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Art History

Moscow and Bely Inspire Artist of the Past
… I believe that nature alone is the source which eternally revives forms of art… But I also believe that art exists according to its own distinctive laws, otherwise it stops being art.
Text and photographs, Olga Slobodkina-von Bromssen

Antonina Sofronova
“In Arbat Alleys” canvas, oil, 1932

uch were the beliefs, as written in a 1915 diary entry, of Antonina Sofronova, a Russian artist who created her inimitable paintings and drawings in the first half of the 20th century, and died in 1966, a virtually unknown artist.

Her only solo show was staged at the Central House of Writers two years before her death in Moscow and had no catalogue to list the works on display.

However, Sofronova’s art has not been lost forever. In the 1970s, art critics and galleries began to revise their views of Russian art in the 1930s and Sofronova was one of the artists whose works were highlighted. Her paintings were displayed at the Barbican Center in London in 1989 during the exhibition of “Russian Art from Private Collections,” at the memorial apartment of the famous Russian writer Andrei Bely in Moscow in 1995 as well as at the Berlin-Moscow 1900-1950 Grand Show of Russian and German avant-garde and totalitarian art in 1996. Today, several of her works are on display at the Tretyakov Gallery.

It is not by chance that Bely’s apartment was chosen for Sofronova’s solo show. In the early 1940s, Sofronova turned to Bely’s prose and blank verse, bringing to life the already published novel “Petersburg” and the poem “Second Symphony, the Dramatic.” In her masterly illustrations, which are in fact easel paintings, the artist managed to render the lofty romantic irony of the novel and the musical rhythms of the poem.

And although she never met or talked with Bely, there is a striking similarity in the mood and feel of Sofronova’s Moscow landscapes and Bely’s novel “Moscow Under the Seige.” The similarities in the visual language of the novel and in the artist’s works are amazing. It’s as if they both saw Moscow on the same evening.

Sofronova was born in 1892 in the village of Droskovo, Orlovskaya province. In 1910, she moved to Moscow to study painting in the studios of F.I. Rerberg, a realist painter of The World of Art group, and I.I. Mashkov, a founder of The Jack of Diamonds group, a group of Moscow artists (1910- 16) who painted in the spirit of Cezanne, fauvism and cubism and also turned to the media of Russian cheap popular prints and national toys. In 1914, Sofronova participated in an exhibition held by The Jack of Diamonds.

Sofronova also participated in a 1917 exhibition of The World of Art group of artists (1898-1924) who approached the arts from a retrospective point of view with attention towards antiquity and the diversity of historical and cultural reminiscences.

Illustration to Alexander Green’s novel “The Scarlet Sails”.  1950, watercolors, cardboard

Antonina Sofronova. Illusrtation to Andrey Bely’s “The Second Symphony. Farytale” watercolors, feather, 1941

Her acceptance by these two groups demonstrated the high quality and cultural integrity of the artist’s works. From 1920-1921, the artist taught drawing at secondary school in the town of Oryol and was a professor for free state art workshops in Tver. But in the fall of 1921, her teaching methods were declared “unacceptable” and Sofronova was fired. She returned to Moscow, which she considered her “only native city,” where she stayed until her death.

Back in Moscow, she soon joined The Group of 13, a collective of 13 Russian painters who continued in the traditions of impressionism, but with a solid foundation in realism. Her strong individual voice was highly valued by fellow members.

Sofronova’s landscapes of Moscow are effusive, energetic, harmonious and expressive. Although there are lots of blind alleys in Moscow, her landscapes almost always have a line receding into the distance – the spaciousness of the Orlovskaya province apparently remained within the artist’s creative mind. Her Moscow landscapes are a special contribution to the “street genre” typical in the art of the 1920s.

In 1931, Sofronova took part in the last exhibition of The Group of 13, held at Moscow University. That was the finale of the group’s collective activity. The group was tagged as being “formalist” and dispersed by the establishment art world.

From that point on, Sofronova was painting entirely for herself without a hope to ever display her works. She etched a meager living by designing book covers and painting portraits from photographs when she was evacuated to the Urals during World War II.

Today, however, the art world tends to call her a classic of 1920s-1930s and a real phenomenon in Russian 20th century art.

Antonina Sofronova. Illustration to Andrey Bely’s “Second Symphony. Dramatic.” (1941, watercolors, feather)

Antonina Sofronova “Portrait of Lidia Sofronova” (actress, sister of the artist) 1940, canvas, oil)

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