In early 1976 a rather mysterious-looking three-tiered leather coffre from France arrived at the Soviet Ministry of Culture. The case contained 37 exceptionally rare pieces of avant-garde jewelry made from gold and platinum, and encrusted with diamonds – brooches, rings and watches. This was the gift to the Soviet state from the French artist of Russian origin Nadia Khodasevich-Léger (1904-1982), the widow of the famous French Cubist artist Fernand Léger. In 1980, the Ministry of Culture donated the collection to the Moscow Kremlin Museums, where it has remained ever since. Today, it is the only documented collection of sculpted jewelry designed and made by Nadia Léger in 1970.
Although Nadia was a proclaimed French communist and even donated a number of Fernand Léger’s and her own works to the Soviet museums, the avant-garde experiments of the “red millionairess” were received with caution. Perhaps, this is also the reason, why Nadia’s avant-garde jewelry collection was accepted but not exhibited until today.
Only her monumental works, corresponding to the canons of the Socialist realist art, were benevolently and approvingly accepted by the Soviet authorities. In 1972, the artist completed and presented 72 spectacular mosaic panels featuring the portraits of the 20th century heroes and leaders, admired by Nadia Léger (among them were cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, ballerina Maya Plisetskaya, film director Sergey Eisenstein). In June 1972, her 45 monumental works were displayed at the VDNKh – the Exhibition of Achievements of National Economy in Moscow. Prior to that, in April 1972, Nadia Léger was awarded the Order of the Red Banner of Labour by the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR for her significant contribution towards the Soviet-French cooperation and promotion of the diplomatic relations between the two countries.
As the Soviet Union collapsed, Nadia’s realist works gradually fell into oblivion and became neglected for looking too "Soviet". At the same time, her own legacy in Europe remained generally unknown, having been long overshadowed by the fame of her husband, Fernand Léger. After his death, Nadia acted as custodian of his works and seemed to prioritise his oeuvre over her own. For thirty years, she had acted as the assistant and then the director of the Atelier Léger, one of the most extraordinary laboratories of modernity, where she shared her easel with Nicolas de Staël and Louise Bourgeois. However, she never stopped her artistic development: a student of Malevitch, Strzemiński, Ozenfant and Léger, Nadia experimented with almost all major art movements of the 20th century. According to the British art historian Sarah Wilson, Nadia’s works offered glimpses into the “revolutionary Suprematism, Parisian modernism, realism, art at the service of the Party, the official world of Cold War vernissages in Paris, Biot and Moscow, the extraordinary revival of Suprematism and Realism in the 1970s”. She also concurs that Nadia’s works are “an exemplary journey through the 20th century”.
Locked in her status as a woman of the shadows, Nadia deserved to be brought to light. Only in 2019, Aymar du Chatenet, a former journalist who had become passionate about Nadia’s art, published a comprehensive monograph on her life Nadia Léger - l'histoire extraordinaire d'une femme de l'ombre (Nadia Léger, an extraordinary story of a woman in the shadows) — the result of a ten-year study and research. The unanimous enthusiasm of art critics, historians and collectors, welcoming this publication, contributed to the recognition of Nadia’s role as a major artist of the 20th century.
So, who was then Nadia Léger? Born in a village near Vilnius on 23 October 1904, Nadia Khodasevich spent her childhood in Zembino, Belarus. The young peasant girl turned out to be a passionate draftswoman. Even though her relatives vehemently objected to her interest in art, at the age of 15, she ran off to Smolensk. Between 1919-1921, she took art classes from Władysław Strzemiński, the student of Kazimir Malevich, and then from Malevich himself. Kazimir Malevich was the founder of Suprematism – a new movement in the history of abstract painting, -- and the leader of the Supremus group (1915-1916), which consisted of his students and followers. Malevich, who dreamed not only of Suprematism painting but also of cities built in Suprematism style, was engaged in a ‘revolutionary remaking of world order and the creation of a ‘unified system of the world architecture on Earth’. Nadia was lucky to witness the activity of the UNOVIS group: after all, her first teacher Władysław Strzemiński and Katarzyna Kobro (1898–1951) were exactly the people who headed the Smolensk UNOVIS branch and collaborated with the Provincial Art Department of Public Education.
Wonderful and eye-opening as it was, Nadia still dreamt of studying in Paris. She set her sight on the next goal – Poland. Upon arriving there, she changed her name to Wanda Chodasiewicz and joined the Warsaw Fine Arts Academy, where she studied under artist Milosz Kotarbinski. It was there that she met her first husband, a Polish painter Stanislaw Grabowski. They got married in 1923 and then moved to Paris in November 1925. The artists joined Fernand Léger and Amédée Ozenfant’s Académie Moderne, where Nadia took part in several exhibitions as a Polish artist. She also showed her work at Parisian galleries and salons. She separated from her husband following the birth of her daughter Wanda in 1927.
Despite the constant lack of means, Nadia became a major figure among the leading artists of the Parisian School. Her paintings were exhibited at such galleries as Aubier, Au Sacre du Printemps, Galerie d’Art Contemporain alongside the works of such maîtres as Wassily Kandinsky, Jean (Hans) Arp, Alexandra Exter, Le Corbusier, Fernand Léger and many others. Already in the late 1920s, her Cubist nudes were acquired by Marie-Laure, Vicomtesse de Noailles, an influential patron of arts, for 4,000 franks. However, most of the time, especially after her divorce, Nadia had to work as a service maid during the daytime, so that she could paint in the evenings.
By 1939 it became clear that WWII was unavoidable. Fernand Léger left France and remained in the United States from October 1940 to December 1945. While in the US, he lectured at the Yale University and found inspiration for a new series of paintings. Meanwhile, Nadia remained in Paris during the occupation of France and looked after his Atelier. She is also believed to have been involved with the French resistance movement. Having dyed her hair platinum blonde and obtained fake papers, she became a liaison agent under the name of Georgette Paineau, affiliated with an FTP-MOI network. Throughout the Occupation she continued to paint in the deserted and icy Léger’s studio at Montrouge. It was then that she created a series of self-portraits and Fernand Léger’s portraits. She also was celebrated for having helped to repatriate former Soviet prisoners of war by organising a charitable art auction, for which the works were donated by Picasso, Braque, Matisse, Annenkov, Kandinsky, Goncharova, Chagall, Bonnard and Léger.
With France liberated, Nadia reopened the studio and prepared for Fernand Léger’s return. Upon his arrival in 1945, Fernand Léger joined the Communist Party. Also, following the death of his first wife Jeanne-Augustine Lohy in 1950, he married Nadia Khodasevich in February 1952. Both artists lived in the southwest suburb of Paris, at Gif-sur-Yvette. This change of circumstances was a blessing and a curse for Nadia: while her financial and social position greatly improved and opened to her many doors, her artistic reputation suffered, as she became overshadowed by her husband. In addition, her numerous post-war works were attributed to Fernand Léger, even though she signed them as “Nadia Petrova”. In November 1953, she exhibited 75 new works at the Bernheim-Jeune Gallery. Louis Aragon praised the paintings: “We can debate on them, we must recognize in Nadia Petrova-Léger’s work a rather singular audacity, a decision that has earned her esteem.”
Five years after Léger’s death, in 1960, Nadia supervised the construction and launch of the Musée Fernand Léger in Biot, Alpes-Maritimes, near Antibes. The museum was donated to the French state in 1967, and in February 1969, the French Minister of Culture, André Malraux, opened the Musée National Fernand Léger. The following year, Nadia converted Léger's farm at Lisores in Normandy into the Ferme-Musée Fernand Léger. For opening these museums Nadia was decorated with the Order of the Legion of Honour, the highest order of merit given by the president of France for military and civil distinction.
That said, it did not mean that Nadya’s own artistic career was over. On the contrary, a major historical event pointed her in a new direction. On April 12, 1961, the Vostok satellite spaceship with a pilot onboard was launched into open space – an unprecedented achievement in world history. The spacecraft was piloted by the Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, whose image and name became synonymous with space exploration. This event brought about "cosmic" shockwaves in Nadia: she witnessed humanity’s dream become reality and perceived it as the ultimate fulfillment of Kazimir Malevich’s hopes and prophecies. Early in the 20th century he wrote: “Within a person, in human consciousness, lies hidden a longing for the outer space, the yearning for the “detachment from the earthly sphere”.
As writer and journalist André Parino recollected, one day he saw Nadia rummaging through her old cardboard boxes in search of some 50-year-old sketches and drawings she made as a student of Strzemiński and Malevich. “Half a century later, a cosmonaut unexpectedly embodied the art which once enlightened the life of a young girl, and which she thought to have been buried by the time and her own recollections. All of a sudden, it looked as if Malevich’s paintings had been projected onto the huge screen in the skies. Neither Suprematism, nor its geometry of space were dead! The sputnik announced this all over the world”.
From that time onwards, Nadia became obsessed with the image of Yuri Gagarin: she made seven portraits of the young Soviet hero. It was probably not a coincidence, that when visiting France in 1963, Gagarin stayed at Gif-sur-Yvette, the former Parisian house of Fernand Léger, which Nadia donated to the French Communist Party after his death in 1955.
Meanwhile, Nadia was tracing her artistic roots: “Malevich anticipated our era fifty years ago, because our present is the time of the real dynamics and movement in space”, she said. Turning back to her Suprematism past, Nadia created works of great emotional power and impact. In March 1971, she presented her works in the Centre d’Art International. The exhibition bore the title: Nadia Léger. The First Evolution 1920-1926. It exploded like a bomb. Many of Nadia’s contemporaries perceived it as a revelation. Produced between 1965 and 1972, her many Suprematism works were then misunderstood, even criticized by her colleagues. Thankfully, today Nadia Léger’s “forms in space” are seen as the important links in her artistic journey that spanned the 20th century.
It is at that time that Nadia also started a new artistic friendship. In 1970, the famous “Space Age designer” Pierre Cardin opened in Paris his own multipurpose venue, known as L’Espace Cardin. It was “a place of research, a place of eclecticism”, which boasted its own theatre, cinema, restaurant and exhibition space. Prior to that, in the 1960s, Cardin was propelled to international fame as a new-generation haute-couture designer, who claimed that he designed clothes for “the world of tomorrow” and “for a lifestyle that does not yet exist”. He was also greatly inspired by Gagarin’s space flight. His imagination ignited by the new Space Age, he pushed the boundaries of fashion by introducing advanced technologies and exploring new materials, like vinyl, heat-molded Dynel and Plexiglass; or introducing vibrant colours, silvery metals and new silhouettes, like his scandalous “bubble dress”. He was one of the first couturiers to consistently create architectonic designs: cylinders, cones and spheres, pleated planes and intersecting lines. “My clothes are like modules in which bodies move”, proclaimed Cardin.
Obviously, the works of modernist artists were also a great inspiration to him. “Art is my other great passion besides my work”, confessed Cardin when explaining why he supported a range of creative disciplines and cultural experiences. Prior to his success, his most long-lasting friendship was with Fernand Léger and after the artist’s death with his widow, Nadia. Cardin was always attracted by Léger’s “industrial techniques, volumes and geometry”, his revolutionary and yet, “very simple” approach. Particularly attractive for Cardin was Fernand Léger’s attempt to break into three-dimensionality of a moving sculpture that would depart from the two-dimensional flatness of the painterly surface, thus, making painting dynamic and alive. “It is what I intended to do myself in my designs”, confessed the couturier later. So, this explains why Cardin did not wish to lose contact with Nadia. There is no doubt, that Fernand Léger's Cubist vision of theatre as sculpture in motion appealed to Cardin as much as Malevich's theory of abstract forms moving in space, manifest in all Nadia's drawings and designs.
Perhaps, it was only logical that he acquired the whole series of Léger’s ballet and opera designs from his widow. In 1970, he displayed them in the newly opened Espace Cardin in Paris. Inspired by modernist art and Léger’s work, Cardin hoped to bring together fashion, art and architecture: “I believe first in shape, architecture, the geometry of a dress”. At that time he also experimented with interior design by producing furniture and futuristic decorative sculptures, like Les Sculptures Utilitaires, designed stage sets, accessories and jewelry. This could have also provided some inspiration for Nadia Léger, for in 1971 she showcased her Suprematism furniture in L’Espace Cardin.
Brimming with new energy and inspiration, Nadia launched her numerous solo exhibitions, produced mosaic panels (she was 65 when she began to explore this new medium) and completed mosaic portraits of the 20th-century heroes. The atmosphere of the time seemed to encourage Nadia’s own protean artistic qualities: she engaged in volume work, produced metal sculpture, tapestries and jewelry designs.
To be more precise, some of her early brooches dated back to the early 1960s. Initially, she made editions of gold and brass jewelry. Some of them were apparently commissioned to Nadia by Pierre Cardin. According to some scholars, “Suprematism brooches for Pierre Cardin sum up Nadia as a more complex character than meets the eye”. Unfortunately, as written in Du Chatenet’s monograph, “it is difficult to trace and recover the lists of these jewelry pieces and sculpted works”. Some of them were made of 18-carat gold but most of them were made of gilded brass. They were produced in the editions of several dozens. Pierre Cardin himself kept several brooches in his own collection. Ten of them were reproduced in Christophe Czwiklitzer’s book Suprématisme de Nadia Khodossievitch-Léger. Also, we can spot Nadia wearing some of her own brooches in the old photographs.
The 37-pieces collection, which is currently held by the Moscow Kremlin Museums, dates to the early 1970s. It is exceptional in every respect: first, it is made only of precious materials, second, the jewelry pieces are themselves very diverse (not only brooches, but also watches, earrings and rings), and third, they are of exceptional artistic value. Larisa Poshekhonova, curator of the exhibition Suprematism Vision: Space Motifs in the Graphic Works and Jewellery Designs of Nadia Léger1, which celebrates the career of the exceptional woman artist of the 20th century, called this collection “unprecedented” in the history of Russian art and jewelry-making tradition. Today, it is the only documented collection of sculpted jewelry designed by the celebrated artist to commemorate the dawn of the Space Age.
Indeed, these jewelry pieces are the embodiment of Suprematism forms, captured by Malevich, which, in his own words, “do not touch the Earth, but can be explored or studied like any planet or whole planetary system”. Nadia Léger’s brooches, which can be viewed as microcosms in their own right, epitomise this principle perfectly. Take three spectacular brooches from her Polaris series in gold, white gold and white gold, set with diamonds. These three pieces, their outlines resembling sputniks in flight, seem to be hovering in space. Depending on their colour, light refracting properties and viewer’s position, they appear as static or moving.
The fact that the same version was reproduced in various colours, indicated that having studied dynamic properties of colour compositions, Nadia was willing to experiment with the expressive properties of her sculpted jewelry pieces. Many prototypes of her future jewelry designs could be found in her late 1920s paintings and drawings. In the 1970s, she applied the principles of her painted compositions to three-dimensional objects. It is possible that metallic sculptures preceded their miniature jeweled counterparts and later served as models for Nadia’s jewelry designs. In any case, the architectonics of smaller jewelry pieces increased their dynamic potential.
As Nadia would recollect, “Malevich taught his students to visualise the movement of geometric forms around the Earth, the Moon… the Sun. There could be no symmetry in Suprematism compositions because all shapes remained constantly in motion. He explained to us that when several geometric figures fell down, they never did so in the same manner. He taught us to build our spatial constructions according to this logic. One and the same shape in motion could never stay unchanged, and neither could the space between the geometric figures. The difference in their free-falling motion created different shapes within one and the same object”.
Within this context, the new exhibition showcasing Nadia Léger’s jewelry collection in the Armoury’s vestibule at the Moscow Kremlin Museums is nothing short of a revelation – it makes available to the public the least known aspect of Nadia Léger's outstanding artistic legacy and demonstrates the scope of her talent. Prior to this, only twelve pieces from the whole collection were briefly displayed in 1995. Looking at them now, one begins to understand why Pierre Cardin admired these pieces so much and sought to add them to his own art collection: they certainly embodied his deepest artistic aspirations.
Along with the jewelry pieces are displayed the portrait of Nadia, made by her husband Fernand Léger, four Suprematism Compositions from the State Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts and Pablo Picasso’s drawing, depicting Yuri Gagarin as a soaring dove. It is most commendable that the Kremlin Museums have joined the process of reinstating Nadia Léger as a leading artist of the 20th century, a modernist master of considerable, versatile talent.
1 Suprematism Vision: Space Motifs in the Graphic Works and Jewellery Designs of Nadia Léger will run until August 31, 2021, in the Front Hall of the Armoury Chamber, the Moscow Kremlin Museums.