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Knights of the Vine RUSSIA


Sisters Posthumously Acclaimed
Olga Slobodkina-von Bromssen

Inscrutable are the ways of God and art is no exception. Sometimes an artist unknown during his or her lifetime becomes a legend for further generations. This was the fate of two sisters from St. Petersburg – Yevgeniya and Nadezhda Pogonyalov. They created a series of watercolor drawings in the 1920s. The first exhibition took place only in the middle of the 1990s, but it immediately created a sensation in the art world.

The sisters were born into a large family of six children. Their father Pavel Fyodorovich, an accountant in the ‘Baltic’ factory, provided well for the family, which often summered at its dacha in Kilomyagi on the shores of the Finish Bay. Elena Pogonyalova, their mother, ran a shop where all five of her daughters worked. The girls did not receive any professional artistic training, but it may have been in this workshop that they learned about fashion and honed their keen skill of observation bordering on photographic memory. Or perhaps their drawing ability came from their love of cinema and theater. The young sisters idolized Rudolph Valentino, Ivan Mozzhukhin, Lilian Gish and many other actors of silent movies. Until the Civil War intervened and they were forced to evacuate, the two studied at a local girl’s school.

“A City Scene”, 1920s,
(paper, watercolor, cardboard)

“A Group of People”, 1920s,
(paper, watercolors, cardboard)

During the war, the Pogonyalov sisters moved from St. Petersburg to the south to live with their godfather in the Cossack village of Nevinnomysskaya on the Don River. They returned home two years later and started to paint. Their first drawings are dated 1924, at which point Yevgeniya and Nadezhda were aged 18 and 16 respectively. By that time the sisters realized only too well what “the whites” and “the reds” were like – whenever the village was taken by one or the other, the sisters had to hide themselves in the basement of their godfather’s house. They also saw what they had lost as a result of the Proletariat Revolution of 1917. Maybe it was because of these ordeals that the sisters turned to art. Their drawings reveal a kind of beautiful existence, which was impossible for them.

Though hardly a realistic portrait of life at that time, the drawings provide a clue to the styles and fashions of the “high life” of the 1920s. Their multi-figure compositions, which may be scrutinized with a magnifying glass, are subtle and refined. Scenes on an embankment, in a café, in a living-room or at the theater reveal the hand of a master or, to be more exact, of two masters – today it’s difficult to tell Yegeniya’s and Nadezhda’s work apart. In any case these watercolor drawings can’t strictly be attributed to naïve art. The construction of space on the sheets (which are, in fact, clean newspaper pages, before printer’s ink has been applied) are taken from theater design, the absence of chiaroscuro already rejected by the impressionists; recherché correlations of hues (the combination of blue and orange); the automatically correct construction of bodies and the intact silhouettes so uncharacteristic for untrained artists – all this not only testifies to the great gift of the young sister artists, but is also proof of the serious approach they took to their work.

The drawings contain thin figures in the style of Pre-Raphaelites while their clever designs “spawn” across the sheets. Compositions are reminiscent of Mark Chagall. Familiar subjects like a balcony, for example, go back to Goya through Édouard Manet. The complicated drawing boasts a scrupulous attention to detail, but is nevertheless created as a single organic whole. Some drawings were made in the style of Iranian miniatures; others can be likened to Japanese prints while still others have something in common with Egyptian and Greek civilizations, with their rhythmic series of columns and people portrayed in profile. All are brilliant examples of original graphic art.

The last drawings were made in 1928 and the girls grew up and had to earn a living. They studied with a draftsman and continued to work in that field for the rest of their lives. They never returned to drawing, although Yevgeniya used to draw dolls for her daughter on tracing paper. Those dolls were wearing glamorous dresses. She drew them, because the little girl did not have a lot of toys. In total, Yevgeniya and Nadezhda created about 200 drawings, 65 of which have survived.

“A Waiting-room”, 1920s, (watercolors, cardboard)

“A Girl in a White Dress with a Dog”, 1920s, (watercolor, cardboard)

Both sisters had trouble making ends meet and Yevgeniya’s husband, a magnificent baritone, died of starvation during the Siege of Leningrad in 1942. She never remarried and was forced to work day and night. Her daughter remembers waking up at night to see her mother at the drawing board. Sometimes Yevgeniya would get out her cherished drawings and burst into tears – her dream of a beautiful life had become unattainable. Her reality was morbid and cruel.

She spent the last years of her life in terrible health – she could not recognize her relatives and often lapsed in and out of consciousness, but time and again she would ask her daughter to give her the drawings of her youth and then the daughter would extract the papyrus-like sheets from a folder that was kept under the sofa. Nadezhda, too, had a difficult life. Her husband, a naval engineer, went to the front in the first years of World War II. Shell-shocked and captured by Germans, he later spent 10 years in a Soviet prison and was released sick and beaten. He died five years later. Of the once large Pogonyalov family, only two people, both children of Yevgeniya and Nadezhda, are alive and 65 drawings remain.

Today we review all the artistic treasures accumulated by the 20th century and the wave of interest towards the 1920s is quite natural – many masterpieces were created then – and not only towards the art of that period, but to the general stylistics, to the motifs in clothes. Today we, Russians, try to realize what we have lost and what gave such a huge creative impulse in the 1920s, regardless of hardships and horrors.

The art of the Pogonyalov sisters allows us to get an insight into Russia of the 1920s; to learn the kind of beauty its people dreamt of, but never knew.

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