The invisibility of women in the art world is an axiom that can hardly be refuted. From East to West, social circumstances made it difficult for them to get a proper education and so many times forgetfulness did the rest, as evidenced by the new revival of great personalities such as Artemisia Gentileschi – now exhibited in London – or Frida Kahlo. A reality to which Russia was partly an exception, in the very peculiar period of time that preceded the October Revolution. In those decades, during which the avant-garde art was born, women found space, echo and they also covered roles of responsibility somewhat equal to men. That was not happening neither in the USA nor in Europe at the time. This was also due to the emancipation of women reached during the First World War, when men were sent to the front and their wives had to replace them in the factories, carving out their space in society for the first time. These brave female artists and intellectuals were called “the Avant-Guard Amazons”, according to a definition once again coined by a male world that tries to define their greatness by restricting it to a form of exceptionalism.
Held in the halls of Palazzo Reale, a big exhibition opening on 27 October in Milan is dedicated to these brave female artists and intellectuals, containing more than a hundred masterpieces (many of which never seen in Italy) coming from St Petersburg Museum. The exhibition – entitled “Divine e avanguardie” (Divine and Cutting-edge) and sponsored by the Municipality of Milan that included it in the city’s cultural program “I talenti delle donne” (Women’s Talents) – traces the evolution of the female image in Russia through 8 big sections. They go from the golden madonnas of the icons to the tsarinas swatched in brocades, from the austere smiles of the empresses to the bourgeois interiors, up to the lined faces of peasant women who landed on canvas for the first time in the mid-nineteenth century, thanks to the luminous approach of Aleksej Venetsianov. And then again the stories on canvas by Kazimir Malevic who, in the 20s of the twentieth century, became passionate about the drama of the peasants crushed by the proletarian revolution. Or the gloomy interiors of Abram Archipov, with his laundresses in misery that almost remind the Paris in the despair told by Zola. All the way to women painters, sculptors, gallery owners, fashion designers, scenographers, animators of the bustling cultural scene of the time, at least until 1932 when Stalin imposed a suppression allowing socialist realism as the only form of art. As we can see in the beautiful essay signed by the curator Eugenia Petrova in the catalog, the idea is to revisit Russian history following the common thread of the female face also inspiring a reflection on the evolution of roles. And as evidence of the moment of opening that the country experienced between the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, there are portraits of the women who made a profession out of their art (from the poetess Anna Achmatova to the gallery owner Nadezda Evseevna Dobicina) along with those of artists’ wives and daughters. A section dedicated to the family seems to illustrate the many stories told in literary masterpieces, from Tolstoy to Dostoevsky, with portraits of young ladies given in marriage out of interest or those of widows left without any means. There are also mothers, as well as a section entirely dedicated to the female body. The last part, perhaps the most intriguing one, is the one that highlights the artists, not only Tamara de Lempicka (“now on trend in Europe” as the curator points out) but many others, from Natalija Goncharova to Olga Rozanova, from Ljubov Popova to Alexandra Exster and Vera Muchina. Refined, intellectual and daring minds. Strong personalities like that of Goncharova, capable of dragging and influencing her audience, loved to the point that one of her exhibitions in 1913 held in Moscow attracted more than 12 thousand visitors, forcing the organizers to print the catalog three times more.