“Futurism. Muses. Ukrainian Primitivism”: 23 April – 23 June 2021

On 23 April James Butterwick launched his new online exclusive show “FUTURISM. MUSES. UKRAINIAN PRIMITIVISM”. The exhibition will continue until 23 June 2021, you may explore the catalogue online: in English and Українською

Ukrainian Folk Art and Ukrainian Primitivism go hand-in-hand, the first being a naïve style popular in the 19th – early 20th century Renaissance to the post-Soviet tradition that has continued into the 21st century. Interest in Folk Art came about as Ukraine, coinciding with artistic experimentation elsewhere in Europe at the beginning the 20th century, began to investigate its past, its roots and cultural history.

The movement known as Futurism is, to Western Europeans, primarily of Italian origin and the names Marinetti, Balla, Boccioni and Severini well-known. Less famous were their counterparts in Russia – and yet their influence was more far-reaching. Marinetti’s visit to Russia in January 1914 showed that, according to Velemir Khlebnikov, ‘far from being an off-shoot of Western Futurism, we had actually overtaken our Italian brothers. We have found nothing new in the dozens of manifestos sent to Russia by Marinetti’.

The movement of Russian Futurism, as practised by Larionov, Goncharova, and Malevich was more inward-looking and concentrated less on the urban, the industrial. Inspiration came from Folk Art which had no place in Marinetti’s world. Writers too played a prominent role as Pasternak, Mayakovsky and Khlebnikov all blazed a trail of experimental writing without par in Europe. This, in turn, gave birth to its own movement within the borders of Ukraine.

Interest in Folk Art came about as Ukraine, coinciding with artistic experimentation elsewhere in Europe at the beginning the 20th century, began to investigate its past, its roots, cultural history and local artists looked within the borders of their own country for inspiration. Described as a, ‘National-Cultural Revival’, the movement was at its most energetic in the 1910’s-20’s as Ukraine sought an identity freer from Russian influence. Theirs was not a search for a ‘new world’ order, more the search for, and discovery of, a national identity, culminating in the Declaration of Ukrainian Independence on January 22nd 1918.

This movement was led by Maria Sinyakova (1892-1985). From a fabulously-eccentric family from Kharkov in Eastern Ukraine, Sinyakova was one of five sisters and four brothers whose out-of-town residence, Krasnaya Polyana was, according to Lily Brik, Vladimir Mayakovsky’s lover, ‘where Futurism was born’ and where, in 1918, Sinyakova’s foremost disciple, Boris Kosarev (1897-1994) went for the first time.

Watch James Butterwick video from Krasnaya Polyana filmed this April in Ukraine, talking about plans to revive the house as the museum of futurism.

Left without parents early in their lives the Sinyakova girls, according to Brik, ‘roamed the woods with their hair loose. Their independence and eccentricity startled everyone. Khlebnikov was in love with all of them, Pasternak was in love with Nadia, Burliuk with Maria. Aseev* married Oksana’. Another of these ‘Muses to Futurism’, Vera, married the poet Petnikov and, after divorce, another writer, Gekht. Lily Brik remembered how Maria, “impressed me with her beauty, her colourful eyes almost white set against her dark skin.”

It was Krasnaya Polyana that provided the background for the national revival. Every summer the family de-camped from Kharkov, as Maria remembered, “to the green fields, forests, river in light fog, the blue sky – here was my pictorial Academy.”

MARIA SINYAKOVA 1890-1984, Carousel, 1916. Watercolour on paper, 35.4 x 22 cm

“Krasnaya Polyana,” according to sources, “was the house whither all the beau monde of Russo-Ukrainian futurism and neo-primitivism went. Mayakovsky and Khlebnikov, Pasternak and Aseev, the Burliuk brothers, Mane-Kats.” Kosarev remembered how, “the house was large, wooden, standing as if over a yard. After passing the gates, a wide staircase led up to the terrace where, on a usual day, the entire family and guests would gather for breakfast, lunch, dinner and endless tea-drinking. The wallpaper was decorated with exotic parrots some of which had been torn off. Apparently, paint from such parrots was used as cosmetic powder.”

Maria, at the time of the drawing ‘Tree of Life’ and ‘Carousel’ had already exhibited at the Union of Youth exhibition in St Petersburg with Larionov, Goncharova and Malevich between 1912 and 1914. After her honeymoon she, according to Kyiv art historian, Dmytro Horbachov, “revived her interest in Folk Art, the decorations of wedding trunks, folk icons, cloth and materials. In her Krasnaya Polyana watercolours she places the flowers of folk ornament into scenes of rural life. Everything is drawn impulsively, like an adult with a child’s soul.” Both ‘Tree of Life’ and ‘Carousel’ are oft-reproduced icons of the period whilst Venus, the third watercolour of the series, is a variation of a theme from the 1910’s and was commissioned from Sinyakova by Dmytro Horbachov, who organised her personal exhibition at the Kyiv Writers Union in 1969.

Kosarev’s illustration to Khlebnikov’s the ‘Wood Demon’, drawn at Krasnaya Polyana in 1918, provides context. The fragile poet was, according to Maria, “in love with us by turns, but it was frivolous love for, if he fell in love, it didn’t last long.” Love was everywhere for, “Boris Kosarev was also secretly in love with Maria but she seemed inaccessible. Maria was older than he, very beautiful and tall, whereas Kosarev was slight. Kosarev himself remembered how he even threw stones at Khlebnikov so as to interrupt a romantic tryst with Maria”.

BORIS KOSAREV 1897-1994. Illustration to Khlebnikov’s ‘The Wood Nymph’, 1918. Gouache and watercolour on paper, 21 x 26 cm

Khlebnikov was, Mayakovsky aside, probably the best known of the Russian Futurist poets, writing the prologue to the legendary opera, ‘Victory of the Sun’ in 1913 and inventing Zaum, a language probably used by birds. The feuding lovers seemed to find consensus for Kosarev’s swirling illustration – the tale of two pagan figures from Russian rural folklore, Leshy, a deity of the forest and Vila, a mythological female who rejects the advances of the God.

BORIS KOSAREV 1897-1994. Three Hamlets, Two Villages, 1921. Watercolour on paper 24 x 19 cm

‘Three Hamlets. Two villages’ and ‘Village Pastoral’ retain the joy of nature with which Krasnaya Polyana had imbued Kosarev. The structure is the same as Sinyakova’s ‘Venus’, separate scenes as if from an icon, but the symbols are those of the land and fertility. ‘Spring’ and ‘Dedicated to Pavel Kuznetsov’ also use symbols of Ukrainian primitivism whilst ‘Communal Flat’ is more a piece of (anti) Soviet humour split, like a bizarre religious image, into two.

Krasnaya Polyana is in the news. Under the leadership of Mikhail Sayany and money from the local authorities, a new project entitled the Mecca of Futurism has been set up to rebuild the house.

Futurism is back in vogue.

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