Thursday, 4:13pm
28 June 2012

The Futurists’ muse

Lili Brik: Femme Fatale

Solyanka Art Gallery, Moscow<br>13 April-6 May 2007

‘Lili Brik: Femme Fatale’, is the slightly misleading title for an intriguing exhibition documenting the life of one of the most significant characters on the early Soviet cultural landscape. Lilya (or Lili) Brik (1891-1978), was a sculptor, writer, editor, dancer and film director, as well as muse to the Futurist poet Vladimir Mayakovsky. Their passionate (and public) love affair, which lasted from 1916 until his suicide in 1930, inspired many of his greatest poems.

Many images in this alluring collection of small black and white prints possess a grainy moodiness that contrasts with the minimal angularity of Constructivism; others, including those shot by Alexander Rodchenko, see the subjects playing to the camera and the style. Rodchenko drew on Brik’s expressive features in many Soviet agitprop artworks, including now iconic posters. The exhibition includes the best known, where the freckle-nosed Brik wears a peasant headscarf and appears to bellow into a megaphone the word BOOKS, in stark Cyrillic capitals. A poster for the 1924 campaign to promote Soviet literature, the image has been appropriated by art-aware designers ever since, most recently in Matt Cooper’s artwork for Franz Ferdinand.

Brik is photgraphed at home with her middle-class family and friends (including an artful picture of her in tutu and pumps); with her first husband, Osip Brik, a literary critic and publisher; and with Osip and Mayakovsky, the ménage à trois. The centre of a creative web, she is seen with artists, writers and musicians, though sadly nothing recording visits by Cartier Bresson or Pablo Neruda.

The exhibition has been extensively researched and archived by Olga Sviblova, the founder-director of the Moscow House of Photography, which holds many of these images; her own career as dancer, writer and film-maker in many ways mirrors Brik’s.

Loss of many friends and lovers, and increasing material deprivation – threadbare wallpaper, stooped back and hollow cheeks – tell their story, but Brik remained radiant, and politically incorrectly, individualistically elegant to the end.