Critics’ Picks

E. Haeckel, Acanthracts, 1905, lithograph from the book “The Beauty of Forms in Nature.”

E. Haeckel, Acanthracts, 1905, lithograph from the book “The Beauty of Forms in Nature.”

Moscow

The Crystallography of Malevich and Leonidov

Gallery Na Shabolovke
Serpukhovskiy Val, 24, building 2 Shabolovskaya metro station
December 6, 2019–February 9, 2020

The Russian avant-garde eagerly and indiscriminately absorbed the novelties of modernity, from the invention of radio and cinema; to developments in modern transportation, electrification, and advertising; to X-rays and crystallography—the subject of curator Alexandra Selivanova’s research-driven exhibition at Moscow’s Gallery Na Shabolovke. In 1912, the German physicist Max von Laue observed that X-rays passing through crystals produced diffraction patterns, an insight that informed father-and-son duo William and Lawrence Bragg’s analysis of crystalline structures. Following her sensational 2019 show “Gastev. How to work”—which turned a spotlight on revolutionary trade unionist and poet Aleksei Gastev—Selivanova surveys the different ways in which these discoveries and technologies of vision made an indelible impression on Russia’s vanguard artists, who saw in the X-ray a metaphor for the optics of a new art, capable of revealing the hidden essence of things.

Installed in the manner of a cabinet of curiosities, “The Crystallography of Malevich and Leonidov” makes explicit the influence of scientific imagery—such as Wilson Bentley’s photomicrographic pictures of snowflakes—on artistic experiments, placing paintings, graphic studies, and spatial constructions by the likes of El Lissitzky, Alexander Rodchenko, and Karl Ioganson on equal footing with mineral specimens, specialist publications, and technical studies of crystals and microbes. For the Futurist composer and painter Mikhail Matyushin, the crystal represented a microcosm, an ur-form. From 1914 to 1915 he passionately painted a series of self-portraits in the guise of a crystal, which he sought to simplify and distill down to its fundamental qualities. The Suprematists, led by Kazimir Malevich, saw in crystals evidence of the rational organization of nature, while the Constructivists, represented here by architects Ivan Leonidov and Yakov Chernikhov, among others, were concerned with the systematic regularity of their lattice structures, studying the microworlds of snowflakes and minerals from an aesthetic point of view. Far from attempting the microscopic scrutiny of the kind achieved by Bentley and the Braggs, Selivanova’s exhibition merely scratches the surface of its rich and complex topic, demonstrating the extent to which the legacy of the Soviet avant-garde remains underexplored.