When Kirill Zdanevich [1892-1969] came of age as a painter, artistic movements were proliferating more rapidly than most artists could assimilate. From Impressionism to Fauvism to Cubism, every ism appealed to Zdanevich more than the formal training that he was receiving at the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg. By the time he competed his studies in 1913, traveled to Paris, and started to exhibit in Moscow, the young Georgian artist was fully committed to the avant-garde.


But Zdanevich, unlike other radicals of his generation, was not convinced that any movement had all the answers. As Russian avant-garde contemporaries such as Kazimir Malevich [1879-1935] made their case for the absolute truth of movements such as Suprematism, Zdanevich resisted by combining multiple movements in the same composition. He provocatively called it Everythingism


Kirill was not the only Zdanevich with maverick ideas. While he was advancing Everythingism, his brother Ilya Zdanevich [1894-1975] was developing a new approach to theater, comprising an orchestra of voices each performing in a different poetic style. In order to score these complex vocal arrangements – as aesthetically pluralistic as Kirill’s canvases – Ilya invented a dynamic new approach to typography.


Introducing an impressive array of artistic advances to their native Tiflis, and influencing the artistic avant-garde throughout the region, the brothers were close collaborators until the Russian Revolution overtook Georgia, Ilya emigrated to Paris, and the siblings were unwillingly separated by the Iron Curtain.


Modernism first introduced the Zdanevich brothers to San Francisco viewers in 1991, as Mikhail Gorbachev was introducing perestroika and glasnost to the Soviet Union. Thirty-two years later, as Russia invades Ukraine and recklessly revives Cold War divisions, Modernism presents a second exhibition of the Zdanevich brothers in less encouraging geopolitical circumstances. However, Kirill and Ilya’s artistic pluralism, which so perfectly matched the ‘90s spirit of glasnost, is arguably more vital now as an against-all-odds affirmation of cosmopolitanism.


Presenting eighteen works on paper by Kirill and three typographic works by Ilya, the current Modernism exhibition takes its name, 41°, from the collective that the brothers formed with several artistic contemporaries with sympathetic temperaments and beliefs. 41° stood for strong alcohol, high fever, and the latitude of Tiflis; their ambition, as articulated in the one and only issue of their newspaper, was nothing less than “to put the world on a new axis.”

Ilya pursued this ambition by liberating poetry from the burden of meaning. Sound was the essence of his performances, but his orchestral arrangements were also highly visual. Treating type as raw material for abstract composition, and sometimes counterbalancing lettering with collage, his layouts are simultaneously literary tours-de-force and graphic masterpieces.


Kirill’s drawings and paintings are also orchestral, orchestrating seamless arrangements of Impressionism, Cubism, Rayism, and even Suprematism. Orchestral painting represents “the purest artistic mastering,” Kirill proclaimed. The catalogue essay for his first major show in Tilfis elaborated: “By blending styles, the master frees art from the confines of temporary objectives.”


From the vantage of 2023, the truth of that statement is far more evident than it could possibly have been in 1917. Against the parochialism of the present moment, Kirill and Ilya Zdanevich offer an invigoratingly liberating vision.