Essay by Valerie Fletcher

Born in prerevolutionary Russia (in the area that is now independent Ukraine), Antoine Pevsner began his career as a painter. He first studied at the School of Fine Arts in Kiev and then briefly at the Academy of Art in St. Petersburg. A sojourn in Paris from 1911 to 1914 introduced him to cubism and futurism, two radically new approaches to representing reality in art. Pevsner developed his cubist paintings in Oslo, where he lived with his younger brother (the sculptor Naum Gabo) to avoid being drafted into service in World War I.

After the new U.S.S.R. withdrew from the war in 1917, the brothers returned to Moscow to participate in the utopian fervor of building a new egalitarian society. For five years Pevsner taught painting at the new official art school, where the fine arts were adapted to the applied arts (the School of Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture became the Higher Technical-Artistic Studios). This experience led him away from painting to making sculptures that could, in theory, be adapted for use in architecture and urban design projects. His sculptures were strongly influenced by his brother’s innovative constructions. Because of severe shortages of materials in the fledgling Soviet Union, these early works were small in scale and most did not survive.

In 1923, as the Soviet leadership shifted from utopian to totalitarian, Pevsner immigrated permanently to France. In the exhilarating art environment of Paris, he joined other artists who endorsed the new aesthetics of geometric abstraction. Pevsner developed a style based on convex and concave forms, primarily funnel-shaped vortices. Such art was suppressed during the Nazi occupation of France during World War II but reemerged strongly in the early 1950s.

Column of Peace, 1954

The sociohistorical context for this work was postwar Europe. After the devastation and destruction of seven years of combat and oppression, Europeans intensely hoped for a lasting peace as they rebuilt their lives and their countries. In the early 1950s, enough financial resources had been amassed to begin building monuments to the dead, to the sacrifices and losses, to conquering heroes and countless victims.

In 1952 Pevsner was one of many sculptors who submitted a proposal to the competition for an unrealized Monument to the Unknown Political Prisoner. Then in 1954 he conceived this sculpture as a model for another large memorial that was never made. The composition consists of intersecting, upwardly rising diagonals. To viewers familiar with the original utopian meanings underlying abstract art, the message is one of hope for progress.

Early in the twentieth century, the Italian futurist artists had conceived the basics of a visual language for the new Machine Age. Their ideas were widely disseminated throughout Europe and the Americas by the mid-1920s. Some, like the Dutch De Stijl artists, adopted their idea that horizontals and verticals convey stability and harmony. Others, like Pevsner, adopted the futurist emphasis on diagonal linear elements, originally known as “lines of force.” Diagonals convey optical movement, which in turn can symbolize creativity and progress. By the time Pevsner conceived his Column of Peace, this abstract language was widely understood among educated audiences.

In Column of Peace, the main elements rise from a tight cluster; the diagonals expand to point upward and outward. In the original, Pevsner created each form by soldering together bundles of thin brass rods. Even after the sculpture was cast into bronze, the rods form distinct ridges in each form, reinforcing their linear energy.

Valerie Fletcher is Senior Curator at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, DC. Her research on groundbreaking aspects of international, globalized, and transnational art have resulted in numerous exhibitions and publications.