Gustav Klutsis and Valentina Kulagina:
Photography and Montage After Constructivism

March 12-May 30, 2004

The first American exhibition to explore the work and lives of pioneering Soviet artists Gustav Klutsis and Valentina Kulagina will be on view at the International Center of Photography (1133 Avenue of the Americas at 43rd Street) from March 12 through May 30, 2004.

Gustav Klutsis and Valentina Kulagina: Photography and Montage After Constructivism will offer a comprehensive presentation of the work of Klutsis, the pioneer of photomontage in the Soviet Union and an acclaimed graphic designer and poster producer.   Unlike the work of fellow artists in the Soviet avant-garde such as Aleksandr Rodchenko and El Lissitsky, the breadth of Klutsis's extensive and groundbreaking output has been relatively unexplored. The exhibition will also present the work of Valentina Kulagina, Klutsis's wife and colleague, an innovative poster, book, and exhibition designer.   Drawing on previously unavailable information contained in the artists' letters and diaries, the exhibition explores the creative partnership between the two artists and offers surprising new insights on the political and cultural climate in which they were working.   Assembled from private and public collections in Russia, Latvia, and the United States, the exhibition will include nearly 200 works, most of which have never before been published or exhibited.

Klutsis was born in Latvia in 1895.   Following two years of art school, he was drafted into the Russian Army, and took part in the 1917 overthrow of the Tsar.   In 1919, Klutsis resumed his art education in Moscow in the studio of Kazimir Malevich.   Acclaimed for his spatial constructions, as well as for his designs of practical structures like kiosks, tribunes, and radio-orators, Klutsis became a professor of color theory at the Constructivist school VKhUTEMAS (Higher State Artistic and Technical Institute) in 1924.   In addition to being an accomplished Constructivist, by the early 1920s, Klutsis became a pioneering developer of photomontage, a method of cutting and pasting together photographs.   This process, eagerly adopted by other Russian avant-gardists, was used for a variety of artistic and graphic purposes, mainly supporting the ideology and programs of the emerging Soviet state.

In 1920, Klutsis encouraged Kulagina, then a young painting student at the State Free Art Studios, to enter VKhUTEMAS, where he taught.   The following year, the two artists married.   Throughout the 1920s, they lived in the school's headquarters, which also housed artists Aleksandr Rodchenko, Varvara Stepanova, Sergei Senkin, and poet Aleksei Khruchenykh.  In 1928, Kulagina joined October, an artists' group whose members included Klutsis (who was in charge of the photomontage section), Rodchenko, Boris Ignatovich, and Lissitzky.   That same year, she designed parts of the Soviet Pavilion of the landmark Pressa exhibition in Cologne.   After graduating from VKhUTEMAS, she worked for IZOGIZ (the State Art Publishing Agency) and VOKS (the All-Union Society of Cultural Relations with Abroad), receiving domestic and international commissions for posters and exhibition and book designs.   Kulagina's work combines drawing with elements of the photomontage style developed by her husband.

Brought together, Klutsis and Kulagina's work from the 1920s through the late 1930s serves as one of the strongest examples of the post-abstract Soviet avant-garde.   Both of their styles and techniques, and the purposes to which they were put, will be examined within the scope of the exhibition.

In addition to important photomontage posters and designs, this exhibition will feature lesser-known photo-based works alongside excerpts from the artists' letters to illuminate their experimentation with art photography and expand understanding of the artists' relationship to the Bolshevik regime.   Within the context of the early Soviet Union, when politics was infiltrating the artistic and intellectual communities, it is an important discovery that the artists were nonetheless able to produce and experiment with art photography.   Though Klutsis and Kulagina worked successfully as official poster producers and as contributors of the visual rhetoric of Stalinism, they also created introspective and personal art using the camera--including a number of striking superimposed photographs of the couple together and photomontage portraits of each other.

Although Klutsis and Kulagina never collaborated on the same projects, their artistic activities nevertheless portray the atmosphere of close professional relationship between male and female artists prevalent at that time in the Soviet Union.   Kulagina's diaries and Klutsis's letters, some of which will be made public for the first time in the ICP exhibition, provide important documentary sources for this project and for the understanding of the unique circumstances under which they worked. 

A devoted supporter of the Bolshevik regime and a member of the Communist Party, Klutsis was nonetheless arrested in 1938.   He was killed not long after his arrest at the Butovo prison near Moscow.   Kulagina continued her work as a designer for VSKhV (The All-Union Agricultural Exhibition).   Until her death in 1987, Kulagina believed the official version of Klutsis' death that claimed he died of a heart attack in prison in 1944.

Publication:   Gustav Klutsis and Valentina Kulagina: Photography and Montage After Constructivism will be published by ICP/Steidl in March 2004 to coincide with the exhibition's opening.   The 250-page catalogue will contain a scholarly essay by Margarita Tupitsyn and translations of two essays on photography by Klutsis, as well as substantial translations from Klutsis's and Kulagina's letters and diaries.

Gustav Klutsis and Valentina Kulagina: Photography and Montage After Constructivism is organized by guest curator Margarita Tupitsyn, one of the leading scholars of Soviet art and photography, and coordinated by ICP Assistant Curator Kristen Lubben.   The exhibition is designed by Julie Ault and Martin Beck; web site design by Ilia Ouvarov.

This exhibition is made possible with contributions from the National Endowment for the Arts, Trust for Mutual Understanding, and The Reserve Funds.   Additional support was provided by Mary Ann and Frank Arisman, Joseph T. Baio, Roberta and Steven Denning, Meryl and Robert Meltzer, Nancy Peretsman and Robert Scully, Helena and Stephen Sokoloff, and Artur Walther.