Lydia Masterkova

8 March 1927, Moscow—12 May 2008, Saint-Laurent-sur-Othain, France

Mistress of the Storms.

Both her consistent interest in abstract art and her readiness to follow a chosen path to the end makes it easy to see Lydia Masterkova as an heir of the Russian “Amazons of the Avant-Garde.” One of the participants in the legendary Bulldozer Exhibition (1974), Masterkova was the first to walk out onto the deserted lot, bristling with easels to hold canvases. And she was better prepared than many men for the battle, she even managed to save her own painting, thrown onto the bonfire. She described her feelings about the clash between art and the authorities and their heavy equipment almost ecstatically: “It was marvelous. Such a tense state—as if you were standing on stage with your paintings, a very different sensation from being in an exhibit indoors.”

Artistry and sense of theater came naturally to the multifaceted, gifted, and stylish beauty. Masterkova had studied music and took lessons in singing and acting. Her first art teachers were blacklisted members of the avant-garde movement and her fellow students were future nonconformists. She learned about the Russian avant-garde at almost first-hand, from Oleg Kudryashov, a student of Malevich who enriched his teacher’s severe system with his own spiritual insights. Lydia Masterkova painted her first abstract work the day after seeing the exhibition of contemporary art at the Festival of Youth and Students in 1957, stunned, like all the visitors, by the never-before-seen freedom of the American Abstract Expressionists. But unlike many of her colleagues who eventually returned to figurative painting, she remained true to her chosen language, becoming one of the most consistent pioneers of postwar abstract art.

Rejection of the figurative for her, as for all Soviet artists, was an almost political choice. Emancipating line and form, the artists chose creative freedom from realistic routine and Socialist Realist dogma and simultaneously liberating themselves as well. At the same time, as it became clear by 1962, they were also denying themselves the opportunity to take part in official (and there was no other kind) exhibitions and receive commissions. For Soviet artists of the 1960s and 1970s, nonfigurative art was not simply artistic practice, one of many possible languages, as it was for their Western contemporaries, but also a challenge with unpredictable consequences. Even though Masterkova, who was far from politics and felt comfortable in the friendly circle of artists and poets of the “Lianozovo School,” later recalled that neither she nor her colleagues “thought about distant threats and were just happy,” and even though her sense of righteousness helped her not feel danger, the authorities gradually forced her, and many other artists, out of the country.

Lydia Masterkova’s first abstract works are like gasps of freedom. Color behaves like water that has broken through a sluice: powerful flows of color capture space, enjoying every new and unexpectedly revealed opportunity to exist outside the rules and regulations. Her uncompromising rejection of figurative work, leaving no doubt about it, helped the artist to unfold with amazing force. However, this period, inspired by the works of Pollock, de Kooning, and Arshile Gorky she saw at the 1959 American exhibition, did not last long. By the mid-1960s, Masterkova, equally drawn to daring and asceticism, breakthroughs and restraint, mastered the chaotic elements and led them into a channel of limitations imposed by herself and not by external pressures. Having discovered (along with many of her contemporaries) the latest art of the West simultaneously with the long-forgotten masterpieces of ancient Russia, she tried to combine the abstract ancient Russian art, making refined, almost monochromatic collages in which she used lace, old fabrics, brocade she found in abandoned churches. These are the most “feminine” works of the most masterful and influential woman artist in that generation of the unofficial circle. The eccentric mysticism of the collages is retained in later, almost monochromatic abstract works, in which primary elements took on a greater role—curves and disks resembling planetary systems, spheres glowing with unearthly light, asymmetrical cubes and powerfully moving triangles that freely intersect planes, and the numbers 0 and 9. Imbued with partially hidden meanings and meanings partially revealed in the titles, they refer to evangelical themes, Russian poetry of the Silver Age, and classical painting—everything that filled the life of the artist who spent her final years in seclusion in a remote village 300 kilometers from Paris.

Faina Balakhovskaya