Lydia Masterkova

Composition No. 136

1975

In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
Artist
Lydia Masterkova 1927 – 2008
Medium
Carbon ink and papers on paper
Dimensions
Support: 648 × 477 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition
Purchased with funds provided by the Russia and Eastern Europe Acquisitions Committee 2018
Reference
T14941

Summary

Composition No. 136 1975 is a work by the Moscow-based artist Lydia Masterkova that combines ink and collage on paper. An abstract geometric composition derived from a collage of circular and linear elements has been arranged over hand-drawn, fluid abstract forms. This Composition belongs to a larger body of achromatic works on paper produced by the artist from 1967 onwards, which also includes Composition No.132 (Tate T14942) and Composition No.135 (Tate T14940).

When making these works, Masterkova first worked over the entire surface of the paper with a wet brush, then applied India ink in carefully measured brushstrokes, leaving serpentine horizontal and vertical traces. They are built up into linear forms, such as in Composition No. 135, or more organically structured compositions through the introduction of angular and circular shapes, achieved through dripping the ink, such is in Composition No. 136. By leaving the ink to soak into the wet surface of the paper, the artist allowed some degree of spontaneity in what are otherwise meticulously structured compositions. The organic forms are fluid and have a rhythmic structure that is further balanced through the introduction of collage elements. Masterkova used white circular shapes and the numerals 1, 9 and 0 in both paintings and works on paper. She had them pre-cut in various sizes in her studio, ready to be used, as described by Olga Makhrov, a friend of the artist: ‘I recall her paper cut-outs; she used to arrange them in an assemblage-like manner in our bright little room before making up her mind where on the sheet and in exactly what sequence each element should be placed.’ (Olga Makhrov, ‘Lydia Masterkova v emigratsii (1976–2008)’, in Lydia Masterkova, Lyrical Abstraction, exhibition catalogue, Moscow Museum of Modern Art, Moscow 2015, p.83.)

Along the lower edge of Composition No.136, the circular shapes have been cut so as to give the suggestion that the image has been cropped. For this work Masterkova used just three, larger circular elements of 165 millimetres in diameter; four ‘1’s hang vertically from the upper edge of each of these. The collage elements partially overlay the ink forms, and each other, creating a layered arrangement that imparts complex dimensionality and texture to the monochromatic composition.

Masterkova’s works on paper were originally untitled and simply numbered on the reverse in chronological order. During the artist’s lifetime, the graphic works were exhibited as ‘Compositions’, reflecting the musical rhythm of her collages. A trained musician, Masterkova had found inspiration in Robert Schumann’s (1810–1859) romantic compositions and the atonal experiments of Alexander Scriabin (1871–1915). Her first works on paper using exclusively India ink were created in 1967, a critical period in her personal life, marked by the break-up of her fourteen-year-long relationship with fellow nonconformist artist Vladimir Nemukhin (1925–2016). By the end of 1967, due to personal circumstances, the artist’s abstract compositions become more dramatic. They are structured mainly on the duality of dark hues – black, violet, navy defused by white ‘pauses’. As the artist has explained, ‘the dark forms embody sensual experiences, while the whites – that of a quest for higher spirituality, to God.’ (Quoted in Larisa Kashuk, ‘Abstract Art in Moscow 1950s–2000’, in Abstraction in Russia, exhibition catalogue, vol.2, The State Russian Museum, St Petersburg 2001, p.21.) Some of the works in the series, created after her emigration from the Soviet Union in 1975, were entitled The Planets, referring to the universal and spiritual nature of her enquiries.

One of Russia’s leading post-war artists, Masterkova belongs to the first generation of soviet nonconformist artists that emerged in the mid-1950s, a period of appeasement that followed Stalin’s death, known as the Khrushchev Thaw. Her work is rooted in both the avant-garde experiments of the early twentieth century and in the post-war practice of abstract expressionism and minimalism. 1975, the year Composition No. 135 and Composition No. 136 were made, marks a decisive stage in the development of the nonconformist art scene in the Soviet Union, with the opening of the first exhibition of underground art in an official venue – the Beekeeping Pavilion of the All-Union Exhibition Centre. This event followed on the heels of a brutal confrontation between the Soviet state authorities and artists on 15 September 1974 at an open-air show of unofficial art which became known as the ‘Bulldozer exhibition’. Vladimir Nemukhin recalled:

We were dispersed in the most barbarian, boorish way. The exhibition ended with bulldozers, fire brigades with water cannons, our desperation and sadness and rage. Oskar [Rabin] escaped unharmed by sheer miracle as he jumped in front of a bulldozer trying to save his painting from under its blade … The situation with the exhibition distraction was so absurd and scandalous that it caused an international resonance. People across the world witnessed the paintings been put to flames as a photograph taken by some international journalist spread throughout the entire globe … The authorities backed out. There was a rumour about an especial Politburo session that decided to appease the situation rather than prosecute the independent artists.
(Quoted in Vladimir Nemukhin, Paintings, Works on Paper, Sculpture, Porcelain. Moscow 2012, p.120.)

However, for Masterkova, the brutality she witnessed at the Bulldozer exhibition, where she saw some of her best artworks destroyed, was a wake-up call. In February 1975 she emigrated from the Soviet Union; Composition No. 135 and Composition No. 136 were some of the last works she created in Russia and took with her to France, where she settled from 1976. Her achromatic works on paper were exhibited in a solo exhibition, Adieu à la Russie (Farewell to Russia), at Galerie Dina Vierny from 25 January to 25 February 1977. Masterkova continued to work on achromatic collages until her death in 2008.

Further reading
Adieu à la Russie, exhibition catalogue, Galerie Dina Vierny, Paris 1977.
Norton Dodge (ed.), Lydia Masterkova, Striving Upward to the Real, exhibition catalogue, Contemporary Russian Art Center of America, New York 1983.
Victor Tupitsyn, The Museological Unconsciousness, Cambridge, Massachusetts and London 2009.

Natalia Sidlina
April 2017

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