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October 2021

Vol. 163 / No. 1423

The Colours of Nadia

Reviewed by Jennifer Mundy

Musée de l’Annonciade de Saint-Tropez (3rd July–14th November)

Paris exerted a powerful magnetic draw on young artists in the 1920s. Eager to engage with the city’s avant-garde artistic traditions, they flocked from all over Europe and beyond to create the cosmopolitan mix of talents that became known as the École de Paris. Among these was Nadia Khodassievitch (1904–82), a young Belarusian who, as a teenager, studied with Władysław Strzemiński in Smolensk, and who had been inspired by the teachings of the founder of Suprematism, Kazimir Malevich, before spending four years at the Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts. Aged only twenty-one when she moved to Paris in 1925 with her husband Stanisław Grabowski, she quickly gravitated to the free art school Académie Moderne run by Fernand Léger and the Russianspeaking Amédée Ozenfant. With its egalitarian ethos, the school attracted many young, hopeful painters of different nationalities. Most of these artists have now been forgotten – as was the case, until very recently, with Khodassievitch. The Colours of Nadia is the first monographic exhibition devoted to her work in a French museum; in the catalogue the curator Séverine Berger laments that Khodassievitch ‘still today remains unloved and unrecognised’ (p.8).(1)

Ostensibly, the oblivion that has obscured Khodassievitch’s career is surprising. An early convert to Modernism, she produced Premier cubisme, Presse-papier (1919–20), a cubist composition of quasi-abstract forms, when she was only fifteen or sixteen. In Paris, by then calling herself Wanda Chodasiewicz-Grabowska, she showed work in a two-person exhibition with her husband at the Galerie d’art contemporain and displayed paintings every year in the Académie’s group show. Feeling her way, she was influenced first by Ozenfant’s Purism – one of her ‘nudes’ composed of intersecting geometric shapes was bought for a large sum by a well-known collector, Marie-Laure de Noailles, Vicomtesse de Noaille. She subsequently fell under the spell of geometric abstraction, while occasionally referencing the work of Jean (Hans) Arp through the inclusion of curvilinear shapes. Active among Polish émigrés, she helped organise an exhibition of Polish avant-garde art and started the short-lived French–Polish journal L’Art contemporain with the poet Jan Brzękowski. In 1930, while supporting herself with cleaning work, she joined the international group of abstract artists Cercle et Carré and exhibited with them.

Although a career as an avantgarde artist seemed to lie ahead of her, the political situation in Europe and her commitment to revolutionary ideals led her to choose a different path. She joined the French Communist Party in 1933 and became active in the Association des Écrivains et Artistes Révolutionnaires. After her first marriage ended, she reverted to her birth name and from the mid- 1930s, amid heated debates about the social value of contemporary art, adopted a stylised form of realism, as endorsed by the party, in the name of making art for the people. Her portraits and still lifes were now hyperlegible, their forms outlined in black and the key elements subtly modelled – enough to seem convincingly ‘real’ – and yet distinctly modern in their simplified and streamlined shapes (cat. no.28; Fig.10).

Her obvious debt to Léger, with whom she had an affair, may well have led to her work being dismissed as unoriginal. She had only one solo exhibition during her lifetime, in 1953 at Galerie Bernheim-Jeune, Paris, as Nadia Petrova. However, there is another, more generous, story to be told about her immersion in the ‘Atelier Fernand Léger’, as the Académie Moderne became known after the war. Nadia’s disinterest in developing an individual style may have reflected beliefs rooted in her experiences in revolutionary Russia. However, this was also reinforced by the Atelier’s practice of encouraging students to work in Léger’s manner, and as Nadia helped run the school, this would have been particularly incumbent upon her. In addition, although she evidently considered style to be a badge of personal and political allegiance, rather than a purely aesthetic choice, Nadia was nonetheless able to express something of her own personality through her selection of subjects, such as self-portraits and scenes of mothers with children – themes not associated with Léger. Self-portrait in a red flag (1938; private collection; cat. p.20) is one of many self-portraits in this exhibition that leave little doubt about Nadia’s self-belief as a left-wing ‘artiste femme’, even while working in the style of Léger.

As this exhibition does not shy away from demonstrating, Nadia directed much of her later output towards political goals. She produced massive portraits of female wartime heroines, which adorned the stage of the first congress of the Union des femmes françaises in 1945, and she supported various party-led cultural events in honour of Stalin in the early 1950s. In the 1960s she produced a series of portraits of communist party heroes, donating mosaic versions to the Soviet Union; for this and her other work for the party, she was decorated with the Order of the Red Banner in 1972. Partly inspired by Soviet achievements in aeronautics and in the space race, Nadia surprisingly returned in her late years to the Suprematism of her youth. Her dynamic geometric compositions lent themselves to tapestries and, ironically, to expensive jewellery. With a flair for insouciant kitsch, she even managed to combine Socialist Realism with geometric abstraction: in Madone spatiale (1969; private collection; no.20), for example, a vapidly smiling young mother sports a jumper with a Suprematist pattern.

If Nadia’s adoption of Léger’s style and her pro-Stalin views were not enough to cause her work to be disregarded in her later years, her position as guardian of the French painter’s legacy and her devotion to promoting his work perhaps sealed her fate. She and Léger married in 1952, and when he died in 1955 she took on the task of continuing his projects and building a large museum of his works at Biot, near Antibes. This she later donated to the French state; and she also founded another museum for his works in Normandy. As Madame Nadia Léger, she was very much a public figure, as well as a millionaire. Although she continued to paint and, indeed, went on to marry for a third time, her identity as an artist, as well as unacknowledged helpmate for an important modern French artist, was all but forgotten in the light of this more prominent role in the art world.

Aiming to rehabilitate Nadia as an unjustly neglected artist, the Musée de l’Annonciade has attempted to rebrand her by using only her first name.(2) This is partly to avoid any confusion associated with her many changes of surname (and their variant spellings) and partly to separate her identity from that of the men in her life. However, this perhaps denies how crucial the relationship with Léger was to both of them – neither the exhibition nor the catalogue offer much insight into it, although a few of Nadia’s admiring portraits of Legér are included.

The exhibition has two parts: the ground floor gallery offers a chronological display of works from all periods of her life, allowing the visitor to see her development in different media over her long career. Continuing on the first floor, the show then focuses on key themes in her middle years: self-portraits; still lifes (no.52; Fig.11); portraits; and images of workers. Here Nadia’s personality becomes more evident. Even when her style is particularly close to Léger’s, her paintings exhibit a certain freshness that nears naiveté, a delight in the decorative and an unapologetic propagandist quality.

Nadia emerges from this exhibition as an artist of substance and conviction, even if her work is not, and did not aim to be, emotionally engaging. Deployed perhaps to counter a perceived ‘coldness’ in her persona as an artist, the use of the word ‘colours’ in the exhibition title – a little spurious in that she was not a gifted colourist – appears to be an attempt to soften her image. For Sarah Wilson, one of the contributors to the catalogue, Nadia’s ‘trajectory – revolutionary suprematism; Paris modernism; realism; art serving the Party; official Cold War exhibitions in Paris, Biot and Moscow; and the extraordinary renaissance of suprematism and realism in the 1970s – is an exemplary career bestriding the twentieth century’.3 Why such a prolific and well-connected artist has been ignored and unknown for so long, however, remains a gnawing question that is thrown into sharp relief by the current exhibition.

1. Catalogue: Les Couleurs de Nadia. Edited by Séverine Berger. 176 pp. incl. numerous col. + b. & w. ills. (Éditions Gourcuff Gradenigo, Montreuil, 2021), €24. ISBN 978–2–35340–339–4.

2. In so doing the exhibition has profited from the extensive research of Aymar du Chatenet, which was published in his pioneering monograph Nadia Léger: L’histoire extraordinaire d’une femme de l’ombre, Paris 2019.

3. Sarah Wilson quoted in S. Berger: ‘Unwrapping Nadia’s signatures and styles’, in idem, ed., op. cit. (note 1), p.89.