Lot 65
  • 65

Vera Mikhailovna Ermolaeva

30,000 - 50,000 GBP
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  • Vera Mikhailovna Ermolaeva
  • Suprematist Design for a Façade
  • inscribed on the reverse by Nikolai Kazansky, nephew of Maria Kazanskaya
  • gouache and pencil on paper
  • sheet size: 50 by 43.5cm, 19 3/4 by 17 1/4 in.
  • Executed in 1920


Maria Borisovna Kazanskaya (1914-1942), from 1935
Alex Rabinovich, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner


A.Zainchkovskaya, Vera Ermolaeva, 1893-1937, Moscow: Galeev Gallery, 2009, p.36 illustrated; p.168, no.334 listed


The sheet has discoloured and there is a layer of surface dirt with stains and spots of foxing in places. There is a horizontal crease running across the top margin of the work where the sheet was previously folded. There is another crease in the lower left corner as well as further creases in places, and the sheet appears to have been rolled in the past. There are pinholes to the corners and edges with two further pinholes by the circle at the top of the composition. The edges have frayed. There are cracks and very minor losses to the blue pigment. There are minor losses to the top edge and corners of the sheet visible on the reverse and remnants of hinging tape in three places. Held in a wooden frame behind glass. Unexamined out of frame.
"In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective, qualified opinion. Prospective buyers should also refer to any Important Notices regarding this sale, which are printed in the Sale Catalogue.

Catalogue Note

Ermolaeva executed Suprematist Design for a Façade in the spring of 1920 as part of a comprehensive municipal programme to decorate the streets of Vitebsk for the 1st of May celebrations. By then she was already a prominent figure on Petrograd's art scene, having established her credentials as a skillful graphic artist, both as a designer and illustrator in the realist tradition. She had been sent to Vitebsk in April 1919 by the People's Commissariat of Education to head up the painting studio at the People's School of Art, where she proved a dependable assistant to Marc Chagall; it was Ermolaeva who stood in for him as acting director whenever he was travelling. 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.