Saturday, December 5, 2009

A Sparrow in the Soviet Storm

Vera Mikhailovna Ermolayeva (1893-1937) was a Russian painter, printmaker and illustrator. 
Her legs had been paralyzed since childhood, and she walked with the aid of crutches. 
After studying painting and archeology, in 1918 she established the artist collective Segodnya (Today) 
in Petrograd, which published small editions of children's books illustrated with hand tinted linocuts 
in the traditional lubok style.

Illustration for Petukh (Rooster) by Natan Vengrov, linocut with watercolor additions, 1918

Cover and illustration for Myshata by Natan Vengrov, linocut with watercolor additions, 1918

In 1919 Ermolayeva was chosen to replace Chagall as the rector of the Institute of Practical Arts in Vitebsk
She appointed Kazimir Malevich as head of the painting department, and with some of the school's students 
they formed the UNOVIS group. During this period she was strongly influenced by Malevich's ideas, and created
Suprematist designs for stage sets and wall paintings. In the early twenties Ermolayeva moved to Leningrad,
 where she worked at the Institute of Artistic Culture and the Art History Institute. In this period, 
she moved away from abstraction and started developing her personal style of figurative painting.

Illustration for the fairy-tale book Zaichik (Bunny), linocut, 1923

From 1923, she contributed to the first children's magazines VorobeyNovy Robinzon and Chizh and Ezh
and in 1925 she started illustrating children's books for the state publishing house Gosizdat. These works 
reflect not only Ermolayeva's artistic skills and mastering of different techniques, but her strong sense 
of humor and joie de vivre. She published approximately twenty books with texts by leading poets 
like Daniil Kharms, Nikolay Zabolotsky, Alexander Vvedensky and others.

Illustration for Top-top-top by Nikolai Aseyev, 1925

Illustration for Krasnosheika by Nikolai Aseyev, 1927

Cover and illustration for Martyshka i Ochki (The monkey and the spectacles) by I.A.Krylov, 1929

Sketch for the cover of Kot Pamfil (Pamphil the Cat), watercolor on paper, 1928 (unpublished)

Cover and sketch for Rybaki (Fishermen) by Aleksander Vvedenskij, gouache on paper, 1930
In 1928 Ermolayeva went on a trip to the White Sea, and recorded her impressions in a series of gouaches.
 These works inspired Kharms and Vvedensij, who wrote children's books based on them.
Cover and illustrations for her own Sobachki (Little dogs), 1929

Cover and double spread for Ivan Ivanovich Samovar by Daniil Kharms,1929

Illustration for Reineke Fox (Reynard the fox) by Johann Goethe, 1930 (unpublished)

Regrettably, like many other members of the Russian avant-gardes, Ermolayeva became a victim 
of the Stalinist purges and her life had a tragic ending. In 1934 she was arrested with a group of other artists,
 possibly because of her satirical illustrations for Reineke Fox, or her brother's involvement with the Mansheviks.
 She was condemned to 5 years in a prison camp in Kazakhstan, from which she never returned. Some sources 
say that she was executed by shooting in 1937On a personal note, while I always love researching the lives
 behind the artworks, I found Ermolayeva's story particularly interesting and moving. I now deeply admire 
this brave and independent woman and sensitive artist, who in spite of her physical impairment took 
a very active role in times of great changes, and was crushed by her fatal collision with the dark currents 
of history. I am not aware of any current editions of her children's books, but found two illustrated volumes
 about her work, both in Russian: Vera Ermolayeva by A.Zainchkovskaya, 2009, and the exhibition catalogue
Vera Ermolayeva, 1893-1937, published in 2008.


  1. Thank you for introducing me to some beautiful work :)

  2. Oh my, what visually arresting work and a powerful story. Yes, I echo Deb... thank you for introducing me to her work, fantastic!

  3. A wonderful find! You have been blowing my mind recently.

  4. So glad you like this too... I am very intrigued by Ermolayeva, and am trying to locate more of her works. Unfortunately, after her premature death in exile, much seems to have been lost or forgotten. In any case, stay tuned for more Soviet illustration coming soon!

  5. This comment has been removed by the author.



Related Posts with Thumbnails