Andrey Avinoff, American, b. Russia, 1884–1949; Cup Plant,1941–1943, Plate 182 from Wild Flowers of Western Pennsylvania, graphite and watercolor on paper; Carnegie Museum of Natural History, Section of Anthropology, Animal Portraiture Collection
Andrey Avinoff, American, b. Russia, 1884–1949; The Death of the High Priest, plate 17, from The Fall of Atlantis, designed c. 1935–1938, folio edition published in 1944, gravure on paper; Carnegie Museum of Art, Gift of He Who Stands Firm (Nicholas Avinoff Shoumatoff)
Andrey Avinoff: In Pursuit of Beauty
February 26–August 28, 2011
By JoAnn Greco
The first exhibition in more than 50 years devoted to the visionary art of Andrey Avinoff (1884–1949). Best known for his scientific research on butterflies, and as director of Carnegie Museum of Natural History from 1926 to 1945, he said of himself: “I bow to scientific fact until five o’clock. After that I may have other ideas.”
Not surprisingly, his detailed understanding of the wonders presented to us by butterflies — and the metaphors associated with them, from transparency to metamorphosis — show up again and again in these elaborate but delicate watercolors. But, there's more, so much more. Bubbles, for one thing. A fondness for luminescence for another. Part botanical print, part fantastical vision, the works are most of all layered with story.
Louise Lippincott, curator of fine arts at Carnegie Museum of Art, conducted years of intense research to organize the exhibition, which tells Avinoff’s story in full for the first time.
“Andrey Avinoff emerges as an important historical figure," she notes. "He was a gay Russian artist who made it in the very straight world of American science and education, and an autocratic European traditionalist who helped create the modern, anything-goes New York scene. His intriguing body of artwork, multifaceted interests, and equally multifaceted identity significantly enhances our understanding of twentieth-century art, in all its vitality and complexity.”
From gentleman-in-waiting at the court of the Russian tsar to tireless researcher in the mountains of Tibet; from upstate New York dairy farmer to successful New York City commercial illustrator; from director of Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh to important collaborator with Alfred Kinsey, Avinoff transformed himself as the culture and politics around him changed.
Many of Avinoff’s artworks can be read as symbolist fantasies or surrealist nightmares, often depicting iridescent butterflies, exquisitely detailed flowers, and translucent, reflective surfaces such as flowing water, soap bubbles, gems, and jellyfish. His private feelings—such as his loyalty to Russian traditions and a deeply spiritual view of nature—are all expressed in his art.
In addition to his artwork, the show also features many of Avinoff’s scientific illustrations of butterflies and plants, and the mounted and preserved butterflies that he collected and donated to Carnegie Museum of Natural History.
For more information please visit www.cmoa.org