An Exhibition of European Magnitude. The Story of Gustavs Klucis
“Usually, if somebody knows at least one work by Gustavs Klucis, they will almost certainly name the “Swimmers” postcard from the series dedicated to the 1928 Spartakiad, or the photomontage “Dynamic City”,” Iveta Derkusova says about the versatile artist, emphasising that the personality of Gustavs Klucis is very important to Latvia and Latvians as he is someone known around the world. “There is the paradoxical situation that the Western world knows Klucis’ name better than people do in Latvia,” notes Iveta Derkusova, adding that, undeniably, Klucis’ name was always associated with his role in Soviet Russia’s art, up to collaboration with the totalitarian regime. However, it is not entirely clear if Gustavs Klucis was fully aware of this, or it was simply the context of the historic period when he lived. “Therefore it is hard to be unequivocal in discussing these artworks created in the Soviet Union, Soviet Russia and during the Stalin regime. Likewise, only certain works by Gustavs Klucis were included in exhibitions in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s – and for entirely different reasons.”
The curator of the exhibition is convinced that now is the time that the Latvian nation is mature enough for Riga, the European Capital of Culture, not to reject any of the outstanding personalities hailing from the city, and accept Gustavs Klucis’ heritage the way it is, taking into consideration the complex historical context.
“We cannot consider the form of Gustavs Klucis’ works separately from their content, we cannot take him out of the environment he lived, or deny his political views! At the same time, today we can look at those qualities of his works that are beyond time.”
“I’ve been asked a lot of times, why there are so many Latvians in Russia’s avant-garde, as Gustavs Klucis is not the only one – there also was Karl Ioganson and many others. One answer to why Constructivism was so closely associated with Latvian artists’ way of thinking is: orderliness and clarity of form are very characteristic of Latvian mentality. Gustavs Klucis was interested in space. Whether it was working in two dimensions, creating concepts on paper or transferring them to spatial objects, inner structure and space are clearly visible in his works.”
Another important aspect emphasised by the exhibition’s curator is, if Gustavs Klucis lived today, he would be an absolute trailblazer in all the modern technologies, and he certainly would love to learn various computer technologies and use them in creating his works. “He was interested in radio, cinema, photomontage principles, dynamics, and that’s why his works are anything but plain or decorative. Klucis’ photomontages are not just a mechanical composition of images – they each tell a story! Understanding the printing technologies of the time also made him very special.” Later on, Iveta points at posters at the walls of the hall, and says that Klucis knew, while working on the sketches and models for his works, what he could – and what he could not – do when the work would be printed, how colours would change, what the texture would be like. And the curator of the exhibition is very pleased that sketches of many posters have been preserved to this day, and can be placed next to the original posters:
“Here we can see the artist’s entire laboratory – how he worked, how it was changing over time.”
When asked whether works from all the periods in Gustavs Klucis’ creative life would be represented at the exhibition, Iveta Derkusova says the exhibition will present a complete retrospective of the artist’s works except maybe the very early works when he was still a student. “But we have everything else, from 1918 up to the artist’s death in 1938 – the complete spectrum, all the fields, genres and themes the artists liked.”
This is possible thanks to co-operation with European museums and the little-known fact that the Latvian National Museum of Art has the largest collection of Gustavs Klucis’ works. “Of these approximately 250 works that will be showcased at the exhibition, some 30 have travelled to Latvia from other European museums,” says the curator. She adds that the exhibition presents a wonderful opportunity to remind everyone how Klucis’ works ended up in Riga. “We all know very well that Klucis left for Russia in 1915, he was drafted into the army and never returned to Latvia.
He lived his entire creative life in Russia. He first came to Petrograd where he studied all the while he was in service, then the revolution turned his life upside down, also determining his further artistic career. Because of his association with the Latvian Riflemen, Gustavs Klucis went to Moscow and was part of a security company for the new government. Klucis’ further live continues in Moscow, in complete and absolute context of Russian avant-garde.”
For this reason, it is hard to consider Gustavs Klucis a Latvian artist. It would be very hard to find a place for him in the picture of Latvian art development as his entire creative life is synchronised with the artistic processes in Moscow at that time. “Gustavs Klucis was never an imitator trying to emulate the existing artistic trends. He was always in the front ranks, sometimes even a few steps ahead of others, given his innovative thinking and interest in everything new.”
At this point, Iveta Derkusova reminds us that, unfortunately, the artist’s life came to a very abrupt and tragic end – he was one of the many thousands of Latvians who lived in Moscow and were executed by firing squads according to the “telephone directory” principle. “He was one of them, just as another popular artist, Aleksandrs Drēviņš; they even died on the same day: the 26th of February, 1938. Both artists were simply murdered at the height of their creative and professional peak – simply because of their nationality. Klucis was not spared, even given the fact that he had devoted all his life to the Soviet rule and the Soviet Union.” Iveta Derkusova also indicates – we have to remember that profound changes were taking place in Russia’s artistic processes in the 1930s. “Originally, at the beginning of the 1920s, the new Soviet power supported radical artists who wanted to dismantle the old order, who denounced traditional artistic genres, depicting the beautiful, and began to construct and create new environment, make abstract works, and were looking for a way to bring the new way of thinking and government philosophy to the streets, involve as many people as possible in what was, to put it bluntly, propaganda! The government needed them.
But at the start of the 1930s, Soviet leaders began to realise that avant-garde art was too free and radical, and that it had pushed aside a large number of artists who would be much easier for the people to understand. And that is when Socialist realism began.
Gustavs Klucis, and a lot of other avant-garde artists, were in a very complex situation, they were being accused of formalism, their work was being denounced... Eventually all that took a very dangerous turn, and attempts to “break” the artists began… Gustavs Klucis was being criticised for a lot of things, including the use of photography, which is why he was gradually going back to other artistic genres, including painting. In the latter half of the 1930s, he was no longer one of those artists who helped consolidate the Soviet Union’s official policies. “Even with all those archive materials, we still do not have full information about what actually happened. What we know is that everything had reached a boiling point in Russian art, but we cannot know how artists felt during that period, how they survived by finding compromises between what they were doing and what they had to do so they could work in their profession and pursue their creative vision...” Iveta Derkusova explains. “Maybe, if the circumstances were not so desperate, Klucis would be spared, taking into consideration his past achievements. I, however, believe that it would not have happened, but now we can only speculate…” As hard as it may be for us to understand, Gustavs Klucis was most probably executed, just like the other Latvians during the years of Stalinist terror, thousands of them, just because of their ethnicity.
As the curator of the exhibition returns to the story of how the collection of Gustavs Klucis’ works arrived in Riga, she reminds us that those avant-garde artists who were not executed had to change their ways not to draw the wrath of the authorities. Works by Klucis and other artists who were executed like him were not exhibited anymore, these artists had simply never existed – up until the end of the 1950s, Stalin’s death and Khrushchev Thaw. The rehabilitation process began, and at least the families of the deceased artists had their reputation restored. In January 1959, an exhibition of works by artists who worked in Moscow between the wars was organised in Riga. The exhibition marked the 40th anniversary of some notable Soviet development in Latvia in 1919, and Latvian artists who had been working in Russia were presented as the forefathers of Latvian Soviet art... Iveta reminds that experts who worked at the Art Museum at the time knew full well what had actually happened to some of these artists, and were very careful in selecting works that could be displayed at the exhibition so it could open at all. After the exhibition closed, the Ministry of Culture bought several dozens of works by every artist represented at the exhibition, including Gustavs Klucis, for the museum’s collection. And that’s when the unexpected happened – Gustavs Klucis’ widow Valentina Kulagina decided to donate the entire collection of her husband’s work she had been able to preserve – more than 300 works in total, to the State Museum of Latvian and Russian Art [now the Latvian National Museum of Art – ed.].
“That’s the moment when Latvia and Riga, although not directly associated with the creative and artistic development of Gustavs Klucis, acquired the world’s largest collection of his works – there are over 500 Klucis’ works here.”
The curator goes on to say, it is not true that the museum remained silent about the fact or tried to conceal it, as a major exhibition of Gustavs Klucis’ works was organised in the White Hall of the Latvian National Museum of Art in 1970, where the artist’s works from other collections, that had not been exhibited in Riga for more than forty years, were also showcased. “Now these works are together in one place again,” she sums up, adding that since 1990, when Latvia and the Museum of Art returned to the international arena and joined the international co-operation networks of museums, Gustavs Klucis’ works from the LNMA collection have visited many places in Europe. “This, however, is Klucis’ largest exhibition to be organised in Riga!” The Riga collection is impressive enough, but there are several periods that are not fully represented in the museum’s collection, and that is why twenty works by Gustavs Klucis have travelled to Riga from the State Museum of Contemporary Art in Thessaloniki in Greece, including the painting “Dynamic City”, one of the earliest works by Klucis, and a 1922 series of grandstands in which Klucis combined the idea of grandstands and public speeches aired on the radio for the nation.
“There are his early oil paintings from the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, and there are works from the Mayakovsky Museum in Moscow,” says Iveta Derkusova, noting that it is also very important to mention the people who, in fact, saved these artworks from destruction, despite the authorities’ attempts to make then non-existent. “The authorities made it clear that these works were of no value, that there was no need to preserve them, that, perhaps, there was something better to do. But at the end of the 1940s, the Greece-born diplomat George Costakis, who was living in Moscow, began to exclusively collect works by Russian avant-garde artists. He is an absolutely unique figure who deserves the gratitude of the public,” the curator tells us. “First, he collected these works from various places, and saved them from destruction. Second, he built up an absolutely professional, and one of the largest, collections,” she emphasises. “Costakis saw the value of these works, and knew which artists’ works should be included in his collection. For him, a foreign citizen, it was easier to do – although Costakis’ activities were not supported in any way, the authorities rather turned a blind eye to it. In the 1970s, the collection was still in Russia, and part of the works was also included in the exhibition in Riga, but in 1977 the collector decided to leave Russia. He presented part of his collection to the Tretyakov Gallery, and took the other part out of Russia.
In about 2000, the State of Greece bought the other part of his collection, and now Thessaloniki actually owns the second largest collection of Gustavs Klucis’ works after Riga.
Also, that’s the collection that is always present at exhibitions of Russian avant-garde art.” In conclusion, Iveta points out that the Gustavs Klucis exhibition puts Latvia on the map of the major Russian avant-garde exhibitions in Europe – at least this year. “That’s something that certainly has to be emphasised. Because I believe that we mostly show our collection locally, whereas this exhibition is by no means an event of local importance. It is a unique event, at least for Europe, that draws major interest of avant-garde experts. Because the opportunity to see Gustavs Klucis’ works in such a retrospective that spans several decades – it just doesn’t happen every year. According to our estimates, it doesn’t even happen every fifteen years.”