Art Market

The women who sold the Avant-garde

The women who sold the Avant-garde

A recently published book, ‘Two Women Patrons of the Avant-Garde: Nadezhda Dobychina and Klavdia Mikhailova’ by Natalia Murray and Natalia Budanova, sheds new light on the role of these two pioneering female art dealers in the history of the Russian avant-garde.

This new book tells the fascinating and, as yet, untold story of two pioneering Russian galleries, which existed before the revolution: the Art Bureau of Nadezhda Dobychina, which opened in St. Petersburg in 1911 and Klavdia Mikhalova’s Art Salon, which was founded in Moscow a year later.

The turbulent 1910s were a ripe time for artistic developments in Russia and these two women fearlessly stepped up to the plate in providing platforms for new artistic advances. They were the first commercial art enterprises of their kind in Russia, carving out paths and methods they became true forerunners of the contemporary gallery business as we know it today. These galleries were in no way connected, yet this book presents their activities chronologically side by side drawing strong parallels (sometimes to the point of confusion) of their separate narratives, which could arguably easily have been two separate books.

Klavdia Mikhailova (nee Suvirova, 1875–1942) started out as an artist, but a large inheritance from her industrialist father sparked her decision to open an art Salon on Bolshaya Dmitrovka, one of Moscow’s most prestigious streets in the heart of the city.

Nadezhda Dobychina (born Ginda-Neka Shyevna Fishman, 1884–1950) came to St. Petersburg to study biology, where she befriended the legendary “crazy doctor” polymath artist and art patron Nikolay Kulbin (1868–1917). It was a life-changing acquaintance, introducing her to the art world, which led her to open an Art Bureau in her apartment, initially in the scruffier Petrogradsky district, but eventually moving to the centre and ending up in the grand Adamini House in Marsovo Polye.

The book was co-authored by two female scholars. Natalia Murray writes about St. Petersburg’s Dobychina and Natalia Budanova about Moscow’s Mikhailova. This all-female cast might beg the question of an underlying feminist narrative, yet the authors largely resist such an overt reading and the book makes no meaningful engagement with feminist debates. Both gallerists were inheritors of the salon, traditionally hosted by women; they also benefited from financial independence and the war soon brought more cultural agency into the hands of women. It seems their gender was of little significance and not much of an obstacle. If anything, the authors suggest that Russian middle-class society was more emancipated than in Europe at the time.

The study re-tells chronologically the rise and fall of these ground-breaking art enterprises through all of their seasons which lasted for 6--7 years. It’s a page-turner of success and failure, risk and scandal, commerce and charity. It offers household names in every chapter cast here in a new light from the point of view of their dealings with the galleries.

Mikhailova was particularly close to Mikhail Larionov (1881–1964), who was himself inseparable from Natalia Goncharova, (1881--1962). Their interactions, told through eyewitness accounts, contemporary reviews and personal correspondence reveal his dual nature. On the one hand, he was something of an enfant terrible, constantly shocking the public with new pranks, which Mikhailova bravely tolerated, yet, on the other hand, Larionov was a rather astute and pragmatic dealer and manager in his own right, acting as Mikhailova’s Parisian agent and organising her international dealings.

Both galleries became a springboard for Vladimir Tatlin (1885--1953) and constructivist art. In 1915, Tatlin initially showed a proto-constructivist piece Mikhailova’s gallery in Moscow, later consolidating its new style to premiere it later in the same year in St. Petersburg. An amusing anecdote recounts a social scandal, which broke out when renowned art patron and collector Evfimia Nosova caught the train of her lavish floor-length gown on Tatlin’s contraption, which was an iron sundial nailed to the floor. Such glimpses of reality enliven this historic narrative and re-contextualise moments of old world meets new world.

From the myriad of trailblazing exhibitions and events held in the galleries, by far the most outstanding and historically important was the ‘0.10’ exhibition, where Kazimir Malevich (1879--1935) hung his ‘Black Square’ in the “red corner” of the room surrounded by the rest of his paintings and, thus, launching Suprematism. The year was 1915, Suprematism’s first step and the opening of Dobychina’s new Art Bureau space. Natalia Murray recounts a thrilling by-the-minute account of this momentous event, describing a last-minute hang, the reaction of critics and visitors from all sides of the spectrum, giving the reader an extraordinary sense of presence at this truly pivotal moment for modern art.

The duality of the volume has the benefit of providing an insightful comparison of the artistic scene, in both capital cities, as well as their differences in attitudes (St. Petersburg then named Petrograd was the capital until 1918). A telling episode surrounded a huge solo retrospective exhibition of works by Natalia Goncharova, which was held at both galleries consecutively, first Moscow and then St. Petersburg. Whereas the former was a blockbuster success, in Dobychina’s Bureau in St. Petersburg the artist’s religious works incited the indignation of censors, who demanded the removal of 22 works, retracting this demand a week later, a public scandal that nevertheless brought attention to both the artist and gallery.

Devastating and destructive to Russian society as were the war years, the two galleries miraculously managed to adapt and survive. They were both quick to mount numerous charitable events, allowing them to collect generous sums to be donated towards infirmaries and hospitals. Many public spaces were repurposed for war needs, so these private galleries gained ever more prominence as the few remaining spaces for artistic life. It propelled these galleries beyond just cultural hubs, to agents of social engagement and force in their cities and beyond and this was remarkable, considering they had existed only for a couple of years.

With the advent of the revolution, these fearless entrepreneurs held on until the last. Dobychina opened a show of Finnish artists on the same night that Lenin arrived in St. Petersburg on a sealed train and Maxim Gorky, who had been planning to meet Lenin, eschewed him in favour of Dobychina’s afterparty.

However, it was not to last: both women were forced to give up their art businesses in 1918. The Art Salon was nationalised and although it continued to be used as an exhibition space by the Bolsheviks, Mikhailova returned to her previous vocation as a painter and, tragically, poverty and ill health lead to her losing a leg. Dobychina’s hopes of re-opening her gallery during the NEP years or re-starting in Paris were thwarted and she only found sporadic work as a curator in state-run institutions.

The both informative and dramatic narratives of these two women’s businesses tell the story of their absolutely pivotal role in generating and maintaining the dynamic contemporary art scene in Russia in these most creative and turbulent times.

Written in an accessible style the book provides, among other things, a parallel narrative of Russian history at the turn of the century through the prism of these two women, throwing light along the way on other social and political topics in early 20th century Russia, including education, anti-semitism, foreign connections, craft movements and polygamy. The publication would hugely benefit from a comparative timeline of the activities of the two galleries alongside historical events to really contextualise the chronology and rapid flow of artistic and historical fabrics.

‘Two Women Patrons of the Avant-Garde’ opens an invaluable vista onto the historiography of the Russian and international art market, a factor that has been comparatively obliterated in scholarship and popular perceptions of the avant-garde. We are well informed of the artistic groups, movements and vibrant individuals, their biographies, their works, contemporary society, art theories – but little is known of the outlets for exhibition and sale, which this book serves to reposition.

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