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.]