Kazimir Malevich moved from Moscow to Vitebsk in November 1919 at the invitation of El Lissitsky. His arrival made a tremendous impact on Ermolaeva. Finding herself in the company of the founding father of the non-objective movement it was not long before she followed the lead of the great Russian avant-garde artist and became an ardent adherent of Suprematism. In February 1920, Malevich’s students and disciples established a new society which they called UNOVIS, an abbreviation of ‘The Champions of the New Art’. Ermolaeva took up the post of permanent secretary and taught the basic principles of Cubism in painting in her classes. When Chagall left Vitebsk in June 1920, Ermolaeva took charge of the school entirely, it was renamed The Vitebsk Practical Art Institute and she became rector, a post she occupied until the summer of 1922 when she left for Petrograd.
The UNOVIS members wanted public recognition of their fresh approach to art and so their projects for the city’s streets were intended to bring their innovative ideas to everyday life. The Suprematist movement in Vitebsk reached its culmination in the spring of 1920 in the run-up to the May celebration of the International Workers' Day, with the UNOVIS members creating a number of fully abstract designs such as the present lot, intended to decorate signs for shops and restaurants or the facades of public buildings.
Ermolaeva worked on a number of these but of all of her Suprematist pieces that have survived, the present lot is by far the most important. A smaller, earlier design for the façade of this same building dating from 1920 is in the collection of the State Russian Museum, so clearly she found this an absorbing subject. In both works an explosion of colourful geometric figures spreads across the façade like a fan, but whereas in the smaller design this explosion is crowned with a cross-shaped construction within a circle, in the second version Ermolaeva instead finishes the composition with a red square at the centre. Though the cross had no religious significance in Suprematism, to the ordinary viewer it would invariably evoke an association with Christianity, whereas by the spring of 1920 - and thanks in large part to El Lissitsky - the square had acquired a revolutionary aspect.
Ermolaeva’s treatment of the façade is sufficiently schematic that it is reasonable from the architecture to recognise this as a design for the Vitebsk Theatre, one of the most prominent and impressive of the city’s buildings before it was destroyed in World War II. This present lot is significantly larger than any of Ermolaeva’s other abstract works, which suggests that it had a representative purpose and is likely to have been exhibited at the UNOVIS exhibitions in Vitebsk and Moscow in 1920-1922.
We are grateful to Dr Alexandra Shatskikh for providing this catalogue note.
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