The Collection ~ Research

The Collection ~ Research

Cubist Sculpture in the Russian Avant-Garde art movement

Introduction to the work of Anton Lavinski and Alexei Babichev.

This document is not intended to be a historical biography of either the events of the period or the artists concerned.

It is intended to create a framework within which to view the works of this collection. Establishing a timeline for the works poses considerable difficulty, partially due to the language barrier and partially because of the loss of period archival material.

Much of that loss probably occurred during the successive periods of war and civil war, and even during more recent times when the work of avant-garde artists was considered politically subversive. It is known that under Stalin thousands of such works were removed from state museums and galleries and deliberately left to rot in damp cellars and distant underground storage locations.

The most well known collector of Russian avant-garde art, George Costakis has reported many events connected with the lack of regard for the Avant Garde art of the 1920’s

These two relatively unknown Russian artists demonstrate through their work that they were at the forefront of artistic development of the period and merit much wider acclaim than they have until now been credited with. In the domain of sculpture their work is comparable to more well known artists working in Paris. The artistic style of these sculptures would seem to support the theory that these Russian sculptors were well aware of developments taking place in France during the early part of the 20th century.

Between 1908 into the mid 30’s there was a great deal of artistic and political exchange between Russia and France and this was particularly so in the case of the radical artistic developments taking place in Paris in the first quarter of the 20th century. Some of the most well known activists of the time in both countries had close political and emotional ties. The sister of Lilya Brik, Elsa Triolet was married to the French writer and poet Louis Aragon who was also a long time supporter and member of the French Communist Party.

Lilya herself was known as the muse of the Avant-Garde. She lived with her husband Ossip Brik and her lover Vladimir Mayakovsky from 1915 until 1930, when Mayakovsky committed suicide. It was Elsa who first introduced the young Mayakovsky, who was her ex boyfriend, to the Brik’s during one of the weekly artistic gatherings at their St Petersburg apartment.

In post revolution Russia after a period of chaotic disagreement amongst the various factions of artistic expression played out in Moscow at the Free Art Workshops and at the INKHUK (Institute of Artistic Culture) the Objectivists finally seized power. Kandinsky relinquished his seat as director at the INKHUK, Alexei Babichev prepared the artistic curriculum for the year 1921.

Once the Bolsheviks had succeeded in gaining control of the continent and forming what became known as the Soviet Union, the Avant-Garde artists were harnessed into turning their enthusiasm towards publicising and spreading the ideals of the Bolsheviks themselves. In reality there was little wider public or economic support for these new artistic forms. If not for the fact that Alexander Rodchenko was largely responsible for the purchases of artistic works for state museums and galleries, many of the artists concerned would not have been able to consecrate their time to such flights of fancy as cubism or futurism. Generally there was little support amongst private collectors for the new styles. In 1919 Boris Korolev’s concrete cubist sculpture of Bakunin was torn down even before the scaffolding surrounding it was removed.

After the October 1917 revolution, the Stroganoff School of Technical Art and Design, became one of the State Free Art Workshops. These two institutions were an experiment in artistic education where students could even choose their teachers. Their management and functioning were chaotic and the results of the artistic schooling received are debatable. In 1920 the State Free Art Workshops were finally closed, and under Lenin the Vkhutemas was created ( Higher Art and Technical Studios ). The Vkhutemas whilst still functioning as a training ground for artists of various disciplines also had the purpose of finding practical solutions to technical and constructional problems in manufacturing. These in turn could help in the modernisation of the continent.

Between 1920 and 1924 the Vkhutemas was largely controlled by the group who later became known as the Constructivists although in reality the only departments where constructivist principals made any real impact on the real world were architecture and textile printing. In addition to its work as a state run artistic institute the Vkhutemas had incorporated within its statutes the possibility of admitting from the working classes and from a variety of backgrounds, a controlled number of individuals who had no formal artistic background or training. The artist in charge of the program was Alexei Babichev. Within the Vkhutemas various artistic disciplines were taught, ranging from Architecture and Sculpture to Painting and Fabric printing.

Of all the departments, Architecture was the largest and the most important. The Moscow Vkhutemas is often compared to the much better known Bauhaus but in reality the Russian institution dwarfed the Bauhaus in every respect. Within the classrooms and on the executive steering committee, many household names from the constructivist ideology were to be found, alongside all of them Anton Lavinski and Alexei Babichev are present. Although the sculpture department at the Vkhutemas was one of the smaller departments, its function in artistic and industrial training was significant.

At the helm of the sculpture department was Anton Lavinski, he was aided by Alexei Babichev and Boris Korolev. All three whilst having trained in the classical disciplines embraced the new wave of Cubism and various uniquely Russian variations. Lavinski and Babichev were particularly politically active both within the Vkhutemas and out of hours at the various and frequent meetings held to discuss revolutionary and artistic matters pertaining to the Vkhutemas and Inkhuk.

Their names are frequently found in the minutes of these meetings. In March 1921 Alexander Rodchenko, declared his group officially be called “the constructivists”. The group comprised among others: himself, Loganson, The brothers Stenberg, Medunetski, Tatlin, and Prusakov.

According to a list of artists to be represented in the state collections drawn up in the spring of 1921, works of the group were categorised as constructions, by contrast the works of Korolev. Lavinski and Gabo were categorised as sculptures.

Throughout the artistic history of the post revolutionary period, and most importantly during the period 1917 to 1925 the names of Anton Lavinski and Alexei Babichev appear in many of the historical documents which have miraculously survived the ravages of the period. That being the case, today they are hardly known at all.

Turning to the world of digital artistic knowledge, one can begin to understand why this lack of knowledge is perpetuated. In a Wikipedia search of “cubism” there is to be found a list of 37 artists associated with cubist sculpture, Naum Gabo and Antoine Pevsner are the only Russian avant garde artists mentioned. In another section it is acknowledged that there were “cubo-futurists” working at the Vkhutemas, but only Boris Korolev, and Vera Mukhina are mentioned.


Boris Korolev certainly did work in the cubist style, and taught at the Vkhutemas from 1920 alongside the head of department Anton Lavinsky and Alexei Babichev, who achieve no mention. As for Vera Mekhina, though she also taught at the Vkhutemas,it was not until 1926, by which time cubism was no longer taught or considered fashionable. In addition the vast majority of her known work would be categorised as Socialist Realism, a style which was very much in fashion as decreed by Joseph Stalin.

The lack of knowledge about the lives of Anton Lavinski and Alexei Babichev, can be directly attributed to a lack of knowledge of their work. Until recently none of their sculpture of that period had been seen or exhibited.

There may exist some examples hidden away in some corner of the Hermitage or the Tretyakov, but if that is so they are not easy to find or are not attributed with any great historical importance. This situation is lamentable, as their work clearly demonstrates they were two of the greatest innovators in the sphere of modern Russian sculpture.

In the case of Lavinsky it is reported that he destroyed many of his own works. He did this it is claimed by his wife under the influence of Ossip Brik, interpreting Brik’s view (expressed in an article appearing in his publication LEF) that all art not directly in the service of the revolution was bourgeois activity. Subsequently Lavinsky resigned from the Sculpture department at the Vkhutemas and transferred to the woodworking department where he is credited for designing street booths for the distribution of agitprop material and theatre and poster designs. In 1925 he assisted in the building and presentation of the Russian pavilion at the Paris Exhibition. After that he returned to Russia never to leave again. He died in 1968, all his archives were apparently destroyed.

Alexei Babichev ran what was known as the Space studio ( space in this sense referring more correctly to volume ), a division of INKhUK (institute of artistic culture). In 1920 he was instrumental along with Brik, Rodchenko, and others in the ousting of Kandinsky from his position as director of the INKhUK. *app 1


In addition to his duties as a sculpture teacher Alexei Babichev was responsible for the dept of workers at the VkHutemas and also ran a group of sculptors known as Monolith whose task was to design public sculptural works to celebrate the revolution.

Unfortunately, little is left in terms of records of his work. His archives did survive in part and those are located at the Thessalonica state museum, having been part of a donation by the Russian art collector George Costakis. There are a few surviving period photographs of his or his students work some of which have been published in recent works about the period.

These two artists through their extraordinary work provide a unique vista on the influence of western cubism and Russian Constructivism on the sculpture of the Russian Avant-Garde.

When one considers the sculptural works of Jacques Lipchitz, Henri Laurens, Osip Zadkine, Pablo Picasso, George Braque, Leon Indenbaum, Joseph Csaky, and Alexander Archipenko, known as the pioneers of cubism, alongside the works of Lavinsky and Babichev, it is clear that these two not only possessed an advanced understanding of artistic principals, but also a superior technical knowledge of fabrication.

It is well beyond time that these Russian pioneers of this relatively short lived artistic style were credited for their work alongside those from whom they obtained their inspiration. They did not simply copy the prevailing European style, but took it as a starting point for further development. This is particularly notable in the works of Babichev which are for the period, unique in the world. Jaques Lipchitz commented on the transfer of artistic ideas taking place at the time in a 1970s interview and specifically refutes the idea of the artists copying one another.


Concerning the relative differences between the work of Lavinski and Babichev, though they were certainly aware of each others work and worked within the same workspace, they managed to develop two distinct approaches to cubist sculptural style.

Technically their works are almost identical though as demonstrated in the Liege university report, the materials used were different and unique to each of them.


The works of Anton Lavinski

The style of Lavinski’s works can be largely defined as Figurative Cubism, they are produced from a wide variety of materials but almost all exhibit a figurative element. In addition, there are several representations of the dualism of the sexes in his group of sculptures.

Many of his works share a common thread and resemble most closely the work of Jaques Lipchitz and to a lesser extent Henri Laurens during the 1915 to 1920 period.

Though the resemblance is most pronounced in the case of Lipchitz, Lavinsky’s work uses more overtly regular geometric forms.


Lavinsky’s use of materials is diverse, with works in plaster, clay, limestone, alabaster, marble, ivory and even fossilised coral.

With very few exceptions, when working in terracotta or plaster his finishing technique exhibits the use of a palette knife or some such object. There is a strong textural element as found in the works of Giacometti or Frink. His terracotta work is predominately, but not exclusively, in white kaolin type clay. In all other materials, with a few exceptions, his finish is smooth and polished. The exceptions are one plaster maquette and the same sculpture in limestone where the traces of final finishing with a file may be recognised.


His works are signed with great precision in Russian Cyrillic except that the 'L' of Lavinsky.

The works of Alexei Babichev

In contrast, the work of Babichev is significantly more geometric in form and demonstrates a mathematical approach more aligned to the ideals of Constructivism. In fact in the statement of 1921 regarding categorisation of works, the name of Babichev is not mentioned along side those of his colleagues referred to as sculptors, but then neither is he considered a Constructivist.

Babichev’s work is exclusively based on the merging of different geometric figures. In some there is an element of figuration, but it is purely geometric and not as fluid in the use of mixed forms as in the case of Lavinsky.

The method by which these forms are assembled would also support a mathematical approach to sculpture. From a technical analysis by x-ray it would seem that the different shapes were made separately and then assembled as a construction, one shape being cut into another to a predetermined, mathematically accurate manner.


In terms of finish, Babichev’s work is mostly smooth and regular, except in a series of smaller works which are probably maquettes, and in the case of clay containing a high percentage of grog. They all exhibit considerable skill in obtaining a precise meeting of angles and smoothing of the surfaces.


His work is almost exclusively in clay, predominately of the ferric red type, and mostly containing a porcelain type grog.


His works are signed in Russian Cyrillic but is notable that the character 'E of' chev is written like a reversed euro symbol. This form is found in the Glagolitic alphabet, and a similar version was used in cyrillic during the 13th century. This version fell out of use by the end of the century and has been used only sporadically since then. It is used to accentuate the sound of 'E' as in TED **


Serge Kolzoff

A listing in the dictionary of Russian sculptors states that he worked in the art nouveau style but later converted to cubism.

His only work in this collection is of a hybrid cubist type, in the same red terracotta finished with a black patina, as are most of the works of Babichev. From a technical point of view, the one in this collection is formed in a similar manner to the works by Lavinsky and Babichev, but it demonstrates a less precise technique.

Subjectively both this sculpture and the one which does not form part of this collection are interesting as they are not as strictly Cubist as the sculptures of Babichev and Lavinsky. The work in the photographic record is part of another private collection. Kolzoff signs his work in latin script and this appears to be consistent with versions of his signature of historically earlier works in the art nouveau style. Interestingly, the work of the photographic reference is labelled with a bone plaque in an identical manner to one of the wooden base of a work by Lavinsky.


The concept of the VKhUTEMAS

The specificity of Vkhutemas manifested in it's innovative structure, bringing together the departments of Fine arts (Painting, Sculpture) and Manufacturing (Architecture, Printmaking, Metalworking, Woodworking, Textile and Ceramic).

A Preliminary course was an important part of the new teaching method that was developed at Vkhutemas, and was made compulsory for all students, regardless of their future specialisation. Many greatest masters of Russian Avant-garde were employed in active teaching in the educational process of Vkhutemas: Miturich, L. Popova, V. Tatlin, A. Vesnin, B.Korolev, A. Lavinsky, A. Babichev, A. Rodchenko, V. Krinsky, etc. The special feature about the Vkhutemas was that in the centre of the educational process at all departments were the new concepts of Space and the integration of learning.