Progression of Art
In a Café
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.
Oil on canvas - State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg
The Factory and the Bridge
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.
Oil on canvas - Museum of Modern Art, New York
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.
Oil on canvas - State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow
Simultaneous Representation of Four Aces
This work is part of Rozanova's eleven-painting cycle Playing Cards, described by Nina Gurianova as having "no counterpart in either Russian or European painting." The series was first shown at the Exhibition of Leftist Trends at the Dobychina Bureau in St. Petersburg in April 1915; the Last Futurist Exhibition would be held at the gallery later that year. This painting combines aspects of Rozanova's early Neo-Primitivist aesthetic with a form of Cubo-Futurist abstraction which is increasingly detached from clear figurative representation, predicting the style of her later works.
Playing cards were a common Russian Neo-Primitivist motif, everyday objects associated with urban leisure culture, but also possessing more mysterious connotations connected to Russian peasant traditions of magic and card-reading. From works such as Mikhail Larionov's Soldiers Playing Cards (1903) onwards, Neo-Primitivist artists had transformed playing cards into romanticized objects, and Rozanova's series is partly a nod to that native tradition. At the same time, the term "Simultaneous Representation" may refer to the vibrant, Orphic paintings of the French artists Robert and Sonia Delaunay, described by Robert Delaunay as "simultanist" paintings. That term indicated an attempt to relay multiple views on a single object, with a particular emphasis on the different ways objects absorbed or reflected light across the day. If this aspect of Orphism can be compared to Rozanova's later, more purely abstract color-works, in this instance her "simultanism" is whimsically suggested by her offering abstracted views of the four "Ace" cards in the deck - unlikely to all appear at once during a game of cards - as well as what seems to be a section of the patterned reverse of one card.
The Playing Cards series represents a critical step on Rozanova's path towards pure abstraction. Elongating or truncating the cards to the point of distortion - so it is not clear, even on the terms of abstract art, what the painting's subject-matter is - and working with an already abstractly 'patterned' object, Rozanova begins to move beyond the figurative Cubo-Futurism of works like Metronome, towards a form of painting in which identifiable subject-matter is entirely dissolved.
Oil on canvas - State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg
Collage-based works such as Non-Objective Composition were the precursor to Rozanova's later painterly abstractions. Indeed, she felt that such works, with their elementary, overlapping shapes, and textural play with translucency and opacity, were the inspiration for Kazimir Malevich's turn towards "non-objective" abstraction with his first Suprematist canvases of 1915.
Rozanova's collage-work anticipates her later Suprematist work in its incorporation of simple, non-representational shapes such as arcs and rectangles. But the compositional technique also points to international sources: like much of the work of her French Cubist and Italian Futurist predecessors, Rozanova's collage-work blurs the boundaries between painting as a two-dimensional illusion and painting as a non-representational, three-dimensional surface (potentially incorporating found and 'non-artistic' material). What was different about Rozanova's collage work was the aesthetic logic behind that maneuver. Whereas Picasso's use of found materials in his Synthetic Cubist collages collapsed the boundaries between high and low art, and the incorporation of printed text into Italian Futurist collage-work often signaled an overtly political agenda, Rozanova was more interested in the abstracted color harmonies which could be emphasized once painterly representation had been done away with. The new shapes and tonalities created by the overlapping of surfaces represent an exercise in the interplay of unmodulated color planes, a form of practice-based research into the interaction of color.
Non-Objective Composition is thus a vital work both in pointing towards the Malevich-esque abstractions of Rozanova's final years, and in his revealing her own, central and under-acknowledged role in shifting Russian avant-garde art towards the aesthetic stance of Suprematism.
Collage on paper - Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam
This painting is, as its title suggests, a good example of the late work which Rozanova produced in conjunction with the Suprematist movement. But Rozanova's approach to Suprematism is distinguished by its emphasis on the vibrancy and interaction of color, an emphasis which might call to mind the Expressionist paintings of Wassily Kandinsky.
This particular piece seems more focused on the harmony and contrast of color than the relationship between geometric shapes so important to Malevich's first Suprematist works; or rather, those relationships seem coextensive with the interplay established between different tonal ranges. The primary color-contrast is between darker or more muted greens, blues, and blacks, and more vibrant reds, oranges, and yellows, with each darker or cooler color abutting or adjacent to a warmer counterpart. On the far right, for instance, a large red rectangle overlaps with a large black rectangle, with the four red arcs outlined in black adding a directional motion, suggesting a formal link between the two color-fields. In general, warm and cool shapes are counter-posed positionally in ways that emphasize the opposition of colors, with red and black shapes seeming to stretch from top-left to bottom-right of the canvas, and blues moving in the other direction. The sense of visual motion and energy established by this interplay of color and shape reflects Rozanova's interest in expressing an inner, spiritual or emotional dynamism through her work.
Unlike the architectonic Prouns of El Lissitzky's Suprematist phase, then, or the pure geometric interplay of Malevich's contemporaneous work, Rozanova's Suprematist paintings are centrally concerned with, and dependent on, the study of color motion, expressed through a vocabulary of abstract shapes. In this sense, they represent a unique contribution to one of the most important genres of early-20th-century avant-garde art.
Oil on Canvas - Museum of Fine Arts, Ekaterinburg
Abstract Composition (Color-Painting)
Abstract Composition, one of Rozanova's last works, illustrates her theory of what she called "transfigured color far from utilitarian goals". A meditation on the tonalities of red, orange, and yellow, this work suggests how color can bring emotional and physical associations to simple geometric forms. It not only epitomizes the technical and conceptual advances of Suprematism, but also predicts later developments in Concrete Art and Abstract Expressionism.
Set against a bright yellow background, the central arrangement of rectangles presents a kind of back-and-forth play between lighter and darker colors. The red-orange rectangle towards the top of the canvas imposes itself against the bright yellow background, while leading the eye downwards towards two nested rectangles sat on a black horizontal band. The incremental progression from light to dark suggests a subtle recession in depth, emphasizing the ways in which color can alter our perception of shape (while the black band furnishes the faintest suggestion of a landscape, perhaps with setting sun). Below is a further orange rectangle, whose subtle tonal distinction from the one above is emphasized by the thick dividing line; this implies how the arrangement of several colors can affect our perception of the constituent colors taken in isolation. This work shows the influence of - or at least an affinity with - Malevich's contemporaneous paintings, in its rough, hand-hewn feel, and in the way the white canvas shows through in certain areas. By exposing the canvas where particular shapes meet, Rozanova also seems to present those shapes as separate planes or surfaces, thus referencing the origins of her Suprematist paintings in her earlier collages.
Rozanova's last paintings are accomplished works of pure abstraction, which pre-empt better-known works produced later in the century. The emphasis on color interaction, and the use of nested rectangles, for example, might remind us of the Concrete artist Josef Albers's Homage to the Square series, while the overall structural arrangement and emotive use of color is very reminiscent of Mark Rothko's Abstract Expressionist aesthetic. Works such as Abstract Composition thus not only stand for a particular, pivotal moment in the development of early-20th-century avant-garde art, but also stand at the forefront of a whole century of abstract painting.
Oil on canvas - State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg