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Olga Rozanova: color that breaks free

Less known than her iconic contemporaries as Natalia Goncharova, Kazimir Malevich, Wassily Kandinsky and others, Olga Rosanova’s wolrd-shattering art has been resurfacing from the obscurity, reviving the echoes of futuristic zaum, that spills over the brain and scatters far beyond the conventional language its mesmerizing “emeralds of madness”, Mayakovsky’s trope for revolutionary consciousness.

Green Stripe

Born in 1886 in a small town near Vladimir, she dies in 1918 of diphtheria in Moscow at the age of 32.

Olga Rozanova grows up surrounded with spectacular medieval cathedrals, the famous Golden Gate, icons and the folk art she found herself enchanted with since her early childhood—the mode that was inherent to neo-primitivists and futurists who transported to Moscow and Saint Petersburg the folk patterns and wooden prints (lubok) from the province.

In Moscow, she attends the prestigious private art studios of Bolshakov and Iuon. Deeply in tune with French fauvism with its non-traditional use of color, her early palette demonstrates a profound “fascination with the visible” and the bold energetic palette. In a way, she paints her futuristic transrational poems and writes her paintings, erasing a strict classic wedge placed by Lessing between the temporal (poetry) and spatial (painting) arts.

In 1911, she joins "The Union of Youth” in Saint Petersburg, a society of cubo-futurists and reads avidly art essays and manifestos by David Burliuk, Vladimir Mayakovsky, Matiushin, "Du Cubisme" by Metzinger and Gleizes, etc., writing her own insightful manifesto for the Union: “We declare war on all the jailers of the Free Art of painting who fetter it in the chains of everyday: politics, literature, and the nightmare of psychological affects . .. Our Slogan: ‘The Future of Art is in uninterrupted renewal!'”, she proclaims.

In 1912, her 11 paintings exhibited at the art show of "The Union of Youth" art show bring her enormous success. "Portrait of a Lady in Pink" and "Smithy" become her ticket to the highest leagues of avant-garde circles. As she wrote to her sister, “Your portrait caused a furor among the artists! Today I made a most interesting acquaintance: David Burliuk. Now I am in love with him. We shook hands. He really likes my pictures and says that in me he’s discovered a star.” In this painting, color hijacks the portrait and its painterly value prevails over “psychological” effect. The paintings represents a pure beautiful flow of color, materia prima, whose magic allows to manifest the face in its full radiance.

In her Playing Card Series, Rozanova unveils their inner life and their spellbinding stylized beauty. In “Kings of Diamonds and Hearts' (1914), the two figures and suits compose geometry of sacred enchanting spectacle, which is no longer just the game but life that continues on its own. "Queen of Spade" mystifies the viewer by fascinating rhythmic lines and patterns, stripped of any bogging down symbolism.

“Man in the Street” (1913) continues to some degree the theme she started while decorating the tragedy, "Vladimir Mayakovsky", expressing by painterly means the complex trans-rational meaning of Mayakovsky’s text, instilled with profound heart-breaking lyricism. Painted in cubo-futuristic style, it assembles the play by converging the intense planes, creating a dramatic dialogue of colors and lines. The dynamism of form, the property she values the most in cubism, futurism and suprematism, is manifested in intricate music of muted, low-keyed tones.

In 1913, the leading futurists, Aleksei Kruchenykh, who will become her lifelong partner, and Velimir Khlebnikov, published “Forestly Rapid" and Kruchenikh’s "Let’s Grumble!" and "Explodity" with Rozanova's lithographs in which she fuses the language and the original graphic design, enhancing the meaning and rhythmic motion of the text. Her twelve collages in abstract style, made for Kruchenikh’s "Universal War", open a new dimension in synthesis of verbal and visual media, establishing the unmatched synergy between the two.

In 1916, she joined the art group, Supremus, headed by Kazimir Malevich, which became the pivotal stage in shaping her abstract painting style and culminates in her philosophy of “tsvetopis” or color painting whose purpose, according to Rozanova, is to manifest its luminous essence and liberate ‘painting from its subservient ready-made forms of reality and to make it first and foremost a creative, not a reproductive, art.”

As Professor Nina Gourianova noted in her book, "Exploring Color, Olga Rozanova and the Early Russian Avant-Garde 1910-1918", “When Malevich speaks of paint as the most important element in suprematism, he is saying that the concrete materiality of pigment is the principal means of expression (together with the form and line), or the “instrument” of the artist”. For Rozanova, by contrast, concludes the scholar, the color is in general non-material. "Color is not an instrument but a universal goal that the artist strives to achieve by all means . . ."

Gurianova’s monograph not only boasts a deeply comprehensive study of Rozanova’s innovative and many-sided art intertwined with the multifarious cultural context, but also features for the first time the painter’s articles and manifestos in a separate chapter that allows to fully appreciate the alchemy of Rozanova’s pictorial and verbal syntax.

In her article, "Cubism, Futurism, Suprematism" (1915), Rozanova emphasized that “Non-objective art has been born of a love for color. This is painting above all . . . The aesthetic value of non-objective painting lies completely in its painterly content. Suprematism rejects the use of real forms for painterly ends. Like leaky vessels, they cannot hold color”. Her abstract composition, “Tsvetopis” is indeed exclusively about the free, soaring color, which is the Alpha and Omega of her poetics. In this canvas, color becomes the luminous ethereal substance beyond any dichotomy between the rational and trans-rational, the objective or non-objective. For her, all other art styles are caught in the objects, one way or another. "The Cubists distorted form out all proportions not because they aspired to free themselves from nature, but because they aspired to convey it is fully as possible. In this sense Cubism is the climax to the adoration of the object", she wrote.

Comparing Rozanova and Malevich, a renowned abstract painter,Varvara Stepanova, emphasized that the former always gravitated towards the earth while Malevich’s art, according to her, appeared more mystical. This observation sounds way to shallow, compared to Rozanova’s insight who believed in Malevich’s art “it’s more calculation and clever posing than anywhere else”. An artistic gesture and posing with all the “isms” behind them – the subject matter of semiotics, can trap even the most passionate suprematist, like Malevich, turning him into a hostage of his own aesthetics and its must see "Black Square".

In Russian culture, everything is interlaced and, therefore, "Black Square" evokes Anton Chekhov's story "The Black Monk", where a black monk, the hallucination that haunts the main character, delivers to him all the ideas and signs of what a true genius should look like, imposing the Nietzschean gesture . . . commitment to which equals insanity.

Meanwhile, Rozanova’s masterpiece of abstract art, “Green Stripe” (1916) transcends the very art movement she ascended from as the green luminous pillar of light against the white surface breaks free from any “mandatory” shadows.

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