Zinaida Serebriakova had the opportunity to visit Morocco several times in her life. Her first visit was in 1928, under the aegis of the Belgian baron de Brouwer who owned several plantations in that country. He had seen her work at that year’s International Exhibition in Brussels, and commissioned her to do portraits of his family, and encouraged her to travel to Morocco. For the most part, she appears to have stayed in Marrakech, although she did take trips to Fez and other parts.
She was endlessly fascinated with Morocco. In one of her letters, she wrote: “I am extremely amazed at all this. At the costumes of various colors and all races of men mingled here – negroes, Arabs, Mongols, Jews (so biblical!). I am so dazed from the novelty of impressions that I cannot decide what and how to draw. “
Admittedly, the commissions weren’t lucrative enough, as most of the money went to pay Zinaida’s models. ‘As soon as you sit to draw the women walk away – Arabs don’t wish to be drawn, so they immediately close up their shops or charge up to 10 or 20 francs for tea an hour!’ she wrote despairingly. She did, however, return to Paris with a treasure-trove of artworks, comprising still lifes, portraits and cityscapes, much to the delight and admiration of the Parisians. To this day in Marrakech one finds the streamlined minarets and green domes and colourful water-carriers and the pink and white cubes of Arab houses, none of which escaped the sharp eye of Serebriakova.
As a painter of nudes, Zinaida found it difficult to find models in Morocco, Islam’s prohibition against exposing the body working against her. ‘He (Brouwer) wants nude paintings of the lovely native women, but it’s a fantasy hardly worth dreaming about – even in their veils which cover everything but their eyes nobody will pose for me. There is no question of a nude,’ Serebriakova wrote. Still, in 1932, she was delighted to be able to paint a Berber woman with gold bracelets, reclining with her breasts exposed. The delicacy of Serebriakova’s work is exemplified in this pastel, so accurately does it capture the essential humanity of the subject from the ‘land of the setting sun’ as the Arabs called the country.
The famous art critic Alexander Benois was enthusiastic about his niece’s work. It is a fascinating series of studies, he wrote, capturing so completely the essence of the East. He marvelled at the bazars; the people appear so lifelike, he said, that were one to meet them, one would recognise them at once.
Her Moroccan series comprised over two thirds of her 1932 solo exhibition at the Galerie Charpentier which was received by the critics very positively. Konstantin Somov enthused: .”I went to Serebriakova’s exhibition… What a marvellous artist she is!’ .(Zinaida Serebriakova, Letters, contemporaries on the artist. Moskva, Izobrazitelnoe Iskusstvo, 1987, p.92). The Paris art critic Camille Mauclair praised her depictions of the Orient for including “none of those brash dolls of the souq that Matisse called ‘odalisques”. Indeed, the offered lot exemplifies the contemplative element underlying the series which allowed Serebriakova to avoid Oriental cliches of ‘the Other’. Her nudes ‘are truly flesh of our flesh’ wrote Benois, ‘They have that grace, that luxuriousness, that element of proximity and domesticity of Eros, which is more alluring, delicate and at times more artful and dangerous than that which Gaugin captured in Tahiti.’
[From Sotheby’s Russian Art Evening Sale, 30 Nov 2009.]