by epidemic diseases, and Rozanova was an early victim of this national tragedy. The young artist was taken ill with diphtheria, showing the first signs of infection while decorating a plane at an airfield near Moscow. She was helping to prepare a celebration marking the first anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution. Carried away unconscious, she never recovered. The young artist and supporter of the revolution died on November 8, 1918.

Rozanova's career was thus cut tragically short while she was only 32. She was honored by a commemorative exhibition of her works set up only a few weeks later in early 1919. The collection of 250 paintings showed her sweeping evolution as an artist, containing some of her early paintings done in the Impressionist manner and extending down to recent abstract works reflecting the Suprematist movement. Such a display of her work vividly illustrated the philosophy she had summarized in 1913: "There is nothing worse in this world than the unchanging face of an artist."


Betz, Margaret. "Graphics of the Russian Vanguard," in Artnews. Vol. 75, no. 3. March 1976, pp. 52–54.

Bowlt, John E., ed. and trans. Russian Art of the Avant-Garde: Theory and Criticism. Rev. and enl. ed. Thames & Hudson, 1988.

Chadwick, Whitney. Women, Art, and Society. London: Thames & Hudson, 1990.

Gray, Camilla. The Great Experiment: Russian Art, 1863–1922. NY: Harry N. Abrams, 1962.

Harris, Anne Sutherland, and Linda Nochlin. Women Artists: 1550–1950. NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1976.

Lodder, Christina. Russian Constructivism. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1983.

Rudenstine, Angelica Zander. Russian Avant-Garde Art: The George Costakis Collection. NY: Harry N. Abrams, 1981.

Yablonskaya, M.N. Women Artists of Russia's New Age. Edited by Anthony Parton. London: Thames & Hudson, 1990.

Zhadova, Larissa A. Malevich: Suprematism and Revolution in Russian Art, 1910–1913. NY: Thames & Hudson, 1982.

suggested reading:

Andrews, Richard, and Milena Kalinovska, eds. Russian Constructivism, 1914–1932: Art into Life. NY: Rizzoli, 1990.

Slatkin, Wendy. Women Artists in History: From Antiquity to the 20th Century. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1985.

Neil M. Heyman , Professor of History, San Diego State University, San Diego, California

About this article

Rozanova, Olga (1886–1918)

Updated About content Print Article