UNOVIS, Vitebsk’s avant-garde Union of the New Art

Front cover

Later this week, on 19 and 20 April, the Cambridge Courtauld Russian Art Centre and the Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, will hold an international conference in Cambridge on The People’s Art School and Unovis in Vitebsk.  Vitebsk, in present-day Belarus, was the home of an extraordinary avant-garde art school at which Marc Chagall (the town’s most famous son), Kazimir Malevich, and El Lissitsky taught.  Many of the artists at the school joined the art union UNOVIS, set up by Malevich.  Unovis stands for Utverditeli novogo iskusstva (Champions of the New Art).

Among the early Soviet treasures in Catherine Cooke’s collection in the University Library is a small and fragile Unovis publication dating from January 1921 and described as the union’s second publication or edition.  On its cover is Malevich’s famous Black Square, with the words “Let the overthrow of the old world of arts be traced out on the palms of your hands” written above it.  The booklet has four sections in it (NB the links below are to Russian Wikipedia entries for the authors):

Back cover

Party membership in art / M. Kunin
Unovis in ateliers / L. Khidekel’
The Architecture Faculty / I. Chashnik
On still life / L. Iudin

On its back cover, the booklet ends with an exhortation: “Comrades! Get ready for the all-Russian spring exhibition of ‘Unovis’ in Moscow”.

Lithographed on poor-quality paper, the booklet is a rather miraculous survivor.  According to the WorldCat and COPAC union catalogues, Cambridge is unique amongst major Western collections in having a copy.  The title can be accessed through the Rare Books Reading Room.  Its classmark is CCC.54.464.

A few spaces remain at the conference this week.  For those interested in attending, please see this page for joining details.

Mel Bach

 

Fragile propaganda : the March 2018 Slavonic item of the month

Last month, the CamCREES Revolution lecture series audience enjoyed a beautifully illustrated talk on Soviet porcelain.  Petr Aven spoke about the development of porcelain work in the Soviet Union, with examples from his own superlative collection.  This blog post looks at the collection’s staggering 3-volume catalogue, generously presented by Mr Aven to the University Library after his talk.  The subject of porcelain as a medium for Soviet propaganda is fascinating, and the catalogue is an exquisite and important addition to the Library on the topic.

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Best wishes from Trotsky : the February 2018 Slavonic item of the month

Among the February 1918-related exhibits soon to be added to the University Library’s Revolution exhibition is a letter from Leon Trotsky.  The letter came to the Library as part of the papers of the Conservative politician, Sir Samuel John Gurney Hoare (1880-1959), second Baronet, and first and last Viscount Templewood.  Hoare was in Russia as an intelligence officer in 1916, and his interest in the country continued long after his departure.  Quite how this letter, which is dated 27 February 1918 and refers to the work of the agent Bruce Lockhart, came to be amongst Hoare’s papers is only one of its mysteries.

Templewood II:2(27)

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С Новым годом! Happy New Year! : late delivery of the December 2017 Slavonic item of the month

The December 2017 item of the month was held up in the post, so with apologies here is a lovely festive card sent on 20 December 1967 to celebrate the incoming new year.

Postcard recto. From the Catherine Cooke postcard collection.

In the Soviet period, Christmas played a much-diminished role – new year celebrations took on much of Christmas’ character and iconography, and New Year’s Eve remains the main time for present-giving in much of the former Soviet bloc to this day.  In the card above, we have Ded Moroz (Grandfather Frost) being ferried by a troika of horses, with the Kremlin star shining in the background.

This lovely card was sent from Nizhnii Tagil, a town in the Sverdlovsk Region, to the small Norwegian town of Vikersund.  The fact that the Russian sender had a personalised stamp for his details (a sign that he was well established), bottom right, made me hope that he and the recipient might be traceable – and so it turned out to be the case.

Postcard verso.

Rudol’f Kopylov was an artist and Thor Skullerud was a pharmacist – what linked them appears to have been bookplates.  Kopylov specialised in the production of ex-libris and Skullerud was an avid commissioner of them.  For readers of Russian, here is more about Kopylov in connection with an exhibition of some of his works in 2014: http://www.shr-ekb.ru/exibitions.php?exid=144; for all, here is a link to some of the bookplates he produced which commemorate the poet Sergei Esenin: http://www.esenin.ru/esenin-v-izobrazitelnom-iskusstve/ekslibris/kopylov-r-v  Skullerud is harder to pin down in terms of biographical details, but here are some of the ex-libris he had made for him: http://art-exlibris.net/person/1922  It would seem that several of his bookplates are now in the Rijksmuseum, but copyright sensitivity prevents the museum from providing images: https://www.rijksmuseum.nl/en/search?q=skullerud

Somewhere, presumably, there is a bookplate designed by Kopylov for Skullerud to be found, but I have yet to track it down.  Ex-libris are the subject of many books in the UL.  A search for the subject bookplates will provide long lists.  Among the results will be a formidable Russian publication which lists all bookplates found in the holdings of the rare books department of the Gosudarstvennaia publichnaia istoricheskaia biblioteka (the State Public Historical Library).  Listed by name of owner, the set has covered only three letters of the alphabet and already stands at four volumes.  Once complete, it will be an extraordinary resource.  It can be consulted via the West Room and stands at  874.d.70-73.

Happy New Year to all our readers.

Mel Bach

Russian Revolution exhibition at the University Library

Futurizm i revoliutsiia (Futurism and revolution) by N. Gorlov; CCD.54.243

This week saw the launch of Revolution : the First Bolshevik Year, a year-long online exhibition which will grow on a monthly basis and will be co-curated with undergraduates.  The first month’s exhibits are also on physical display to readers and the public in the Library’s Entrance Hall for today and tomorrow – Friday 1 and Saturday 2 December 2017.

This exhibition will look at the events of the October Revolution and the year that followed, using a wide range of material from the University Library’s collections to illustrate the dramatic 1917-1918 timeline.  In future months, we will see students from various faculties and departments get involved in the project, giving them the chance to curate books and objects from the Library’s fascinating revolution-era collections.

The first month’s worth of exhibits consists of 11 items in 8 online groups, telling the story of the 27 October/7 November start of the revolution, with postcards of Moscow showing buildings altered by the fighting that took place and foreign accounts of the tumultuous events in Petrograd and beyond, before taking an initial look at the impact of the revolution on the arts.  Regular readers of this blog will be unsurprised to hear that several of these first exhibits (and more of those to come) are from the Catherine Cooke collection.  It is a pleasure to be able to look out items there and further afield in the Library for the exhibition, and I hope that students will feel similarly inspired as they handle this remarkable material.  Monthly updates to the online exhibition will be flagged by further blog posts.

Excerpt from Dvenadtsat’ (The twelve) by Aleksandr Blok with illustrations by Iurii Annenkov; S756.a.91.1

Mel Bach