Lydia Masterkova. An Enriched Retrospective


Garage Museum of Contemporary Art
Age limit — 6+

The first retrospective exhibition in Russia of the nonconformist artist Lydia Masterkova (1927–2008) will bring together around 150 paintings and works on paper from private and museum collections in Russia and France. 

Lydia Masterkova was among the first female artists to turn to abstract art after 1953. This is the first exhibition at Garage that is almost entirely devoted to abstraction, although it will feature some figurative works. Masterkova’s retrospective will be contextually enriched with other visions of abstract art. The exhibition will present early and late paintings by Efrosinya Ermilova-Platova (1895–1974) and late works on paper by Eva Levina-Rozengolts (1898–1975), who were both artists of the generation that art historian Yevgeny Kovtun has described as “the avant-garde stopped in full flight.” They were too late to be part of the major avant-garde movements of the 1910s and 1920s and had to keep their ideas and skills secret until the Khrushchev thaw. Ermilova-Platova and Levina-Rozengolts’ paintings and drawings outline Masterkova’s genealogy and illustrate the evolution of bans and taboos in Soviet art. Austrian artist Heimo Zobernig (b. 1958) will show works that demonstrate the alternative reality of the situation in Central Europe as opposed to the Soviet Union. There, after a short period of persecution in Nazi Germany and Austria, abstract art was completely rehabilitated and became an object of profound research, conceptual polemics, and jests. Zobernig’s tactile canvases exist somewhere between a joke and a conceptual rethinking of the relationship between the viewer and the artwork.

During the Stalin era, abstract art was removed from exhibition halls and museums. The avant-garde art associated with the early years of postrevolutionary Russia was destroyed or dispatched to the vaults. Artists were not allowed to practice and earned their living through design and decoration commissions if they could get them. It remains unclear why abstract art was demonized to such an extent in the Soviet Union. While Soviet art magazines denounced Kazimir Malevich and Vladimir Tatlin as "rootless cosmopolitans," the leader of the Cuban Revolution Fidel Castro argued that "our enemies are capitalism and imperialism, not abstract art." Nevertheless, the ideological link between the capitalist West, individualism, and abstract art persisted in the Soviet Union until its collapse in 1991, recurring as a rhetorical device in the press even during perestroika. The hostile attitude of Soviet cultural leaders made the choice of abstraction as a main artistic focus politically loaded. For Masterkova, abstraction was associated with personal freedom and escape from the prescriptions of Soviet visual culture. Unsurprisingly, she was not loyal to the Soviet political agenda either, although she was not part of the dissident movement.

Lydia Masterkova was born in Moscow and studied at Moscow Art School with future leaders of the underground art scene, including Mikhail Roginsky and Vladimir Nemukhin. As a teenager she was interested in classical music and opera, attended concerts and played piano. After meeting the artists of so-called Lianozovo Circle (Olga Potapova, Oskar Rabin, Valentina Kropivnitskaya, Nikolai Vechtomov, and Evgeny Kropivnitsky), Masterkova began experimenting with various forms of abstract art. Her friendship with Ivan Kudryashov, who had studied with under Malevich, and art collector George Costakis allowed her to learn more about the work of the pioneers of the Russian avant-garde. Masterkova believed that she went further by converting the pure abstraction of suprematism into structures close to medieval writings on the organization of the cosmos and the theosophist revelations of late nineteenth-century mystics. The move toward the archaic and areas far from the technological aesthetic of the avant-garde was characteristic of the Soviet underground scene, which was driven by the archaeological ambition to find the roots and universal values (which often meant devoid of political content) of art. Masterkova’s key inspiration came not from her close contemporaries, nor from the leaders of revolution-era abstract art but from El Greco and Paul Cezanne.

The exhibition is divided into eight parts. Five cover the evolution of Masterkova’s creative method. Thicketfeatures her early studies from nature and first experiments in abstraction that bring to mind Mikhail Matiushin’s “organic culture” and his concept of “seeing-and-knowing” (Zorved). Lacunae explores the work of Efrosinya Ermilova-Platova, who Masterkova met before turning to abstraction. Ruptures presents the beginning of Masterkova’s mature period, when her focus shifted from vegetal form to textures and spatial plans within the painting. Gold looks at the short period when Masterkova made trips to abandoned churches, where she collected fragments of church attire to include in her collage paintings. In Spheres and Numbers,the key themes of the mature painter find their final shape, and the cosmic sequence of numbers, rhythmic patterns, and circles becomes the main compositional principle. Macrocosm consists of works that Masterkova made after her emigration to Europe in 1975, a more precise and minimalist version of her earlier structures.

Separate galleries are given over to the Rembrandt Series by Eva Levina-Rozengolts, in which the artist revisits the humanitarian disasters of the Great Purge and the war, and a work by Heimo Zobernig, produced for the exhibition.

Zobernig also created the architectural concept. As the visitor progresses through the galleries, the walls lose their color and textural intensity. The first galleries feature elements of set design from several theaters in Moscow and St. Petersburg and toward the end the space is cleared of color. This gradient reflects the internal and external transformation of Masterkova’s art: from apartment exhibitions and close interactions with the environment to the strict autonomy of the white cube gallery and museum spaces.

Curators: Valentin Diaconov and  Sasha Obukhova

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