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Art History

Masterkova Paints Like an Orchestra
Olga Slobodkina-von Bromssen

rtist Lidia Masterkova is one of the living legends of Russian post-war avant-garde art. Born in 1927, she began painting in the late 1940s, and by the end of the 1950s was pioneering Russian abstract art as part of the Lianozovo group (see Passport’s April issue), a non-official community of writers, poets, and artists that included her husband, Vladimir Nemukhin (see May issue of Passport). In the words of fellow artist Vsevolod Nekrasov, Lianozovo was not an art group with a “manifesto” so much as an “every day matter,” a community of friends supporting each other in a purely private aesthetic and spiritual search. The members of Lianozovo positioned their “private” art in opposition to the officially sanctioned Soviet art.

As a child in Moscow, Masterkova’s education included training in music — she still considers playing the piano an essential part of her life — and acting, which she studied with masters from Stanislavsky’s inner circle. In art school she studied with Mikhail Perutsky, a member of the New Painting Society. The World Festival of Youth, held in Moscow in the summer of 1957, provided exposure to a previously unseen panorama of artistic influences. New opportunities for selfexpression through painting sparked the artist’s creative impulse. By the end of the 1950s, Masterkova had begun to develop her own figurative style, working in the new manner of abstract expressionism. She was one of the first underground artists to work in pure abstraction.

Her abstract art is not only intimately lyrical but metaphysical and even mystical. The fragments of old brocade, lace, and embroidery from abandoned churches she uses in her collages create luxurious textures that complemented the aestheticism of the 1960s. Masterkova’s broad range of influences includes masters from da Vinci and Rembrandt to El Greco and Cezanne. However, her greatest influence is the 16th-century Russian icon painter Dionysius.

Her first solo show was stage in Moscow at the home of art critic Ilya Tsirlin. She also participated in the exhibition on Shosse Entuziastov, which was closed two hours after opening, and the “Bulldozer” exhibition, which raised awareness in the West of the repression of artists in the Soviet Union.

Masterkova tends to work in series and often uses the circle, a symbol she derived from Dante. It is this form that she uses extensively in her Planets (1976) and Meteors (1981-82) series, which are among her most famous. Enigmatic and full of mystical power, her images create a somewhat cosmic impression.

In 2004 she displayed a new series, Planet Parade, at the Kino Gallery in Moscow. Dedicated to the great Russian poets Sergei Esenin, Marina Tsvetaeva, Alexander Blok, and Nikolai Gumilyov, the series consists of black and white sheets painted with India ink on a wet surface in carved collage frames that look almost runic. Despite the esoteric spiritual tradition that underpins these works, this stylistically minimalist series brings forth scientific associations. They are reminiscent of X-ray images as well as of NASA photos that reflect the movements of atmospheric fronts and landscapes of faraway planets. In an interview the artist said, “When the Earth stops being a place correcting and perfecting us humans, people will build houses of ivory and hang suprematist pictures in them.”

Since 1975 Masterkova has lived in France. Although half of her artistic life has been spent there, she remains a deeply Russian artist with creative roots closely connected with Russian culture.

Her works have been exhibited in Russia and abroad, in private collections and museums including the State Tretyakov Gallery and the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

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