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3.12 Vera Muchina – inspirer and teacher
M. Nesterov, Vera Muchina, 1940, oil on canvas, 75 x 77. Photo of V. Muchina, 1920s, unknown author.
As previously mentioned, Vera Muchina was the main professor who taught Nina
Slobodinskaya sculpture in the VHUTEMAS, and, besides, became one of the most
influential artistic figures in the artist’s professional life. In order to enquire to which
extent was spread her artistic influence on Nina Slobodinskaya, we should analyse
the basis of Muchina’s creative method and style, to find out what and how she
taught her students, getting to know the origin of her professional technique, style,
constructive methods in sculpture.
Regarding sculptor’s formation, the most enriching studies she received in her French
period, thereby we will trace the bases of her education in Paris. In 1912 arriving to
Paris Muchina had to make a difficult choice: who would become her teacher in
sculpture. Despio, Maillol or Bourdelle?
A. Bourdelle, Heracles, shooting with a bow, 1909, bronze. A. Bourdelle, Penelope, 1912, bronze.
Muchina considered Despio as a wonderful portraitist, who feels and is sensible to all
nuances and shades of human face and character, but she was also afraid that it
would be the only thing she would learn from this master. Vera Muchina felt a huge
respect towards Maillol, appreciating his careful attitude towards an object,
calmness, evenness, richness of his figures. She was admired by his knowledge: “He
knows how to synthesize, perfectly dominates a body”
, but she also would add
“he is zero as a portraitist. The heads at his trunks are incredibly schematic and
impersonal. Pomona – is his best sculpture, but does it creature thoughts”
Besides, Muchina did not want to leave Paris while Maillol was constantly travelling
around France and was not keen on travelling with his students.
Antoine Bourdelle with his ideal of a human being as a creator and a hero was the
most liked-minded to Mukhina. “Maillol – is sea breathing with calmness, while
Bourdelle is pathos of fire”
. With time Mukhina continues describing her teacher:
“He is like a volcano, being able to make anything he wants with an earth – to
deform it or to build. An object for him is just an excuse for his creative work. There is
always a tension in his works. He makes them suffer, he puts them into frames he
wants to obtain, and movements of his figures are carried to an extreme limit, but
are never broken”
. Vera Muchina admires his sculpture of Heracles , which is full of
energy and tension, Penelope – her long and brave patience, her touching and
incredibly strong figure.
Mukhina appreciates Bourdelle’s tendency to solve significant sculptural problems,
to create spiritually rich images. Bourdelle’s antic heroes become very close to the
XX century. Heracles is full of passion, Penelope seems a peasant. These figures also
recall Bretagne’s woman which wait their husbands – fishermen to return from sea.
consult and to teach young sculptors every Friday, once per week. His students used
to call those Fridays as last judgement days. Students from all around the globe,
close to their works, were waiting for master’s critical judgement. Mukhina in her turn
called him Small Nibelung. Some of students’ works he used to examine for a long
while, others he just ignored. Once he stopped in front of Muchins’s etude. She was
waiting for his approval, as she worked really hard on it, but instead she received his
criticism: “Mademoiselle, where from this leg grows? The pelvis is not wide enough.
You should see a skeleton of a thing in its real aspect, in its architectural expression”
. Bourdelle was first to pay Muchina’s attention to ponderability and plenitude of
form, to a correlation between analysis and synthesis. “Everything consists of details.
And every detail exists only as a piece of a single whole, of a unit. It’s necessary to
obtain symmetry of pieces; parts would correspond to the harmony of the world.
You should see a sculpture from inside: to create a work you should start from a
skeleton of an object and just then give an external form to a skeleton; a statue
represents an object arranged, approved by mind”
.Students saw Bourdelle also
as a Poet of Sculpture. He used to teach them saying: “Forget all shadows and a shy
light of stark forms, rouse and stir up darkness and moving contours. Give a real
freedom to lines, make their flight vivid, extend and expand your ideas, involve
curative force of your soul to assist you and let a heroes and gods ardour lighten
Photo of V. Muchina and I. Burmeister in Paris’ studio, 1914, unknown author.
Вера Мухина. М.: Изобразительное искусство, 1989, C.169.
Суздалев, П.К. Вера Мухина. М.: Изобразительное искусство, 1971, C.157.
Воронова, О.И. Вера Игнатьевна Мухина. М.: Искусство, 1976, C.80.
After some pause he continued giving practical advices, simple and wise, such us
following: “When a chief wants to cook a roast meat with a rabbit, what does he
makes first? He starts with a main ingredient – with a rabbit. In sculpture works the
same method. To recreate a nature or an object, first we should catch it and firmly
hold it, not letting it to run away”
. Bourdelle constantly asked his students learn not
only in studios but first of all and mainly in the streets. “There are plenty of
masterpieces in streets”
Bourdelle not only criticized Muchina’s sculpture that time but also mentioned that
Russians sculpt rather “in illusionary way than constructively”; “You, Slavs, are richly
gifted by nature, but you’ve got an unbalanced temper”
. Having heard that,
Muchina destroyed her study and forced herself start from the beginning. Finally
Bourdelle gave a new estimation to her work: “It is constructed, it is built”
sculpture’s laws and to see their model as a whole. Composition in Bourdelle’s
opinion elevated art in comparison with not thoughtful nature. The master also
taught young artists to be careful with public’s opinion: “Mediocrity usually gets all
honours and laurels of a crowd, as its art pleases a stupidity of a whole nation,
instead of teaching it”
Working at Bourdelle’s studio, Muchina tried to develop and reach pureness and
flow of lines, to make every line and form – one continuation of another, one
entering another. One of her models of that period seems to be moving; his head is
turned towards us. The figure is not higher than 1 meter but at the photo it seems
really high. The volumes are worked carefully, the proportions are strictly solved.
Other model, this time in a natural scale, where Muchina follows straight a shape of
the model, tries to understand the skeleton, model’s constitution; it has a carefully
sculpted thorax and accentuated muscles of a neck and hands. Shoulders are
carefully studied. Those years in Paris Muchina considered the most intensive,
interesting rich and difficult at the same time. She was sure that became proficient in
a craft, which in her professor’s words “is necessary for art as coal to a fire”
Воронова, О.И. Вера Игнатьевна Мухина. М.: Искусство, 1976, C.125.
V. Muchina, The boy taking out a splinter, 1912, bronze.
the upper row. Then follow A. Vertepov, B. Ternovets, I. Burmeister. Second to the right in the lower row is A.
Bourdelle, unknown author.
The sculpture created in 1912 shows the level of Muchina as of a prepared
independent master, who possesses the knowledge of human body’s structure.
Proportional, elegantly and carefully worked. It reveals the variety of Muchina’s
professional skills. Another thing that Bourdelle taught young artists was a shame
which they had to feel if they would repeat something that already exists. “It’s so
easy to imitate. Monkeys are good examples, but who wants to make this carrier?
. Muchina finally was so afraid to create something similar to anybody else’s work
that would prefer on many occasions to destroy an already elaborated sculpture.
The way to a free conscience, to the interior truth, to fulfil sculptural forms with
proper individual feelings and thoughts – was the most difficult thing to achieve.
Bourdelle was severe, strict in his demands, he considered that a Sculptor is born
only in a moment, when one starts suffering from a self-determination and that a
principle task for him as a teacher - to help and give a birth to a soul of apprentice,
to awake in a pupil ability to listen and to hear him-self.
Hours and hours spend Muchina in the museums such as The Louvre, The Trocadero,
The Clouni etc. She admired French medieval art, Chinese art, which she considered
severe ant thin, she is attracted by fluidity of forms in Indian art, she‘s amazed by
laconic monumental stinginess of lines. “More monumental is art – more laconic it is.
You should be stingy in attitude to a form. The Renaissance is more complicated,
and there you find the eternal simplicity”
she carved in Bourdelle’s studio; in the evenings she studied in drawing classes of
Colarossi. She also went to the Academie de Beaux Arts, listened the course of
anatomy of professor Riche. The professor showed a real model to his apprentices,
drawing a skeleton, muscles, and biceps.
Vera Muchina did not avoid the interest to cubism. Cubists considered as their main
task to open flatness, platitude of a canvas to a spectator, to achieve that a viewer
would see at the same time the depicted objects inside and outside. “We should
depict not only objects as we see them, but also all we know about them”
Metzinger would declaim. The cubists proposed not to depict the world as artist sees
it, but through the analysis of form (dividing seen into elements, reveal its essence).
“To see a model – it’s not enough. One should think about it. Figures, landscapes,
still-lives can be determined as they are seen in artist’s conscience (remembering
faces, landscape I don’t see them stark. I realize them in totality of moments),
according to memory or a wish of an artist. Cubists attracted by the tendency to
new mathematically strict way of thought. But a scheme that they elaborated as a
Воронов, Н.В. Вера Мухина. М.: Изобразительное искусство, 1989, C.239-278.
basis of their art – to look for first elements of an object and not to depict object in
their appearance, created too many restrictions and limitations. Paintings lost a
profound space, light and air. To understand the meaning of any work was always
to study in La Palette. But Vera Muchina was the first lo leave the Academy, not
even staying there for 2 months. “Cubists uncover and expose a form as a skeleton. I
suffered, understood something and left. And I left consciously”
After studying two years in Paris, Muchina changes her attitude to works of art. She
not just admires any piece as it happened before but she demands a craftsmanship:
“If you’re a bad craftsman – you are nothing”
V. Muchina, Requesting peace, 1950s, bronze. V. Muchina, Wind, 1927, bronze.
Not only French academies, giving knowledge, but Paris itself, was a wonderful art
school. Apprentices found there, so necessary for beginners, an atmosphere of work.
“Staying in this environment, united by a gifted sensible way of seeing, appreciating
Воронова, O.И. Вера Игнатьевна Мухина. М.: Искусство, 1976, C.149.
all the diversity of a surrounding art world, an artist starts to see – it’s the basis of any
all the details. Emotional and notional supply of image, its interior structure becomes
the most important for the artist. “Too many attributes don’t reveal any emotions, it
acts not by its external expression but by it interior tension”
. In some while Muchina
would formulate her attitude to the cubism and the reason of cubism’s birth. In her
opinion painting passed through the epoch of impressionism, where enriched its
palette, but absolutely lost its feeling of space, so it turned to a feeling of space
instead. Perspective space of construction seemed too intellectual and
mathematical, therefore, was created a new spatial method, which she dared to
call side scenes feeling of space. Honestly trying to study it, she felt, meanwhile, an
overwhelming opposition and unacceptance, growing inside her towards cubism.
Vera Muchina was a follower of humanistic ideas in the literature: Shakespeare’s
tragedies, Gomer’s epos, – where you could always find passion, love, suffering, and
huge social and personal problems. While cubists everything turned just into a form.
“An artist from now and on could just paint a vase with fruits, a violin but in
elaborated manner; an image – soul of an object did not interest it”
Muchina did not accept such limitations in art. In Muchina’s vision a subject and
object stopped to interest an artist-cubist, and what is worth interest was considered
as a bad form.
Muchina looked for her proper creative position and she founds it in the end of her
two years apprenticeship in Paris: “I‘ve revealed that for me an image in art – its soul
and it’s sense”
Another event that completed Muchina’s education as a master was her travel to
Italy which she made together with her friends Liubov Popova and Ida Burgmeister.
That’s when Muchina defined her ideal sculptor - Michelangelo
Воронов, Н.В. Вера Мухина. М.: Изобразительное искусство, 1989, C. 274.
It would be difficult to determine the exact role of Muchina’s sculptural method if it would not strictly
correspond to the necessities and official demands of the Soviet government. Her few years of
professorship had left a significant impact on her apprentices but, mostly, as of a true follower of realism
and socialist realism in sculpture. In opinion of Voronova, the sculptor would not get so much popularity
if she would not perceive so sensitively the requests and aspirations of the post-revolutionary epoch.
While in Polevoy’s thought no other figure could embody all the grandeur and monumentality of time’s
spirit as V. Muchina. As we see on the example of Nina Slobodinskaya, her master’s role was crucial in
The artist describes David of Michelangelo: “Incredibly strong expression of an inner
psychological state. Marvellous image of vengeance and contempt toward an
enemy. Determination, an angry, wrathful gaze, a concise mouth, calm full of
fearlessness, pose of all the body – it’s a real image of a hero”
would visualize a concept of a new hero – (a principal subject of Soviet monumental
propaganda) to her apprentices in the VHUTEMAS, including Nina Slobodinskaya.
Michelangelo works not nourishing, but with an image of event (and image may be
considered as a sum of emotions that a spectator feels in an art work). The ideal of a
human being, of a man, that Michelangelo tried to establish was very close to
Muchina. Muchina wanted to see a man spiritually and creatively strong.
“I seek for something enormous! Michelangelo’s personages are heroic and titanic;
and if I would dare to say he creates almost gods”
. Impression of Michelangelo’s
sculptures became certainly the most precious educational experience, which
Muchina brought from Italy. Sculptures which taught her to distinguish between
external pathos and a real heroism. Works, where from real elements were born
ideas of enormous human significance. “Michelangelo creates as god-father”
future hero’s sculptures of Vera Muchina, and also in the studios of her apprentices
in the VHUTEMAS.
Future years of creative work were full of a hard work, new knowledge, and new
achievements. But in order to understand the mature sculptor, to see a result of
spiritual and creative efforts and a level of the mastery knowledge, which she
shared with her apprentices, we should follow the epoch of 1920s. In 1920s Muchina
was already a highly recognized master, who would dare to create an image of an
ideal Soviet woman – Peasant in 1927 for the exhibition, which celebrated 10 years
of The October Revolution. The subject of peasant was chosen on her proper
initiative. The artist said that from her childhood she had “a special contact, an
interior feeling of peasants”
her approach to composition, idea’s clarity and realism. However, Muchina was not sculptor’s spiritual
orienteer in art.
Воронова О.И. Вера Игнатьевна Мухина. М.: Искусство, 1976, C.194.
First she sculpted it in clay and then commissioned a bronze model. The method and
approach that Muchina used in her artwork is really indicative. She shaped a
sculpture without a model, imagining it in details. Only sculpting hands, Muchina
used her husband Alexey Andreevich as a model, and legs were depicted from one
woman, but as she said: “I exaggerated its dimensions in order to get firmness and
monumentality. The face I sculpted from my imagination”
. Starting sculpting,
Muchina already kept a final vision of a ready work in her mind. We can follow it in
her drawings. It helped her to create a ½ metres sketch and an almost 2 metres
figure. The author defined her sculptural creature as a Goddess of Fertility, Russian
Spectator, watching the Peasant, may see her image a bit pagan, massive, firm,
and very earthy: kind of a woman from a Russian fairy tale, which can stop a running
earth as columns. “Such woman will give a birth, standing, and without a cry”
Mashkov would comment. The Peasant has huge shoulders and a suddenly small
too elegant head for such a massive figure.
V. Muchina, Peasant, 1927, bronze. Photo of V. Muchina, 1930s, unknown author.
From up to down the monumental image, all the figure’s forms gradually increase.
Every muscle of the figure seems heavy and it appears that no strength is able to
move this monumental Peasant. A special meaning here gets a visual weight of
volumes – one of the basic qualities in sculpture, a strong sound of mass in space.
Meanwhile, other prominent Russian artists of the same epoch also touched the
subject of peasantry in their creative work. Especially Natalya Goncharova’s
paintings reflect a similar to Muchina vision of a woman – peasant as a strong and
active life-constructor. Goncharova‘s peasants appear to be in an active motion –
working. Their huge massive foots indicate at their everyday labour, gigantic hands
impress by their strength. As much as Muchina’s Peasant Goncharova’s female
personages feel confidently in this world.
N. Goncharova, Women – peasants, 1910s, oil on canvas.
N. Goncharova, Linen’s whitening, 1908, oil on canvas.
As to Malevich, he was deeply keen on peasants’ subject too, believing that
peasants are an embodiment of all humanity, and numerous times returned to this
theme. In 1920s his vision of peasants is radically more abstract; his peasants literally
and symbolically appear impersonal and faceless. A peasant woman, staying
statically and immobile, reminding icon’s figure’s position, loses any trait of
individuality; her face simultaneously reminds a mask or a circle without any hint on
human face. In opposite to Muchina’s Peasant this one seems to be a biomorphic
creature – insecure, aimless and lost; this image may symbolically hint on state of
despair and horror in which stayed the majority of Russian peasantry, in the end of
1920s after the collectivization, having lost their properties and house hold - base of
their material existence and a symbol of their connection with the world. As
Malevich said at one of the conferences: “Man’s future – a riddle without
K. Malevich, Woman with a rake, 1928-32, oil on canvas, 72, 8 x 52, 8.
Art critics of those years would recall Bourdelle analysing this work of art. Apparently
they were right, as especially in that period Muchina actively talked to her
apprentices and fervently described the powerful sculptural method and way of
Bourdelle, relating also to a French sculpture in general. It had such a deep impact
on her apprentices, that everyone, including Nina Slobodinskaya (according to the
sculptor’s recollections), would fulfil their home libraries with books on Bourdelle, as if
he would be the most important sculptor of the epoch. Later, Muchina mentions
Bourdelle and Maillol as “two principle violins in the contemporary artistic orchestra”
. She seems to adapt in her work the same admiration of a human body – as an
expression of a harmony, so typical to Maillol, and to assimilate severe discretion and
thoughtfulness of Bourdelle. But those are just external qualities of mastery, which did
not prevent Muchina to elaborate a proper artistic method and to enrich her work
with a meaningful content. In her Peasant we see different creative criteria and
categories of mind, though some of them remind us Bourdelle.
One year later, after the exhibition Muchina returned to Paris and asked Bourdelle a
permission to take a key and visit all his studios and see his latest works. Doubinovsky
– one of Bourdelle’s students recalled an interesting fact. Bourdelle used to give a
Малевич, К. Чёрный квадрат. СПб.: Азбука, Азбука-Аттикус, 2012, C.154.
Воронова, О.И. Вера Игнатьевна Мухина. М.: Искусство, 1976, C.194.
permission to visit his studio only to his favourite apprentices or to the ones who were
not imitators in his opinion, but who elaborated their proper plastic language.
Thereby, we may conclude that Bourdelle considered the majority of his pupils in
Paris to be imitators, and in that case they did not deserve to see his sculptures.
Accordingly, the fact that Muchina would get one, let us suggest, that Vera
Muchina was recognized as an artist by the one of the most significant sculptors of
the epoch. Undoubtedly, it was an important achievement for Muchina as for
sculptor and a person.
Trying to compare Bourdelle’s sculpture and Muchina’s Peasant we may observe
the following: The Peasant is much more concrete in indication of its time than a
majority of Bourdelle’s works. Bourdelle, in his turn, tries to reveal in his heroes
universality of human feelings, awaking eternal traits. Muchina’s Peasant does not
pretend to express something out of its time, to be more precise - eternal
generalization, instead, she expresses only her time, but this epoch is exposed in all
possible aspects and with a maximum force of expressiveness: socially,
psychologically, aesthetically. By all its aspects of appearance, head’s and figure’s
structure – the female image belongs to her country. By its bearing, by its
confidence or by its manner of holding hands, - she would express a woman of the
end of 1920ss, a peasant of the Soviet Union, a master of her proper life, and as
Muchina used to say: “a self-conscientious person, not a slave”
Critics would accept this vision and recognized the Peasant as the best sculptural
work of the exhibition. Created in a wide monumental manner, it gives an image of
a huge emotional strength. A bit rough, she still has her proper dignity and a calm
strength. The Peasant expresses an artistic synthesis of a Soviet ideal woman, a
conscious constructor of a light future. The Peasant reflects a long artistic search of
Muchina and finally shows a discovered solution to her creative doubts. Muchina
even affirmed that in this sculptural image she finally found a notion of a generalized
image as a basis of all her art. Even knowing that a final creative search of an artist
ends only with his death, we may admit the importance of her artistic victory at that
epoch. From now and on her main approach and artistic method will consist of
monumental forms. A. Lunacharsky gave a characteristic of that form: “economic,
expressively generalized, realistic monumentality”
Photo of the Sculpture’s Class in the Vhutemas, 1927, unknown author.
This creative sculptural method Muchina will actively introduce to her apprentices in
Moscow. The Peasant obtained the first premium in the concourse of the mentioned
exhibition. The bronze model of the Peasant was exposed in the Tretyakoff Gallery,
and in 1934 was exposed at the XIX International Exposition in Venice and sold to the
Triesta Museum. In 1946 the first bronze model became a property of the Vatican
Museum in Rome.
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