How Soviet artist Anna Andreeva found freedom from state censors in fabric

23 September 2020

Her dresses were coveted among Soviet women, while her suits earned Raisa Gorbacheva — wife of former Russian president Mikhail Gorbachev — her reputation as a style icon. Textile designer Anna Andreeva was so revered in the late USSR that her astonishing fabrics were gifted by the Soviet government on cultural diplomatic missions. While painters and sculptors were forced to adhere to the socialist realist style imposed by the regime, Andreeva found a freedom in fabrics to pursue abstraction.

Now, it seems that Andreeva’s work is ready to be admired by a new generation. In 2019, the Museum of Modern Art in New York acquired several of Andreeva’s textiles designs and sketches. Her family in Moscow, meanwhile, is opening a new private archive of her works.

Elbrus Mountain, from her Sanatoriums series

Early defining moments

Born in 1917, in a village near Tambov, southeast of Moscow, Andreeva (then Prasolova), was the seventh child of a wealthy family. For this, she was deemed an enemy of the people after the Bolshevik Revolution; her parents’ home was taken by the Red Army and transformed into a Communist Bureau. She was forced to leave home at the age of nine and flee to Moscow, where she stayed with distant relatives. Andreeva was accepted to study at a prestigious Soviet Architectural Institute, but later saw her application retracted because of her bourgeois status. Devastated, she asked to be transferred to the Textile Institute, which proved to be a blessing in disguise. After graduation, she took a job at Moscow’s Krasnaya Roza, Russia’s oldest and most progressive silk factories.

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Named after German-Polish communist leader Rosa Luxembourg, the factory had made history in 1924 by naming Ludmila Mayakovskaya (sister of renowned revolutionary poet Vladimir Mayakovsky) as its first female head designer. Mayakovskaya introduced aerography to the factory — an “airbrushing” method that involves paint being sprayed onto fabric. The technique would eventually allow Andreeva to produce dazzling patterns and motifs.

Andreeva worked on both in mass production, and on exclusive commissions for international exhibitions and cultural events. “The sound of textile machines is obsessive. I dream of it and I love it,” she would say in her later years.

Style and subject

Distinguished by its zigzag pattern, Andreeva’s Electrification series (1960s-1974) was made to honour the Bolsheviks’ ambitious campaign to adopt electricity across the Soviet Union. Thanks to Andreeva, this slice of history was able to live on as decorative wall hangings, womenswear, and textiles samples travelling to international exhibitions.

Anna Andreeva and Tatiana Andreeva, Electrification design for silk fabric (1974)
From the Electrification series
From the Electrification series

Another of Andreeva’s patterns — and her first state commission — was a scarf celebrating Yuri Gagarin, the first cosmonaut in space. Gagarin himself would gift the scarf Queen Elizabeth II on his visit to London in 1961. It is now part of the MoMA collection in New York; the design is black and gold design, and features satellites, stars, comets, and rockets, next to an inscription in English that reads: “Glory to the First Soviet Cosmonaut”. A copy of the scarf is on show at the National History Museum of Moscow.

Glory to the first cosmaunaut (1961)

The scarf made such an impression on British diplomats that Andreeva received a personal invitation to join Gagarin’s delegation on the trip to London. International travel was reserved for the elite: Andreeva, by comparison, had refused to join the Communist Party and married a dissident and gulag survivor. Still, she was allowed to fly to the UK, under the strict supervision of the KGB.

From her Radio Waves series (1974)
From her Radio Waves series (1974)

After the success of the cosmonaut scarves, Andreeva went on to explore a wide range of themes: historic battle scenes, dances and games, natural studies from florals to bark, firework and crystal structures, and urbanist compositions. She remained fascinated by the intersection of science and art.

From 1971, Andreeva often collaborated with her daughter, Tatiana Andreeva, who had studied maths and design. Together, they translated geometric formulas into textile patterns, seen in the 1974 series Radio Waves, 1972-1974 Electrification series, and the commemorative designs for the Union of Technological Youth. It’s precisely this marriage of art and science that has sparked the interest of museums like London’s Tate Modern or The Getty Center in Los Angeles.

Up close

Andreeva lived on the 10th floor of an apartment block with a view on Moscow’s busy Tverskaya Street. Each time her family suggested moving somewhere quieter, she would simply say: “I have an urban mind.” Her penchant for urban life made it into her textiles, in compositions which she would call “city fabric on fabric”.

In 1967, she dedicated a textile series entitled Hello Moscow to her city. It features landmarks such as Stalin’s Seven Sisters and the Moskva River Embankment floating over checked patterns. The design went on display at several international exhibitions, and Andreeva herself had a black and white cocktail dress made with this pattern. Another of her series, Sanatoriums, depicting the health spas workers across the USSR were sent for rest, which she saw on her trips to silk factories in Central Asia, Caucasus, and the Urals.

Hello Moscow (1960s)

Legacy

Andreeva had to defend her work throughout her career, which censors called “anti-proletariat” and “pure propaganda of abstraction”. But she always managed to get her abstract designs approved, in one case by convincing the censorship committee that the pattern would make Soviet women look skinnier. Still, even if she was working on political and ideological commissions, Andreeva felt like she had more freedom than her colleagues working in monumental art, graphic design, or painting. “We were privileged to experiment,” she used to say. “Textile was the territory of freedom.”

From the series Mathematical formulas (1974)
From the series Mathematical formulas (1974)

Andreeva stayed on as a leading artist at Krasnaya Roza until 1984, and she continued attending committee meetings until 1990, when she was well into her 70s. Though she was a supporter of perestroika, she lamented the demolition of her beloved factory in the first stages of privatisation during the collapse of the USSR. “It’s a treasure and they don’t know what they’re doing by destroying it,” she said.

Yet although the factory did not survive the fall of the Soviet Union, Andreeva’s textiles live on — and have since received a newfound appreciation among art museums and experts across the world.

From the series Mathematical formulas (1974)

This article is part of our series Women, Recollected, an ongoing project shining a light on the forgotten women pioneers of 20th century culture.

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