Elena Polenova Culture

The Art and Craft of Elena Polenova @ Watts Gallery (18.11.14-08.02.15)

A Russian Fairytale: The Art and Craft of Elena Polenova will be the first major retrospective outside Russia to explore the career of the 19th Century Russian painter and designer, Elena Polenova. Showcasing furniture designed by Elena alongside her paintings of landscapes and folk-tale illustrations, the exhibition at Watts Gallery will demonstrate Polenova’s important role in the Russian craft revival of the 1880s.

Elena Polenova was part of the generation of artists who rediscovered the folk traditions of the Moscow region- its wooden architecture, furniture and children’s toys; its icons and peasant decorations; and its vibrant tradition of folk stories and fairytales.

Natalia Murray, lecturer at the Courtauld Institute, who will curate the exhibition in collaboration with Nicholas Tromans, commented, “Elena Polenova was a leading figure in the Arts and Crafts movement in Russia, arguably its most important member. The movement began in the 1880s with initiatives to revive national traditions in art, such as those of Russia’s medieval and pagan past and Russian ‘folk’ or peasant art. Polenova was also a talented watercolourist, textile designer and illustrator of children’s fairy tales. Ultimately, Polenova’s artistic reworking of traditional Russian folk culture was of seminal importance in the early development of Modernist art in Russia.”

Polenova Watercolour

Having identified a shared vision, Watts Gallery and Polenovo are embarking on a number of joint activities to promote their founding artists and explore the international links of the Arts and Crafts movement. Polenovo is a very successful visitor destination and is unique in being the only family run arts heritage site in Russia. However, it remains largely unknown abroad and the Polenov family wish to establish international connections for the museum and raise its profile on an international stage.

“My idea is daring but terribly alluring. In a series of watercolours I would like to express the Russian people’s poetic view of nature – the close link between the soil and the art that grows from it. I will work with fairytales, songs, poetic superstitions. I wish to bring to light and express the images that feed Russian imagination.” - Elena Polenova, 1886

Elena Polenova was the younger sister of one of Russia’s most famous artists, Vasily Polenov (1844-1927). During the 1870s and 1880s, Elena and Vasily spent time at Abramtsevo, an artistic colony located in a rural setting outside Moscow, that sought to recapture the quality and spirit of medieval Russian art. Here, Polenova reinterpreted traditional folk patterns and developed these into fashionable designs for handmade wooden furniture produced by local people in carpentry workshops run by Polenova, the results of their labours being sold in chic Moscow boutiques.

Although Elena Polenova (1850-1898) and Mary Watts (1849-1938) never met, extraordinary parallels between the two artists’ creative lives have contributed to a partnership between the Polenov State Museum in Russia and Watts Gallery. This exhibition celebrates the partnership and is the culmination of a series of initiatives between both organisations.

Just as Elena worked with local craftsmen to produce furniture, at the same time in England, Mary Watts became involved with the Home Arts and Industries Association, a pre-cursor to the Arts and Crafts Movement. Like Abramtsevo, the Association sought to revive traditional crafts that were under threat from mechanisation.

Elena Furniture

Nicholas Tromans, Curator, Watts Gallery, has said, “The artistic and ideological affinities between Elena Polenova and Mary Watts are fascinating. Both looked to the folk art traditions of their native countries in order to make dynamic contributions to modern art and design across a very broad range of media from book illustrations to architecture.”

He added, “At Polenovo, Russia we have discovered a parallel artists’ village which shares with Compton a vision of Art for All. This exhibition is part of a programme of initiatives that will explore the Arts & Crafts movement and ethos across Europe, to increase opportunities for new audiences to enjoy and discover artistic legacies that have an enduring and unique sense of place.”