Akhmatova in Art

An anthology of works in honour of Anna Akhmatova, the great Russian poet, was published in 1925. There were contributions of poetry from Alexander Block, Nikolai Gumilev, Fyodor Sologub, Mikhail Kuzmin, Osip Mandelshtam, Marina Tsvetayeva among others, interspersed with portraits of the poet by Nathan Altman and Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin, drawings by Yuri Annenkov, a silhouette by Evgeny Belukha, a statuette by Natalia Danko. At the time, Akhmatova was scarcely 35 years old, and not even half her life had been lived. Still, it was a suitable summary of her accomplishments and of the era, that of the Russian art nouveau, one of the main figures of which was Anna Akhmatova.

For long  years, Akhmatova was forgotten, ignored and cursed as the spectre of socialist realism took over Russia. Yet artists continued to paint her picture, and poets glorified her poetry.

Today, the Museum of Anna Akhmatova recognises over two hundred portraits painted by her contemporaries – portraits in the graphic arts, fine art, sculpture, and even mosaic. Poetry addressed to Akhmatova are published in anthologies.

During her lifetime, her portraits were painted by such great artists as Amedeo Modigliani as well as dilettantes such as Joseph Brodsky and Georgi Shengeli. In any event, all of them are important, even if only as documentation. Sometimes they depict her likeness, and sometimes her state of mind. Sometimes they are a reflection of the internal world of the model, and sometimes they are a reflection of the relationship between the artist and the model. And there are times when we can’t even say there was a relationship at all between the painter and sitter: we do not know if Akhmatova was acquainted with Evgeniy Belukh, Maria Sinyakova, Tatyana Skvorikova. At such times, the image is less interesting as a portrait of the poet than as an illustration of the  epoch.

If we trace the chronology of Akhmatova’s imagery, we can see not only how she changes with age and attitude, but also the changes in the interplay between artist and model. It is worth remembering the impact of her personality and taste on the manner of execution of her portraits. In her iconography there is little of the artistic experimentation of the 1910s-1920s, although as the wife of the avant-garde art critic Nikolai Punin in the 1920s and 30s, she moved in avant-garde circles and they were hardly indifferent to her. (Indeed, it may safely be said that nearly every one of those bohemians was in love with Akhmatova.)  All of them undoubtedly saw her as  ‘classically austere’, and this partly determined the style of her depiction.

What is the secret behind Akhmatova’s portrayals? What prompted her contemporaries to explore her appearance for nearly six decades? There is no simple unique answer to these queries.

Eric Hollerbach wrote to Akhmatova in 1922, and apologised for some indiscretion he committed: ‘I think that it is my awkwardness before you is a completely unconscious reaction to that sharp, dark, almost continuous ache provoked in me by your existence.’ Something had to be done about this ache, and Hollerbach dedicated poetry to his muse, and published the aforementioned anthology ‘The Image of Anna Akhmatova’.

In the modernist tradition of the time, it was the vogue to use a beautiful woman’s face to illustrate a cultural association. So we find the likes of Lyubov Delmas portrayed as the gypsy Carmen, or Ida Rubinstein as the wounded lioness of the Assyrian relief (by Valentin Serov, 1910; or Leon Bakst, 1921), or Olga Hlebova-Sudeikina as Columbine (Sergei Sudeikin, 1915), or Salome Andronnikova as “Lenore, Solominka, Ligeia, Seraphita” (from the poem by Mandelstam).

Akhmatova herself became a muse for sundry artists only after her development as a poet. In her early married years she was shy, but with the publication of her poetry, she was seen as quietly majestic (in Kornei Chukovsky’s words: ‘… In her eyes and posture and her dealings with people appear the chief feature of her personality – majesty. Not arrogance, not pride, not haughtiness, but majesty, regal, …, unshakeable confidence and self-respect for her own high literary mission.’). Even in later years, anyone who knew her felt her ‘tranquil importance’ and treated her with special respect, although she remained simple and friendly with them all.

Sketch of Anna Akhmatova, by Amedeo Modigliani. (1911).

This ‘tranquil importance’ was first felt and reflected in her portrait by Amedeo Modigliani in 1911, the only one of sixteen [that he gave her] which survived with Akhmatova. He portrayed ‘the thinnest woman of St Petersburg’, as she called herself – she is grand, like the Egyptian sphinx. Akhmatova commented on the enigmatic work: ‘Modigliani was very sorry that he couldn’t understand my poetry, and suspected they concealed something miraculous.’ This portrait begins the Akhmatova iconography, not least because it survived and no earlier work is known today.

Sketches of Anna Akhmatova, by Amedeo Modigliani. (1911).

Anna Akhmatova, by Amedeo Modigliani. (1911?)

Anna Akhmatova as Acrobat, by Amedeo Modigliani. (1911?).

Head with chignon, by Amedeo Modigliani.

On the other hand, Modigliani’s works that were attributed in 1993 as portrayals of Akhmatova have no dates. Most likely they were created [in 1911], but it’s also possible that they were committed later, from memory: Akhmatova herself had no recollection of them. These are ‘nudes’: in the structure of her figure, there is a chaste wholesomeness, while in the pose is a dramatic expressiveness. Small wonder that her husband Gumilev had proposed that she take up dance.

The appeal of Akhmatova as a model was not merely in her unusual appearance and not just in her fame after the publication of her books ‘Evening’ (1912) and ‘Rosary’ (1914), but also in how she met the gaze of the artist, and in how she helped him see in her something greater than a poetic rule maker or lady of fashion.

Anna Akhmatova, by Sergei Sudeikin.

Sergei Sudeikin sketched a profile of Akhmatova in the early 1910s, and – using words from her poem – said it was ‘like a black-figured vase’. Alexander Tinyakov wrote to Boris  Sadovsky in 1912: ‘Akhmatova is a beauty, an ancient Greek.’ Certainly, the appeal to classical references were common at the time … She was referred to as Sappho by the mosaic artist Boris Anrep; the poet Yuri Verkhovsky wrote of her (‘I heard the girl – singer of love – on Lesbos isle’). 

Anna Akhmatova, by Natalia Danko (painted by Elena Danko). (1924).

In 1925, Pavel Luknitsky wrote in his diary: ‘She showed me a lead medal with her profile, and said she loved it. I noted that the profile was heavy. “That is what I like … It implies an ‘antiquity.’”‘ There is no trace of that medal. It is possible it is one of the works of Natalia Danko, along with her cameos of Akhmatova which were made of porcelain, paste and plaster. 

Portrait of Anna Akhmatova, by Nina Kogan. (1930).

[There is a sequence of silhouettes in the Akhmatova iconography: two by Elizabeth Kruglikova from the 1910s; Vasily Kaluzhnin portrayed Akhmatova as a character from Dante in the 1920s (reminiscent of Dante's own profile pictures by Giotto, Raphael and Botticelli); three works by Nina Kogan in the first half of the 1930s, and finally, two by Sergei Rudakov in 1936.

Compassion, by Boris Anrep. (1952).

The sculptor and mosaicist Boris Anrep met Akhmatova between 1914 and 1917, and was so struck by her that years later, in 1952, he portrayed her (from memory!) in his mosaics (she appears in the panel ‘Compassion’ in honour of the fallen in the siege of Leningrad where she is being saved by an angel from the horrors of war; likewise, in his mosaic of St Anne, the face of the saint is said to be that of Akhmatova).

The appearance of an elderly Akhmatova was also of interest to artists. The actor Alexei Batalov said that she resembled a subject of Renaissance paintings. ‘Going by the self-portrait of da Vinci as an old man, she could have been his sister, but at the same time the doge of Venice in disguise or a Genoese merchant.’ In 1952, at Akhmatova’s request, he created her portrait with as much skill as he could muster.

Portrait by Savely Sorin. (1914).

The iconography of Anna Akhmatova can be divided into three periods. The earliest portrayals are focussed mainly on a reflection of the external – her beauty, brilliance, originality, extravagance and style. Some of them are virtually salon paintings; indeed, she called her portrait by Savely Sorin in 1914 a ‘candy box’.

Akhmatova’s (poetic) triumph is reflected in Nathan Altman’s work. The severity and novelty of (Akhmatova’s) acmeism, the sharpness and originality of her poetic sound, and the sharpness of Akhmatova’s silhouette led Altman to the use of Cubist techniques, new to Russian art. 

Portrait of Anna Akhmatova, by Nathan Altman. (1914).

Akhmatova’s poetry and image gradually became the standard for women’s poetry and indeed their appearance. Many adopted her image from her ‘self-portraits’ and Altman’s portrait. However, not everybody was willing to see in Akhmatova the ‘lacquered doll of Altman’ (the words of Vladimir Milashevsky).

Portrait of Akhmatova, by Olga Della-Vos-Kardovskaya. (1914).

If Altman sharpened her features, Olga Della-Vos-Kardovskaya softened them, conveying a feminity to the model, and (as she wrote), a ‘spiritual communion’ with her.

Portraiture session, by Nathan Altman. (1914).

Halt of Comedians, by Sergei Polyakov. (1916).

The early Akhmatova iconography is panegyric, yet includes a number of cartoons. Sergei Polyakov’s caricature ‘Halt of Comedians’ (1916) allows us to see Akhmatova amongst the guests of that literary and artistic cabaret – in the same pose as depicted by Altman. There is also a self-portrait by Altman in which he depicts a portraiture session with Akhmatova. People of the Silver Age loved to laugh at themselves: this was the antithesis of the seriousness of their quotidian lives.

Portrait of the poet Anna Akhmatova, Yuri Annenkov. (1921).

Portrait of Anna Akhmatova, by Yuri Annenkov. (1921).

In 1921, Yuri Annenkov made two sketch portraits of Akhmatova in one day. The sketch executed in pen (ink and black water-colour) can be considered the beginning of the second period in the Akhmatova iconography. The transitional boundary between the periods is evident, especially since the other sketch, executed in gouache and finished by the painter in exile, can be entirely placed within the first period. [Annenkov referred to Anna as a sad beauty, a seemingly humble hermit, clad in the fashionable dress of brightness, and surely this refers to her decadent portrayal in his gouache, looking back to pre-Revolutionary times. In 1921, a year of starvation and executions, Akhmatova should more accurately have been portrayed quite differently. Akhmatova recalled having to wear the same dress for a whole year, losing weight dreadfully, becoming very poor.]

Portrait of Anna Akhmatova, by Zinaida Serebriakova. (1922).

Anna Akhmatova, by Lev Bruni. (1922).

Anna Akhmatova, by Kuzma Petrov-Borodin. (1922).

The following year appeared the lyrical, beautiful portrait of Akhmatova by Zinaida Serebriakova, and the diametrically opposite, unattractive, portrait by Lev Bruni. There were also studies and a portrait by Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin. These works confirm that before us is no longer the poet of ‘Rosaries’: Akhmatova’s ‘Anno Domini’ was released that year, a funerary lament for Gumilev (her husband, who had been executed that year) and Blok. And while in the second period of Akhmatova’s iconography, there are graceful works (such as by the Danko sisters, or Georgi Vereisky), the focus of most artists was not so much her outward charm as the creative beginnings and fate of the poet.

Anna Akhmatova, by Georgi Vereisky. (1929).

Between 1926 and 1928 appeared the brilliant series of portraits by Nikolai Tyrsa, snatching the poet from the flow of time in different angles and conditions. Her beauty doesn’t overshadow the main impression of the portraits: she has turned inwards, into the depths of her being. Tyrsa’s work demonstrate that the inner condition and the external manifestation are one and the same, a unified embodiment.

Anna Akhmatova, by N. A. Tyrsa. (1927).

Anna Akhmatova, by N. A. Tyrsa. (1927).

Anna Akhmatova, by N. A. Tyrsa. (1927).

Anna Akhmatova, by N. A. Tyrsa. (1928).

Anna Akhmatova, by N. A. Tyrsa. (1928).

Rounding out the second period of the Akhmatova iconography are the portraits from the 1940s. First, we have the series of works by Alexander Tischler in 1943, of which the literary critic and translator Vladimir Muravyov (a friend of Akhmatova since the 1960s) said, “If all of Tischler’s portraits are put together, they really do resemble her in my opinion.. I see Tischler as a reflector of reality in the magic mirror of art.”

Akhmatova, by A. G. Tischler. (1943).

And then we have the reverent pieces of Antonina Lyubimova (which I am unable to find images of). And we have the drawings by Martiros Saryan from 1946, although it can be said his painting of that same year perhaps belong more properly to the third phase of Akhmatova’s iconography because there’s little semblance between it and the etudes he had executed.

Akhmatova, by Martiros Saryan. (1946).

Portrait of Akhmatova, by Martiros Saryan. (1946).

To the end of the second period, we can also attribute the work by Józef Czapski, litterateur, artist and fighter for Polish independence. He met Akhmatova in 1965 in Paris, and struck by the change in her appearance, sketched her in retrospective, as he had seen her in Tashkent in 1942. The nervy and sharp line, the original style is all reminiscent of perhaps the first period of the iconography.

In the 1950s and 1960s, Akhmatova continued to be portrayed by many, but the works of these decades are less interesting than those of the preceding ones. Previously, a new portrait of Akhmatova was often an event both for the artists and the public; now, there was hardly any response either from the viewers or the poet (who usually was unaware of its existence); often the artists themselves felt dissatisfied with their creations.

In the 1960s there was a spate of sculptural portraits of Akhmatova: works by Tamara Silman, Zoya Maslennikova, Lev Smorgon, Vasily Astapov, Ilya Slonim. Akhmatova’s visage, always ‘sculptural’, now demanded to be portrayed as sculpture. 

The reason for the static and excessively memorialised late works comes not just from personal approaches of the artists and the pressure upon them from the weight of Akhmatova’s fame, but also from the poet’s ‘grand’ manner of posing, herself becoming a ‘monument’ and often wanted to see herself depicted as such. Otherwise, she felt, she would be defenceless beneath the gaze of the artist.

Anna Akhmatova, by Georgy Ginsburg-Voskov. (1965).

Anna Akhmatova, by Georgy Ginsburg-Voskov. (1965).

But it’s worth recalling that Akhmatova’s image in her last two decades in numerous memoirs is not quite so static. In the words of Georgy Ginsburg-Voskov who met Akhmatova in 1964: “I was infatuated at first glance… Irrespective of her age, she exuded the energy of a beautiful young woman. And evidently she charmed people: black kimono, barefoot in sandals, a pedicure, beautiful hands, ring with dark stone…” He was especially struck by her head, the power from it, the variety of angles, a different appearance from every angle. He drew Akhmatova in 1965, two portraits surviving to this day, one in profile, one en face. To his good fortune, he was able to capture her as he saw her on first meeting. This is what he wrote about the process of creation of the drawings:

I’m sitting with AA in a room. Between us is a table. On it is a vase with roses, dark red. I begin to draw her. Timidly, two old women (likely acquainted with her) open the door to ask AA to go for a walk. AA: ‘We are busy.’ – and slyly smiles at me. The old women retire. AA takes out a mirror and a comb. Looks in the mirror and straightens her fringe. I am dazed and I say, ‘Anna Andreevna, you are posing to me as though to … Durer!’ AA: ‘Yes, that’s whom I love.’

AA: ‘Garrik! You are looking at me so sternly!’ I draw as though in a fever. It feels as though she is the one who is drawing, not I. And so it was all the time.

Once AA gave me her ‘Poem Without a Hero’ to read. I sat and read. Anna Andreevna went out and returned and asked me what I think. ‘It reminds me of a medieval town with many towers.’ AA: ‘Solzhenitsyn said the same thing to me.’

Under the strong influence of ‘Poem’, I drew the picture ‘En face’. Rather, I began it. I finished after a few days, when Carlo Riccio, Akhmatova’s Italian translator and publisher was visiting her. I remember, he laughed and said, ‘Doesn’t look like her.’ When AA posed for the picture, on her head had been a round cape of coarse lace, and under her chin just to the left was  big silver brooch. In the drawing at the lower left (on her left), barely perceptible (but more visible in the original) is an image of a large boulder with fir trees behind it. This was in memory of our conversation about Karelia when I was drawing her. AA had said that there were huge boulders, like the skulls of giants.

Anna Andreevna saw both drawings in nearly finished form. During the drawing of her profile, she remarked (touching her nose), ‘The nose – that’s mine. Anyone can recognise me.’

In later years, Akhmatova loved to be around young people. This communion signified, for her, an involvement in life. Zoya Tomashevskaya recalled Akhmatova’s bearing around the circle of young poets (Bobyshev, Brodsky, Neyman, Rhein): “I saw that she had a bouquet of floors, and teased her, ‘Look, the boys have brought flowers for you.’ ‘Yes,’ replied Anna Andreevna, ‘I play every role with them – from grande coquette to comic old woman.’ This was very characteristic of her: witty and easily ironic. She used to say that irony was the ability to rise above oneself. She was unusually ironic and was able to manifest it in her bitterest moments.”

And yet there’s not one portrait of a smiling Akhmatova. Probably Akhmatova herself did not allow such a possibility.

Akhmatova, by Moses Lyangleben. (1964).

Akhmatova, by Gerda Nemyonova. (~1965).

Completing the chronological overview of Akhmatova we note that in her later years appeared the expressive drawings of Leo Smorgon, Moses Langleben, Vladimir Lemport and Joseph Brodsky. The most vivid image of Akhmatova’s last period perhaps come from the numerous sketches of Gerta Nemyonova. Some of the best of them combine timelessness and instantaneity. 

(The above text includes a loose translation (italicised) from [1])

References

1. Olga Rubinchik, «Я здесь, на сером полотне…» – Ахматова и художники, Toronto Slavic Quarterly, No 11 (Winter 2004)

Impermanence

How fickle is memory, how impermanent. When I started this blog barely a month ago, I had completely forgotten that I had not only blogged (briefly) once before about Russian art but also mentioned Zinaida Serebriakova. This was over three years ago, when Marcel Theroux’s documentary Oligart: The Great Russian Art Boom on Russian oligarchs buying up the country’s art was shown. At the time, Serebriakova was gaining serious attention and achieving eye-watering prices. But a month ago, it was as though I was rediscovering her anew. How fickle indeed is memory.

Zinaida Serebriakova: Coda

Mikhail Lebedev is the director of a documentary film on Zinaida Serebriakova. He was able to meet Serebriakova’s descendants, some who lived in France, others in Russia.

Having become famed as one of the greatest of painters only after death, for much of her life Zinaida Serebriakova was very poor. Even today, the last of her surviving children, Ekaterina, can barely make ends meet.

When Lebedev met Ekaterina at her studio-apartment in Paris, she was wearing an old-fashioned black dress with white collars, the kind that was worn in the 1930s-1940s. ‘My mother stitched this,’ Ekaterina explained. ‘We had no money to buy clothes in the shops.’

Interview with Lebedev (July 3, 2009):

Question: Is it true that Paris didn’t welcome such a talented artist?

Answer: Sadly, it is. Visitors consider Paris as a magical, festive city, full of romance.  But it is indifferent to foreigners, especially to those in the arts, and who find it difficult to make their way to fame and wealth by dint of effort. Despite participating in many exhibitions, little success came to Zinaida, and she barely earned any money. Paris at the time was fascinated with abstract art and surrealism. Serebriakova, a traditional realist, had no time for the new fashion. ‘Abstractionism – this is mud smeared on paper,’ she wrote in letters back home. ‘And surrealism – it is nonsense and ugliness.’ To make a living, she painted commissioned portraits.

Question: Who were her patrons?

Answer: Mainly, Russian emigres. The French rarely commissioned work from her. Nearly all the money she earned, she sent to her children in Soviet Russia. Not that she earned a lot. Often she had to work for free, in return for promises that her work would be promoted. But those promises were often immediately forgotten. She often had to use herself or her children as models, because she had to count every penny. (In later life, the Russian girls who would model for her also stopped doing so as they grew up and married.) Meanwhile, her rich compatriots addressed her as ‘artist’ while thinking to themselves ‘what an unfortunate’.

Question: Why didn’t she take all her four children to Paris?

Answer: It was not easy. A year after coming to France from Russia, she was able to  bring her son Alexander, who, incidentally, was also a very gifted artist. Only three years later was she able to bring her youngest, Katya – she was already 13 years of age. The Soviet authorities refused to let her other children leave the country.

Question: Was she unable to return to the USSR to reunite with her family?

Answer: Apparently, she was afraid of reprisals. In the 1930s, her brother Nicholas had been arrested. He later died in prison. Besides which, as Zinaida admitted in a letter to her daughter Tatyana, she didn’t have enough money either for a passport nor for the trip home.

Baron de Brouwer’s commission for paintings from Morocco allowed her some amount of financial security. She returned from Africa in 1928 with a large collection of paintings, which, when exhibited in Paris, proved a big success. She was able to lease a workshop, and take a holiday with her daughter on the beach. Another trip to Morocco resulted in several famous paintings of its people. Today, rich Moroccans are desperate to buy her paintings of their country.

Question: Why was her art not as popular as one might expect in France?

Answer: I’m certain that had she abandoned her realist style, she would have become rich and famous in her own lifetime. But she insisted on painting the world as it was.

Question: What of her descendants?

Answer: In the direct line, only the youngest daughter Ekaterina is alive, and her grandson Ivan Nikolaev, from her other daughter Tatyana. He is nearly 70 years old, lives in Moscow, and is an Honoured Artist of Russia. Zinaida’s other children didn’t have any families.

Question: How can we explain the fact that Ekaterina Serebriakova lives in poverty, while her mother’s paintings sell for millions of dollars?

Answer: Ekaterina protects her mother’s heritage. The idea of selling any of her work is out of the question for her. She is 96 years old, and has little interest in making money. A few years ago, some people even tried to cheat her. Someone from the French side of her family persuaded Ekaterina to sell some of the paintings to create a memorial fund in the name of Zinaida Serebriakova. She agreed, and around 2002, the appraisers came to select the paintings for auction. In London, these sold for about three million dollars, but nobody knows where the money has gone. Soon thereafter, her relative – who was about sixty years old – died during some simple surgical procedure.

Question: How do you conclude from that that she was a victim of fraud?

Answer: Well, as soon as the auction finished, the relative prevented any access to Ekaterina. He allowed her to give interviews only in his presence. And anytime she started to say anything he considered objectionable, he would interrupt, ‘Aunt Katya, you are tired.’ If she objected, he’d insist on the point.

Question: How much of her mother’s work remains with Ekaterina?

Answer: Around three thousand pieces. Her sole heir is her nephew, Ivan Nikolaev, but as far as I know she hasn’t given him authority over the archive. It appears that that French relative I mentioned earlier had hoped that she would pass everything over to him.

Meanwhile, Ekaterina also possesses many watercolours of her brother Alexander Serebriakov, from which it is not difficult to recreate the Paris of the beginning of the last century. There aren’t that many, because Alexander had little time for his art – he had to work to support his mother and sister. He was involved in the interior decoration of palaces and mansions, a career that brought in more money than painting. Ekaterina herself was a fine draughtswomen – she too painted interiors.

Question: How did Zinaida get to see her daughter Tatyana after nearly forty years?

Answer: In the mid-1960s, the USSR Ministry of Culture assigned Tatyana (who for years had been working as an artist-decorator in the Moscow Art Theater) to the preparation of a personal exhibition of her mother’s art. The exhibition took place (and was attended by Zinaida) but her sister Ekaterina was too weak to come home.

Question: Has Ekaterina seen your film?

Answer: Yes, indeed. We brought her a videotape. Her TV is positively the smallest screen you have ever seen. Seeing Neskuchnoye (the ancestral estate), she clapped and cried, ‘Bravo, bravo!’ She confessed that she hoped one day to see for herself the old homestead. She recalled the tall poplars and enormous gardens, and seeing the veranda on which, as a child, she had spent so much time playing and painting, she was close to tears.

Unfortunately, there’s no trace today of the Neskuchnoye estate. But people in the Kharkov region still remember the great family. When we were filming there, some locals came up and asked if we were making a film on Serebriakova. ‘We have heard that Katya lives in Paris. If she sent us some money, maybe we could have a road built here!’ When we told them that Ekaterina has hardly any money for herself, they asked no more questions.

(Loosely translated from Olga Smetanskaya’s article in Facty.)

Zinaida Serebriakova’s Nudes

Only in the early career of Zinaida Serebriakova does one encounter the male nude. In a box of her sketches in the Russian Museum there are a few pencil drawings of a naked man, most likely her husband. Later in life, she preferred the image of the female body. The works of the artist are ascetic, as compared with those in the theme of the ‘nude’ of many masters of the Art Nouveau. Zinaida goes along a different path: she removes mannered discontinuities, discards all non-essentials, and rests on the classical tradition. The theme of bathers is traditional for the genre and associated with the “World of Art”; but in Zinaida’s hands, there is no voyeuristic moment, unlike the Miriskussniki. On the canvas “Bather” (1911, Russian Museum), a nude woman is shown seated, chastely covered with a white drape. In this work the artist attempts to combine the classical interpretation of the model with a full-scale impressionistic landscape, which is challenging, because the body has a smooth texture while the natural environment comprises a mass of details and nuances. Assessing the difficulty of the task, Serebriakova only in rare cases ever came back to the theme of the “nude” in nature.

In “Bather (1911)”, one can possibly discern a French influence, while the growing nationalistic consciousness demanded a Russian theme. This motivated Serebriakova’s ‘Bathhouse’. In 1913, she worked on that multi-figured composition, in which she depicted naked women without embellishment; the idealisation of female characters arrived in her oeuvre only later. Through her art, she demonstrated the softness of the female body; these models are not of sportswomen, their bodies are not harsh or angular. The simple composition has a generalized form of the planes accentuating the local color, enlarging the images. No doubt, the appeal to the classical art of the past contributed to the execution of this painting. But the picture is no retrospective. From the classics came the search for proportions and malleable forms. This made it possible to reveal in the far-from-perfect appearance of live models the features of the ideal and to retain a sense of immediacy of the depicted scene.

In 1915 Serebriakova obtained a commission that allowed her to fully demonstrate her decorative inclinations. She was charged with the creation of four round panels – allegorical images of India, Japan, Turkey and Siam – for the main hall of Moscow’s Kazan’ railway station, which was being constructed at the time. Soon thereafter however the construction was halted. Zinaida’s work remained in the form of studies that were filled with movement and originality. Her sketches demonstrate a new embodiment of the theme of the ‘nude’ in the Russian art: cobalt blue planes of lunettes are perceived as window openings, on the frames of which sit the naked dusky-golden women.

With the outbreak of World War I, Art Nouveau was over, and the age of Functionalism began. Serebriakova continued to carry out her sketches in accordance with the slogan “art for art’s sake” – the apotheosis of modernity. The works of the artist were suddenly rendered “obsolete”, her aesthetic refinements longer well-regarded in the new environment. Art Nouveau was characterized by utopian ideals, by a belief in the transforming power of beauty. It turned out that aesthetic means alone could not achieve radical change. Perhaps Serebriakova recognised the impracticability of the project; nevertheless, she fulfilled her own mission with great skill. Her etudes are so brave that we cannot definitely say whether it was possible for them to be executed at the beginning of the 21st century. Serebriakova had entered the sphere of art at a time when the principles of modernism had already been established. Her work was inevitably coloured by the impact of this style. The special merit of the artist is that, having begun her career when Art Nouveau was in the final stages of its development, she was able to put her own stamp on it. Her sketches for the decor in the railway station were the culmination of the Art Nouveau style in her work, as well as the brightest manifestation of modernism in Russian art and the original incarnation of the theme of the nude. In these works can be seen the birth of the next features of style – Art Deco, which replaced Art Nouveau. The artist’s energy corresponds more to Art Deco than the languid characters in the Art Nouveau style. Thus, the flowering of her style should be attributed not to the first half of the 1910s, when she created her famous self-portrait “At the dressing table,” but to the second.

As 1917 approached, the artistic community awaited the arrival of irreversible changes. Serebriakova began work on her ‘Diana and Acteon’, and elements of expressionism became evident in her style. Contrasting colours and dynamic postures conveyed the emotional tension of the scene.  She began the work before the Revolution, but it incorporates in symbolized form the events of that time: the world war, the destruction of public attitudes. The main feeling of the artist is fear: for her children, her husband, for her whole family, for herself, helpless in the face of uncontrollable events. The painting embodies the same anticipation of events, like Petrov-Vodkin in “Bathing the Red Horse.” The artist’s anxiety and agitation came to such a head that she couldn’t finish the work. In emotional tension, this painting by Serebriakova is not inferior even to “The Scream” by E. Munch.

In Soviet Russia Serebriakova found it difficult to find models to continue her work in the genre of the nude. In the 1920s, her daughters became her subjects. In 1923, she painted ‘Katya reclining, nude‘. The elongated figure of the girl, seen from behind, is executed with confident lines. Serebriakova’s “Nymph” turns around and looks at the viewer. The sale of similar works at an exhibition of Russian art in America enabled Serebriakova in 1924 to go to France.

During her Parisian sojourn, Serebriakova’s thematic development of the nude received a boost. First of all, we see an explosion of works in similar style. We may go as far as to say that Serebriakova cultivated the ‘nude’. She painted several works around bathing scenes, replicas of her 1912 work that she had executed in Russia. Overall, however, there is limited appeal to Russianness in this period of her work. Russia was a very personal matter for Serebriakova, and she did not want to make it evident to all and sundry.

In the European tradition, the nude was fairly commonplace, not requiring the justification of bathing scenes to exist. For Serebriakova, too, there was no need for similar extenuation – she painted nudes because the female body was beautiful in itself. The 1927 ‘Nude’ is a sensual pose that attracts both the sexes, and was likely a painting of her daughter. The work doesn’t merely attract aesthetically: the model has raised her arm, lifting the breasts and drawing attention to them. Perhaps this ‘Nude’ for Serebriakova was a reminiscence of lost youth and lost love.

At an exhibition of Russian art in Belgium in 1928, people noted Serebriakova’s ‘nude’ oeuvre. The Baron de Brouwer met her and financed her trip to Morocco. One of the works that she brought back from her trip was the ‘Reclining Negress’ (1928). Four years later, she visited Morocco again, whence she returned with the ‘Reclining Moroccan Woman’. Camille Marklair wrote in Le Figaro that the Moroccan works of Serebriakova are preferable to those of Matisse. Matisse called for a laconic sufficiency in artistic means, for expressiveness and clarity in artistic language, for understanding of the surrounding world and its view through the prism of the artist. This can be said of Serebriakova as well, although she chose a different path to expression. Nevertheless in the works of Matisse and Serebriakova, there is a similarity – they convey a love of life and the beauty of things. Both artists based their works on Nature, but while Serebriakova remains completely faithful to it, Matisse modifies it to suit his own purposes. Life is diverse, and even the same motifs are embodied in the art in different ways,  speaking of the striking individuality of artists. Works on African themes became part of the iconography of the Art Deco style. The era of jazz could not have done without the image of the charming Negress.

What attracted Serebriakova to the theme of the nude over and over again? The work “Nude Model” (1933) presents to the viewer a silky body, uncovered and breathing passion.  ‘Portrait of Nevedomskaya’ (1935) presents a rare aspect of the nude, an artistically true depiction of the model. More often than not, Serebriakova lent her nudes a generic, anonymous appearance. Serebriakova’s girls are very sensual, but she portrays virtually no actual movement of the body, unlike Degas’ bathing women.

While all her future works would obey this rule, an exception is her panels for de Brouwer’s mansion in Belgium, where she returned to her themes for the Kazan railway station. She had been asked to present her patron’s occupation and interests in stylised form, for which she created ‘Jurisprudence’, ‘Flora’, ‘Art’ and ‘Light’. Cooperation with de Brouwer resulted in a forceful stylistic improvement in the artist. She completed the panels in 1937. That year, there was a World Exhibition in Paris, where at the Pavilion of the USSR, the artist V. I. Mukhin’s ‘The working man and the collective farm-woman’ was displayed. Serebriakova’s style was quite distinct from the Socialist Realism, but shared many of its attributes: romanticism, a positive view on life, a pliant myth-making, idealism. The realism in Socialist Realism was no greater than that in Serebriakova’s neoclassicism, except for an external recognition of heroes and objects and lacking the adequate translation of reality. Mukhin’s work, then, is as far from actuality as Serebriakova’s panels for de Brouwer. Thus, despite the isolation of emigration, the masters worked along parallel principles. But while Mukhin’s monumental piece throbs with energy and becomes a suitable symbol for the country and era it represents, a lack of such global ambition deterred the promotion of Serebriakova’s works. But her de Brouwer paintings were an important step in resolving the crisis of self-repetition that often bedevilled emigrants and even masters who adhered for too long to one style.

In later life, too, Zinaida Serebriakova continued to paint nudes. Often, masters are prevented by advancing age from executing works of nature, and are restricted to still lifes and illustrations. But Serebriakova remained true to the genre of the Nude.  She felt compelled to return to it again and again. In 1940, she painted ‘Nude leaning on elbow’, a sharp work, accurately delineating the effects of light and shade that had become her trademark style. And in 1941 came ‘Sleeping Nude’.

The theme continued to attract the artist well into middle age (‘Nude’, 1945, 1948). The model doesn’t look at the viewer, and is often posed sleeping. These girls with a half smile on their lips are painted from life: they are real, but the artist creates a rich atmosphere charged with delicate sensuality in which they are immersed.

The works of this period have a kind of French charm. They are absolutely lacking the restraints of her early “Bather” and “Bathhouse.” If for some artists classic experimentation made it difficult to find an independent path to creativity, then for Serebriakova it helped gain a freedom for her later career. This was not a rejection of traditional art, but rather her own individual interpretation of it.

Despite the fact that Serebriakova’s images of nude girls were originally filled with the purifying cult of beauty, over time the artist felt the utopianism of such aesthetic idealism, and in her later works portrayed a regret: there is so much beauty around us, but the world has not become a better place. The ideal of ​​beauty was gradually replaced by the joy of the moment, and long-term values ​​were taken over by the short-term. The motto “Art for Art’s sake” was replaced with “here and now.”  The idea of a wonderful future was replaced by the illusion of a safe present. Constantly thinking about the eternal perfect was a huge psychological burden; in her middle age, the artist allowed herself to live not by the rules of higher morality, but simply to experience every passing day. In her later works Serebryakova refused to idealize. These were never exhibited and knew no mass audience. Instead of classical perfection they stemmed from an expressionist despair that the desire for beauty can not prevent revolution and war, or the loss of home and homeland. For while classical art was characterized by restraint, it was not easy to restrain one’s emotions; in her later period the artist’s creativity became much more open. Serebriakova’s nude girls are erotic but not in any way cynical. The sensual nature of her works can embarrass some viewers even today. She had held for long a negative attitude towards modern trends in art, but she could hardly isolate herself from them.

Serebriakova’s work on the Nude blossomed whilst in France: her works in Paris number nearly twice her works in Russia. The great ideological changes which occurred in the 20th century, it would seem, reduced the image of the female body from the central place that it had occupied in the arts of the previous eras. Etudes of the female body remained part of art studies, but were rarely transferred onto full-fledged paintings where the female image was central. The tradition of the female body in the twentieth century continued in the work of such diverse artists as Gauguin, Modigliani, Picasso, Zorn, Munch, Somov, Serebriakova.

It is difficult to overestimate the importance of the theme of the Nude in Serebriakova’s oeuvre. The motif of a beautifully intriguing nude is not lost upon the viewer even today, and it was explored by the artist with fullness – in sketches,   pastels, on canvas in monumental works. Via this theme, the development of the Serebriakova’s style can be seen – from the late impressionism through neoclassicism, the Art Nouveau, symbolism, from expressionism to the Art Deco.

[Translated loosely from Nadezhda Tregub, "Zinaida Serebriakova's Nudes"; Надежда Трегуб. Журнал "Антиквариат, предметы искусства и коллекционирования". №10(11), 2003.]

Zinaida Serebriakova’s Still Lifes

In the genre of the still life, there are only a few examples from Zinaida Serebriakova’s oeuvre. In her catalogues, we find around twenty works of still life. Notwithstanding the fact that the still life is one of the first exercises in an artist’s education, in Zinaida’s case it appears at a fairly advanced age. Her first piece, called ‘Flowers at the window’, dates from the 1910s. It’s possible that she rarely executed still lifes, or possibly they sold rapidly and have not been seen since. One can take as long as one needs with a still life; there is no sense of urgency that might result from the changing character of a portrait sitter. Zinaida involved herself in still lifes only when (in her own words) a model for portraiture was unavailable. She was attached to the classical arts, and the classical artists rarely painted the ‘nature morte’. In the academy, the still life belonged only to trainees. Briullov hardly ever painted any; neither did Fedotov. Repin painted ‘Bouquet‘ in 1878 in Abramtsevo, and ‘Apples and Leaves‘ the following year, which (given its pretentions towards portraiture) he never exhibited, and assigned as an exercise to his student Serov, in whose hands it appeared fresher and filled with colour.

The genre of the still life was not popular in the 19th century, but obtained some measure of respect and recognition in the 20th, during which it underwent an extraordinary expansion in its breadth. Now, the viewer experienced not only the specifics of a particular lifestyle, but also those unique features that are inherent in certain individuals. The underlying essence of the world phenomenon was revealed more fully. The concept of beauty in the still life became more diverse, the artist seeing the wealth of forms and colors where previously no one had found anything remarkable. Sometimes it does take a still-life to allow us to express difficult and sometimes conflicting ideas about the world.

There are some objects that an artist will only rarely take up, for fear of appearing amateurish. In Zinaida Serebriakova’s still life ‘Apples on branches‘, we observe a beautiful picture: yellow apples and rich green leaves. The branches and the gleaming leaves and apples are equally numerous. The lovely mosaic is not merely decorative, but is deeply realistic: the apples are painted vividly, almost sculptured. A fine line, nearly hair-thin, distinguishes the image on the canvas from a real tree. The work is accentuated by an attention to detail: we can almost sense the taste and smell of these fruit. Here is celebrated a festive apple pie or a preserve; still these fresh apples are somehow better: they’ve been warmed in the sun, they crunch satisfyingly between our teeth. Here too is the pride in her work – ‘we grew these apples!’ It is a hymn to nature.

Zinaida returns to the same motif in 1930, in the work titled ‘Pears on branches.’ Again the flavour and aroma and the feeling of weight is evoked through the associations and emotions of the viewers, who relate to the objects through their own experiences of life.

The skill of the artist lies in the fact that the representation of the beauty of nature pushes the imagination and emotion of the audience, enriching it with new discoveries.

Serebriakova’s ‘Still life with the Attributes of Art‘ is a traditional composition for her. As is usual in works with the same theme, there is an ancient mask, a box of paints, a scroll, while in the background are glass bottles with powdered pigments and bright ceramic mortar. Similar technical themes often appear in the oeuvre of artists. In 1913, P. P. Konchalovsky painted ‘Dry paints‘ in which his interest in bright pigments – orange with cobalt, crimson and ochre – was clearly evident. The canvas was made up in a rough and rustic manner. Serebriakova’s painting is softer, more tactful. In the books, in the paint-spattered brushes, in the sheets of drawing paper left on the table, reside the warm touches of the artist, reflecting her love, keen interest and attachment to the ever-present tools of her trade. And it may be precisely in this humanity of the objective world that we find the fullest interpretation and attention Zinaida gave to reality. She communes with the tools that serve her like faithful old retainers, recognizing so well their valued quality. The world that Serebryakova opens before us is complete, smooth, clear, warm, filled with light and harmony.

The next still life is a more modest work titled “Herring with lemon.” There is a certain irony noticeable here: the lemon is partially peeled with a strand twisting gently: it has a pretension to gentility, while the herring beside it is such a simple, common fish. But in this canvas is the poetry and beauty of the quotidian human existence.

The painter observes the capricious play of folds, reflections and shadows, from which emerge everyday objects, surprisingly convincing in their reality. Transferring the uniqueness of each object, the artist perceives their generality and intrinsic worth.

Another painting by Zinaida Serebriakova is the still life with portraiture. Titled ‘Katya with still life (1923)’ in the catalogue, the artist merely marked it as ‘Still life‘. In other words, Zinaida herself considered this piece a still life, rather than what we might judge a portrait of a child. ‘Baker in the Rue Lepik‘ and ‘Vegetable vendor, Nice‘ would be two other examples in this blended style. In Zinaida’s art, still life fulfills a complementary role to the primacy of portraiture.

“She successfully portrays a man in his life, in his home environment, surrounded by the familiarity of everyday items,” wrote A. Savinov. “A master of still life, she happily painted in her portraits’ backgrounds books, washing jugs, paintings hanging on walls, paint cans, a mirror with her reflection. A person is shown at home or in the company of those things that he holds dearest and most intimate to himself.”

At an exhibition in Brussels in 1928, she displayed a still life with fish. Four other still lifes feature in an exhibition catalogue from St Petersburg the following year. In 1931, she painted ‘Basket with fruit by the window. Menton.’ In 1932, she returned to the genre with ‘Still life with asparagus and strawberries.’ In 1934, Serebriakova wrote: “I want to attempt flowers – tomorrow I’ll go to the big market, which is open only till 9am; hopefully, they are cheaper there… It is strange, never in my life did flowers ever work out for me. After all, this is a subject that sells better than others.”

The Art Nouveau paid attention to flowers. There are sketches of flowers by (Mikhail) Vrubel. Flowers in the hands of heroes appear symbolic. In graphic books, flowers become vignettes. In the Art Nouveau, flowers signified meanings derived from myths. Tulips, orchids, lilies, pitchers signified tragedy, wounds and death. Bluebells signified desire. Sunflowers denoted an ardent thirst for life. The rose and the narcissus were also favourite flowers for the Art Nouveau. But even other flowers attracted Serebriakova. In the 1995 catalogue ‘Z. Serebriakova’ there is a print of her ‘Basket with flowers‘. Here you don’t find fiery roses or gladioli or lilies; instead there are daisies and carnations. One must possess a great creativity and experience and a keen eye to achieve the simplicity in which the image, while maintaining ease and naturalness, creates a sense of the inner pulse of life. During the same period, she painted ‘Basket with grapes’. Turning our attention from object to object, we divine in them a hidden spirituality. They sparkle in the radiance of sunlight, like a mysterious glance a-quiver with emotion.

And yet such a – shall we say ‘feminine’? –  motif rarely appears in Serebriakova’s oeuvre. B. M. Bialik wrote, “Her still lifes – these are the lives of kitchen utensils, vegetables, the simple articles of daily life, flowers and the fruits, which talk not so much about the uproar of nature as about its generous variety. Her still lifes do not boast of wealth, and do not demonstrate innovations in painting; they are restrained and universal. But in this routine is the truth and sincerity of life. Sometimes her paintings, where baskets reign with flowers, appear like fragments from a film, but they are always an ode to the gifts of the earth.”

Wriggly carps appear in ‘Fish on greens‘ (1935). They lie on laurel branches, while in the background are cauliflowers, tufts of white radish, scarlet carrots. The vegetables are masterfully painted. The scale of the composition in the still life is focused on the size of a minor room, hence its great intimacy compared with other genres. Glancing into the surrounding space, penetrating its laws, unraveling its secrets, the artist reflects it in her work. Depicting her own relation to reality, she emerges not only as an observer, but also as an interpreter of nature.

Still life, more so than any other genre, escapes from verbal descriptions: it is necessary to scrutinize it, to be immersed in it. In this sense, still life is a key to any painting, as it teaches how to admire the image, its beauty, power and depth.

In 1936, Serebriakova painted ‘Still life with vegetables.’ That same year she again returned to the theme of grapes (‘Grapes‘).

“The vine ripens,” she wrote. “All the residents have brought out their barrels and baskets, and shortly they’ll begin gathering it and making wine. Everyone here drinks their own wine, and in our house too, we’ll be making it. As soon as it starts to rain, I get back home, and start to paint nature mortes with grapes, my eternal theme.”

White and black grapes are painted with care and zeal, and little playful whiskers emerge from the bunches.

Serebriakova did not paint crystal goblets and slaughtered game on marble tables – her still lifes are far simpler. The canvas ‘Vegetables‘ (1937, Benois Family Museum) can also be called simple, but how bright are its colours: emerald greens, pink potatoes, violet plums, orange apricots. On the juice-filled shadows fall bright spots of light. The material completeness of the image, and the timorous animation of the life of objects suggest a sensation of romantic elevation and emotional stress. The painting was never sold; it was gifted to the museum where it has been preserved in the archives, open to admiration only of the staff.

V. P. Knyazeva wrote, “Working on still lifes, the artist studied different spaces, textures, colors and contrasts with tireless attention. In the works of her last creative period one finds the same love of the material world as those of her works in the early 1920′s. At the same time, a complexity of relations between color and light appeared in them, more fully conveying the richness of the earth and reality.”

In the genre of still life, one can count Serebriakova among the followers of (Jean-Baptiste-Siméon) Chardin, who said that “one should paint not with pigments but with feeling”. What Alexander Benois said of Chardin was equally valid of Serebriakova: “Despite his apparent simplicity, Chardin is a great artist, a great magician of art who is aware of such beauty around us as has eluded everyone else… In order for a simple circle or a bunch of grapes to appear not only a beautiful piece of art, but also a real poem filled with seduction, requires a special revelation, a special gift to see beauty in everything.”

The still life is distinguished by special principles of composition: the objects are usually drawn close by, so that their appearance implies their own physical characteristics, their weight, shape, form and texture, serving to clarify their interaction with their environment. In the earthly beauty of the objective world, in the identification of its material nature, in the lushly scenic modeling of volume and content of the object, in the love of the wealth and fruit of the earth lie the foundations of the genre.

Often one speaks as much of the associations as of the special quality of the still life. As much as the objects of a still life reveal their internal reality, so do they speak of the qualities of their owner; in this, the still life reflects the world view of its author. But it is hardly obligatory to seek out hidden stories in a still life.

In 1940, Serebriakova painted ‘Wild flowers‘; in 1948, ‘Still life with apples and round bread‘; in 1950, ‘White lilies in a basket‘; and in 1952, ‘Still life with a pitcher‘. With gradually changing understanding of artistic possibilities, the subject of painting lost its traditional intimate nature. The artist sought to convey in a still life a complex poetic content which is difficult to express in words and can only be comprehended by an imaginative perception of the world. Yes, the world is harsh, as it were, she says, but this severity has its own beauty. With all its tensions, an ascetic way of painting a picture clearly reveals the features of a harmonic coherence. The shape, size, texture, materiality of the objective world, just like the defining features of our favorite heroes, reveal the properties of inanimate matter. We can feel its weight and hardness, its elasticity and lightness, its glossy smoothness and the porous roughness of objects, the infinite variety of properties inherent in it. They influence their surroundings, from which emerges their special significance and sense of completeness.

A letter written in 1956 reminds us of yet another still life, ‘Sea shells‘. This work has been reproduced in the journal ‘Young Artist’ (1984, No. 12). E. Rybakova wrote about it: “In the last years of her life, when it was difficult for Serebriakova to leave her studio, she concentrated on painting still lifes. One of the numerous examples is ‘Sea shells’. Having arranged the fruit of the sea in the foreground, the artist seemingly invites us to marvel with her at the inner glow of the pearly pink and golden shells, at the wealth of nuance and colour, at the play of light. The mastery with which the painting is executed inadvertently reminds the viewer of the Dutch masters of the 17th century.”

[Loosely translated from Nadezhda Tregub, "The Still Life, as seen by Serebriakova"]

Still life with attributes of art. (1922)

Still life with attributes off art. (1922)

Katya and still life. (1923)

Still life with herring and lemon. (1923)

Baker on rue Lepik. (1927)

Apples on branches. (1930)

Still life basket with sardines. (1930)

Still life basket of pears. (1932)

Still life with asparagus and strawberries. (1932)

Still life basket with apples (1934)

Still life basket with flowers. (1934)

Still life with fruit. (1935)

Still life with fish on greens. (1935)

Still life with vegetables. (1936)

Still life with cabbage and vegetables. (1936)

Still life basket with grapes. (1936)

Still life with vegetables. (1936)

Grapes. (1936)

Still life basket with melons and squash. (1938)

Still life with apples and round bread. (1948)

Still life with pitcher. (1952)

Zinaida Serebriakova’s Nature: Landscapes

A large part of Zinaida Serebriakova’s oeuvre is the landscape. She worked with nature at her beloved Neskuchnoye – her ancestral estate near Kharkov, where she enthusiastically painted flowering gardens, fields, gardens, haystacks. In Tsarskoye Selo and Gatchin, she was attracted by their architectural monuments, parks and palace interiors. Living abroad from 1924, the artist painted landscapes of France, Italy and Switzerland.

In Zinaida’s 1914 work ‘Autumn landscape’, high mountains, shrouded in lilac haze, form a deep cup, at the bottom of which grow two large trees. Their shapes resemble a magical fire-bird spreading its wings: a swift whirlwind of big sweeping strokes creates their rusty-gold autumn leaves. Extensive generalized brushwork of restrained colors with ocher, brown, gray, purple tones gives the landscape a majestic, solemn character.

The world of images created by Zinaida Serebriakova is surprisingly harmonious, full of reverent attitude to life. One of the critics, who knew the work of the artist, said of her remarkable words: “… it is extremely modern, but its modernity is associated with eternity …”

[Translated from The 125th Anniversary of Zinaida Serebriakova's Birth, National Art Museum of the Republic of Belarus, Minsk.]

Zinaida Serebriakova’s Paris

Zinaida Serebriakova’s second sojourn in Paris began in 1924. Her first was in the early 1900s with her husband. This second trip can hardly be termed a visit, as she never did return to Russia till nearly the end of her days. Her work this time around revolved around glimpses of family life, but she sketched life as she saw it in the great city, all its madness and excitement. Thematically too, there was a difference from her paintings of two decades earlier – then, she had studio works and observations of architecture, only rarely venturing into street life; now, she looked at everything, the markets, bistros, cafes, the subway, the cinema, hairdressers…

M. G. Lukyanov wrote in a letter in 1924: “All this time I haven’t seen anyone other than Zina, who lives across from me; we can see each other from our windows. She is so pitiable, lonely and helpless. She hardly gets any work, and scarcely anyone wants to pay her. Just yesterday she got some small money, but it was just about enough for food. I took her once to the Swedish ballet, and she was very pleased. The ballet was terrible, and we spat, despite the fact that it involves all the fashionable stars of music and art. Yesterday, we had dinner together ​​and then went to the movies, where they showed such horrors that Zina’s probably not slept all night. She thanked me very much for spending time with her, given that her own relatives hardly took any interest in her.”

[The above loosely translated from 'La vie parisienne' by Punto di vista.]

As Lukyanov pointed out, her life in Paris was not easy at all. Serebriakova had expected to be gone from Russia only a short period (indeed, she left her four children and ailing mother behind), but hoped there to earn enough to support her large family. “Here I am alone,” she wrote to her brother, a year after her arrival in Paris. “No one realizes how terribly difficult it is to start without a farthing, and with such obligations as I have (to send home to my children everything that I earn); time is passing, and I feel that I am doing nothing more than running on the spot… I am afraid of what this winter will bring for my family in Leningrad… I am able to send less and less money, as there is a financial crisis here with the falling franc, and there is no one willing to spend money on portrait painting. I often regret that I have come so hopelessly far from my family…” And the tone of her letters home, for all the time she was abroad, never changed; there was always the same sense of hopelessness, regret and pain. “All winter I have had no work, and I have not sold a single picture.” “I can work very little; life is so complicated and hard that I can make no time for my beloved art; and this winter has been particularly harsh, all my energies have been spent in keeping the stove alight and in other such matters.”

It was only at the end of the 1920s that she managed to bring her younger children, Katya and Alexander, to Paris to be with her.

(From Tatyana Savitskaya, “The Art of Zinaida Serebriakova“, translated by Graham Whitaker.)

Zinaida Serebriakova’s Cityscapes

Zinaida Serebriakova’s Ballet Series

I am not entirely sure how Zinaida Serebriakova got involved in her ballet series. Was she given a commission? Or was it owing to the interest of her neighbours, the ballet critics D. D. Bushen and S. R. Ernst? Or did it all start when her daughter Tata (Tatyana) began to train for the ballet herself in the winter of 1921? In January 1922, her mother wrote to her brother: ‘This winter, we plunged into the world of ballet. Zina draws the dancers thrice a week, one of the younger ballerinas posing for her; Tatochka twice a week at the ballet school; then Zina goes with her sketch-book behind the scenes to capture the various forms of ballet. All this because our tenants are obsessed with the ballet, and twice a week – Wednesdays and Sundays – they always go to the ballet.’

That same year, several of Zinaida’s paintings appeared: ‘Portrait of a ballerina, L. A. Ivanova performing a pas de trois from N. Cherepnin’s “Le Pavillion d’Armide”‘, ‘Portrait of M. H. Frangopulo’, ‘Portrait of E. A. Svekis’, ‘Portrait of a ballerina, A. L. Danilova, in costume for N. Cherepnin’s “Le Pavillon d’Armide”‘. Younger dancers were portrayed in costumes of the prima ballerinas of ‘Sleeping Beauty’ (Svekis), ‘Carnival’ (Frangopulo), and as Ivanova and Danilova from “Le Pavillon d’Armide”. In keeping with their character, the ballerinas posed standing or sitting as though preparing for their upcoming role in the ballet. For the most part very beautiful and svelte, they proudly held their heads high. These were dancers already experienced in the glory of success, plunged in the excitement of the theatrical scenes, graceful and feminine, fully aware of their maiden charms. They are calm and a little shy. Restrained and refined in her costume (designed by Benois) of white, green and purple for the ballet “Le Pavillon d’Armide” is  Alexandra Davidova (then soloist of the Academic Theatre of Opera and Ballet). Gazing upon the viewer with her huge brown eyes, with curiosity and silent questioning is Lydia Ivanova in a lush red dress and adorned with large pearls (also designed from a sketch by Benois). Smouldering with passion is Marietta Frangopulo in a wonderful Oriental robe. With a three-quarter turn of his head and parted lips is the future Balanchine in a suit of Bacchus from Glazunov’s ballet “The Seasons.” This was the only portrait of a man in that series on the ballet.

These were mainly works in pastel. As Tatyana later wrote, they were executed in Zinaida’s unique manner, with overlays and light and shade and feathering. ‘In their density of colour and pattern, their severity and brevity,  they are not inferior her other works that were accomplished in oils.’

All these portraits were displayed at the 1922 ‘World of Arts’ exhibition in St. Petersburg. They resonated widely. The critic Somov wrote in his diary, ‘I tried to persuade Zina to make a big ballet painting based on the studies I had seen.’ In the years following, Zinaida created several more portraits and figuratives pieces in the series. The ballerina E. N. Geidenreich appeared several times; her most expressive portrait is ‘Portrait of E. N. Geidenreich in a white wig (1924)’ where she appears mature, full of wisdom and refinement. The series of figurative works with young ballerinas in their costumes from various performances were somewhat monotone in their light backgrounds, despite rather sophisticated harmonies of colour. Zinaida apparently had deep empathy for the inner richness of Valentina Ivanova, whom she painted several times, aiming to provide to her series the decisiveness of portraiture. Meanwhile, the portraits of Svekis were interpretations of scenes in the dressing room, but they were executed in Zinaida’s studio off her sketches.

Her daughter Tatyana recalled: “At home we were often visited by dancers. My mother bought tutus, bodices, vests, shoes - the full attire of a ballerina, and she would wear it, standing in front of a mirror and posing as she imagined her compositions. She loved and appreciated Degas, but in her works devoted to the ballet, she went her own way, and saw the world with her own eyes.”

The last pastels in their motifs and structure are reminiscent of the genre of ballet works by Edgar Degas or Konstantin Somov. It is characteristic of Zinaida that she did not paint scenes of balletic action or ballerinas learning their steps, or mise-en-scenes with standing or seated figures in their tutus (as did Degas). Her paintings concentrated instead on the relatively quiet periods in the changing room, prior to the energetic explosion on stage, when the performers are talking softly to each other, repeating a step, or getting dressed. She captured the moment that the young ballerinas transformed themselves, with their makeup and costumes, into the iconic images of swans, snowflakes, sylphs. Occasionally she shows a group of dancers in the wings, awaiting their turn to enter the stage.

The representations of the ‘Dancers in Blue’ show up the differences in the styles of the two masters, Degas and Serebriakova, both such great lovers of the ballet. While the French Impressionist was primarily concerned with the beauty of human forms and their interactions in dance, the Russian painter was interested in the richness of the atmosphere surrounding a theatrical performance. Compare Degas’s 1899 work ‘Blue Dancers’ with Serebriakova’s ‘Ballerina in Blue’ of 1922. Serebriakova is able to extract masterfully all the possibilities of oil paints and pastels, which allowed her to enact the subtleties of colour and harmony. Her ‘Snowflakes from Tchaikovsky’s ‘Nutcracker” (1923) wonderfully illustrates this possibility in her pastels, while her oils focus on the beauty of the young dancers’ bodies in ‘Snowflakes in the changing room. Tchaikovsky’s ‘Nutcracker”. As a rule, Zinaida sketched over two days her subjects in the changing room of the Academic Theatre of Opera and Ballet, and then retired to her studio to work on her composition, off and on verifying to herself the poses and postures of her favourite heroines.

Scenes from dance and ballet have been set and accomplished by many artists down the ages, each doing them in their own style. Zinaida Serebriakova concentrated on the lives of famous and not-so-famous ballerinas in their changing rooms.

‘I have never thought about the ‘style’ of my oeuvre, but I think that my fascination with the great masters has, of course, had an immense impact on me,’ wrote Zinaida Serebriakova.

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