N O V E M B E R 16, 2013
In 1915, Antonina Sofronova, an Ilya Mashkov studio student, made the following note, “I believe that art should have nature for its source. And I also believe that art is guided by its own innate laws, otherwise it ceases to be art.” It took her whole life to discover those “laws” and then to uphold what she had found.
As a matter of fact, we know little about her life. “The Sofronova we know” – I should say, relatively know – adds up primarily to the works she made during her brief (1931) collaboration with the “Thirteen” group (and Erich Gollerbach’s oft-quoted “and you, Sofronova, who treats Marquet as a colleague”): Moscow cityscapes which show the city in a moist pearly pale yellow haze accentuated by constructively unmistakable black outlines. They comply with the common requirement of pace and distinctive spontaneity shared by the group, which are, however, complicated by her obvious quest for synthesis and, as a consequence, by certain compositional intricacy. Perhaps, her earlier drawings (1924-5) forming the Street Characters series – a spontaneous chronicle of a bleak life with strangely epic overtones – can also be described as “known conventionally”. That’s about all.
The graphic works made for periodicals and books that are presented here make it possible to expand and refine these fairly disjointed ideas. Of course, in a sense they are routine pieces done on commission to earn a living, yet nevertheless they were executed with zest and a sense of responsibility. The artist honed her artistic techniques that were symptomatically diverse. It becomes clear that the evolution of Sofronova’s style was not quite linear: like many, she progressed from avant-garde experiments to figurativeness from nature. In a way, once found, a certain feature would be “archived”, to be actuated in case of need at some point, with that need often dictated not only by a specific objective, but by the requirements of material to which Sofronova was invariably very sensitive.
The earliest works date back to the first half of the 1920s, when Sofronova taught at the State Free Artistic Studios of Tver, among other institutions, where she was lucky to find herself in the company of like-minded intellectuals. The graphic artist M.K. Sokolov, who at that time went through a Cubist period, and art critic N.N. Tarabukin, for whose book From Easel to Machine (which had a telltale title and was largely based on the Tver discourse) Sofronova designed a cover, formed an environment that could not but infect with creativity in form and inculcate skills in pictorial “shift-o-logy”. Although her large-size abstract drawings of 1921-2 are not reproduced here (they are mostly in the museums of Nukus and Orel and in the Sofronova family collection), even in her works done for magazines with their mandatory themes her virtuoso craftsmanship is manifest in linear outline and ink fill contrasts, artistry of detailing and precise constructivist foundation and compositional scheme. Not without mirth the artist plays with the mandatory motifs (engines and planes), easily transforming spirals and classical rosettes into gear, but her strangely generalized geometrically signal headpieces reference different styles simultaneously, moving, as it were, back and forth in time. Back indirectly to the “World of Art” graphics (in compositions inscribed in a circle slightly a la Tchehonine (Chekhonin)) and forward to precisely these shapes as stylized in the 1960s: if you don’t know when these drawings were made, many of them can be taken for something done some forty years later. Furthermore, they can be taken for woodcuts or linocuts (these techniques were to thrive precisely in the 1960s, when Russian graphic artists would be especially preoccupied with problems of structure and representational law) – these small works are characterized by energetically laconic strokes and a sort of irrefutable plastic style absolutely in the nature of engraving. Another amazing thing is that these graphic works were done approximately concurrently with the drawings which are conventionally referred to as the Street Characters cycle and which are completely different in style and the manner of approach.
It should be noted that graphic works abstract in nature were nevertheless on the whole the bastion of realistic vision in the 1920s. Of course, graphic artists took the liberty of engaging in Cubist and Constructivist manipulations but practically ignored non-objective trends that were widespread in painting. During that period “street characters” became the most common graphic motif – V. Lebedev, V. Konashevich, K. Rudakov and many others did similar series of drawings, whose mundane chronicler goal in a way safeguarded graphic artists from going to avant-garde extremes. Their characters led a tempestuously unstable life that directly invaded the representation, and the pace of that life evoked reactivity, impressionability and attention to transient things. Such drawings, as a rule, attain the absolute balance between the thrust of reality and the immediacy of nature, on the one hand, and the immediacy of spontaneous artistic self-expression, on the other.
To reiterate, Sofronova’s drawings dating to the same period as her magazine illustrations presented here lack the monumental terseness of the “engraving” style, satirical accents that are quite pronounced in magazine graphic works or the ingenuous play with textures and motifs that are transformed into ornament (as, for example, chains and windows of a vagonzak (railcar for convicts) have been transformed in the cover to the collection Tyurma i ssylka (Jail and Exile) or the way the motif of the wood pattern and a saw threatening it is brought into play in the cover to Severoles. It seems that immaterial charcoal strokes can be blown off the paper surface and any thickened line looks like a sharp plastic accent, however, more frequently the palpitating phantom outline risked getting lost in the pale spot of stumping. These figures and close-ups of faces seem to appear as if in the course of vague remembering, instead of being recorded immediately by an eye-witness; this paltry life – unsteady and indistinct – is conducive to neither irony nor anger. An entirely different attitude to the world is behind this shift in drawing skill, or more precisely, this skill changes whenever there is a chance to express directly this very attitude without being distracted by applied goals. It can be said that a skill transforms into individual style.
Already in the second half of the 1920s this graphic manner – light improvisation in drawing relying rather on spots than lines and full of pauses and omissions – became Sofronova’s trademark. This freely expressive signature style – read painterliness – is to keep evolving: now if illustrations to Leonid Leonov’s Barsuki (Badgers, 1927) are now and then reminiscent of graphic works of the Street Characters series (for instance, the sheet with people sitting under a lamp), illustrations to Anatole France’s La Révolte des anges (The Revolt of the Angels) made a decade later, especially the views of Paris, are akin to the cityscapes which Sofronova contributed to the Third Exhibition of the “Thirteen” group (1931) and which tied her name to the group platform. That connection might have been exaggerated: Sofronova did not quite stick to the collective dogmas declared by the group’s ideologist Vladimir Milashevsky. Without neglecting “pace” drawing from nature skipping any amendments or preliminary sketches (the requirement made in protest against both the multi-piece drawing of the “World of Art” association and Cubist constructions), Sofronova also worked from memory, which the “Thirteen” did not favor. However, the emotional impulsiveness of drawing, accuracy and the ability to arrange a chance thing to fit the whole – the qualities manifested in her illustrations – conformed with the main principles of common exhibition activity, namely, that “art was dactiloscopic” (Milashevsky) and that it was the essence of nature rather than a readable set of its minutely represented elements. In the 1930s that was already at odds with the general movement towards static fulfillment and the optimistic bathos of completeness and power; the power diktat of nature had triumphed, bringing to naught the individual means of its interpretation, and personal expressiveness per se was relegated to the marginal sphere of home drawing or to applied fields.
Book illustration was precisely one such field. However, what proved natural and beneficial for some members of the “Thirteen” (Milashevsky and Nikolay Kuzmin) failed to become that for Sofronova – her collaboration with publishers was sporadic. Nevertheless, the covers and fly-leaves she did in the 1930s marked another turn in her evolution: these sketches of decorative compositions (it isn’t even very clear which of them were meant for publication) proved to be a sort of archive of everything the artist had paid tribute to in different periods.
There are both regular and irregular patterns. In the regular patterns the motifs of zigzag, “herringbone”, arrow, checks and stripes vary as if in a kaleidoscope; going beyond the sheet bounds, they become global and world-building in the same sense as precisely such expansion of space was typical, for example, of avant-garde textile designs of the 1920s (Lyubov Popova’s fabric designs primarily come to mind). The irregular patterns are a condensation of later drawing practice of modifying spot and free flourishes; at times compositions seem to be detached fragments of nature sketches, the naturalness of which becomes indistinct and unrecognizable when magnified. Two types of compositions are, however, not diametrically opposite – the geometrical patterns are deliberately handmade, and the insecurity of being handmade, as it were, defuses the “aggressiveness” ontologically inherent in any geometrical ornament. Triumphant overtones are generally few and far between in Sofronova’s works and, bearing in mind the time of her formative period, their absence is in itself a rarity.
Her art is, of course, yet to be discovered and studied: far from everything is so far “on view” and for this reason some contexts defy analysis. The present exhibition goes a long way to filling in the gaps.