Naum Gabo - Biography and Legacy
Russian-American Sculptor, Designer, and Architect
Waterbury, Connecticut, USA
Biography of Naum Gabo
Gabo was born Naum Pevsner in the small Russian town of Bryansk, the sixth of seven brothers and sisters. The Pevsners were a large, tightknit, patriarchal middle-class family, with a strong and charismatic father, Boris, and mother, Fanny. Though Boris was Jewish, the siblings were brought up Christian through the influence of their Russian Orthodox grandmother, and Naum would distance himself from his Jewish roots for much of his life. Boris Pevsner owned a successful metal works and rolling mill, which supplied many of the railways around Russia. It was by this means that the young Naum became familiar with many of the industrial materials that would later inspire his work, while two of his older brothers pursued careers in engineering. A third, Natan (later Antoine), four years older than Naum, became a successful artist, and was a significant influence on his younger brother, whose artistic curiosity was beginning to emerge through a love of poetry and early attempts at sculpture, informed by the Tsarist art that dominated his cultural landscape.
From an early age, Naum was strong-minded, rebellious, and politically driven. Described by siblings as a "mischievous and daredevil character", he soon looked for radical ways of expressing himself. Expelled from his primary school in 1904 for writing subversive poems about his headmaster, he was sent to Tomsk, where he inadvertently attended his first socialist meeting during the 1905 revolution. In a highly memorable and traumatic encounter, he witnessed the brutality of the Cossacks against a protester, later recalling: "I was 15 years old and that day and that night I became a revolutionary". Travelling back from Siberia to Bryansk on the two-day train journey, he claimed he "had awoken to life", and within a year he was working for an illegal group distributing literature for the Social Democratic Labour Party amongst workers. Though he was to live in self-imposed exile in Europe and America for most of his adult life, he always lamented his distance from Russia, where he claimed his "consciousness was moulded".
Gabo had no formal artistic training. He attended the local gymnasium in Kursk, before moving to Munich in 1911 to study medicine at his father's insistence, later recollecting that this was partly due to his ability to heal his mother's headaches with his hands. Two years later, he defied his father's wishes by transferring to study maths, natural and applied sciences, engineering, and, finally, philosophy. His scientific training would be put to good use in his later sculptural constructions, and it was in Munich that he became fascinated with Einstein and Bergson's radical theories of time. Gabo also began attending the art-history lectures of an influential tutor, Heinrich Wölfflin. Wassily Kandinsky's revelatory book on abstract art, Concerning the Spiritual in Art (1912), was gaining currency at this time, and fomented Gabo's interest in representing the structures and forces of nature. At the same time, he was moved by works that looked back to indigenous Russian artistic traditions, experimenting with romantic and expressive watercolors that drew heavily on the paintings of Mikhail Vrubel.
In 1913, at Wölflinn's suggestion, Gabo embarked on a six-week walking tour of Italy, viewing Michelangelo's David and other Renaissance and classical masterpieces. He later recalled that though such works had a profound effect on him, they "were all dead", and "it was nature that impressed him, not art". His tour was aborted early due to lack of funds and apparent feelings of loneliness. To a sibling he wrote: "I'm very sorry I've had to absorb such a mass of interesting impressions alone".
During 1912-13, Gabo made his first trips to Paris with his brother Antoine, to whom he was very close. Together they visited the Salon des Indépendants, exposing the young Gabo to the work of Picasso, Braque, Kandinsky, Delaunay, Leger, and others, and to the Cubist and Futurist ideas exploding onto the avant-garde scene. Around this time, he also saw many Post-Impressionist and Cubist works in Russia, where the entrepreneur and art-collector Sergei Shchukin exhibited his European collection regularly. With the onset of World War I, Gabo and his younger brother Alexei, also based in Germany, fled via Copenhagen to neutral Norway, partly to avoid serving in the Imperial Army, and partly because, as Russian nationals, they were suddenly pariahs in their new home. This move gave Naum the excuse he had craved to abandon his studies and concentrate on his art. It was here he created his so-called Constructed Heads, signing them as Gabo rather than Pevsner to distinguish himself from his artist brother Antoine, who had joined Naum and Alexei in Norway, and to indicate a new, revolutionary direction in his art. Norway was quiet and tranquil. Surrounded by fjords, and mountains where they would ski on weekends, the brothers were funded by their father, thereby avoiding both paid work and the horrors of war in Europe.
As news of the February 1917 Revolution broke, Naum and Antoine returned home to Russia, in time for the Bolshevik coup of October 1917. Moscow was caught up in a tumultuous mix of revolutionary fervor and the strife of civil war. Gabo became acquainted with the multitude of Russian artists who had returned after the Revolution, engaged in the collective frenzy of attempting to express the spirit of Soviet society in art. Despite severe economic hardship, Gabo threw himself into the cause over the next five years, later recalling that "at the beginning we were all working for the Government". Meeting Trotsky on more than one occasion, during the early 1920s Gabo worked for the new Department of Fine Arts (IZO), dominated by abstracts artists at this time, which led him to work on a new art education program for schools, and on the single issue of the department Journal, Izo. At the same time, he was working on a series of increasingly abstract sculptural constructions. Gabo was, in fact, involved in the collective conception of what would become known as Constructivism. But while his artist comrade Vladimir Tatlin created raw, crudely assembled reliefs, Gabo's works were delicate and precise; at the same time, they had a distinct mechanical aesthetic, indicating his enduring fascination with science and engineering.
In 1920, Gabo exhibited in his first show, an outdoor exhibition in a bandstand on the Tverskoy Boulevard in central Moscow, with brother Antoine and Latvian artist and photographer Gustav Klutsis. The two brothers decided that the exhibition should be accompanied by a proclamation of their artistic ambitions, The Realistic Manifesto. This document, written by Gabo, made history, galvanizing the spirit of rebellion and the urgent desire for change amongst a huge swath of Russian culture at this time. Gabo and Pevsner distributed 5000 copies on the streets of Moscow, calling for a new art for the people, a "new Great Style" which would capture the spirit of an "unfolding epoch of human history". Foregoing the superficial abstractions of the Cubists and Futurists, and rejecting propagandist realism, the new art would use sculptural forms to present "depth" (empty space) rather than mass, and generate "kinetic rhythms" which would represent the element of time as well as the element of space. Over the next two years, while living and working in the turbulent environment of post-Revolutionary Moscow, Gabo began to fall out with other artists, in a pattern that would become familiar. He clashed with El Lissitzky, for example, over an article by Lissitsky which Gabo claimed had plagiarized concepts from Realistic Manifesto, speaking of a "dry and bitter spirit of hostility between them". Less publicly, he derided Tatlin for "playing around with engineering forms and materials".
Already, Bolshevik Russia was becoming hostile to artists of the avant-garde, as the grim paradigm of Socialist Realism appeared on the horizon. In 1922, Gabo emigrated to Berlin, where he would remain for ten years, assisting shortly after his arrival with the organization of the First Russian Art Exhibition (1922) at the Van Diemen Gallery, sponsored by the Russian Ministry for Information. This show featured over 700 works, including paintings, sculptures, set designs, and architectural models, and was a significant event in the reception of Constructivism in Northern Europe. Gabo would go on to exhibit regularly with the revolutionary Novembergruppe artists - named after the month in 1918 when Germany's own socialist uprising had begun - and to make links with artists such as Hans Richter and Kurt Schwitters. Gabo was associated briefly with the Bauhaus School - then the hub of European Constructivism - lecturing and writing for their journal. Characteristically, though, he disagreed with some of their functionalist principles.
During his time in Germany, Gabo also worked with his brother, Antoine, who had settled in Paris in 1923, on the set for Sergei Diaghilev's ballet La Chatte (1927), and on other projects for Diaghilev's popular Ballet Russes company. Gabo also devised plans for architectural forms, such as skyscrapers and car-parks, which were never realized. By the early 1930s, the political climate in Germany had grown increasingly nationalistic, anti-semitic, and toxic. Gabo had underplayed his Jewish identity for most of his life, resisting categorisation as an artist by his ethnicity, but now, horrified by the rise of the Nazis, he became newly aware of his heritage. He would later remark that "if anyone made me a Jew, it was Hitler".
In 1932, Gabo fled the "unbreathable" atmosphere of Germany for Paris, where he would remain for four years. This was not a happy period for him, politically or personally. Though his work was critically successful, and he became associated with the Abstraction-Création group of Constructivist artists, Gabo sold very little, and suffered from anxiety, finding the French capital "complacent and superficial". He lacked confidence in his art, and there were tensions and jealousy between him and his brother. After visiting London in 1935, Gabo settled in England the following year.
By the time he reached England in 1936 Gabo was an internationally recognized artist, and he was welcomed warmly by British artists and critics such as Barbara Hepworth, her future husband Ben Nicholson, and Herbert Read, many of whom Gabo had met in Paris through Abstraction-Création. The same year he was introduced to Miriam Israels, who he would marry in 1937, with Nicholson and Hepworth as witnesses. Miriam had been married to a businessman, Cyril Franklin, with whom she had three children, but she ended her marriage shortly after meeting Gabo. The couple remained together for the remainder of Gabo's life, ironically supporting themselves initially with money from Miriam's ex-husband, as well as funds from occasional sales of Gabo's work. Many other émigré artists were congregating in England at this time, including old friends: Oskar Kokoschka, Walter Gropius, Marcel Breuer, and Piet Mondrian. Mondrian was penniless when he arrived in London in 1938, and while Hepworth and Nicholson found him accommodation in Hampstead, Gabo supplied his companion from Abstraction-Création with clothes, furniture, and food. They resumed late-night conversations begun in Paris earlier in the decade, on Constructivism, Neo-Plasticism, and the illusionistic space of the painting.
The mid-1930s was an important period for British Constructivism, and Gabo and his associates wanted the world to know that the avant-garde had shifted from its Parisian base. Gabo exhibited, alongside many of his compatriates, in the ground-breaking Abstract and Concrete show at London's Lefèvre Gallery in 1936, and in 1937 he co-edited the hugely influential compendium of Constructivist art Circle, with Ben Nicholson and the architect Leslie Martin. Subtitled International Survey of Constructivist Art, Circle featured important critical statements as well as reproductions of key artworks, and reflected a cultural optimism that the impending conflict in Europe had yet to diminish. Despite this, the European art market was struggling and Europe seemed increasingly unsafe. Gabo had been in regular correspondence with Alfred H. Barr, founding director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, later resulting in unrealized plans for a major exhibition of Gabo's work, and Gabo planned to resettle in the USA. But the outbreak of war forced a change of plans.
St. Ives, Cornwall had been home to a large community of artists since the 1920s, including Bernard Leach, Adrian Stokes, and the fisherman and artistic savant Alfred Wallis. With London in danger of Luftwaffe attacks, Hepworth and Nicholson had retreated to the Cornish coast, and St. Ives had seemed the safest option for Naum and Miriam too, though only temporarily. They moved there shortly before their planned journey to North America, but in September 1939, the passenger ferry the Athena was torpedoed by German submarines - the first such casualty of World War Two - and they were forced to cancel their trip. Instead, they remained in St Ives for seven years, meeting with other artists regularly at Adrian Stokes's coastal property to discuss, according to Gabo, "Cubism, Futurism, Constructivism, Eastern philosophies, and English marine traditions, behind the blackout curtains". Gabo was offered the studio behind Peter Lanyon's red house whilst the younger artist was away fighting.
Gabo found his time in Cornwall emotionally challenging, and he experienced severe creative block, potentially a psychological effect of the war: he was following developments in Europe with great anxiety, worried for his family, with whom he had all but lost touch. Gabo's émigré status didn't help matters. As a Russian, he was under constant suspicion, and had to report regularly to the police until 1941, when Britain and Russia became uneasy allies. Gabo also became alienated quite quickly from the St. Ives Group, shutting himself away in his studio for days, and arguing with Nicholson and Hepworth after he accused the latter of stealing his ideas.
Nonetheless, Gabo began a creative diary during this period, and involved himself in a diverse range of projects, including creating plans for domestic interiors, and even designing a car for the Jowett company in 1944 - though this plan fell through, with Jowett calling Gabo's concepts "radical but impractical". Gabo had also begun after his arrival in England to experiment with new materials such as Perspex and stone, influenced by the direct carving of Moore and Hepworth, though materials were increasingly hard to source, and sales were poor. The birth of a daughter, Nina Serafima, in 1941, also brought him out of a period of creative torpor. Shortly afterwards, having been offered £25 to make a small construction as a present for a friend, Gabo produced the first version of Spiral Theme, an important work which would take him in a new artistic direction, and lead to a renewed engagement with family and friends.
Due to the dearth of exhibitions and sales in war-time Britain, Gabo's time in England was not commercially successful, though he always looked back on it fondly. Nonetheless, in 1946, he and his new family finally made the long-awaited move to the USA, mainly on the promise of finding a more lucrative market for Gabo's work.
Late years and death
Naum, Miriam, and Nina lived in the USA for 30 years, settling briefly in New York, then moving to Woodbury, Connecticut in 1947. Away from war-torn Europe, Gabo found artistic freedom and financial security. He was also finally able to achieve a long-held ambition of creating large-scale, public works, receiving commissions from the Rockefeller Centre in New York in 1949, and the Baltimore Museum of Art in 1950 - though only the latter construction was realized, a hanging sculpture inspired by Alexander Calder (with whom Gabo would exhibit in 1953 at the Wadsworth Athaeneum) and Rodchenko. In 1950, Gabo began wood-block printing, an activity which would occupy him until his death, generating a significant body of work. In 1952, despite finishing ahead of 3,500 other artists, he was disappointed to be awarded second prize in the Institute of Contemporary Art's Unknown Political Prisoner international sculpture competition, his abstract monument design having been perceived to lack emotion. The same year, he became a citizen of the United States, and in 1953 the family moved to Middlebury, Connecticut.
During the 1960s-70s, a shift in public and critical opinion led to a newfound enthusiasm for large-scale, abstract sculpture, and these final decades of Gabo's life brought him unprecedented success, including a slew of international exhibitions, and notable retrospectives at London's Tate Gallery in 1966 and 1976. Since the 1950s, Gabo had been reworking many of his sculptural designs as public installations - including a 25-metre sculpture for the Bijenkorf Department Store in Rotterdam, completed in 1957 - and this activity gathered pace towards the end of his life. In 1976, Gabo's Revolving Torsion sculpture was unveiled by Queen Elizabeth II at the opening of St Thomas's Hospital in Central London. Gabo's health began to fail in his 80s, and he died in 1977 in Waterbury, Connecticut, following a long illness.
The Legacy of Naum Gabo
Gabo's influence on modern art has been profound, though it is sometimes underemphasized in art history books. In breaking down the boundaries between sculpture and architecture, integrating engineering techniques and scientific concepts into his creative process, and using industrial materials, he made a vital contribution to the development of Constructivist aesthetics. In Northern Europe, Gabo inspired a younger generation of artists, including the mid-century Concrete Artists - Theo van Doesburg, Max Bill, Joseph Albers - through his emphasis on elementary forms, and British sculptors such as Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth through his use of stringing techniques, and his incorporated of empty space into the body of the sculpture. Gabo's pioneering experiments in the field of kinetic sculpture were advanced by the likes of Marcel Duchamp and Alexander Calder, and by the Kinetic Art movement of the 1950s-60s.