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  • Writer's pictureMadeleina Kay

Visiting Thessaloniki Museum of Modern Art

Dada photography by Man-Ray and Ukraininan Artist, Solomon Nikritin.


I decided to visit the Museum of Modern Art whilst I was visiting Thessaloniki and was pleasantly surprised that they let me in for free with my student card. The building and interior spaces were not like your typical Western gallery. It was a very old building with wooden or tiled floors, unusual arches in the middle of the rooms and most of the walls were painted in various dark, dull shades (not your standard, white-washed walls).


In the downstairs gallery were a series of photographic prints by Man-Ray (1890-1976). I was happy to see this work having read about his work in a book on Da-Da which I bought in Berlin. Most of the photographs were nudes, including the iconic, 1920s Da-Da work, ‘Coat Stand’ – this artwork was in the book and makes me smile whenever I see it. I also liked ‘(Kiki) Le Violon d’Ingres’, 1924 – which features a woman’s back with the ‘f’ symbol from string instruments super-imposed on her back. Generally speaking, I don’t like nudes because of the objectification of women’s bodies, but in these instances I enjoyed the element of humour in the works – and there were male nudes in the exhibition, as well.

 Upstairs, over two floors was an extensive retrospective of the life works of Solomon Nikritin (1898 – 1965), a Ukrainian, avante-garde artist, philosopher and author. Slightly confusingly, the odd work by other artists were interspersed within the exhibition which were largely works by Nikritin, and I couldn’t quite understand their relevance or placement but it was usually easy to identify which works were by others. As well as an incredible collection of studies, finished work and research by Nikritin, some quotes from his philosophical writings were displayed (in Greek and English).

I was interested in his work and conceptual explorations because of the clear political themes, working at the time of the Russian Revolution (starting 1917) and living through war. Two drawings from his “War Series” (created in the early 1920s) really stood out to me, because of the intensity of emotion and clear themes of trauma, suffering and death of ‘defenceless people’. The legend explained how ‘most of the drawings … feature the familiar black square as a frame. Here, the artist is not interested in a “horizontal” narrative, but in one that unfolds in a circular fashion. The content is presented to viewers based on three elements: space-time-action. He conceives space as horizontal, time as vertical, while an ascending spiral is a reference to action’. I found this approach to narrative particularly interesting as someone who has created political propaganda both in the form of cartoon strips which read from left to right and top to bottom in a linear fashion, as well as images with the “action” contained within a singular frame and I hadn’t really considered the difference in narrative presentation. I couldn’t help but wonder if the spiral form of narrative was also a reference to the futility and seemingly never-ending suffering.

I was excited to discover that Nikritin also created anti-war propaganda posters, having recently read 'Propaganda Prints' by Colin Moore which included a chapter on the use of propaganda in the Russian Revolution. Although the posters themselves weren’t included in the exhibition, instead there were small designs for posters, one of which had a 3-D layer which I found intriguing. Obviously, I couldn’t read the messaging since the text was in Russian, but the intensity of emotion in the visual imagery was palpable, using emotionally intense colours evocative of war; red, black and white.

As part of his philosophical thinking around ‘Projectionism’, which ‘was perceived by the artist as a social system that was more perfect than communism. In 1924, Nikritin created an extraordinary series of designs representing the stages of society’s development towards universal Projectionism.’ These 3 cartograms were titled ‘Theory of the historical evolution of the world’, ‘General Labour Programme during the dictatorship of the Proletariat’ and ‘Projectionism Strategy and Tactics’. I was fascinated by this diagrammatical exploration of societal development; from the evolution of inorganic and organic matter through the actualisation of new consciousness, to a system free of authorities and punishment where man is truly free. Perhaps a tad unrealistic, but I admired the conviction of his ideas, as well as the way in which he communicated them.

The inter-disciplinary nature of Nikritin’s work was evident throughout the exhibition, and the themes he explored through his lifetime were clearly underpinned by scientific research. Other works which spoke to me were his studies of ‘emotional states’ including his series, ‘rhythmo-melodic system’ which were an attempt by the artist to ‘depict the sound of emotions. As a musician as well as an artist, I loved his visual interpretation of sound and music and I can relate his attempts to visually depict ‘emotional states’ with some of my abstract paintings exploring the same topic. What I found especially interesting was how four of the drawings in this series were presented, because he had drawn on the back of the paper as well as the front, these two sheets were displayed in front of a mirror – so that you could view both sides. I’ve never seen works presented in a gallery in this way but it made the works more engaging.

On this same theme, there were three works which used more scientific diagrams to present his research and conceptual thinking. I really enjoyed his ‘statistical graphs for the quantitative and qualitative presence of the various emotional states… showing the distribution of the various emotions in time, reducing them to percentages in order of occurrence’. Although I am somewhat sceptical of whether emotions can be reduced to numerical descriptors, I thought it was an interesting idea to explore. Equally his ‘system of organisation of colour and sounds perceptions (1926-1927)’ interested me as I often associate emotions with particular colours, ‘In this study, the artist explicates the idea of comparison – the visual properties of the visible spectrum of colours and the acoustic properties of the audible spectrum… the colour palette is called a keyboard, while complex colour combinations are named chords.’ These works spoke to me on a deeper level as I am also interested in exploring this association of colour, musical chords and emotion, through my abstract painting.

The last work I saw in the exhibition really spoke to me because it aligned with my own political beliefs – was a text-based piece, a sort of manifesto, titled ‘my notes about the state’. Written in Russian, the translation invited the viewer to contemplate ‘the driving forces’ of life ‘fame, honour, money’ and to consider an alternative reality ‘a country that is politically liberated…. Where there is no power, neither political, nor economic, nor ideological, where there is free play, a time when one ceases to represent anyone but himself, and where goodness only thrives by the power of nature.’

Information about the artist's life and living conditions were also displayed in the gallery. Reading this made me ever-more grateful for the living and working spaces which I have and are a reminder of how historically, artists have had to struggle to make their incredibly important work.

Finally, I wanted to include this photograph of the sign on the very inclusive toilet doors, mainly because the idea of sharing a toilet with a mermade, alien and a minion made me laugh.

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