A Shared Creativity. Romans Suta and Alexandra Belcova
There are a number of successful artistic couples in 20th-century Russian art: Robert and Sonia Delaunay, Mikhail Matyushin and Yelena Guro, Natalya Goncharova and Mikhail Larionov, Alexander Drevin and Nadezhda Udaltsova, Alexander Rodchenko and Varvara Stepanova. Latvian art had Alexandra Belcova (Aleksandra Beltsova) (1892-1981) and Romans (Roman) Suta (1896-1944). Three years ago, in October 2008, their former apartment in Riga became a museum — due to the efforts of their daughter, Tatiana Suta, who preserved her parents’ art and, with the participation of the Latvian National Museum of Art, their vast collection of paintings, drawings and decorative porcelain can now be seen by the art-loving public.
It was Penza Art School that became the starting point for Suta’s and Belcova’s artistic careers. Suta and a few of his classmates from Riga Art School were transferred to Penza in 1915 to continue their education as the fronts of World War I approached Riga. Belcova had come to Penza from the Russian town of Novozybkov three years earlier. Art instruction in the school in Penza was based on principles of Academicism and the tradition of the “Peredvizhniki” (Wanderers) movement. Students, however, were burning with an enthusiasm for contemporary French art, and often expressed their scepticism toward their teachers1. Among the milestones in Suta’s and his young fellow Latvian artists’ creative development were their excursions organized to see Sergei Shchukin’s collection in Moscow and the Hermitage in St. Petersburg.
After graduation, Suta and Belcova went to St. Petersburg hoping to continue their studies at the Academy of Arts. However, soon Romans had to return to Latvia, while Alexandra stayed and found a way to work2 and study at the same time. For about a year she attended Natan Altman’s studio at the Petrograd State Free Art and Technical Studios3. Later the artist herself remembered that Altman (1889-1970) did not have much time for his students — busy with politics and community work, he did not often show up in class.
Since the work she had done in Penza and St. Petersburg has not survived, it is hard to form an opinion about Belcova’s art of this time4. However, some examples prove that her teacher’s art left a certain mark on the development of her own creative style — in particular, a number of portraits Belcova painted at the beginning of the 1920s show clear parallels in shape modelling. (Compare her “Nastya. Girl with a Fan” from 1920 with Altman’s “Portrait of M. Yasnaya” from 1918. The latter work was published in the first issue of “Visual Arts Magazine”, and the copy remains in Belcova’s archive).
It is difficult to imagine how Belcova’s talent would have developed had she stayed in the Soviet Union. In May 1919 she accepted Suta’s invitation and moved to Latvia, where she found herself at the epicentre of local cultural life. Some of her Latvian former classmates from Penza were also there — Jekab Kazak, Valdemar Tone, and Conrad Uban; they all joined the Riga Artists’ Group. The creative activity of this artistic community, which became synonymous with Latvian modernism, became one of the most exciting periods in Latvian art.
Even as a schoolgirl, Belcova had dreamed of visiting Paris, the Mecca of modern art. When she moved to Latvia, she thought that Riga would be a short stop on her way to France; however, as destiny had it, she reached Paris only three years later, in 1922, and by then she went as Suta’s wife.
On their way to Paris, the couple stayed in Berlin for a few months. For that brief period, Berlin rivalled Paris as a vibrant cultural centre; its artists’ colony was as considerable as that of Paris, and it was justly considered the European capital of the avant-garde. The extraordinary number of Russian artists living there at the time, who were in touch with Moscow and St. Petersburg, was the reason that art experts were even talking about the cultural phenomenon of “Russian Berlin”5.
The two artists were good friends with Ivan Puni and his wife, Kseniya Boguslavskaya6. At that time, Puni was a notable and significant cultural figure in Berlin’s art world.7 Belcova and Suta did not have the chance to attend presentations by Puni and his associates at the famous World Congress of Progressive Artists in Dusseldorf in 1922; however, we can easily assume that they were very well acquainted with the theoretical views of their Russian fellow artist. They kept Puni’s book “Modern Art”8 in their private library.9 It looks like it was due to the couple’s contacts with Puni that Belcova, as well as some other young Latvian artists, were able to participate in the show of the “November” group during the Great Berlin Art Exhibition of 1923.
Having spent about three months in Berlin, Belcova and Suta continued their journey to Paris. It was there that Suta met Amedee Ozenfant and Édouard Jeanneret, later known as Le Corbusier. A few years before, with the help of other Latvian artists, Suta had published his article about modern art in Latvia in Ozenfant and Le Corbusier’s magazine “L’Esprit Nouveau” (published from 1920 to 1925).10
Some of Suta’s works from the period of 1923 to 1927 clearly reflect the influence of Purism, the style of art started by Ozenfant and Le Corbusier. Static, precise and balanced composition, the use of architectural elements (a fragment of a column) and concise shapes are all common in many of his still-life paintings.
While in Paris, Suta also came to know Louis Marcoussis. This artist’s technique of painting on glass inspired Romans to experiment with similar media, as in Suta’s “City Motif”, from 1927-1928.
It is only natural that Suta’s creative quest would come to include Cubism, a movement that was still relevant at the beginning of the 1920s: Juan Gris, Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso were all painting Cubist compositions at the time. In his own art, Suta skilfully puts together the visual experiences of Paris as he turns to the heritage of certain French artists. One good example is his “ Still Life with a Pipe” from 1923. Its spatial composition, sharp contours and placement of elements, as well as that special aesthetic mysticism so characteristic of Spanish art11 remind the viewer of the work of Gris. As time went on, Suta began to create still-lifes that are distinctly his own and independent interpretations of the techniques he had learned from his Parisian fellow artists (“Still-life with a Chessboard”, 1927).
In 1923, Suta and Belcova presented some of their paintings at the “L’Art d’Aujourd’hui” exhibition, alongside Ozenfant and Fernand Léger, as well as Picasso, Gris, Paul Klee, Max Ernst, Jaques Lipchitz, Joan Miró and others. Belcova did not see the exhibition or her own work that was shown there: her stay in Paris was not so full of socializing with other artists, and it was there that she gave birth to the couple’s daughter. The birth was somewhat premature, and she ended up spending most of her time in hospital with the child. She did, however, have the chance at the beginning and end of their stay to enjoy walks in the French capital and visit art galleries and museums.
At the beginning of the 1920s Belcova painted a series of Cubist compositions, the best-known of which is “Sucub”, a decorative panel she created for the cafe of the same name. The cafe, which belonged to Suta’s mother, Natalya Suta, became a favourite spot for the Latvian creative intelligentsia and bohemians. It was Romans who came up with the original name, in an attempt to combine the names of the two movements of modern art — Suprematism and Cubism. Other members of Riga Group also took part in decorating the venue. Belcova’s panel is marked by its measured composition and delicate, keen colour choices. This still-life stands out among the artist’s Cubist work, and was the most reproduced of her works in the 1920s, as well as in later decades, and became a kind of signature example of Belcova’s style.
At the end of 1924, Suta, Belcova and Sigismund Vidberg, their colleague from the Riga Group, started a decorative porcelain-painting studio “Baltars”12. The artists used porcelain from German, Polish and Czech manufacturers, as well as from the Kuznetsov factory in Riga. Each pattern was painted in no more than ten variations.
Belcova and Suta used recurring themes for their porcelain: he favoured Latvian folk themes — festivals, weddings, genre scenes from rural life (“Wedding”, 1926, and “Engagement”, 1922). Belcova drew on themes from Russian folklore, Russian Orthodox iconography and exotic motifs (“Urn”, 1922, and “A Fantasy. African Motif”, 1926).
“Baltars” porcelain was displayed at the International Paris Exhibition of Decorative Art in 1925, and was awarded one bronze and two gold medals, after which some pieces of “ Baltars” tableware went to the Sèvres Museum of Porcelain near Paris. However, at the end of the 1920s, “Baltars” started to have financial problems — the artists lacked the business skills to make their venture profitable.
In the 1930s Suta continued to work with porcelain and pottery at the Kusnetsov factory in Riga13 (the watercolour “Sketch for a Vase Painting. Racetrack”, from the 1930s), while also designing crystal tableware for the Ilguciems glass factory in Riga14 (the ink sketch “Draft Design for a Crystal Vase”, from the mid-1930s). Suta’s crystal creations and his sets of pottery tableware were exhibited successfully at international shows15. Creating his tableware designs, Suta often found inspiration in classical Greek art — his vases often resemble Greek amphorae, kraters and lekythoi. A young girl in stylized Latvian folk dress with a doe, a common motif that appears in his creations in various forms, is strikingly like the Greek goddess Artemis (the vase, “Girl with a Doe”, 1937).
Suta tried his hand at other kinds of decorative art, designing furniture and public spaces and creating murals for cafes. He was entrusted with creating Latvian pavilions for various agricultural and art exhibitions both at home and abroad.16 Suta’s multi-faceted talent also manifested itself in his set designs and book illustrations. Little time remained for painting, and his paintings from the late 1920s-1930s utilise the same themes as his work with porcelain — rural musicians and folk festivals (“Village Dance”, from the late 1920s).
Starting from the mid-1920s, Suta often turned to graphic arts, creating genre ink drawings, with everyday themes (“At the Port”, from the series “Daily Life”, 1929; “Winter”). His favourite motifs were cafes and their patrons, and the life of the city streets. The theme itself — partying, leisurely people — so popular with his contemporaries, did not find such critical and ironic expression in his work as it did with George Grosz, Otto Dix or Alexander Deineka. Rather, the viewer has the impression that, far from disapproving of his characters, the artist would not mind joining them himself. It is worth noting that in spite of his stormy temperament, in his paintings — and especially in his graphic work — Suta remained rational and precise. He painstakingly perfected his drawings, creating numerous drafts before he achieved a final version that satisfied him. His virtuoso technique and the special graphic quality he achieved earned many of his compositions their place among the best accomplishments of Latvian graphic art.
Belcova’s art of the mid-1920s was marked by new tendencies: she created numerous portraits and self-portraits, while her artistic style developed towards a more precise approach, better-defined objects and figures, and more realistic rendering. All of those factors, combined with her pursuit of a certain decorative and stylized quality, reflect the influence of art deco in her work. The smoothness of shapes characteristic of this style — the result of the artists’ interest in the classical tradition — and their stylized approach borrowed from the earlier modernist manner are both apparent in Belcova’s “The Tennis Player”, painted in 1927. The dynamic composition, balanced by the square shape of the canvas, and the abstract background divided into geometrical flat shapes of local colour, are among the artistic techniques Belcova drew on from her Cubist period. In turn, the sculptured and sharp representation of the female player’s face and hand show the connection with the so-called “neo-In- grism”17. It can be considered a sign of the time that Belcova chose athletic performance as her theme and a female athlete as her model.
The double portrait “White and Black” (1925) is an example of a combination of neo-Ingrism and an element of stylized Cubist ethos in Belcova’s art. The subject of the painting recalls the images of dark-skinned slaves and odalisques so popular with 19th-century artists (among them Eugene Delacroix’s “The Women of Algiers”, 1834, and Édouard Manet’s “Olympia”, 1863). Even though such a bow to the past may have been subconscious, it speaks of the artist’s affiliation with a certain iconographic tradition18. The model’s graceful looks, her idealized facial features, the attributes used by the artist — the fan, oriental dress and general exotic look of the dark-skinned woman, the overall feeling of calm and the elegant fashionable interior — all this conforms to the neo-classical norm, as well as to the style of art deco.
In her correspondence from the 1920s, Belcova often mentions the name of the Paris school artist Tsuguharu Foujita (1886-1968). Although the Japanese artist’s name is little-known today, at the time he was at the height of his popularity. He became famous for his original technique, based on the Japanese tradition of ink-wash painting in combination with the European classical tradition and French modernism. One of the most striking examples of Foujita’s influence on Belcova’s art is her self-portrait from 1927-1928. The graceful calligraphy of lines, the legacy of the traditional Japanese style of painting which was the signature characteristic of Foujita’s art, became the main means of artistic expression in Belcova’s self-portrait. The compositional structure is also typical of Foujita’s self-portraits — he often painted himself with his own art in the background, a female portrait or a nude, all styles that brought him fame (like Foujita’s “Self-portrait in Studio”, 1926, now in the Musee des Beaux-Arts in Lyon). However, if the Japanese artist used this technique to “inform” or “remind” the viewer of his original style, the portrait of Austra Ozolini-Krause on the wall in Belcova’s self-portrait is turned into an hommage, a sign of respect and gratitude to a dear friend who was there to support and help the artist during a difficult time in her life.
From the mid-1920s to the beginning of the 1930s, every six months Austra accompanied Belcova to sanatoriums in the south of France where Belcova went to treat her tuberculosis. In those early years when Belcova painted her self-portrait, the two were inseparable: Austra paid for Alexandra’s treatments and took care of her.
During the same period, Belcova painted a series of female portraits. Often, her models share her predicament — they are patients in the same clinics. Her images may seem similar to those of Foujita’s art — pale young women, naked or dressed in light-coloured clothing, sitting or reclining in white surroundings. However, Foujita’s models embody elegance and grace, sensuality and nonchalance; in Belcova’s paintings, the same monochromatic palette, muted tones and calligraphic lines enhance a feeling of the physical and emotional fragility of her models and create a certain air of melancholia (“Anna”, 1927).
Belcova’s watercolour “Tanya with a Cat” (1928) may be considered a high point in her quest for perfect, elegant line. Painted with particular skill and refinement, the cat in the girl’s lap much resembles the cats in Foujita’s paintings. For her, however, depicting these graceful animals would never become as common a theme as it was for Foujita, who put them in his paintings and drawings — in portraits, self-portraits, nudes, and as subjects in themselves — so often19 that it became his symbolic signature (as in Foujita’s “Self-portrait with a Cat”, 1928, now in the Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris).
Spending time on the beautiful, idyllic French Riviera not only helped the artist conquer her life-threatening illness, but also gave her a surge of creative power to paint a series of landscapes, which became some of her best work. The fact that Belcova lived in the south of France in the 1920-1930s was unique in the Latvian art world. At the time, the French Riviera did not rival Paris as the art metropolis of the world, but the Côte d’Azur played quite an important role in the creative process of the leading Parisian artists. While impressionists like Claude Monet and Auguste Renoir were attracted to the Côte d’Azur for its picturesque landscapes, modernists like Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso did not go there in the late 1910s-1920s to admire nature, but rather to give way to their fantasies and create their own world: Matisse painted his Oriental themes, Picasso, his new Arcadia. Belcova’s approach seemed to be closest to that of Raoul Dufy — not in terms of their style, as they had little in common, but in terms of the direction their creative processes shared. Like Dufy, Belcova valued the specific landscape motif, and she channelled her artistic goals through the framework of that specific motif (“Vence”, 1927-1929).
The 1930s were a complicated time in Belcova’s life. Even though she continued to paint, her name was not mentioned in the press, and her paintings were rarely exhibited. Her genre preferences took their final form — and the portrait became her main artistic medium. The artists of the Paris school remained her source of inspiration, but that no longer came from Foujita, whose fame had declined, but instead from Jules Pascin, whose lyrical female images had a resonance with the artistic language of her own portraits. At the same time, her art shows a renewed interest in the masters of the past, such as Rembrandt and El Greco; she visited exhibitions of their art during her trip to Paris in 1937. At the time, some of her images attain the heightened spirituality that is so typical of El Greco’s paintings; light and shade assume a more important role in her art — a medium borrowed from Rembrandt.
In 1939, Suta became fascinated with cinema and started working as chief designer for the film studio in Riga. When the city was occupied by German troops in 1941, the studio was closed down. In the hopes of continuing to work in cinema, Suta had earlier accepted an invitation from friends and left for the Soviet Union. For a few years he worked for the film studio in Georgia, creating set designs for a number of films. In 1944, Suta was arrested and executed by firing squad: it was only ten years later that Belcova learned about her husband’s tragic death. She lived the rest of her life in Riga, painting and exhibiting her art.
Romans Suta and Alexandra Belcova had a volatile family life — endless conflicts were followed by reconciliations. Romans was an intense, extraordinary person. With his sharp mind, unorthodox opinions, strong work ethic and enthusiasm he was also almost possessed by art; it was not easy to live with someone so gifted and effusive and keep one’s balance, while remaining true to oneself. Suta was convinced that a woman’s nature did not allow her to be a distinguished artist, and often criticised his wife’s work. Belcova was one of those creative figures who always doubt themselves and are never really happy with their work; his attitude was often unbearable for her. The natural desire of the artist to maintain artistic independence often made life together challenging for both of them. Nevertheless, their creative union can be deemed successful and productive; there is no doubt that together they wrote one of the most interesting chapters in the history of Latvian art.
- Suta and Belcova’s teachers were Nikolai Petrov, at the time the school director and instructor in drawing; Alexander Sturman, instructor in painting, the only figure that Suta and Belcova remembered with extreme gratitude; and Ivan Goryushkin-Sorokopudov, the instructor in painting during their senior years.
- Alexandra worked as a draftsperson for the Department of Roads (from the artist’s autobiography. Museum of Romans Suta and Alexandra Belcova, article #SB/D-440.)
- The name given in 1918 (Scientific Archive, St. Petersburg Russian Academy of Arts. Fund 7, Inv. 8, sheet 240). Belcova entered the studios in November 1918 and left in May 1919.
- Belcova left for Petrograd in summer 1917, leaving all her works in Penza. She did not take her works with her to Riga either when she moved there from Petrograd in May 1919.
- Alexei Tolstoy. “Artists of the Russian Emigration”. Moscow, 2005. P. 81
- Romans Suta first met Ivan Puni in Berlin in summer 1922. In winter 1922-1923 he and Belcova met the couple very often.
- ViktorShklovsky. “Ivan Puni” // Shklovski V The Hamburg Score. Articles, Memoirs, Essays. Moscow, 1990, pp. 101-102.
- Published in 1923 by L.D. Frenkel, Berlin.
- Now in the collection of the Museum of Romans Suta and Alexandra Belcova.
- The article “L’Art en Lettonie. La jeune ecole de peinture” was published in the magazine’s 25th edition in 1921.
- Robert Rosenblum. “Cubism and 20th-century Art.” Henry N. Abrams, Inc. Publishers. New York, 1960, p.109.
- From Latin Ars Baltica — Baltic Art.
- In 1931 Suta started working as a design artist for shape and paintings of porcelain at the Kuznetsov porcelain factory. The factory produced both works of art and inexpensive mass-market tableware. Suta worked on designs for all categories of tableware. The general level of technical skill among the craftsmen at the factory was lower than that of D. Abrosimov, the master craftsman at “Baltars”, so Suta would paint tableware himself when using some of the best designs.
- No more than 200 copies were made from each piece.
- Suta’s clay tableware set was awarded a silver medal at the 1935 World Exhibition in Brussels; crystal objects of his design were awarded one of the nine Grand-Prix at the 1937 World Exhibition in Paris.
- In 1936 Suta designed the pavilion for the Agricultural Exhibition in Jelgava; in 1937, he set up the 1st Latvian Trade Exhibition in Riga; also in 1937, he was in charge of designing the Latvian pavilion for the World Exhibition in Paris. In 1939, he created the decor for the World Trade Fair in Leipzig.
- Art movement that was popular in the mid-1920s, vividly represented by Tamara de Lempicka (1898-1980).
- This statement is not at odds with the fact that Belcova’s “odalisque” is a real woman, a friend of her sister. Having lived with her husband in Siam (now Thailand) for many years, she brought her son’s dark-skinned nanny with her to Latvia.
- Birnbaum, Phillis. “Glory in Line. A Life of Foujita – the Artist Caught Between East and West.” Faber & Faber, 2007, p. 113.