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.)