This volume, a collaborative project undertaken by English, Latvian, and American scholars, constitutes a foundational text in many respects, introducing the intellectual and photographic work of Vladimir Markov to the English-speaking world. Despite the significance of his work, Markov, or Voldemārs Matvejs in his native Latvian, is little known. This is in part due to his untimely death in May 1914 at the age of 37, which meant among other things that his groundbreaking 1913–14 project on African art, Iskusstvo Negrov (Negro Art), was not published until 1919. The turbulent politics of twentieth-century Russian history also kept from view much of the art and writings of its avant-garde until the 1990s.
This publication opens with five essays introducing Markov. All three authors contribute to the introduction, which provides an excellent foundation for the aspects of Markov's life and work presented in this volume. Jeremy Howard follows with an essay exploring the key ideas that animate Markov's primitivism and the ways in which it compares and contrasts with its better known counterparts in Western Europe. Irēna Bužinska addresses the development of Markov's art theory and provides a much-needed context concerning Markov's place within the innovative Russian avant-garde. Z.S. Strother's essay looks closely at Markov's study of African sculpture and the innovative photographic techniques he developed to convey what he saw as its salient features. Bužinska's final essay takes up Markov's photographic work, also from 1913, documenting the arts of the indigenous peoples of Northern Asia, which was to be part of another book he referred to as The Art of the Eskimos. The second half of this study comprises five major essays by Markov, translated by Jeremy Howard. The first three of these, dated 1910, 1912, and 1914, establish Markov's originality as a theorist and brilliance as a writer, particularly in his extended essay, “The Principles of Creativity in the Plastic Arts: Faktura,” which deserves an important place in the history of modernism. These essays also provide the framework through which Markov interpreted African sculpture, as evidenced in the final two translations that focus specifically on such objects. In addition, there are forty reproductions of Markov's stunning black-and-white photographs, twenty-three of African sculpture and seventeen of indigenous arts of Northern Asia.
Markov is still so little known that some background is useful. Born in Latvia, he was an artist, photographer, and art theoretician who was a leading figure in the Russian artistic vanguard, involved with the Union of Youth from 1910 to 1914. He began writing essays on art in Russian, under the name Vladimir Markov, in 1910. Few of Markov's own works of art survive, but those illustrated here suggest that his most significant contributions were made through his writing and documentary photography. Markov's ideas influenced Russian avant-garde artists such as Malevich and Tatlin and also share important commonalities with Der Blaue Reiter. Markov in fact traveled to Germany and Paris in the summer of 1912 and met Wassily Kandinsky, Gabriele Münter, and Franz Marc to discuss possible collaborations. In 1913 he began his ambitious study of African art, a year before Carl Einstein began work on Negerplastik, traveling throughout Europe to study and photograph African sculpture in ethnographic collections. In his preface to Iskusstvo Negrov, Markov noted that his photographs were “collected by me during my travels to … museums in … Kristiania [Oslo], Copenhagen, Hamburg, London, Paris, Cologne, Brussels, Leiden, Amsterdam, Leipzig, Berlin, and St. Petersburg” (p. 222). As his colleague Varvara Bubnova pointed out: “This work was greeted by little understanding among those around him. The museum specimens of primal plastic art were in a state of neglect, lay disordered in cupboards and were covered in dust. Many curators … of ethnographic collections regarded his photographing of … crude idols as just a strange and idle practical joke” (p. 220). Markov essentially sifted through these ethnographic hoards and pulled out objects that spoke to him and captured what he saw as the essential to these traditions. His manuscript was completed in 1914, but his sudden death from peritonitis delayed its publication. As if this were not enough of a loss, Markov published in 1914 the first study on the art of Easter Island and, as noted, was completing a study of indigenous Northern Asian art at his death.
The 123 remarkable black-and-white photographs published in Iskusstvo Negrov are examined in Strother's essay, where she focuses on “the politics of face,” arguing that Markov's emphasis on the details of facial expression and engagement with the gaze “testify to the subjectivity of their makers” (p. 88) and seek to convey the inner life of the figures. Markov also used an unprecedented combination of close-ups and multiple points of view to approximate a cinematic grasp of the sculptures. Strother demonstrates convincingly that in Markov's hands, the camera is no mere recording device, but takes on a “robust presence” that effectively helps the viewer to see the work. Working in storerooms under difficult conditions, Markov somehow managed to create lively and compelling photographs, with lighting that brings out the sculptural masses and the surface facture.
This study explores the nature of Markov's primitivism in a thoughtful and balanced way, acknowledging that even the most enthusiastic proponents of “primitive” art nonetheless assert the “authority to speak ‘for’ absent others” (p. 9). Many aspects of Markov's deliberate regression track closely with that of other primitivizing artists. Primitivism, as opposed to exoticism, is driven by a sense of loss, as well as a reformist zeal. Markov, too, sought out what he saw as a more authentic expression lost to modern society. His interest in what he described as “primal” or “primitive” art traditions recapitulates the history of European primitivism, progressing from Gothic art, Italian primitives, and Byzantine art to European folk art and then to Oceanic and African art. For Markov, “all art created outside the perceived Renaissance-to-Realism axis was potentially and positively ‘primitive',” Bužinska observes (p. 81). Markov broke from the primitivist narrative in significant ways, however, in part because he wrote from an Eastern European and Russian perspective. Many in the Russian avant-garde felt themselves more culturally affiliated with the East than with West. Arguably more significant is the fact that Markov was himself a colonized subject. As a Latvian, his own culture and language had been for centuries subjugated, by first German and then Russian power. Strother argues that this experience shaped “the distinctive tenor of his response to African sculpture” (p. 96) and Matvejs-turned-Markov's insistence on the individuality and creative choices of those who made the images.
Markov's primitivism compares most closely to that of Der Blaue Reiter, in that he was “committed to ‘universal principles’ that transcended race and nationality” (p. 15) and was interested in the expressive capabilities of the formal elements of art when freed from mimesis. As Bubnova wrote, Markov sought to articulate “the immutable plastic laws of world art” (p. 11) and believed they could be found in traditional art practices, from African to Gothic to folk, rather than in the pedagogies of fine art academies. His art writing is lively, fresh, and insightful. In one apt example, Markov described impressionism and pointillism as “the mere jingling of color fragments” that lack the “melody and logic” of color pursued by Gauguin. There is no questioning Markov's enthusiasm and admiration for African sculpture. He opened Iskusstvo Negrov with the declaration: “Africa is a land rich in art” (p. 224). His own artistic training came through in his efforts to describe the visual logic of African sculpture, to which he attributed a “sense of architectural construction” (p. 242) rather than imitation, and a “presence of monumentality in the conception and execution” (p. 244). This is especially the case in his emphasis on what he describes as faktura, referring to the working of materials, the process of making. With faktura, he embraced the materiality of artistic expression, the “collation of materials” (p. 207)—wood, copper, straw, hair, nails, etc.— found in images from African sculpture to Russian icons: “Decorating and working on material creates the opportunity to receive from it all its inherent forms or ‘noises', i.e., that which we call faktura” (p. 180). In this one category alone, Markov demonstrated his understanding that the language of art history and aesthetics was rooted in the idealism and mimesis of classical art, its categories shaped to those expectations. Instead Markov acknowledged the inadequacy of his analytical toolkit and wrote, with a humility almost unheard of in Western observers of his period, that it is “difficult to accustom the eye … to a new … creative language when these are foreign to us” (p. 242). His essays and his photographs reveal an original mind struggling to construct a new vocabulary, a set of the “universal principles” of world art traditions.
A sudden death at a young age, just at the point where his life's work was coming together: Markov's is a tragic story, compounded by the fact that his research, writing, art, and photography suffered neglect and loss through revolution, state repression, and war. A great historical debt is owed to Varvara Bubnova, the fellow artist who traveled with Markov to research European ethnographic collections, carried through the posthumous publication of Iskusstvo Negrov in 1919, and tried to preserve Markov's notes and writings. The authors rightly open this study with a tribute to Bubnova, “who kept alive the work and memory of Vladimir Markov” (p. iii). With this current volume, Howard, Bužinska, and Strother contribute significantly to the rediscovery, translation, and scholarly evaluations of Markov's work. Writing Matvejs/Markov back into the historical record makes a valuable addition to both modernist and African studies, one pertinent to ongoing debates today.