My blog today continues with a look at the life of the Russian painter, Zinaida Serebriakova. At the end of my last entry I told you that she and her family’s life had been turned upside down by the onset of the October Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. Lenin, who was the leader of the Bolsheviks, wanted to keep the peasant classes on his side so when he made his attempt to overthrow the provisional Russian government, he ensured the neutrality of the peasants by offering them land, owned by the aristocracy. The Revolution saw the riches, property and lands owned by the aristocratic classes being taken from them by the Bolsheviks and redistributed to the peasants. That October, Serebriakova had been living at her family estate of Neskuchnoye when the Bolshevik forces descended upon her and her family. When it was all over the reserves of Neskuchnoye had been plundered and the family was left without food. Zinaida was left with nothing – no income, no husband, for he had been dragged off by the Bolsheviks and jailed and would die of typhus, which he contracted during incarceration, two years later. Notwithstanding the fact that she was penniless and had no means to earn money, she was responsible for the upbringing of her four children as well as having to care for her widowed mother. Zinaida was forced to give up oil painting in favour of the less expensive techniques of charcoal and pencil sketching
Zinaida eventually managed to get some work at the Kharkov Archaeological Museum, where she made pencil drawings of the exhibits. In December 1920 she and her family went to live with her grandfather who had an apartment in Petrograd. Petrograd had formerly been known as St Petersburg but when World War I broke out in August 1914 it was decided to change the name of the Russian capital from the Germanic St. Petersburg to the more Russian equivalent, Petrograd. It was not until 1991, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, that the city reverted back to the name of St Petersburg. Because of a Bolshevik dictate which stated that all inhabitants of private apartments had to share their living space with other people, Zinaida found herself sharing her lodgings with artists from the Moscow Art Theatre.
Serebriakova’s work during this period focused on theatre life. It was around this time that her daughter Tatyana became interested in ballet and her mother managed to get her enrolled at the prestigious ballet school of the Imperial Mariinsky Theatre, the home of the Russian Ballet, where Zinaida’s uncle, Alexander Benois was the scenic director. Much of Zinaida’s time was absorbed by the theatre and she produced a series of exquisite pastels on the balletic life at the theatre. Many of her works showed young ballerinas in their dressing room preparing to go on stage.
In 1924 Zinaida Serebriakova got the offer of work in Paris and with some financial help from her uncle Alexander Benois, she left St Petersburg and headed to the French capital, leaving behind her four children with her ailing mother. A few years later Zinaida managed to bring her son Alexander and her daughter Katya to live with her in Paris but her son Yevgenyi and her daughter Tatiana had to remain in Russia with their grandmother, and it was not until 1960 that she was able to have Tatiana visit her in Paris.
Zinaida was now one of many Russian exiles living in Paris who could not return to her homeland. She earned a living by painting society portraits. Her children also often featured in her work, and her daughter often posed in the nude. She also painted other female models, reclining in her studio with patterned wraps and decorative drapes. These works were of a very informal nature and often highly erotic. According to her daughter Ekaterina these nude studies were probably the most intimate images of the female body in Russian art. She later wrote:
“…The female nude was mother’s favourite subject. While she was in Russia young peasant women would pose for her. In Paris her friends would come over to her studio, drink a cup of tea, then they would stay and pose for her. They were not the professional models that you might find in Montparnasse and maybe this is the reason why they are so natural and graceful…”
Zinaida completed one of her best known nude studies of her daughter, Ekaterina, in 1934, entitled Sleeping Nude (Katya). It was a veritable masterpiece which is similar in imagery to the sleeping Venuses of the Venetian masters, the nymphs of Boucher and the bathers of Cabanel and Renoir. In this work, Zinaida does not offer us some anonymous heroine from Greek mythological tales but presents us with an innocent young girl, who lies before us, totally relaxed, her cheeks flushed from sleep. It is so natural and it is even more endearing knowing that the model for this painting was her twenty-two year old daughter, Katya who had modelled for her mother for the previous fifteen years.
In 1923, before Zinaida left for Paris she had painted a nude study of the then ten-year old Katya, entitled Sleeping Girl in the Blue (Katyusha on a Blanket), in which we see her young daughter, in all her innocence, sprawled across a blue blanket.
Zinaida’s uncle Alexander Benois, an artist, art critic and co-founder of the art magazine and movement Mir iskusstva (World of Art), commented on the way his niece had portrayed her naked young women. He wrote:
“…[Her nude studies were] not by a generalised sensuality but by something specific, which we recognise from our literature, from our music, from our personal experiences. This is truly the flesh of our flesh. Here is that grace, that comfortable languor, that cosy, domesticated side to Eros – all of which are actually more alluring, more subtle and sometimes more perfidious, more dangerous than what Gauguin found on Tahiti and in search of which blasé Europeans left their pampered life at home and set off in the footsteps of Pierre Loti, across the whole of the white, yellow and black world…”
Zinaida Serebriakova’s nudes were always dignified, self-assured and classically beautiful. She created the most sensual and intimate images of the female body in the Russian art and remained true to the Neo-Romantic tradition and her classical training. At an exhibition of Russian art at the Midi Fair in Brussels in 1928, people noted Serebriakova’s ‘nude’ oeuvre and it was here that she met the industrialist, the Belgian nobleman, Baron de Brouwer. So impressed was he with her work that he became her patron and commissioned her to paint portraits of his family.
De Brouwer also financed her painting trip to Morocco where he owned a plantation. Zinaida set off for North Africa on her own and fell in love with the colour and light Morocco afforded her. The baron had wanted her to bring back paintings of the area and its people. He had also said that he had wanted to some nude studies of the Arab women but Zinaiad found this very difficult to achieve. She wrote:
“…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…”
However she did return with many paintings of the area and the Arab and Berber women, some of whom she had even managed, with much haggling and offers of financial rewards, to get some to pose in the nude but it was difficult. She wrote of this time:
“…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!…”
De Brouwer was delighted with the works Zinaida brought back from North Africa, so much so, that he commissioned her to paint a series of murals for his villa Manoir du Relais in Pommeroeul near Mons, in Belgium. Zinaida customized the theme of this mural series to that which appealed to her patron. The baron had a love of classical art, which of course was ideal for somebody like Zinaida who had a talent for painting portraits of the naked human form. She set about the commission and decided to paint four separate vertical panels each displaying a standing nude, each with their allegorical attributes which in some way would mirror the leisure activities and talents of de Brouwer.
One of the figures would be Jurisprudence, which would represent the baron’s career as a lawyer. A second would be Flora, which would symbolize his passion for gardening, his plantations and his love of flowers. Light, would be another figure which referred to his role as a director of power and gas plants and finally Art which would embody his interest and patronage of the arts. For Zinaida there could only be one possible candidate for the role of model for the four nudes, which would be depicted on the four vertical panels. It was to be her daughter Katya. Her stance in each panel was to be different turning slightly for each depiction. A further two large horizontal panels (145cms x 710cms) were also created and these depicted four maps in cartouches. Zinaida left the painting of these to her son, Alexander, and these were of Flanders, Morocco, India and Patagonia. Next to the maps Zinaida had added half-seated female nudes which were initially intended to represent the four seasons, but she later changed their titles to the countries represented on the maps they adorned. Years later, Zinaida wrote about this commission:
“…The assignment was to paint decorative geographical maps in the 18th-century style, single-tined (my son did the maps); and I painted in the corners of the maps, against that background, the images of the ‘four seasons’ (summer with a sheaf, spring with flowers, etc.), and four figures standing in ‘niches’ on another wall. I painted all this in Paris and, unfortunately, did not see how all this looked on the walls, because the house was not quite ready yet, and the residents were yet to move in … during the war the area was a battlefront, and de Brouwer’s summer house was destroyed…”
Even more pleasing to Zinaida’s was the comments by her artist brother Yevgeni Lanceray, who on seeing photographs of the paintings wrote to her:
“…I love them..You have exactly that which others 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 completely understand the form of objects. Particularly difficult, I think, is the panel Jurisprudence… 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…”
Nadezhda Tregub of the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow wrote about the four nude figures:
“…These murals can be considered entirely cosmopolitan works: they were accomplished on a commission from Belgium, by an artist from Russia who worked in France, and who drew on the major achievements of all European art…”
Sadly the baron and his wife did not have much time to enjoy the murals which were completed in 1937/8 as both died during the Second World War, and it was also thought that their house had also been destroyed. In fact this assumption was incorrect as the house remained standing and even changed ownership a number of times. The murals also remained untouched for over 70 years, but curiously the owners did not recognise the work as being done by Zinaida. They thought they had been executed by an unknown Flemmish artist.
In 1966 a large exhibition of Zinaida Serebryakova’s works was mounted in Moscow, Leningrad and Kiev and the critics loved what they saw. In September of the following year Zinaida died in Paris, at the age of eighty-two. She was buried in the Sainte-Geneviève-des-Bois Russian Orthodox cemetery in Paris. The cemetery is a burial place for more than 10,000 Russian emigrants, including the celebrated ballet dancer, Rudolf Nureyev.