The Russian Nude at the Russian Museum

Nudes from the Manoir cycle, long considered lost, are exhibited for the first time to the public.

At the Russian Museum, an exhibition titled ‘Zinaida Serebryakova: Nudes’ has opened.

For the first time, panels completed by the artist between the years 1935-1937 for the interior of the Manoir du Relais belonging to the Belgian philanthropist Baron de Brouwer, are displayed.

'Flora'. In the Russian Museum, the paintings are arranged exactly as they were supposed to be at the Manoir du Relais.

In the ensemble are four vertical (165 x 100cm) and two horizontal panels. Each niche depicts nude allegorical figures. Serebriakova wrote that they should be placed in between the windows; they were meant to depict the career of her client: 1. Jurisprudence holding a balance (as he was a lawyer). 2.  Flora (as he was a herbologist). 3. Art (as he was an art-lover). 4. Light (as he was a director of power plants).

The vertical works were in the spirit of the XVIII century, echoing the tradition of anthropomorphy in cartography.

"Nude, leaning on the railing" (1929) also resembles the features of Serebriakova's daughter. Still, it is fair to say that all her 'nudes' are more or less also self-portraits. Illustration from Alla Rusakova's 'Zinaida Serebriakova, 1884-1967'

Nude virgins are depicted against the background of maps on rollers, marking the places associated with the activities of the ancestors of Baron de Brouwer. His guests at the villa in Pommerouel near Mons would never, thanks the artist’s efforts, forget Flanders, India, Morocco and Patagonia. The sly smiles on the nymphs were those of Serebriakova’s daughter Katya, her favourite model (in those times, nude models were prohibitively expensive).

It had been believed that the panel was forever lost. The villa is on the French border, where during the Second World War, nobody was around to save the art. de Brouwer and his wife both perished during the conflict. That Serebriakova worked on the panels in the villa was known, as reflected by her correspondence of the time. The commission had brought a lot of grief to the artist. In a letter to her family dated 20 December 1936, she bewailed the mishmash of styles in the halls and the house that brought her to despair. She couldn’t imagine how her creations could fit amidst such a savage lack of taste. Later still, she said, ‘I am still struggling with my unhappy painting work – how difficult it all is!’

Sketches for the unfinished painting "Women bathing." Illustration from the exhibition guide "Zinaida Serebryakova: Nudes".

The fact that the paintings survived was unknown even to Serebriakova’s descendants. They only had the preparatory sketches for the Manoir’s panels. They were invited to the opening at the Russian Museum by the Moscow-based gallery Triumph, which has been busy with the problem of repatriating Serebriakova’s artistic heritage. (The current private owner, unfortunately, plans to take the panels back to Belgium.)

Serebriakova’s panels, depicting the hobbies and achievements of the Belgian baron in the form of naked virgins, had been forgotten in the basement of the Manoir.

Now, the Manoir cycle, restored by the Russian Museum, is on display in the Benois Wing, together with the famous ‘Bathhouse’ (1912-13), sketches for the unfinished ‘Women bathing’ (1911), and numerous preparatory sketches for the panels on the Kazan Railway station (1915-16). In all there are about forty paintings from the Russian State Museum, the State Tretyakov Art Gallery, the Peterhof Museum, and the Ulyanovsk Museum of Modern Art .

'Jurisprudence'. Experts say that the Manoir cycle is in style of the European monumental art deco, and at the same time acclaim its Russianness.

Serebriakova sent photographs of the Manoir panels to her brother. Evgeniy Lansere responded to them enthusiastically, especially because at the time he was busy painting the ceiling of the restaurant hall of Moscow’s Kazan Railway station. ‘I love them,’ wrote Lansere. ‘You have exactly that which other around you do not – an understanding of composition. The panels are excellent in the simplicity of their execution, completeness of shape, and so monumental and decorative. You so completely understand the form of objects. Particularly difficult, I think, is the panel Jurisprudence (with balances below). It is especially elegant and richly executed. In everything is simplicity and parsimony, so to speak, of decoration and attributes. I envy you your ease, your flexibility, and how broad and accomplished is your representation of the body.’

Serebriakova’s nudes are certainly enviable. Russian artists rarely engaded with the nude. In the Orthodox Russian culture, the nude was an ambiguous form. For the Russians, figurative art is too closely tied with the icon. Therefore, if a body is depicted, it has to be clothed; any exposure is held to serious restrictions. A naked body, for example, may be shown as exhausted from work; without such relevance, any sensuality was without justification. And so, historically, despite the fact that the ability to create clay nude models was an important aspect of any classically trained artist, the Russians, barely having learned this lesson, immediately passed to the next level, giving the world their avant-garde. And running away from rounded female knees and peach-like breasts, they went in a diametrically opposite direction. To sit in an estate and paint Naiads – this was women’s work. It fell to Zinaida Serebriakova, and she coped with unexpected success.

And here nudity is tangential to her subject: Serebriakova’s nudes need no justification to exist. At the World of Art exhibition in 1913, her ‘Bathhouse’ had won great acclaim. In a posthumous compensation for her subsequent exile and oblivion, in 2006, in an auction at Christie’s, her ‘Sleeping nude’ sold for $1.4 million, three times more than the estimate.

Serebriakova's Nansen Passport, Paris, 1939.

Her talent allowed Serebriakova to ignore the avant-garde. It made her famous, despite her not belonging to any particular school. She had had no formal training, just an inclination for the naked body. To the traditional European insistence in the intrinsic value of man, with all its consequences, she added a special domestic intimacy, reducing the anthropocentric pomp of the triumph of man over all things to the delight of a naked body. The simplicity of peasant forms and Serebriakova’s nudes do not assert themselves, do not boast of an aggressive eroticism.

And the masters of the art markets battle it out at auctions for this essential Russianness. They can hear the warm breaths of the sleeping naked girls. Dear indeed is the softness of white shoulders that do not wait to be touched. Forgotten things, discarded tendresses, unsuitable to their time and discontinued after Serebriakova, now keep appreciating in value. And sometimes return to the motherland.

[This is a very loose translation of Veronica Chernyshev’s article of 19 Oct 2007.]