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Restless Ventures of Nadia Khodasevich Léger

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Her life was a tangle of crazy deeds and contradictions. Born in the wilderness and poverty, she became a millionaire. She was a staunch member of the Communist Party and at the same time an avant-garde artist criticizing Soviet socialist realism
Realism (from late Latin reālis — “real”) is considered to be the beginning in the development of modern art. In a strict sense, “realism” is an art movement that faithfully and objectively reproduces reality in all its details, regardless of how beautiful are the objects in the picture. Read more
. She lived in luxurious apartments and drove luxurious cars, was a philanthropist and painted portraits of Lenin and Stalin. Mentioning her name, they certainly add "the wife of Fernand Léger", although she was the wife of the famous artist for only three years at the end of his life. Thus, Arthive presents the story of Nadia Khodasevich Léger.
Restless Ventures of Nadia Khodasevich Léger

Window to Paris

Nadia Khodasevich was born in 1904 in Belarus into a poor family. Nadia had seven or eight brothers and sisters (various data available). Rural life, the need to work from an early age… It could seem that there should not be any thoughts about art, but Nadia thought about it all the time. She loved to paint. When the First World War began, the family moved to the Russian town of Belev. After the revolution, the Palace of Arts was opened there, and thirteen-year-old Nadya enrolled in an art circle. Two years later, she left her family and went to study in Smolensk. There she entered Svomas, Free State Art Workshops.

The Free Workshops teachers taught artists of revolutionary trends. For two years, Nadia Khodasevich studied with the Suprematists, and met Kazimir Malevich himself.
Abstract Composition with a Red Ball. Nadia Khodasevich. 1928. National Art Museum of the Republic o
Abstract Composition with a Red Ball. Nadia Khodasevich. 1928. National Art Museum of the Republic of Belarus. Minsk
One day Nadia got a magazine in which she saw the work by Fernand Léger. From that moment on, the girl was obsessed with the idea of leaving for Paris, where this artist worked.
Nadia got to France in two stages. First she managed to get to Warsaw. To earn a living, the girl went to work as a nanny, then as a milliner. But the main thing is that she was admitted to the Warsaw Academy of Arts without exams! There Nadia met another student of the Academy, Stanisław Grabowski. Their friendship soon developed into a romance, and the young people got married.
Nadia Khodasevich at the age of 16. Photo Source 

It was a classic misalliance. A girl from a poor

Nadia Khodasevich at the age of 16. Photo Source

It was a classic misalliance. A girl from a poor family ended up in a rich bourgeois house. Although, there were plenty of flies in the ointment — her mother-in-law neglected her. But all this was not important, because she didn’t forget the dream of Paris. Nadia persuaded her husband to go to France, and in 1924, having settled in a good Parisian boarding house, they began their studies at the Academy of Contemporary Art under Fernand Léger himself.

Runaway bride

Fernand Léger, like Nadia Khodasevich, came from a simple family. His father raised livestock. However, Fernand’s mother didn’t object her son’s hobby for drawing, but there was no talk of the artistic craft. At the age of 16, Fernand Léger became an apprentice to an architect, then worked as a draughtsman. It would seem a respectable business, a stable income, but the young man went in for painting. He went to study at the School of Decorative Arts, then at a private art academy. Early works by Léger speak of his passion for the work of the Impressionists, but very soon he was imbued with the ideas of Cubism. Beginning in 1910, Fernand Léger became an active participant in the Salons of the Independent, successfully worked and even created his own kind of Cubism, Tubism (the basis of the artist’s works were cylindrical shapes).
Fernand Leger. Country landscape
1912, 91×81 cm
Fernand Leger. Bridge
1908, 92×72 cm
Fernand Leger. The contrast of forms
Fernand Leger. Nude in the woods
1911, 120×170 cm
Once, in 1913, Fernand was sitting in the La Closerie des Lilas café (the famous meeting place of bohemians on the Boulevard Montparnasse) and saw a girl in a wedding dress… on a bicycle. It was Jeanne-Augustine Lohy. It was the day when she was supposed to marry a son of a notary, but one of the wedding gifts was a bicycle, and Jeanne decided to take a quick ride. Alas, the short trip turned into a long one somehow, and the bride found herself very far from the place where the ceremony was to take place. Terrific! But the handsome man who suddenly appeared nearby told her that all was not lost, and Jeanne calmed down. So their romance began.
Verdun. Trench diggers. Fernand Léger. 1916

When World War I broke out, Fernand Léger was mobilized

Verdun. Trench diggers. Fernand Léger. 1916

When World War I broke out, Fernand Léger was mobilized and served in the engineering troops for two years. In September 1916, during a gas attack near Verdun, he was seriously poisoned and spent more than a year in hospitals, and eventually left military service. All this time, his romance with Jeanne Lohy continued in letters, and on 1 December 1919, they got married.

Maria Vorobyova-Stebelskaya (Marevna), who once spent time with Jeanne in her husband’s studio and painted her portrait, said that Madame Léger was "kind, funny and good".
Jeanne-Augustine Lohy (wife of Fernand Léger). Drawing by Maria Vorobyova-Stebelskaya. 1934. Source.
Jeanne-Augustine Lohy (wife of Fernand Léger). Drawing by Maria Vorobyova-Stebelskaya. 1934. Source.
In the 1920s, Fernand Léger not only painted, but also made films, scenery and costumes for ballet performances, and gave lectures on art. In 1924, Fernand Léger, together with Amédée Ozenfant and Othon Friesz, opened the Academy of Contemporary Art and became its director. It was in this institution that Stanisław Grabowski and his young wife Nadia began to study.

Next to Léger

The relationship between the young spouses soon began to deteriorate. Nadia was carried away by the ideas of Léger, but Stanisław did not like studying at the academy. Quarrels began. Once Nadia successfully sold her student work, and a scandal broke out in the house: Grabowski was offended by the fact that his wife was more successful than him.
Fernand Léger in his studio with his students. Photo from the book "Artists of the Parisian School f
Fernand Léger in his studio with his students. Photo from the book "Artists of the Parisian School from Belarus". The Source
In the end, there was a break. In 1927, Stanisław returned to Warsaw, although by that time he and Nadia had a daughter. Nadia remained in Paris without funds, with a child in her arms. She did not hesitate to get a job of a maid in the same boarding house where she lived. The former father-in-law, taking care of his granddaughter, sent Nadia money, but she spent most of this money on creating an illustrated magazine about avant-garde
Avant-garde is how modern art critics refer the general trend of new artistic directions that arose in world art at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. A very thin line separates it from the concept of “modernism”. Read more
art. By the way, at that time she used a nickname, Wanda Khodasevich-Grabowska. But of course, her true name was Adventure.
That was all she was. She left her parental home almost as a child. Without money and connections, s

That was all she was. She left her parental home almost as a child. Without money and connections, she rushed to Warsaw. She didn’t know French, but she went to Paris. She cooked and cleaned at the boarding house, but at the same time, she painted pictures and scribbled articles for her magazine. Nadia was not a beauty, she could not boast of noble features, but her energy, vitality and charm would be enough for ten. And it is not at all surprising that soon a new man appeared next to her — Georges Boquier, an official of the Parisian post office. Upon learning that Boquier was fond of drawing, Nadia invited him to the Léger Academy.

By that time, Fernand Léger himself appreciated the energy and talent of Nadia. He offered Nadia a position at the academy and made her his assistant.

Self-Portrait. Nadia Khodasevich. 1941. The Source

When World War II began, Georges Boquier joined

Self-Portrait. Nadia Khodasevich. 1941. The Source

When World War II began, Georges Boquier joined the army, and Léger and his wife left for the United States. Fernand Léger called Nadia with him, but she refused. She remained in occupied France and lived on the brink of arrest, because she joined the Communist Party in 1932. And not only lived, but established contact with the Resistance fighters, provided them with information, spread leaflets. Escaping surveillance, she cut her black braid and dyed her hair blonde. When France was liberated, Nadia Khodasevich joined the Union of Soviet Patriots and set up an auction to raise funds for former Soviet prisoners of war. For the auction, she gave her works and canvases by Léger, involved Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, Henri Matisse to participate. The auction was a success, with over three million francs raised.

Peace. Nadia Khodasevich. Sketch. 1948. National Art Museum of the Republic of Belarus, Minsk. The S
Peace. Nadia Khodasevich. Sketch
A study is an exercise painting that helps the painter better understand the object he or she paints. It is simple and clear, like sample letters in a school student’s copybook. Rough and ready, not detailed, with every stroke being to the point, a study is a proven method of touching the world and making a catalogue of it. However, in art history, the status of the study is vague and open to interpretation. Despite its auxiliary role, a study is sometimes viewed as something far more significant than the finished piece. Then, within an impressive frame, it is placed on a museum wall.
So, when does a study remain a mere drill, and when can we call it an artwork in its own right, full of life and having artistic value? Read more
. 1948. National Art Museum of the Republic of Belarus, Minsk. The Source
In 1945, the Léger couple returned to France, Georges Boquier returned, and life went on as usual. Fernand Léger and Nadia Khodasevich-Grabowska worked side by side.
Nadia Khodasevich-Léger. Self-Portrait. Lithograph. 1973. Source — Le Parisien
Nadia Khodasevich-Léger. Self-Portrait. Lithograph
Along with monotypy, lithography belongs to the group of flat printing techniques, but this is where their similarities seem to end. Lithography appeared in 1796 or 1798, thanks to Johann Alois Senefelder, a typographer from Munich. Initially, they took an imprint from a drawing on a stone slab, usually limestone, which gave the name for the method (ancient Greek λίθος “stone” + γράφω “I write, draw”). Nowadays, instead of lithographic stone, zinc or aluminum plates are used, which are easier to process. Read more
. 1973. Source — Le Parisien
Over the years, Nadia could not certainly help but fall under the influence of her teacher, while at the same time, she still maintained her own style. She was much closer to realism than Fernand Léger. He also argued that the plot in painting is a mistake, that he painted not what he saw, but what he understood. Upon his return from the USA, Léger is inspired by a new idea — he draws outlines of objects and, separately, colour spots. It was in this manner in the late 1940s that he created the portrait of Nadia titled Reading.
  • Reading (portrait of Nadia Léger). Fernand Léger. 1949. A. S. Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow
  • Portrait of Nadia with a Flower. Fernand Léger. Ca. 1948. A. S. Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts. Moscow
It must be said that Nadia spent her whole life with artists, but she was rarely painted. But she herself has created many self-portraits. She also painted political posters and still lifes close to primitivism, made sketches for mosaics.
Nadia Léger. Photo by Ida Kar. 1961. Photo Source
Nadia Léger. Photo by Ida Kar. 1961. Photo Source
Probably, Fernand Léger and Nadia Khodasevich would only have remained friend artists, if not for the death of Jeanne Léger. She died on 1 December 1950. Fernand Léger was widowed on the day he and his wife were to celebrate their 31st wedding anniversary.

He was seventy. Fleeing from loneliness, he began to spend more and more time with Nadia. She supported him, helped in everything. A little more than a year passed, and on 21 February 1952, Fernand and Nadia got married.
Fernand Leger. Beloved
1953, 62×50 cm
Nadia and Fernand Léger. Photo Source
Nadia and Fernand Léger. Photo Source
Nadia and Fernand Léger with Pablo Picasso (far left). Photo Source
Nadia and Fernand Léger with Pablo Picasso (far left). Photo Source
"I married labour," Nadia once said, and it was true. She directed all her energy to equip a comfortable life for her husband. Their marriage looked perfect, but it was short-lived. Three and a half years later, in August 1955, Fernand Léger died.

Having inherited all the fortune and work of her husband, Nadia Léger decided, first of all, to adequately present his art to descendants. A month before his death, the artist purchased a small house in Biot in the south of France. At this place, Nadia created the Fernand Léger Museum. A specially designed building houses his canvases, sculptures, tapestries, and stained-glass windows. She opened another small museum in Normandy, in her husband’s homeland. And then she left for her own homeland.
Musée national Fernand Léger in Biot, Alpes-Maritimes, France. Photo Source — wikimedia
Musée national Fernand Léger in Biot, Alpes-Maritimes, France. Photo Source — wikimedia

Nadia in the USSR

In 1959, forty years after leaving for Warsaw, Nadia Khodasevich-Léger came to the Soviet Union. The thaw has already begun there, however, Nadia had to work hard to melt the ice in the relationship. Fernand Léger did paint workers and turn to industrial motives, and Nadia herself painted pictures on the "Peace to the World" theme, however their works were so far from the socialist realist canons! On the one hand, both Nadia and Fernand Léger were communists, she participated in the Resistance and was friends with the leaders of the French Communist Party. But this partisan and communist flaunted her expensive fur coats!
Motherhood (Peace to the World). Nadia Khodasevich-Léger. Canvas, oil. 1952. The Pushkin State Museu
Motherhood (Peace to the World). Nadia Khodasevich-Léger. Canvas, oil. 1952. The Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts. Moscow. The Source
In a nutshell, Nadia Léger brought a lot of headaches to the Soviet "plain-clothed art critics". But it was impossible to turn her off her intended path. In the USSR, she organized exhibitions of works by Fernand Léger, herself own and Georges Boquier (he was with Nadia again and helped her to lead all the affairs of the Léger Museum creation and the exhibitions organization).

Thanks to her efforts, La Gioconda and an exhibition of Picasso’s works were brought to the USSR.

Nadia was in close contact with Yekaterina Furtseva, took care of the Soviet delegations in France, was friends with Soviet writers, actors and directors. Literary evidence of this friendship is Sergei Dovlatov’s story, The Jacket of Fernand Léger, about the widow of the Soviet actor Nikolai Cherkasov who met Nadia in Paris, and she gave the young writer a corduroy jacket that once belonged to the maître.

Thus, the "cultural exchange" between the USSR and France was largely the work of Nadia Léger in those years. At the same time, she managed to argue with the same Furtseva, declaring that the socialist realism
Realism (from late Latin reālis — “real”) is considered to be the beginning in the development of modern art. In a strict sense, “realism” is an art movement that faithfully and objectively reproduces reality in all its details, regardless of how beautiful are the objects in the picture. Read more
, "which existed in the USSR, contained no painting". And she continued to embarrass the Soviet museum workers with her fur coats. She came to exhibitions and, without looking, shook another mink treasure from her shoulders. The director of the Minsk art museum assigned special escorts to the eminent guest, who had to pick up the fur coat at the right time. And Nadia herself believed that the audience looking at her outfits should understand: the works of Fernand Léger, which she brought them, are of great value.
Nadia Léger at the State Art Museum of the BSSR (now the National Art Museum of the Republic of Bela
Nadia Léger at the State Art Museum of the BSSR (now the National Art Museum of the Republic of Belarus). The second from the left is the director of the museum, Alena Aladava. 1967. Photo Source
By the way, Nadia Léger herself created the jewellery (literally). They can be seen in the Armory at the Suprematist Foresight exhibition. Inspired by Yuri Gagarin’s flight, Nadia Léger used her early graphics to craft jewellery.
Castor brooch. Nadia Léger. 1970. Moscow Kremlin Museums.
Castor brooch. Nadia Léger. 1970. Moscow Kremlin Museums.
Ophiuchus ring. Nadia Léger. Gold, platinum, diamonds. 1970. Moscow Kremlin Museums
Ophiuchus ring. Nadia Léger. Gold, platinum, diamonds. 1970. Moscow Kremlin Museums
Lune brooch. Nadia Léger. Gold, white gold, diamonds. 1970.
Lune brooch. Nadia Léger. Gold, white gold, diamonds. 1970.
Polaris brooch. Nadia Léger. France. White gold, diamonds. 1970. Moscow Kremlin Museums
Polaris brooch. Nadia Léger. France. White gold, diamonds. 1970. Moscow Kremlin Museums
Source — Moscow Kremlin Museums site
In 1976, Nadia presented these brooches and rings of platinum, gold and diamonds to the Soviet government.
  • Suprematism. Nadia Léger. Colour lithograph
    Along with monotypy, lithography belongs to the group of flat printing techniques, but this is where their similarities seem to end. Lithography appeared in 1796 or 1798, thanks to Johann Alois Senefelder, a typographer from Munich. Initially, they took an imprint from a drawing on a stone slab, usually limestone, which gave the name for the method (ancient Greek λίθος “stone” + γράφω “I write, draw”). Nowadays, instead of lithographic stone, zinc or aluminum plates are used, which are easier to process. Read more
    on paper. 1972—1973. A. S. Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts. Moscow
  • Suprematism. Nadia Léger. Silk-screen printing on paper, c. 1969. A. S. Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts. Moscow
It is interesting to compare the volumetric embodiment of Nadia Léger's ideas with the presentation of plots on a plane. This way or that, the jewellery seems more original.
By the way, the already mentioned Alena Aladava, director of the Minsk Art Museum, recalled: having heard her complaints about the lack of funds, Nadia Léger took off her own design gold brooch from her blouse and handed it to Aladava with the words: "Here you are, it’ll cover everything!" The director of the Soviet museum refused the gift, of course, but she often recalled this incident.
Nadia Léger. Photo Source
Nadia Léger. Photo Source
But, perhaps, more expensive than gold and diamonds were hundreds of copies of masterpieces of world painting, which Nadia ordered, brought to the USSR and presented to the Belarusian village of Zembin (her mother was born here, the Khodasevich family moved there over time, later Nadia’s parents died there) and other towns and villages that did not have their own museums. Because art should be available to everyone — both Fernand Léger and Nadia thought so.

Another gift of hers can be seen by everyone in Dubna near Moscow. There, in one of the local squares, mosaic
Mosaic (fr. mosaïque — something dedicated to the muses) is a type of monumental and decorative applied art, which involves creating an image by connecting and fixing coloured stones, fragments of tiles or smalt on a certain surface. There are Roman, Florentine and Byzantine mosaics. Read more
portraits of Pyotr Tchaikovsky, Maxim Gorky, Vladimir Mayakovsky, Leo Tolstoy, Yuri Gagarin, and Maya Plisetskaya are installed after sketches by Nadia Léger.
Mosaics based on sketches by Nadia Léger. Dubna, Moscow Oblast. Source: wikimedia
Mosaics based on sketches by Nadia Léger. Dubna, Moscow Oblast. Source: wikimedia
"Many times have I heard: ‘Why do you need this? Give up your ventures!' Whereas since childhood, I love restless ventures!" wrote Nadia Khodasevich-Léger.

She died on 7 November 1982 in Grasse. The tombstone of her grave is decorated with her mosaic
Mosaic (fr. mosaïque — something dedicated to the muses) is a type of monumental and decorative applied art, which involves creating an image by connecting and fixing coloured stones, fragments of tiles or smalt on a certain surface. There are Roman, Florentine and Byzantine mosaics. Read more
self-portrait.