Last Cubist in Ealing:
Marevna Vorobiev-Stebelska
(1892-1984)

By Dr Piotr Stolarski, Local History Assistant


Self portrait of Marevna Vorobiev-Stebelska

                                        Above: Marevna Vorobiev-Stebelska,
                                                     Self-Portrait (1929)


Among the several artists associated with Ealing, the story of Russian-born Marevna Vorobiev-Stebelska is probably the most remarkable. Although not currently considered to be in the front-rank of modern artists, she mixed with and was influenced by some of the great names of twentieth century art. Indeed, Marevna was an accomplished artist in her own right, and is regarded as the first female Cubist painter, spending the final 27 years of her life in Ealing. In what follows, I will briefly examine the life and Ealing connections of this fascinating yet little-known woman.

Early Life

Maria Bronislava Vorobiev-Stebelska was born in Cheboksary, in the Kazan district, Russia, to a Jewish actress known by the surname Roganovich. The name Vorobiev probably came from her father. She was adopted by a Polish nobleman, by name of Stebelski, however, at the age of two, and spent her early life with him in the Caucasus. Having spent a ‘lonely’ childhood there according to some sources, she studied art in Tblisi, Georgia, from the age of 15, and earned an early reputation as an illustrator of books.


Cheboksary

     Tblisi, Georgia

                  Above Top:  Cheboksary, Russia 
                  
Above: Tblisi, Georgia


Artistic Development

Like many artists, Marevna drew upon diverse influences, beginning with her childhood. As a young woman she became interested in Byzantine and early Russian painting. By 1910 at the age of 18 she was in Moscow, where she came into contact with post-Impressionist art, while studying at the Stroganov Academy of Art. She travelled to Italy in 1911, meeting the Russian writer and political activist Maxim Gorky at Capri, who gave her the nickname ‘Marevna’ (after a Russian fairy sea princess). It was a name she continued to use for the rest of her life.


Portrait of Maxim Gorky

                                         Above: Maxim Gorky in 1906


Moving to Paris in 1912, she studied briefly at the Academy of Zuloaga, then switched to the Académie Russe, where she met fellow artists and later close friends Chaim Soutine and Ossip Zadkine. She was briefly engaged to Gorky’s son at this time.

Apart from studying in Paris, Marevna began to exhibit her work there. Her first significant exhibition was in 1912 at The Tuileries in France.

The Montparnasse Circle 

In Paris, Marevna was soon mixing with some of the most talented artists of the time. Renowned Russian-French artist Marc Chagall (1887-1985) summed up why he sought out the Paris district of Montparnasse, where Marevna also lived:

          I aspired to see with my own eyes what I had heard of from so far away: this
          revolution of the eye, this rotation of colours, which spontaneously and astutely
         
merge with one another in a flow of conceived lines. That could not be seen in
         my town. The sun of Art then shone only on Paris.
 

Paris, arguably the artistic capital of the world at the time, was crucial to Marevna’s creative development from 1912. Frequenting and living for some time at the Parisian bohemian artists’ community known as La Ruche, she knew well the likes of Georges Braque, Pablo Picasso, Amedeo Modigliani, Moise Kisling, Henri Matisse, and Marc Chagall, sharing in their approaches.  


La Ruche building

                                   Above: La Ruche, the circular building used by artists
                                                from the 
Montparnasse Circle, Paris, c. 1918


Blue-eyed, blonde, charming, and outgoing, as well as talented, Marevna was a popular member of the Montparnasse Circle, which was centred on the left-bank area of the French capital. Montparnasse had first been adopted by artists in c. 1910 as an alternative to Montmartre. According to Wikipedia:  

          Virtually penniless painters, sculptors, writers, poets and composers came from
          around the world to thrive in the creative atmosphere and for the cheap rent at 
          artist communes such as La Ruche. Living without running water, in damp,
          unheated ‘studios’, seldom free of rats, many sold their works for a few francs
          just to buy food. Jean Cocteau once said that poverty was a luxury in 
          Montparnasse. First promoted by art dealers such as Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler,
          today works by those artists sell for millions of euros. 
 

Montparnasse became famous in the 1920s, but Marevna had arrived in 1912, at a time when it was very much at the cutting edge. Indeed, the area’s heyday was 1910-1920, but it continued to attract a range of interesting characters until the end of its splendour in around 1945. Indeed, Montparnasse had a bustling artists’ and intellectuals’ café culture, with the latest artistic, political, literary, and social ideas being discussed over cigarettes, coffee, and alcohol. Arguments and fights were routine, but the police were not normally called in. Impoverished artists could occupy a seat at a café for a few centimes, and often paid their bill with a work of art, many of which came to cover the walls of establishments such as the cafés Le Dôme, La Closerie des Lilas, La Rotonde, Le Select, and La Coupole. The night life also included numerous night clubs and music hall theatres, such as the famous Bobino, on the rue de la Gaité. Marevna later documented this period in her creative development in the second volume of her autobiography, Life with the Painters of La Ruche (1972).  


Photo of artist George BraquesPhoto of Pablo Picasso

      Above: Georges Braque (1882-1963), and Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), originators of 
                  
Cubist painting. Both shown in 1908, four years before Marevna’s arrival in Paris.  


Besides those already mentioned, a list of the most prominent artists and writers living or working in Montparnasse over the years reads like a catalogue of twentieth-century art and literary history: Guillaume Apollinaire, Julio Gonzalez, Erik Satie, Marios Varvoglis, Nina Hamnett, Jean Rhys, Fernand Léger, Jacques Lipchitz, Max Jacob, Blaise Cendrars, James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, Michel Kikoine, Pinchus Kremegne, Ford Madox Ford, Toño Salazar, Ezra Pound, Max Ernst, Marcel Duchamp, Suzanne Duchamp-Crotti, Henri Rousseau, Constantin Brâncusi, Paul Fort, Juan Gris, Diego Rivera, Federico Cantú, Angel Zarraga, Tsuguharu Foujita, Marie Vassilieff, Léon-Paul Fargue, Alberto Giacometti, René Iché, André Breton, Alfonso Reyes, Pascin, Nils Dardel, Salvador Dalí, Henry Miller, Samuel Beckett, Emil Cioran, Reginald Gray, Joan Miró, Hilaire Hiler and, in his declining years, Edgar Degas. A more fecund base for the intellect and creative spirit would be hard to find.  


Picture of Diago RiveraPicture of Marika Rivera

       Above left: Diego Rivera (1886-1957), Mexican artist, in 1932.                           
       Above r
ight: his daughter by Marevna Vorobiev-Stebelska, Marika Rivera (1919-2010).


Whilst in Paris, Marevna met the Mexican artist Diego Rivera in 1915 and lived with him for some years, giving birth to their daughter, Marika, in 1919. Marevna was definitely in love with the fiery painter, who professed to love her. Rivera was an atheist but strongly identified as Jewish culturally: given Marevna’s Jewish mother, this was perhaps something that helped bring them together. Her close friends, the Russian artist living in Paris, Chaim Soutine (1893-1943), and the Italian, Amedeo Modigliani (1884-1920), were also Jewish. Marevna thus became a muse of sorts for a group of brilliant male artists active in pre-war Paris.  


Portrait of Marevna by Diego Rivera (1915).Portrait of Marevna by Amedeo Modigliani (1918)

      Above left: Portrait of Marevna by Diego Rivera (1915)
      Above r
ight: Portrait of Marevna by Amedeo Modigliani (1918).


Unfortunately, Rivera was also a violent womanizer and already involved with another Russian artist, Angelina Beloff (whom he had earlier married), and he returned to Mexico in 1921. A few years before his departure, upon learning of a (false) rumour that their daughter, Marika Rivera (1919-2010), was Pablo Picasso’s offspring (according to one source, from Picasso himself!), Diego stabbed Marevna in the throat with a knife whilst in a fit of jealousy, and fled the scene. Thankfully, she survived, and her daughter Marika went on to become a recognised professional dancer and film actress, later a playwright, and also a painter. The attack does not seem to have left her bitter or hostile to Rivera, even though Diego abandoned Marevna and Marika. Marika indeed adopted the Rivera name as her surname.

Developing Influences: Cubism and Post-Impressionism 

Cubism was an early-20th-century avant-garde art movement that revolutionized European painting and sculpture, and inspired related movements in music, literature and architecture. The term is broadly used in association with a wide variety of art produced in Paris (Montmartre, Montparnasse and Puteaux) during the 1910s and extending through the 1920s. The movement was pioneered by Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso, joined by Jean Metzinger, Albert Gleizes, Robert Delaunay, Henri Le Fauconnier, Fernand Léger and Juan Gris. A primary influence that led to Cubism was the representation of three-dimensional form in the late works of Paul Cézanne.  


Self portrait of Marevna in cubist style

Atelier of Diego Rivera in Rue du Départ

                        Above top: Self-Portrait by Marevna in the Cubist style (undated). 
                        Above: Marevna’s sketch, ‘The atelier of Diego Rivera in Rue du
                                     Départ (Diego Rivera, Ehrenbourg and Juan Gris), Paris
                                     in 1916’. 


Marevna’s earliest surviving work already had traces of Cubist influence by 1913. She probably derived the style from Picasso, Georges Braque, and her lover Diego Rivera, who adopted Cubism in c. 1913-1917. The extent to which she helped develop Cubism does not appear to have been given much attention by art historians, though Marevna did refer to it as ‘Dimensionalism’. 

Post-Impressionism, typified by Paul Cezanne, became a formative influence on Diego Rivera after World War One; this was one way in which the style also influenced Marevna at about the same time.  

Both late Impressionism and Cubism remained her main influences, and she continued to be influenced by Diego Rivera’s work, and that of his later wife Frida Kahlo, long after his return to Mexico. 

During the period 1918-1945, Marevna continued to live in France with her daughter, making a living largely from interior decoration, and painting in her spare time. 

Later Career in England 

After World War Two, Marevna moved to England, where Marika (after a short first marriage to the French artist Paul Brusset with whom she had a son called Jean), had married an Englishman, Rodney Phillips, who was the owner of the literary periodical Polemic. It seems (according to a later local newspaper reference) that Marika may have worked as a dancer and actress in England at some point during or just after the war.



Athelhampton House, Dorset

                             Above: Athelhampton House, Dorset. Marevna lived at this
                                          fifteenth-century manor house for ten years.


They initially lived at Phillips’ home, Athelhampton House, Dorset, from 1948 until 1957: Marika giving birth to her second son, David Phillips, in 1949. In 1957, Marika and Rodney divorced – though Marika continued to use the Phillips surname.  

Marevna’s paintings from the Athelhampton period include a portrait of its owner – her son-in-law Rodney Phillips – and the stunning topiaries in its Great Court (or ‘Pyramid Garden’).


Athelhampton Garden painting by Marevna

                            Above: Athelhampton Garden, by Marevna (undated)


Today, Athelhampton House, contains a gallery, whose West Wing is dedicated to some of Marevna’s paintings. The website is also worth visiting: www.marevna.co.uk.

Marevna took up painting again with determination in England. Her style by the later 1940s was described in her Times obituary as:

          a pointilliste technique in landscape and still life, but she later returned to a sort
          of Cubist conventionalization of her pictures’ structure, and later still combined
          the two approaches in a number of striking portraits as well as panoramic
          evocations of her friends of La Ruche.
 
Pointillism is a technique of painting in which small, distinct dots of color are applied in patterns to form an image. Georges Seurat and Paul Signac developed the technique in 1886, branching from Impressionism.  

Portrait of Pablo Picasso by Marevna (1956)

                            Above: Portrait of Pablo Picasso by Marevna (1956)


One of her most well-known paintings, from 1962, Homage to Friends from Montparnasse, depicts several of her erstwhile friends from the Paris scene. It shows both Cubist and Pointillist methods in harmony. It suggests how powerfully that period of her life impacted on her entire outlook, and she returned to this influence many times.  


           Above: Homage to Friends from Montparnasse (1962). Persons depicted: top left
                        to right: Rivera, Ehrenberg, Soutine, Modigliani (centre), Hebuterne,
                        Max Jacob, Zborowski; bottom left to right: Marevna, Marika, Kisling.  


Ealing Years 

After Marika and Rodney Phillips divorced in 1957, she moved with her mother Marevna to Ealing. It is not clear why they chose to live in the local area. 

Here, according to Kemp’s street directories, they both lived at Flat 1, 27 Blakesley Avenue, from 1958 until Marevna’s death in 1984. The householder was listed as ‘Mrs. Marika Rivera Phillips’. The flat is close to Ealing Abbey.  


27 Blakesley Avenue

                                        Above: 27 Blakesley Avenue, Ealing. Flat 1 was
                                                     Marevna’s home for 27 years.   


The flat was one of three at the address, and said to be quite spacious, and if not ideal for painting was certainly used for this purpose. Marika and Marevna do not appear to have been very well off. Indeed, no money was available from Marevna’s family for paint or materials nor was there even a room to paint in, though some of her works were stored there. A friend, Anya Teixeira, whom Marevna met at The Pushkin Club for Russian exiles in London, bought her materials from her meager earnings as a clerk. These included the rolls of canvas from which the ultra-large pictures of her former colleagues in the Russian School of Paris were painted. Anna Teixera also successfully pleaded for Marevna to have the use of a large room (presumably at the Club) to paint in so she could resume her career. 


Marika with bouquet of flowers .

                       Above: Marika with bouquet of flowers – by Marevna (1970).
                                    Probably painted in Ealing.  


In Ealing, Marevna apparently ‘enjoyed some three more fruitful decades before her demise there in 1984’. Apart from a tough period in the early 1960s when The Pushkin Club failed to attract much interest or appreciable prices for her work, this included successful exhibitions in several locations. These were at Lefevre (1952), Geneva (1971), in Mexico, the Guggenheim Gallery in New York, at the Leicester Festival (1977), and at the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith (1980). This last coincided with a season of one-woman plays, Marika’s Café Theatre, put on by her daughter – recreating the lives and times of the early twentieth century Parisian painters with anecdotes and sketches from memory.

A feature article in the Middlesex County Times from February 1971, featured several of Marevna’s paintings. Marevna was reported as refusing to attend the opening of her Geneva exhibition: ‘I didn’t want to see all my paintings hung in a room,’ she said in French, in an apparent criticism of the choice of work in the exhibition and catalogue. This article by reporter Jill Sanders went on revealingly:

           Marevna wants her daughter to attend the Mexican exhibition opening in her 
          place, as she did in Geneva. “She can see the work of her father,” said
          Marevna. Diego Rivera did most of his better known works in Mexico, where he
          
built a museum for Mexican art.  
 
          Marevna has never sought fame. She sold work when she needed money and
          brought up her daughter by her own efforts.
 
          “You have to look after yourself. You must be patient with life. You can always
          live on your talents. If you haven’t any talent, invent one,” is her philosophy in
          life.
         
          Her daughter, Marika, was a dancer, taught by Isadora Duncan. But she had to 
          become a character actress as war-time Britain wanted to laugh, rather than
          appreciate the more serious concept of free movement and dance. 
 
          Marevna has always been very interested in cubism, and many of her works 
          reflect this style, with geometric construction running through compositions
          delighting in natural form. 
 
          Her paintings are often executed in the pointilliste style. She has achieved a 
          very characteristic technique, strong and masculine, clear and bold. She
          said she did not want to “go abstract” as have most of today’s artists although
          her style could be considered out of fashion. 
          
          “I love the natural form,” she said.
 
          Many of her paintings are figure work and she has enjoyed painting nudes in
          the classical tradition. 
Now she does little painting.
 
         “My doctor told me to take it easy,” she says with a shrug.
 
          She regrets her brilliant artist group no longer exists. “All dead, all dead. 
          Picasso is too far away,” she laments. 
 
          She looks more like a gipsy than an artist in her loose embroidered shirts with
          a silk scarf around her head. 
She talks in scathing terms of the bourgeois, who,
          she feels, are senseless about art. 
And she mourns that her doctor has told her
          not to drink wine.  
 

In 1978, another article about Marevna appeared in the Midweek Gazette (she was 86 by this time). It reported that the BBC television programme Omnibus was about show a film about her and her daughter, Marika. The article stated that Marevna had arrived in England in 1947 but that ‘she still speaks only French and her native Russian’. Moreover, Marevna had not exhibited for ‘twenty years’ in the UK, prior to her most recent 1977 exhibition at the Leicester Festival. She had nevertheless kept busy with drawing and painting on a daily basis, despite her flat lacking light. In 1978 the flat did contain a portrait of Marevna by Picasso. Marevna explained the circumstances of its creation through her daughter, Marika, acting as interpreter: 

          “I had just finished a book and was working on the illustrations. Whilst I was 
          working I went to visit Picasso at Vallauris in 1951. He told me that he would do
          a drawing of me for the book I was writing “Life in two worlds” and in exchange
          I did a painting of him […] I like the drawing very much, but the fact that Picasso
          did it has no meaning. It is just a drawing done by a friend, a happy memory you
          could say.” 
 

By 1978, Marevna spent most of her time at home. Her closest companions were said to be her nine dogs! Only seven survived by 1980, it seems. These were ushered off into rooms whenever visitors called. 

The final local newspaper feature on Marevna appeared in 1980, in the Midweek Gazette. It recounted the violent stabbing she endured from Diego Rivera (recounted earlier), and hailed her as the ‘missing link with that revolutionary world of dissident artists and poets who lived life to its wildest extremes in Paris’s… café society’. Marevna was said to be a ‘lively, alert, 88-year-old’ who ‘wears kaftan dresses and canvas shoes laced up her ankles’, who would ‘probably be deemed eccentric if she were not a brilliant artist’.

By this date, both Marevna and Marika appear to have been living off the nostalgia of their days in Paris, having been part of a larger-than-life artistic scene, which was still ‘alive’ to them, despite most of its other participants having long died. As Marika said about her play about the Paris scene shown at the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith (1980): 

          “It is a kind of happy requiem… I want people to see that that period was so full
          of life and vigour is still alive today…. Picasso and Diego and all the others are
          dead, but they are not dead. It’s like Elgar. He’s dead but you can listen to his
          music, so he’s not dead if you see what I mean. [Diego and Picasso] quarrelled
          but they laughed and they lived… That’s why they are great.” 
 

Marevna Vorobiev-Stebelska died in London aged 92 on 4 May, 1984. Her daughter Marika Phillips died in 2010. Their passing closed a chapter on world art, which had partly been lived out in the Queen of the Suburbs. 

Marevna was an artist of real talent who has yet to receive fuller treatment from scholars and a wider audience among the general public. Despite her contacts she was never celebrated as a great artist in her own lifetime, perhaps owing to her life in exile or her lack of interest in self-promotion. More research about her time in Ealing would require an examination of her writings (listed in the Wikipedia entry about her) and the archives of cultural institutions and galleries in London, among other locations in the interconnected world of modern art.  

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