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Rozanova and Malevich – Racing Towards Abstraction?

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Olga Rozanova, Cover for War, 1916

Was Olga Rozanova cheated out of her place amongst the ‘greats’ of modern abstract art? She certainly thought so.

When she first saw Kazimir Malevich’s Suprematist paintings, combining abstract shapes in bold colours, she noticed a striking similarity with her own work. Angry and suspicious, in December 1915 she wrote to her partner, the poet Aleksei Kruchenykh:

“All of Suprematism consists entirely of my collages, combinations of surfaces, lines, discs (particularly discs) and totally without a realistic subject. In spite of all that, that swine doesn’t mention my name (…) Did you show Malevich my collages, and when exactly?”

Kazimir Malevich, Prayer, illustration for Explodity by Aleksei Khruchenykh

There are several reasons why it’s difficult for us, 100 years later, to disentangle the order of artistic discoveries amongst Russian avant-garde artists. One is that Malevich had a habit of ‘back-dating’ his work: he often labelled his paintings with the date when the idea first occurred to him, not when he actually put paint to canvas, which was sometimes several years later. Rozanova, for her part, hardly ever dated her works at all.

Another complication is that many artists worked in collaboration with each other, so ideas were shared among the close artistic community long before they went on public display and acquired an official date. In many cases, at this remove, it’s simply impossible to put an accurate date on a work.

It seems that Rozanova arrived at abstract art via collage, rather than easel painting. She incorporated elements of collage into her paintings on canvas, but also developed her ideas in her designs for Futurist books. From 1913 onwards she collaborated with Kruchenykh to produce illustrated poetry books, which were radical both in their language and their aesthetics.

Olga Rozanova, Explosion, illustration for Explodity by Aleksei Khruchenykh

Kruchenykh was a pioneer of zaum – ‘transrational’ or ‘beyondsense’ poetry –which deconstructs the word, and suggests meaning through sound and intuition rather than literal definitions. It is abstract, both constructed from and essentially about words; obsessed with the word or the letter as an object rather than a means of conveying an idea. Similarly, many of the illustrations and collages that Rozanova produced for the books use colour and line not to signify something concrete, but to construct a whole new system of representation. In fact, at the time, abstract art was often known as ‘transrational’ art, underlining the connection with zaum poetry.

Olga Rozanova, cover for Explodity, 1913

The books were controversial, and the artists knew it. The front cover of Explodity (1913) shows an impassioned speaker on a dais hurling something (a bomb? A book of poetry?) into a chaotic crowd, as a lightening bolt splits the air. It seems to be saying: “this is what a revolutionary idea looks like”.

Kazimir Malevich, Painterly Realism of a Football Player, 1915

Rozanova’s collage for the front cover of War (early 1916) does bear an unmistakable similarity to Malevich’s Suprematist paintings. But does it ultimately matter who inspired whom, or whether they both arrived at the same idea independently? Perhaps it is just worth remembering that focussing on the 'big names' of art history tends to block our view of the smaller ones.