Naum Gabo is widely recognised as one of the founders of international modernism. Yet, ironically, in celebrating his birthday we get a glimpse into Russia’s past and the pre-revolutionary world he was born into, as well as into his own artistic history.
Gabo was born on 17 August 1890. Or at least, this is the official date in our modern Gregorian calendar. This calendar was adopted by the young Soviet Russia in 1918 following the October Revolution, replacing the Julian calendar that had been used throughout the Russian Empire. Young autodidact sculptor Naum Nehemia Pevsner embraced the new Soviet state, changed his name into the artistic pseudonym Naum Gabo, along with his passport, but couldnt relinquish his emotional tie to his old Julian style date of birth, the 5th August. He symbolically bestowed it on the key events and works throughout his artistic career.
On 5 August 1966 Gabo received a notebook from his daughter Nina. Gabo immediately started using it as a diary and made his first entry where he revealed, that not only was it his birthday but also the fiftieth anniversary of his most renowned work, Constructed Head No. 2. The image of this sculpture he had carried with him through revolution, wars and his wanderings around the world. In his diary Gabo called the sculpture his child; one that was raised by his hands from the tiny card model of 1916 to become the two-metre high Corten steel construction of 1966. The 5th August 1920 is also the publication date of Gabos celebrated artistic statement The Realistic Manifesto and the day of his first public show, which opened on Tverskoy Boulevard in Moscow.
In a further twist, whether we chose to follow the old or the new calendar, there is another element of mystery. Although Gabos parents registered his birth as 5 August 1890, it is highly likely that this information was incorrect and that he had in fact been born some time earlier. Manipulating dates of birth wasn’t unusual amongst Jewish families in Tsarist Russia as their life was subject to numerous restrictions including limited number of places for higher or professional education. Changing birth dates also gave families extra time to ensure the right education for their children, or to qualify for an exemption from conscription before they were officially drafted.
Naum Gabo’s Head No. 2 1916, enlarged version 1964 is on display at Tate Liverpool. Gabo’s diaries are part of the Gabo Archive held at Tate
For more information on Gabo please visit http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artists/naum-gabo-1137
Natalia Sidlina is the author of ‘Naum Gabo’ published by Tate Publishing on 21 September and available on pre-order