Russian Painter, Poet, and Designer
Summary of Olga Rozanova
Olga Rozanova was a member of many of the most important art groupings and movements in early-20th century Russia, while the development of her work across the 1910s represents in microcosm the evolution of the Russian avant-garde over the same period. In this sense, she is significant as an exemplary artist of her era, but in many ways, Rozanova was also an exceptional figure: not just as one of few women attached to movements such as Cubo-Futurism and Suprematism, but in bringing her individual theories of spiritual energy and color interaction to bear on those movements, resulting in a unique and emotionally dynamic body of work. Had she not died of diphtheria in 1918 at the age of just 32, she might well be placed alongside Kazimir Malevich as one of the pioneers of 20th-century abstract painting.
- Rozanova was at the center of the artistic debates and experiments in Russia leading to the conception of Suprematism in 1915. This movement is now associated with Kazimir Malevich's iconic reduction of the picture plane in works such as Black Square, but Rozanova's abstract collages and paintings were equally vital exemplars of the pure abstraction which defined the style. Indeed, she spoke of such work as an unacknowledged precursor for Malevich's characterization of Suprematism.
- Rozanova's Cubo-Futurist and Suprematist paintings were set apart from those of her peers, including Malevich and El Lissitzky, by her emphasis on the interplay and vibrancy of color, visual exercises in exploring the emotional and conceptual effect of interacting tonal groups. She linked these experiments to her attempts to express an inner spiritual energy through her work, and the resultant body of paintings and collages makes a unique contribution to movements otherwise defined by more purely geometrical forms of abstraction.
- The term Cubo-Futurism is applied to a range of Russian art seen to have synthesized the influences of French Cubist and Italian Futurist painting. However, some critics have pointed out that the influence of Italian Futurism was relatively slim, and have instead emphasized the importance of prior developments in Russian art such as Neo-Primitivism and Rayonism to the conception of Cubo-Futurist style. Amongst the various painters associated with the movement, however, Rozanova was uniquely indebted to Italian models, including the work of Umberto Boccioni and Giacomo Balla. This connection was reflected in the display of her work in an exhibition of international Futurism in Rome in 1914.
Biography of Olga Rozanova
Olga Rozanova was born in the small town of Melenki in Russia, near the city of Vladimir, about 200 kilometers east of Moscow. Her father, Vladimir Iakovlevich Rozanov, was a district police officer, while her mother, Elizaveta Vasilevna Rozanova, was the daughter of an Orthodox priest, educated to a high level for a woman of her generation. Olga was the couple's fifth child, though only three of her siblings survived infancy. In 1903, Rozanova's father died, leaving Olga's mother as the head of the household. From 1896 to 1904 Rozanova studied at the Vladimir Women's Gymnasium, before leaving her home-town to train as a painter in Moscow, where her brother was already based as a law student.
Important Art by Olga Rozanova
This relatively early work indicates Rozanova's awareness both of the French avant-garde art being exhibited in Moscow at the time and the Neo-Primitivist aesthetics of her Russian contemporaries, including Natalia Goncharova. Reminiscent of works depicting the louche café-culture of Paris, by Paul Gauguin, Edgar Degas, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and others, In a Café nonetheless retains a distinctively Russian, Neo-Primitivist aesthetic, tapping into the historical tradition of folk-art already being mined by Goncharova and others by this time.
Critic Nina Gurianova describes works such as In The Café as possessing a "laconic, expressive, and vivid childlike manner", referring in particular to the "deliberately crude and straightforward" painting style, for which various reference-points can be cited. Rozanova's interest in all-over decorative patterning, for example, is reminiscent of the Fauvist Henri Matisse's domestic scenes, while the use of bright color-contrasts in preference to blacks and greys in order to indicate areas of shadow is similar to Matisse's Blue Nude of 1907. The thick outlines and flattened perspectival space, and the bold and jarring use of color in general, are comparable both with Matisse's work and with that of the German Expressionist movement.
But Rozanova combines the innovations of her French predecessors with a focus on dramatic color contrasts which bears the traces of her own, unique style, with an apparent view towards using color to represent the scene's emotional cadence. The vibrant reds connect the woman's scarf to her hands, hair, and face, and the café-wall to the face and hands of the man on the right. The male dining companion buries his face, suggesting, in combination with the female diner's almost malevolent grin, either an emotionally taxing conversation or very different physical reactions to the drinks held in their hands.
Nina Gurianova describes The Factory and the Bridge as representing one of the "purest variant[s] of Russian futurist painting." It was one of four works by Rozanova included in the First Free International Futurist Exhibition, held at the Sprovieri Gallery in Rome in 1914, and designed to showcase the international spread of the Futurist movement.
The Factory and the Bridge foregoes accurate compositional arrangement in favor of a dynamic, centralizing visual unity. Structural tension is established by the intersection of the zig-zagging bridge-lines with the sharp, jagged planes representing the factory buildings, while vibrantly juxtaposed red and blue planes occupy the center of the canvas. The burnt-red smoke stacks just above anchor the image in figurative representation, as do the circular shapes spreading across the painting, which suggest the wheels of old-fashioned vehicles, seemingly split in two by the sheer force of productive activity. In this work, Rozanova clearly expresses the formal and thematic influence of Italian Futurist painting, depicting, like Umberto Boccioni or Giacomo Balla, a jarring contrast between modern and pre-modern elements of urban life, while also employing a Futurist-influenced visual lexicon of fractured planes and sharp diagonals. As in the Futurist painters' work, industrialization, urbanization, and mechanization are presented as noisy, irresistible forces of progress, and the overall mood of the piece is almost violently celebratory.
Again however, Rozanova adds her own signature style to the avant-garde aesthetics of her day. Combining bright yellows and warm reds with cooler blue tones, set against the dull greys and whites of the bridge, her color-palette is arguably more Expressionist than Futurist, predicting her later use of abstraction to represent the dynamism of an inner, spiritual energy rather than that of machines and automobiles. Nonetheless, whereas In the Café indicates the French (if not exactly Cubist) influence on Rozanova's Cubo-Futurist style, The Factory and the Bridge suggests the far more central inspiration which she drew from Italian Futurism.
Rozanova's 1914 painting Metronome was shown at The Last Futurist Exhibition 0,10 in Petrograd in 1915, alongside such legendary works as Malevich's Black Square. This painting is an exemplar of the Cubo-Futurist style which defined the middle-stage of Rozanova's career.
Like both the Futurists and the Cubists, Rozanova integrates text into her work, arranged in this case in diagonal and curved lines spreading upwards across the canvas. We can posit an affinity with the "Word Paintings" of the Futurist Carlo Carrà, including his Interventionist Demonstration completed the same year, though the Cubists Picasso and Braque had been experimenting with the incorporation of written messages and found texts into their paintings and collages from an earlier point. The fractured, angular planes which define the picture-surface, and the emphatic use of chiaroscuro to define and delimit those surfaces, are equally suggestive of French and Italian precedents, while the representation of clock gears, winding mechanisms, and bolts, indicates the piece's subject-matter.
Again, it is possible to identify unique elements in Rozanova's interpretation of the Cubo-Futurist aesthetic. Nina Gurianova suggests, for example, that the theme of the clock-mechanism reflects the artist's interest in "achronic consciousness", the infinity and perpetual motion of historical time, a concept also explored by contemporary religious philosophers such as like Nikolai Fyodorov and Pyotr Ouspensky, suggesting the spiritual and esoteric underpinnings of Rozanova's work.
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on Olga Rozanova
- 54 Color Paintings of Olga Rozanova: Russian Avant-Garde PainterBy Jacek Michalek / Amazon Digital Services
- Exploring Color: Olga Rozanova and the Early Russian Avant-GardeOur PickBy Nina Gurianova / Routledge
- Amazons of the Avant-GardeEdited by John E. Bowlt and Matthew Drutt / Guggenheim Museum