The Muse of the Russian Avant-garde. Five photos of Lilya Brik from the Mayakovsky Museum

November 15

Vladimir Mayakovsky's Muse is just one of the hypostases of Lilya Brick's incredible personality. The owner of one of the most famous literary and art salons of the 20th century, and the actress, screenwriter, author of memoirs. Vivid, outrageous and witty, she amazed everyone who communicated with her—writers, artists and film directors. The French couturier Yves Saint Laurent also admired Liliya. He said that he knew only three women who could be elegant outside of fashion industry: Catherine Deneuve, Marlene Dietrich and Liliya Brik.

November 11 is Liliya Yurievna’s 130th birthday. Let us take a look at five of her photographs from the collection of the Mayakovsky State Museum. More pictures are available at the Liliya Brik - Muse of the Russian Avant-garde online exhibition of the museum. 

Fascination with ballet

Portrait of Liliya Brik with a tutu on. Photo by V. Plotnikov. The 1910s. The Mayakovsky State Museum

In her youth, Liliya Brik, then Liliya Kagan, received excellent education. She attended Higher Women's courses, knew German and French, played music, loved mathematics and architecture. She even entered the Moscow Architectural Institute, but did not graduate from it — she went to Munich to study sculpture.

After returning from Germany, Liliya Kagan married Osip Brik, whom she met before departure. In 1914, she organized a literary and art salon in their Petrograd apartment. Its regulars were Viktor Shklovsky, Roman Yakobson, Velimir Khlebnikov and Vladimir Mayakovsky.

In 1915, Brik took interest in ballet. She was trained by ballerina Alexandra Dorinskaya, who previously danced in the famous Diaghilev’s Russian Seasons. Liliya was not going to dance professionally, she was as much as 24 years old, which is quite late by ballet standards: for her, it was just interesting to immerse herself in the world of ballet, to learn how to move gracefully. This hobby was continued in the cinema.

Artist and ballerina

Vladimir Mayakovsky as an artist and Liliya Brik as a ballerina in the film. A frame from the “Chained by the Film” movie. Operator E. Slavinsky. 1918. The Mayakovsky State Museum

The elegant image of Liliya on ballet slippers and a tutu on did not leave Vladimir Mayakovsky indifferent. In 1918, he wrote the screenplay of a “Chained by the Film” movie. This silent film is about an artist in love with a ballerina who steps down to him from a movie screen. The script was specially created for Liliya Yurievna. When she found out that Mayakovsky was starring in “The Young Lady and the Holligan” movie, she asked him to come up with a film script where they would star together.

She turned out to be a real actress: she behaved calmly on the film set and played naturally. "Liliya (shortly Lyu) loved cinema very much, she was always interested in it, knew it well and understood it perfectly," film director Vasily Katanyan wrote in his memoirs “Touching Idols”. He was a son of Liliya Yurievna's third husband, literary critic Vasily A. Katanyan, and her friend.

The film was not destined to be released: the film strip burned down in a fire at the studio. Only some fragments of it survived, which Mayakovsky initially rejected and brought home. Based on them, Italian avant-garde poet Gianni Totti created a full-length version of the "Chained by the Film" 60 years later.

“The Glass Eye”

Liliya Yurievna Brik is editing “The Glass Eye” movie. 1928-1929 years. The Mayakovsky State Museum

In 1929, Liliya Brik wrote the script for the documentary and feature film “The Glass Eye” together with film director Vitaly Zhemchuzhny. It was a parody of commercial cinema: the bourgeois drama was contrasting a newsreel depicting real life. Brick was both film director and editor. More over, she worked as a dresser: chose cloth from her own wardrobe for actress Veronika Polonskaya.

After “The Glass Eye” appeared on the screen, Liliya wrote another script — “Love and Duty, or Carmen”. Mayakovsky was turned on by this project, he really wanted to play the role of apache, he was ready to involve friends to work on the film. But members of the Main Repertory Committee did not like the plot, and they banned the script without the right of revisions.

The most elegant woman in Moscow

Liliya Brik and Elsa Triolet demonstrate dresses by Nadezhda Lamanova. Paris. 1924. The Mayakovsky State Museum

The most elegant woman in Moscow

The chic outfits worn by Veronika Polonskaya in the “The Glass Eye” got into Liliya Yurievna's wardrobe thanks to her younger sister Elsa Triolet, who lived in Paris and sent her dresses, jewelry and cosmetics from there. Elsa, who wrote a fashion column in Parisian newspaper Ce Soir, had no difficulty finding interesting things for her sister. Vasily Katanyan quotes in “Touching Idols” an extract of a letter from Liliya Yurievna:

"I'm wearing the dress you sent me, without taking it off. The same goes for hats. If you have already received the money, please buy me two half-evening dresses (long) — one black and the second one (if not too expensive, something like brocade, (dark only), and shoes for them. The fabrics of these dresses should be somewhat fancy, the same with the shoes. Then I need 4 boxes of my powder (flesh color); 3 lip pencils Ritz — your color; blush of Institut de Beauté."

In her youth, Liliya Yurievna communicated with well-known theater artist and fashion designer Nadezhda Lamanova, who made clothes for famous actresses. Brick also ordered clothes with her, and was a model too. After sisters showed Lamanova's dresses in Paris in 1924, French newspapers wrote a lot about her.

Liliya Brik kept her love for beautiful things all life long. Thanks to this, once she accidentally met great couturier Yves Saint Laurent. When in Sheremetyevo Airport, he paid attention to an elegant elderly lady in a green mink fur coat — that is how a friendship began that lasted until the end of Lilya's life. For her 85th birthday, Saint Laurent created a special dress for her.

Despite the distance

L. Brick, E. Triolet, L. Aragon and an unidentified person. Photo by V. Egorov. 1960. The Mayakovsky State Museum

Elsa Triolet, like her elder sister, was an extraordinary person. Not only was she a connaisseur of fashion, but also became a famous writer and translator, winner of the prestigious Goncourt Prize. Her second husband was Louis Aragon, a French poet and novelist and a prominent figure of the French Communist Party. Aragon dedicated to his wife “Elsa's Eyes” poem, translated into Russian by Wilhelm Levick:

In the depths of your eyes, where I drink bliss,
All the billions of stars are swimming like in the sea.
There, hopeless grief found death.
I lost my memory there forever...

Many researchers compared Aragon's poem with Mayakovsky's poem “Lilichka!”:

Above me,

except for your look,

the blade of no knife is imperious.

The sisters maintained close relationship all their lives and were unusually involved in each other's destinies. They constantly shared news and plans, discussed fashion, literature, theater. Elsa translated some of Mayakovsky's works into French.

The younger sister died of heart failure in 1970. After her death Louis Aragon, offered Liliya and her husband (the third and last Brik’s husband was film director and writer Vasily Katanyan) to move to France. But she refused: all her memories, beautiful and sad, were connected with Moscow.


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