21 August – 28 September 2014   
12 Nemchinova Ulitsa, Moscow
‘Olga Eyges (1910 – 1996)’

Paintings, graphic works, posters and industrial graphics from the Kovcheg gallery’s collection

   The fundamental Encyclopaedia of the Russian Avant-garde, the first two volumes of which were presented to the public at the Tretyakov Gallery in October 2013, is rather laconic about the life and work of Olga Eyges. That is quite understandable: by the late 1920s, when the master-to-be was just venturing into the fine arts, the Soviet authorities put tangible pressure to bear on the avant-garde trends. By the time Olga had turned professional and started taking commissions from different government organisations (which happened in the early 1930s), the entire avant-garde movement had been routed. Although arguably Soviet art at that time, like the rest of Europe, covered the way from radical modernism to neoclassicism, it should be admitted that in the local conditions that drift happened under stringent ideological control and was accompanied by wholesale pressure on the advocates of the avant-garde.

   In a nutshell, at the start of her career Olga Eyges witnessed but the final stage of avant-garde aesthetics, the manifestations of which increasingly met with hostility year in year out. A quotation from her biographical note in the aforementioned encyclopaedia to the effect that “at an early stage of her career she followed the Constructivist experiments and the OST traditions” implies that we can hardly speak of stable continuity, let alone the development of avant-garde ideas. Such, however, was the lot of virtually all artists of that generation. They had other guidelines, although not necessarily and not only those that in their time were referred to as the “principles of Socialist Realism”. Subdued and at times barely discernible duality of practice and aesthetical and thematic fluctuations between working on commission and for oneself were characteristic of many, and Olga Eyges was no exception. The silent opposition of the “formalistic precepts” assimilated in youth to the institutional standards that had enjoyed undivided sway over the profession was deeply ingrained in her mind. It never came either to a rebellion or to the full surrender of closely held priorities. Throughout her career there was a parallel line that defied the brutal behests of Socialist Realism.

   Olga Eyges came from a family who had art coursing through their veins: her numerous relations included composers, philosophers, poets, painters and experts in literature and music. True, Olga’s mother, Nadezhda Romanovna Eyges, devoted her life to preschool education rather than art and was a leading specialist in that field and the organiser of the first crèches in the Soviet Union. However, family inclinations and the influence of other members of the family (in particular, her uncle Veniamin Eyges, who had contributed to the first exhibition of the “Knave of Diamonds” and subsequently taught at several art schools) rather naturally brought Olga first to the Pamyati 1905 goda art school, where her uncle taught, and then to the Moscow Institute of Pictorial Arts (MIII).

   That educational establishment, which had inherited many traditions and teaching methods from the legendary VKhUTEMAS-VKhUTEIN, was no longer a bulwark of innovative experimentation, yet forcefully encouraged professionalism and originality. Vladimir Favorsky, Lev Bruni, Konstantin Istomin, Pavel Pavlinov and Alexander Deineka taught there, and Olga Eyges studied poster design under the latter. Needless to say, Deineka’s lessons impacted on Olga’s subsequent work, especially in poster design as such, to which Eyges remained true for years on end, working on commissions from the Institute of Sanitary Education, the Soviet State Circus, the All-Union Chamber of Commerce and the Iskusstvo Publishers. It seems, however, that three other mentors – Favorsky, Bruni and Istomin – exercised a far greater influence on her.

   Despite the chronic administrative fever at the MIII, aggravated by struggle against “bourgeois formalism” (due to which the Institute was drastically reorganised in 1939 and renamed the Moscow State Institute of Art, named subsequently after Vasily Surikov), it offered top-class training. Some professors enjoyed special undisputed authority among students, and the ideas of pictorial culture cultivated by them went far beyond the official curriculum. For instance, the arguments in favour of universal artistic skills and against the division of art into “lofty” and “low” met with wide support among the MIII students. Vladimir Favorsky had precisely that attitude in mind when he wrote, “I met an artist in the street and he asked me what I was doing. I told him that I was finishing illustrating one book and starting work on a mural. ‘Well, as for me, I do art,’ was his answer. Evidently, by art he meant exclusively oil painting. True, this is a fairly lopsided understanding of art”.

   Such views proved close to Olga Eyges. Even before enrolling at the MIII she had tried her hand at scenography and, when still a student, repeatedly took commissions for industrial design. Later on, in the 1940s, she was to gain rich experience in monumental painting. Alongside other former classmates Eyges worked within the famous team of monumental artists under the supervision of Vladimir Favorsky, Lev Bruni and Andrei Goncharov. That team had been decorating Metro stations, offices, health centres and pavilions of the VSKhV-VDNKh Economic Achievements Exhibition from 1935 on. Olga’s husband, the gifted artist Igor Polyakov, who was killed on the battlefield in 1942, had been actively involved in those efforts. His widow could be said to have taken his place after returning to Moscow from evacuation.

   The scale of monumental decorative commissions the team fulfilled in the last wartime years and in the postwar period was impressive; true, however, few of those works have survived to our day. With the passage of time the Izmailovskaia Metro station frescoes were destroyed, little is left of wall paintings in the famous House with the Lions near the Pionerskiye (Patriarch’s) pond, and more recently, in 2011, the Veterinary Pavilion which Olga Eyges had helped to decorate in her time got burned down on the grounds of the All-Russia Exhibition Centre (VVTs). Paradoxically, her graphic works and canvases have proved more lasting, despite their supposed fragility and defencelessness in the face of time.

   Eyges did easel paintings and large-size graphic works intensely from the early 1930s through the mid-1960s, despite her numerous poster design commissions. In fact, some of her genre drawings can be viewed as working material for agitprop posters to be mass-produced in the future; however even they have artistic qualities of inherent value. Yet, most of her canvases, watercolours, gouaches, drawings and lithographs are little if at all related to the themes of her posters.

   Intimate portraits of relatives, friends and anonymous sitters, as well as lyrical landscapes (for which she had a passion early on and took a “second breath” during the 1939 practicals at the Academy country-house in the Crimean village of Kozy) formed the not so broad range of her genre predilections. No doubt, Olga’s choice was predetermined in its time by the influence of her “formalist” mentors. It is likewise clear that her easel paintings and graphic works had no ideological objectives of the type of “extolling the man of labour” or “conveying the crucial role of industrialisation”.

   Even her later graphic series Moscow under Construction, showing Khrushchev-period construction sites, evinces a keen aesthetic interest in unusual cityscapes and the desire to register changes in urban geometry rather than the intention to glorify and propagandise. In general her foregoing outward enthusiasm and a pointedly epic style should be taken not only as a manifestation of creative honesty. One can also see in it the affirmation of the creed that what is of primary importance in art is “how” rather than “what”, let alone “for the sake of what”. In certain times such a stance inevitably marginalised the artist and doomed him/her to only partial involvement in official art life. Olga Eyges seems to have been aware of that and to have made her choice quite consciously.