LILYA BRIK COULD well be known as the woman who launched a thousand poster designs. The poster that made her famous was created by the Alexander Rodchenko. They both shone in the immediate aftermath of the Russian Revolution but their light was gradually extinguished as the Stalinist shadow fell across the land.
Rodchenko thrived in the new world of the 1917 Revolution and dedicated himself to creating a new art that embraced the ordinary and could be used by everybody: "the streets are our brushes, the squares our palettes" was Rodchenko's central philosophy.
He agreed with Lenin that art could be a force for change. But his work quickly fell out of favour as the 'Socialist Realism' of Stalinism took a grip. Rodchenko's work always tried to provoke while Stalin simply wanted art that was unchallenging and that celebrated the new Soviet Union that he now controlled. While Rodchenko wanted to reflect ordinary life, Stalin wanted 'heroes'.
|Lilya Brik by Alexander Rodchenko, 1924|
By the time he died in 1956 he had suffered the fate of a great many Russian artists and activists and had been written out of Russian history.
In the end Rodchenko was too closely identified with Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky to be ever acceptable to Stalin.
Lilya Brik also found herself on the long list of people deemed to be 'enemies' of the Soviet Union but Stalin personally chose not to have her executed - which was the fate of her husband Vitali Primakov, an army general she had married in 1930. He was executed in 1937, another victim of Stalin's show trails against his opponents and especially people suspected to be supporters of Left Opposition leader Leon Trotsky.
In the 1920s, Lilya directed two films, a documentary titled Jews On the Land, based on a scenario about Jewish collective farms in Russia and a parody on bourgeois cinema titled The Glass Eye.
From 1922-1928 she was also involved in publishing the magazine LEF, Leftist Front of Arts which became the platform for the LEF group, and for Russian Dada and Constructivist art.
Rodchenko was at the height of his career when Lilya modelled for him. Though he was classically trained as an artist, by the time of their collaboration Rodchenko had already taken the decision to abandon painting and sculpture for photography, which he regarded as the perfect popular medium.
Lilya Brik is featured in many of Rodchenko's posters, pamphlets and publications, but the most familiar to us today is a poster for a soviet publisher, Gosizdat, from 1924, which shows Lilya, with hand to wide-open mouth, shouting BOOKS! It is this poster that has been appropriated for everything from the cover of rock albums (Franz Ferdinand) to retail campaigns. Indeed the visual language of Rodchenko has been enormously influential in the west.
And while Lilya also modelled for such artists as Fernand Léger and Henri Matisse, it is her collaboration with Rodchenko that she is principally known today.
In 1978, following a fall, Lilya was told she would be bedridden, and months later she committed suicide. She was 87 years old.