Simonovich-Efimova, Nina (1877–1948)

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Simonovich-Efimova, Nina (1877–1948)

Russian artist and puppet maker. Name variations: Nina Efimova Simonovich or Simonovicha. Born Nina Yakovlevna Simonovicha in 1877 in St. Petersburg, Russia; died in 1948; daughter of Yakov Mironovich Simonovich (a pediatrician) and Adelaida Semyonovna Bergman (a kindergarten advocate); attended high school in St. Petersburg; studied painting with O. Shmerling, and in the Paris studios of Delécluze, Eugene Carrière, and Henri Matisse; married Ivan Efimov (a sculptor), in 1906; children: at least one son, Adrian.

Born into a wealthy and cultured Russian family in 1877, Nina Simonovich-Efimova grew up among progressive musicians, teachers, and artists, including her father Yakov Mironovich Simonovich, a pediatrician, her mother Adelaida Semyonovna Bergman , who in 1866 had organized Russia's first kindergarten, her aunt Valentina Serova , a composer, and her cousin Valentin Serov (1865–1911), a famous painter. Serov was instrumental in Simonovich-Efimova's artistic development through encouraging her in art classes and critiquing her early work. After graduating from a St. Petersburg high school in 1896, she taught for two years in Tbilisi while studying painting at O. Shmerling's studio. Her experiences during this time finally convinced her to dedicate herself entirely to art, and she picked up an added interest in puppet and shadow theater—a field in which she would be particularly innovative.

Simonovich-Efimova honed her drawing skills in Paris, studying at Delécluze's studio, but her first love was painting. Serov again lent a hand in her training by suggesting she attend the Stroganov Institute and, later, by directing her back to Paris to apprentice in the studio of Symbolist painter Eugene Carrière. She gained valuable insight into the styles of Impressionist painters such as Van Gogh and Toulouse-Lautrec, and returned to Russia for further instruction from Serov, joining the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture where he taught. Her cousin's influence diminished somewhat after her marriage to sculptor Ivan Efimov in 1906, but he remained the primary motivator in her early career.

Another sojourn to Paris in 1908 resulted in her enrollment in Henri Matisse's studio. Her paintings at this time were traditional in composition and bore a strong use of color, which also played a major role in her easel paintings of Russian peasants during the years 1911 to 1915. Simonovich-Efimova was particularly drawn to the demanding art of silhouettes, and during the late 1920s she would also take up portrait painting, completing a number of unusual works in this genre.

Simonovich-Efimova found her true calling after she and her husband opened their first puppet theater in 1918. Through the Theater of Marionettes, Petrushkas and Shadows, she devoted the rest of her career to developing the art form of puppetry. "In the years of the Revolution," she wrote, "my artistic interests turned in another direction, to the puppet theatre…. I felt that the theatre was what the people very much needed at that stormy period. They looked at it with great hungry eyes. Theatre then was like bread." Introducing a dynamic combination of culture and elegance to her puppet shows, she succeeded in creating puppets detailed and vivid enough to communicate high drama. The innovative rod-puppets that Simonovich-Efimova built forever changed Russian puppet theater. The figures had rods attached to their joints, which allowed them to move more gracefully than had their predecessors. The range of expression allowed by Simonovich-Efimova's puppets drew hordes of spectators and critical raves to the more than 1,500 puppet theater performances she and Efimov organized between 1918 and 1936. Many of these they wrote themselves; they also staged several of Shakespeare's plays, with Macbeth considered the standout production. The Theatre of Marionettes attracted the participation of other artists excited by the symbolism inherent in puppetry, including Liubov Popova, Alexandra Exter (who created marionettes in the theater's earliest years), Vladimir Favorsky, and Pavel Florensky.

Puppetry was, in many ways, Simonovich-Efimova's response to what she considered to be the chasm between the left and right wings of the Russian art world. She was a member of the Four Arts Society, which aimed to synthesize painting, architecture, graphic design and sculpture—a union she achieved with her puppets. Unfortunately, the rise of Stalin's preferred style of Socialist Realism resulted in the decline in popularity and approval of her highly symbolic art form before her death in 1948. While she created a wide range of art, including puppets, paintings, graphics, theater designs, and sculpture, nearly 3,000 in all, only in the last decades of the 20th century did her work begin receiving attention from art historians.


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

Lisa C. Groshong , freelance writer, Columbia, Missouri

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Simonovich-Efimova, Nina (1877–1948)

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