Zinaida Serebriakova

The name of Zinaida Serebryakova (née Lanceray, also spelt Lansere) (1884 – 1967) is widely known among lovers of art world-wide. Her works are found in many countries, most often in the collections of Russian emigres of the first wave. Still, in the Ukraine, her fame is insufficient, and true glory is still in the future.

The explanation for this lacuna lies in the tragedy of the history of the twentieth century, when ‘aristocratic’ art was aggressively replaced by the ‘proletarian’, with the ensuing triumph of the so-called ‘socialist realism’ over the Miriskusniki. The example of Serebryakova confirms this harsh rule. After her departure to Paris, numerous fans and collectors undoubtedly recalled the creator of the paintings ‘At the dressing table’, ‘Bath house’, ‘Harvest’, ‘Bleaching the cloth’, all lovely representations of women. Still, until her solo exhibition in 1965 in her homeland, her works were for several decades hidden in private collections, her name mentioned only in an undertone.

The efforts of the artist’s children and the Leningrad-based art expert V P Knyazev resulted in the Commemorative Exhibitions in 1965, held in Moscow, Leningrad and Kiev. These presented to the Russian and Ukrainian art world a true picture of Serebryakova’s life and accomplishments.

In 1965, the eighty year-old artist fulfilled a long-held dream – she travelled from Paris to Moscow for the opening of her exhibition, held for the first time in the USSR. That was when her name resounded in full force throughout the motherland. In Paris, she had often thought back fondly to her native Kharkov, but even though she was able to make it to Moscow, her childhood places remained an unfulfilled memory. She had less than two years more to live. But we have the fortune of being able to look to the focus of her memories where were born the best of her paintings.

The Lansere family estate ‘Neskuchnoye’ (Fun) lay 30 miles from Kharkov; three miles beyond this was the village named ‘Merry’. Both these placenames express precisely the nature of the historic region at a time when there were noisy fairs, thunderously loud weddings, gambols and promenades. In the early years of the 20th century, villagers from these estates would head off to Kharkov for trade and return after dusk. In those days, against the background of peasant huts stood the Lansere family estate, all columns and orchards, situated near the swift flowing rivulet ‘Muromka’, and the family chapel where the artist’s father, the famous Russian sculptor E. A. Lansere lay buried. He had succumbed to consumption aged forty, when Zinaida was not even two years old.

Zinaida owed her own artistic development to her maternal uncle, Alexandre Benois, and her elder brother, Eugene Lansere, both outstanding figures of Russian art, founders of the Benois-Lansere school from which emerged an entire galaxy of famous artists and architects. Both the estate and the chapel are attributed to a Lansere, although exactly which from that talented family was responsible is still unclear.

In 1886, Zinaida’s widowed mother took her six children to her paternal home in St Petersburg. The atmosphere in the Benois family was special, dominated by the worship of classical art and spiritual interest. Zinaida’s grandfather, Nikolai Leontyevich Benois, was a living encyclopedia of art. His tales of his travels in Italy, of antiquity and the Renaissance, and frequent visits to the theatre and the Hermitage as well as exposure to the books in her family’s extensive library revealed a world of beauty to Zinaida. All members of her family were constantly engaged in creative work; Zinaida as well began to passionately engage with art.

During Zinaida’s youth appeared the creative movement known as ‘World of Art’ (1898) (Mir Iskusstva), pioneered by her uncle Alexandre Benois and his friends, L. Bakst, K. Somov, S. P. Diaghilev and others. The associated exhibitions became an automatic part of her life. In 1911, the association was newly restored and Zinaida herself became a member, to promote the revival of the traditional artistic heritage. During that decade, there was much emphasis on the classical heritage, and many related magazines were published, such as ‘Old Times’ and ‘Apollo.’ A great investigation of the legacy of the past was being undertaken, seeking to find aesthetic, artistic and moral values from which contemporary culture could draw inspiration. Many of the articles bewailed the wait for artistic greatness in Russia as it revived itself spiritually. The humanist ideals of the new art were being defined, and the heroic image of the world was sought in the celebration of beauty, goodness and joy. These were the sentiments that surrounded the budding artist.

While her talent had been kindled in her family homestead, it was in St Petersburg that Zinaida’s artistic identity was fully formed. Immersed in the cauldron of contemporary Russia, she personally knew many prominent  litterateurs and artists from home and Europe. If only she had taken up the pen along with the brush! We would then have had literary portraits of those greats: A. Benois, E. Lansere, K. Somov, Anna Akhmatova, Y. Annenkov, Sergei Prokofiev. It was in 1917 that Zinaida’s friend, the critic S. Ernst began writing the first  monograph on her work.

From that time on, Zinaida’s life would become a chiaroscuro of bright moments and dark bitterness.

Since 1898, scarcely a summer had passed without Zinaida repairing to her ancestral home to spend time with her extended Benois-Lansere clan, happily tearing herself away from gloomy St Petersburg. Not far from the Lansere estate, on the other bank of the Muromka, was the cottage of the Serebryakovs.

Boris Anatolyevich Serebryakov was a cousin of Zinaida’s, his mother being her father’s sister. Zinaida and Boris had been brought up together since childhood. Now they fell in love with each other, and the family approved. The difficulty was that the Russian Church disapproved of marriages of close relatives. Additionally, while Zinaida was Catholic, Boris was Orthodox. After many appeals to the spiritual authorities in Belgorod and Kharkov, the couple finally got married on September 9, 1905. Zinaida engaged herself enthusiastically in painting while Boris studied to become a railway engineer, and both made the most optimistic plans for the future.

Boris was a thoughtful, progressive and resolute man. During the first Russian revolution, he was present at meetings in St. Petersburg, supporting the farmers’ demand to own land. Even as a student at the St Petersburg Institute for Railway Engineering, he dreamed of working in Siberia. This drive to the far lands and new activity so filled with risk was shared with Zinaida. In the midst of the Russo-Japanese war, Boris chose to work in Manchuria, and to the dismay of his loved ones, ended up in Liaoyang when the Russian army suffered a crushing defeat there.

After their wedding, the couple visited Paris. During the trip, each had their own special plans. Zinaida visited the Académie de la Grande Chaumière, where she painted from nature, while Boris joined the École Nationale des Ponts et Chaussées as a surveyor.

After a year of new experiences, the couple returned home. Zinaida was hard at work in her ancestral home – creating studies, portraits and landscapes. Boris, as a skillful and devoted esquire, planted apple orchards, kept a keen eye on his land and crops, and became an enthusiastic photographer. Both husband and wife were like-minded, deeply in love and yet realistic in their vocations, be they artistic or technical. Boris and Zinaida were in temperament very different people, but these differences supplemented and unified them. And when they were apart, which happened often, Zinaida’s mood was ruined and she lost her focus on her work. From August 1914, Boris was Head Surveyor in the construction of the railroad from Irkutsk to Bodaibo; later, up to 1919, he was involved in the Ufa-Orenburg line. Still, the happy couple had four children, two sons and two daughters, all of whom subsequently linked their lives to the creative arts, becoming architects, artists, interior decorators.

Sorrow erupted during the Civil War. On the way to Kharkov in a military carriage, Boris contracted typhus and died of heart failure. The war and her own personal tragedy forced Zinaida to leave Russia for the land of her early ancestors, France. In a letter to a friend, Zinaida, usually so reticent in matters of the emotions, wrote on February 28, 1922: ‘I have always thought that to be loved and to be in love – that is happiness. I was always in a trance, unnoticing of life around me, and I was happy, although even then I knew sorrow and tears … It is so sad to realize that that life is over, that that time has run out, and nothing more than loneliness, old age and misery lie ahead, while my heart is still so full of tenderness and feeling.’ And in 1952, Zinaida wrote from Paris to her daughter Tatyana in Moscow: ‘You won’t believe that more than a quarter century has gone by without him!’ All these years she lived continually thinking of her husband, silently seeking his advice on matters of importance. Four paintings of Boris by Zinaida remain in the collections of Tatyana and Eugene Serebryakov, in the Tretyakov Art Gallery, and in the Novosibirsk Picture Gallery.

But let us return to oeuvre of this wonderful painter.

Starting in 1899, Serebryakova spent nearly every spring and summer at her ancestral homestead. The labour of young peasant girls in the fields grabbed her attention. Her interest became concrete in 1906 after her return from Paris. Although 1915 (the year she painted her famous work ‘Farmers in the fields’) was still long in the future, studies and portraits of peasant men and women filled up her albums.

The seventh exhibition of Russian artists in Moscow in 1910, brought fame to Zinaida. In the Tretyakov Art Gallery were exhibited her self-portrait ‘At the dressing table’ as well as the gouache ‘Autumn Greenery’, which had been finished at her estate. The perfection of technique, the freshness of colour, and the cleanliness of the tones – these for the first time drew attention to her landscapes. Human figures and buildings were included in the artistic composition as an element of spatial organisation. In the landscape ‘Autumn Greenery’ (which could also be called ‘Windmills’) they attract attention and become the centre of the image. Zinaida was very fond of this angle. Windmills reminded her of her beloved Don Quixote, serving as a symbol of life itself, which is driven by the wind just like the mill’s wings, never stopping for a moment, grinding like grains the fates of men. (However, even her windmills hardly proved eternal. The last ones disappeared at the end of the 1930s.)

Zinaida’s ‘Harvest’ became a classic. It is impossible not to admire the mastery of her composition, the purity and sonority of her palette.

On the Muromka, she painted her sister Ekaterina for ‘The bather’. Here in the valley was a small yet important field of hemp: from its seeds, her peasants pressed oil, and from its fibre they wove cloth. Here Zinaida accumulated her observations for the painting ‘Bleaching the cloth’ (1917). In the Muromka in 1914, a peasant girl named Polya Molchanova drowned; she had served as a model for the portrait ‘Polya’ and also in an étude for the ‘Harvest’. (The Muromka no longer exists – it has dried up, covered with grass. It is just about possible to discern traces of its overgrown bed.)

Her finest works, such as ‘At the dressing table’, ‘Bath house’, ‘Harvest’, ‘Bleaching the cloth’, were all done at her estate. With pencil and brush, she recreated the unique Serebryakov landscape of Kharkov. During the Revolution and the ensuing Civil War, the house and studio of the artist were burned by gangs of anarchists (to the great grief of the local peasants, who had held the family Lansere in high regard). During World War II, invaders destroyed the family chapel as well. The graves of Zinaida’s family didn’t survive either. Today only the Serebryakov landscapes remain to give an idea of how the village once looked.

The October Revolution found Zinaida in Kharkov. She worked at the newly established Archaeological Museum at the Kharkov University. In the autumn of 1920, she received offers to transfer to the Petrograd Department of Museums, or to take up a professorship at the Academy of Art. Not only did she receive papers to return to Petrograd, but also passes for free travel for her entire family. By December 1920, Zinaida was already in Petrograd. She decided not to participate in the museum or teaching activities, preferring to work in a studio.

Undeniably, Zinaida could have become a master of Soviet art. But being modest and shy, and critically attached to her own oeuvre, in the 1920s, Serebryakova did not take up tasks such as the design of campaign posters or the decoration of public buildings or revolutionary celebrations. During these years, she was busy painting portraits, landscapes of Tsarskoye Selo, and interiors of palaces. To her great joy, Zinaida was given permission to be behind the scenes during performances at the Mariinisky Theatre. Her interaction with the dancers over three years is reflected in her amazing series of ballet portraits and compositions.

In the early post-Revolutionary years, a lively culture of exhibitions began in the country. Zinaida participated in several exhibitions in Petrograd. In 1924, she promoted a large exhibition of Russian fine art in America, which was set up for the purpose of financial support to painters. Of Zinaida’s fourteen paintings, two were sold immediately. Burdened with taking care of her family (four children and her mother) she used the money to travel abroad with a view to promoting further exhibitions and to obtain commissions. In early September 1924, Serebryakova went to Paris.

As fate would have it, Zinaida was to spend the major part of her life in France. For many years, she didn’t have a studio, and her earnings were miserly. Many of her creative ideas could not be implemented owing to lack of funds. She led a closed life in Paris, socialising only with Russians. Brighter periods in her life were associated with Zinaida’s travels with her daughter to Brittany, to the south of France or Switzerland. In 1926, she began a series of portraits of local Breton fishermen and farmers. In 1928 and 1932, she was able to work in Morocco. In the 1920s and 1930s, she was celebrated in Paris among the advocates of realist art. Of her was said that Serebryakova is an outstanding master of European values. However, her voice as a painter in the realist mode was drowning in the contemporary vogue for abstract art and modernist masterpieces.

In the middle of the 1930s, Zinaida attempted to return to the USSR. But protracted commissions in Belgium delayed her, following which World War II intervened. After the war, she was invited back to Russia by the Soviet Academy of Arts, urged by her children and notable artists such as D. A. Shmarinov and S. V. Gerasimov. However, old age and illness prevented her from travelling. Then, the Soviets decided to hold a large commemorative exhibition of Zinaida’s art. And so she managed to return to her motherland for the last time.

Time flies and takes away the generation that was captured in Serebryakova’s études and portraits. Until recently, many of those painted by Zinaida in Kharkov during the Civil War and who worked at the Archaeological museum of the university. In those days when her husband suddenly succumbed to the typhus, leaving her to take care of her four children and mother, those friends had rallied around her in her sorrow. Among them were G. I. Teslenko and E. I. Finogenova, whose visages were immortalised by the artist’s brush. Among the many portraits of beautiful Kharkov women, there are two of Lena Nikolskaya who in 1920 was a researcher at the Archaeological museum. The first impression when comparing portrait with photograph is that Serebryakova embellished her model: enlarged pupils, elongated eyebrows, exaggerated tone. But such is the method of the artist. Delicately having observed the subject’s personality, she sharpens them to bring them to the aesthetically appropriate limits. And so Serebryakova’s portraits of women are considered the embodiment of a harmonic beginning, of the primordial female essence.

[Loosely translated from Zinaida Serebryakova, based on notes from a book by V. D. Berlin (2004). Cross-posted from Jost A Mon.]

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