UNLIKE CUBISM, Fauvism and other early 20th-century "isms," Russian Avant-Gardism was not a single style. It was, rather, a mutual spirit of innovation and experimentation that bound the artists of revolutionary Russia together between 1910 and 1930.
Thanks to recent exhibitions, Suprematist and Constructivist abstractions have become the prototypical images of the Russian Avant-Garde -- and may well have been their crowning achievement. But, though we rarely hear about them, there were figurative artists among the Russian Avant-Garde as well.
One of them -- Anatoly Ivanovich Shugrin, now 76 and living in Moscow -- has just turned up in a retrospective at the Jewish Community Center in Rockville.
Incredibly, it is his first solo show. He has not shown at all since 1935.
Roundly squelched during the Stalinist purges, most Avant-Gardists have long since dropped out of sight in the Soviet Union -- due to death, emigration or disappearance. Self-imposed isolation seems to be what saved Shugrin, who is not Jewish. Born just in time to be victimized by world events, he was well-trained in academic art, subsequently joined an artists' union and, to support himself, worked as a part-time teacher in a Moscow high school for the arts for years after World War II. His paintings and sculptures, however, he kept to himself after 1935. Only a few friends ever saw them.
It is hard to imagine why these wonderful drawings of artists in their studios, poignant oils of heavily outlined Rouault-like faces and handsome Cubist-inspired still lifes could cause grief for an artist, even if they failed to serve the didactic ends of Socialist Realism. Though nonconforming stylistically, the works show neither dissidence nor bitterness.
There is, to be sure, a thinly veiled sense of Weltschmerz, or world weariness, in such works as "Hamlet" and "Moscow in Wartime," but that is typically Russian. So, in fact, are the icon-related elements of Neo-Primitivism that place Shugrin firmly in one of the substrata of Russian Avant-Garde realism still much in need of further study.
These are, in fact, high-level examples of the struggle every early 20th-century artist had to deal with in the wake of Picasso and the modernist onslaught. Given the isolation in which Shugrin worked, it is perhaps the highest praise to say that these paintings and sculptures -- all made between 1919 and 1950--could have been painted anywhere at the time, including Paris and New York.
The sculptures, though they often conjure recollections of Picasso, are particularly bold and powerful, and it is both sad and amusing to note that though all are made of wood, several have been painted to look like steel or bronze -- hinting at an unfulfilled dream.
"He always said he was waiting for a crazy man to bring his art to the attention of the world, and last week, by phone, he said he had found such a man at last," says former student Valentina Shapiro, an emigre' artist now living in Switzerland.
That man is Vladimir Sirota, a psychotherapist and art collector who immigrated to America from his native Russia four years ago, bringing with him to Silver Spring 180 works by Shugrin--a former patient and long-time friend. He has now found a place to show them.
"What he needed most was recognition of his art, and I swore to help him get it," says Sirota, who was forced to leave most of his other art treasures behind. "More than anything, Shugrin was afraid that after his death, his work would end up on the garbage heap. My moral obligation is to see that that doesn't happen. It is being fulfilled by this exhibition."
The center's curator, Susan W. Morgenstein, has done a superb job of presenting a body of work especially difficult to deal with, given Shugrin's odd working habits. He neither dated nor titled most of his output, and often worked and reworked paintings over several years, making a chronological presentation impossible. He also experimented with many styles, often at the same time.
A handsome color catalogue of the 40 works in the show has been published by Sirota. The exhibition will continue through Dec. 30 at the center, 6125 Montrose Rd., Rockville. Hours are Mondays through Thursdays, noon to 4, and 7:30 to 9:30; Sundays 2 to 5.