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Zaha Hadid retrospective at the State Hermitage

September 17, 2015 /

1 Zaha Hadid, painting from The Peak series.jpgZaha Hadid's Peak paintings push forward the Suprematist art movement.Image courtesy of Zaha Hadid

By Kevin Holden Platt

Art students, architects and photographers have been storming Saint Petersburg's Winter Palace to view Zaha Hadid's summer-long exhibition, a tribute to an art revolution launched in the imperial capital of the czars a century ago.

Converging on the palace complex from across Russia, the visitors have been shooting images of Ms. Hadid's paintings, sculptures and architectural models - all part of the artist/architect's first retrospective in Saint Petersburg, says Ksenia Malich, who is curating the show at the State Hermitage Museum.

The 250 year-old palace now holds an edgy ensemble of galleries for Ms. Hadid's artworks; stop-motion paintings that capture skyscrapers or cities speeding across the skies; and her architecture - buildings that seem to hover above the Earth, held aloft on beams of light.

2 ZHA's design for Russian exhibition.jpgZaha personally designed the Winter Palace exhibition. Rendering courtesy of ZHA

"I won the Pritzker Prize in Saint Petersburg," Zaha Hadid says in an interview, "so to do the new show there is extraordinary."

On receiving The Pritzker Prize, architecture's highest award, in a ceremony staged at the Hermitage, Ms. Hadid said that Saint Petersburg's Suprematist art movement had launched a new age of creativity for artists and architects around the world.

After tens of thousands of years of artistic progression, spanning the early modern humans who painted their own hands onto cave ceilings to the early Modern artists who speed-sketched impressions of cafes, cathedrals or starlit skies, the Suprematists were the first to create imaginary abstract worlds on canvas.

Revolutionizing the world of art by abruptly abandoning the depiction of reality in painting, these pioneers of abstraction "opened the possibility of unfettered invention," Ms. Hadid added.

Although the Suprematists flourished during the early euphoria of the October Revolution in 1917, they faced escalating attacks as Stalin moved to impose his diktats on Socialist Realist art and authoritarian architecture across the Soviet Union.

"The Russian avant-garde explained to artists they can be free - there are no restrictions on creativity," says Mikhail Piotrovsky, the liberal scholar who heads the Hermitage.

Artists and architects under attack

Yet Ms. Hadid has helped give new life to the Suprematist movement on the global stage and extend it to the sphere of architecture, Mr. Piotrovsky adds in an interview.

It was while an architecture student in London, Ms. Hadid recalls, that she became entranced by Suprematist paintings with simple geometric shapes such as rectangles, circles and crosses - that drift dreamlike across the canvases. 

A new age in architecture

Across these painted worlds, she says, she perceived an otherworldly anti-gravity and the portents for a new age in architecture.  In an epiphany, she adds, she saw the potential for a structure or even an entire cosmopolis to break free from the force of gravitation.  She began painting her visions of floating cities, in artworks like The Peak series, now on view at the Hermitage exhibition, and her quest to transform these drawings into architectural projects that appear to defy Newton's law of universal gravitation. 

Through sophisticated engineering and design, Ms. Hadid explains, "a building can appear to be floating, free from gravity."

3 Serpentine Sackler Gallery-photo by Luke Hayes, ZHA.jpgThe Serpentine Sackler Gallery in London resembles a high-tech cloud. Credit: Luke Hayes, ZHA

Animating the Winter Palace exhibition, which runs until September 27th, are ingeniously designed "floating structures" that Zaha Hadid Architects has created around the world: an Azerbaijan cultural center seemingly suspended on a platform of light, the Austrian railway stations that glide above the surface of the Earth, and a London gallery whose curved-cloud contours appear poised to ascend into the air.  

4 Austria Nordpark Cable Railway-photo by Werner Huthmacher, ZHA.jpgAustria's railway stations designed by ZHA glide above the Earth. Credit: Werner Huthmacher, ZHA

5 baku zha retry.jpgBaku's cultural centre floats on a platform of light. Credit: Hufton+Crow Photographers, ZHA

Patrik Schumacher, director of Zaha Hadid Architects, says the Suprematist revolution unleashed a utopian creative explosion that continues to reverberate through the spheres of art and architecture even today, and that the studio aims to harness these forces in its own designs.

While the leaders of Russia's avant-garde and their calls for cultural freedom were crushed across the Soviet Union, Zaha Hadid has helped engineer a renaissance of their art and ideals across the West.  In the center of Zurich, she paid homage to these fallen art revolutionaries by designing a show at the Gmurzynska Gallery that juxtaposed Suprematist works by Kazimir Malevich, the founder of the movement, with Hadid's own sculptures and prints.  

8 Exhibition at Galerie Gmurzynska-Martin Ruestchi_ZHA 01.jpgZaha's Suprematist exhibition at Zurich's  Galerie Gmurzynska. Credit: Martin Ruestchi, ZHA

Ms. Hadid transformed the Swiss gallery into a supersize Suprematist artwork that explorers could trek through, says the Gmurzynska Gallery's director, Mathias Rastorfer.

A timeless glow in Zaha Hadid's designs

"There is a timelessness to the Suprematist artworks," says Mr. Rastorfer, which likewise shines through Zaha Hadid's paintings and architecture.

9 Exhibition at Galerie Gmurzynska-Martin Ruestchi_ZHA 02.jpgZaha's Suprematist exhibition at Zurich's Galerie Gmurzynska. Credit: Martin Ruestchi, ZHA

The London-based architect similarly transmuted the Guggenheim Museum in New York when she designed The Great Utopia exhibition on Russia's avant-garde, says Thomas Krens, director emeritus of the Guggenheim Foundation.

Mr. Krens, who later filled the Guggenheim Museum with Hadid's own canvases and maquettes for a massive retrospective, says she is part of the pantheon of utopian architects, alongside Frank Lloyd Wright and Frank Gehry, whose structures have the rare ability to completely transfigure their surroundings.

As head of the Guggenheim Foundation, Krens commissioned Frank Gehry to design the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao; the groundbreaking sculpture-like titanium structure triggered a spiraling metamorphosis of the entire Basque city in a phenomenon now called "the Bilbao Effect."  Zaha Hadid's cultural projects have sparked a similar sweeping "transformative effect" on the wider cosmopolis, the Guggenheim's erudite director adds in an interview.

Suprematist utopia realized

Zaha Hadid says the Suprematists were just one of the groups of utopian artists or architects who set out to create a new world but faced opposition from an authoritarian government.

Yet through struggle, she adds, "the utopia is eventually realized."

The paintings and architectural designs she has unveiled at the Winter Palace, she says, "are infused with the Suprematist idea of creative freedom." In that sense, she adds, the reemergence of the Suprematist spirit in Saint Petersburg "is really amazing."

Hans Ulrich Obrist, a co-director at the Serpentine Galleries in London who commissioned Ms. Hadid to design the expansion of the Serpentine Sackler Gallery, says the Pritzker Prize laureate "has contributed to the revival of the Russian avant-garde through her extraordinary drawings, through her architecture and through her exhibitions."

"It's wonderful that Zaha's work is now coming to the country whose artists inspired her breakthroughs," he says. "By returning to Saint Petersburg, the Suprematist revolution is really coming full circle."

Last updated: September 23, 2015

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