Natalia Goncharova and Rayonism

Natalia Goncharova       1881 - 1962
Natalia Goncharova
1881 – 1962

In my blog today I want to look at the life of the avant-garde Russian painter, stage designer and printmaker, Natal’ya (Sergeevna) Goncharova.   Natalia was born in Russia on her father’s estate in the Tula governate in June 1881.  She was the daughter of Sergey Mikhaylovich Goncharov, a renowned architect and mathematician, and her mother was Yekaterina Il’icha Belyayeva.  However, in her early infant days she grew up in her grandmother’s home at Ladyzhino, near Kaluga. When she was ten years old, the family moved to Moscow and she attended the Fourth Gymnasium for Girls in Moscow and in 1898, when she was seventeen years old she decided to study sculpture and enrolled at the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture as a sculpture student where her tutor was Paolo Troubetskoy.  It was at this establishment in 1900 that she met and became friends with fellow student, Mikhail Larionov.  He had enrolled at the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture at the same time as Goncharova, studying painting under Isaac Levitan and Valentin Serov.  Larionov was a student with very contentious and provocative views and was suspended from the academy on three occasions for his deep-seated opinions.   He and Goncharova became lifelong friends and he was to have a great influence on her.  It was Larionov who persuaded Goncharova to switch from studying sculpture to concentrate on studying painting.

Natalya Goncharova by Laborov
Natalya Goncharova by Laborov

Goncharova’s early work concentrated on the medium of pastels and her first works were showcased at the Diaghilev’s Russian Art Exhibition, which was held in Paris in 1906 at the Salon d’Automne and a year later her first paintings were shown at the Moskovskoye Tovarishchestvo Khudozhnikov (Moscow Association of Artists) of which she was a member.  At this time, her friend Larionov’s painting style was that of Impressionism and Natalya, for a time, also became interested in the style which had become so popular in France.  In 1908 she took part in the Golden Fleece exhibition and it was during this show that she became more aware of a modern style of art with the works of Bonnard, Matisse, Gaugin and Toulouse-Lautrec.  The influence of these painters made Goncharova rethink her artistic style.

Gardening by Natalya Goncharova (1908)
Gardening by Natalya Goncharova (1908)

In 1909 she completed a work of art, which highlighted her much-loved topic that of Russian peasants hard at work on the land.  The painting, which is currently housed at the Tate Liverpool, is entitled Gardening.  It is a painting, which is typical of her depictions of peasant life and was made around the time of her stay on a family estate in rural Russia.  Of this style of painting and her patriotism, she explained:

‘…If I extol the art of my country, then it is because I think that it … should occupy a more honourable place than it has done hitherto…”

In the painting we immediately sense her love for colour and her depiction of the peasants is a somewhat stylistic portrayal.  The display caption at the Tate describes the way she has portrayed the subjects shown in the paintings as:

 “…Her statuesque peasants, with their thickset bodies and massive limbs, are imbued with a heroic grandeur…”

 Her subsequent works were so colourful that they were likened to the work of the Fauves, which was an avant-garde movement that thrived in France during the first decade of the twentieth century, led by the likes of Matisse and Derain, these artists were the first to split from the Impressionism.

Pillars of Salt by Natalia Goncharova (1908)
Pillars of Salt by Natalia Goncharova (1908)

  In 1910, Goncharova became one of the founder members of the Jack of Diamonds group, sometimes referred to as Knave of Diamonds.  This group of painters was deemed to be the first group of Russian avant-garde artists and it was Mikhail Larionov who came up with the group’s name.   This collection of painters came from both Moscow and nearby provinces and most of them, including Goncharova, had studied at the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture.  They were all influenced by the works of Cezanne, Van Gogh, Gauguin and Matisse.  Once again we see a group of artists coming together with the common idea that they would discard the links with traditional art, and discard the knowledge that they were taught at their alma mater. For them, it was all about change and new artistic ideas.  Goncharova exhibited a number of her works in the group’s first exhibition in December 1910.  Their art was not loved by everybody, in fact it horrified some.  The influential Russian artist, art critic, historian criticised the group of young artists for having gone too far in overthrowing accepted artistic ideals.  Many other critics and members of the public declared that many of the works of art shown at the exhibition were in bad taste, gauche and lacked artistic elegance and some were even criticised as being too violent.

Fishing by Natalia Goncharova (1909)
Fishing by Natalia Goncharova (1909)

She exhibited another example of her Primitivist style art at the 1912 Jack of Diamond exhibition.  It had been completed a couple of years earlier and was entitled Fishing.  Again the style is similar to her painting Gardening and is part of the Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection and is housed in the Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid.

The Evangelists by Natalia Goncharova (1911)
The Evangelists by Natalia Goncharova (1911)

 Another one of the paintings which Goncharova exhibited was entitled The Evangelists and this was among her first mature works devoted to a religious subject.   In her 1962 book, The Russian Experiment in Art 1863-1922, art historian, Camilla Gray, the daughter-in-law of Sergei Prokoviev, wrote:

“...The depiction is typical of Russian iconic paintings and so is a combination of old and new influences in Russian art. Perhaps one of the most impressive aspects of these four paintings is their effective use of color, line, and composition to create a strong rhythmic whole. Goncharova manipulates these elements with such understanding and perception that when one looks at the four authors of the Gospels there are no distractions and no weak points — only strength and security in a modern interpretation of tradition and native style. Both line and color become here “expressive entities in their own right” and convey the sense of calm spirituality and wisdom treasured by icon painters. However, what the Neo-primitivists of Goncharova’s time might have treasured most was an almost childish “directness and simplicity” characteristic of folk art which they tried to imitate in their works. Today, the four paintings of the Evangelists may be admired for many reasons, and regardless of the basis for the viewer’s appreciation, they definitely are an integral part of the Russian avant-garde movement…”

This religious work by Goncharova was heavily criticised for its primitive depiction and the critics believed no religious work should be associated with a group known as The Donkey’s Tail as it was bordering on blasphemy and so it was removed from the exhibition.

Peacock in Bright Sunlight (Egyptian style) by Natalia Goncharova (1911)
Peacock in Bright Sunlight (Egyptian style) by Natalia Goncharova (1911)

Natalia Gonchorova produced a series of paintings in 1911 that became known as the Peacocks.  They were highly colourful and were influenced by Larionov and his new style of work at the time which was termed Rayonism or Luchism (luch being the Russian word for “ray”) which was a type of abstract or semi-abstract painting.  The Rayonists sought an art that floated beyond abstraction, outside of time and space, and to break the barriers between the artist and the public. They derived the name from the use of dynamic rays of contrasting colour, representing lines of reflected light — crossing of reflected rays from various objects.  .The painting seen above is an example of this and is entitled Peacock in Bright Sunlight (Egyptian style) which can be found in the Tretyakov Museum in Moscow.  The museum’s description of the work states:

“…The works in question combine the laws of Ancient Egyptian art and traditions of Russian folk art. The figure of peacock is transformed into an expressive sign. The bird’s chiselled head and elegant neck are shown in profile, whereas the magnificent tail is spread in front, as prescribed by Ancient Egyptian art. Between them is a green oval providing a background for the neck, head and body. The peacock seems to be examining its own tail in surprise, the tail resembling a grand architectural structure. It resembles at the same time the Coliseum, an arched iconostasis, a rainbow and palette. Unlike the artists of Art Nouveau, who associated peacock feathers with elegant luxury, Goncharova interprets this motif as primordial power, expressed in colours. The image of peacock seems to embody the ancient symbol of immortality…”

All was not well within the Jack of Diamond group as a rigorous debate took place between, on one side, David Burliuk, who was a fervent supporter and strongly supportive of Western art, and on the other side, Natalia Goncharova and Larionov, who favoured Russian themes. The two parties could not agree a compromise and so the Russian artists split into two camps. In the one corner was David Burliuk with his supporters, such as Alexi von Jawlensky and Wassily Kandinsky, who favoured the art which was influenced by Western painters.  In the other corner was the more traditional camp, including Goncharova and Larionov, who believed that a modern Russian art should address the question of national artistic traditions and therefore they disassociated themselves from the Jack of Diamonds on the grounds that Burliuk was a “decadent Munich follower” while the others, known as Cézanne-ists, were conservative and eclectic..

Sunset Over the Adriatic by the ficticious Genoese painter  Joachim Raphale Baronali
Sunset Over the Adriatic by the ficticious Genoese painter Joachim Raphale Baronali

A year later in 1911 the more radical artists in the group, including Goncharova and Larionov, broke away and formed a new artist’s group which Larionov launched as Osliny khvost (the Donkey’s Tail), in order to promote avant-garde art inspired exclusively by Russian themes.  The name, The Donkey’s Tail, derived from a famous Parisian hoax in which the art critic, Roland Dorgelès and Fréderic Gérard, proprietor of the Montmartre café, Le Lapin Agile, had painted a lurid red and blue seascape by tying a paintbrush to a donkey’s tail. The work was exhibited as Sunset Over the Adriatic under the name of Joachim Raphale Baronali at the Salon des Indépendants of 1910 apparently without comment.

Frédé and his donkey artist Lolo
Frédé and his donkey artist Lolo

That year, Ilya Repin recounted the incident of the donkey’s tail in his review of Izdebsky’s International Exhibition and used the term as a critical epithet for the modernist work on show. Shortly afterwards, the Russian press satirized the Knave of Diamonds exhibition by publishing a cartoon of a donkey painting with its tail, with the cynical caption:

“…Off home already after looking round just one hall. Don’t be shy. Get your sixty kopeks worth and next year come again. Then we will change the name and under the sign of ‘the Donkey’s Tail’ we will show you the way we paint our pictures...”

In adopting this name for his group, Larionov beat the critics with their own stick.  Other artists to join the group were Marc Chagal and Kazimir Malevich.  The group, however, was only short-lived, disbanding at the end of 1912 having only managing to stage one exhibition in the March of 1912.  Goncharova submitted over fifty works of art to this exhibition.

The Cyclist by Natalia Goncharova
The Cyclist by Natalia Goncharova

Goncharova continued with her Rayonist works of art but unlike her friend Larionov her paintings depicted distinguishable objects or people, whereas Larionov’s paintings became more pure abstract. One of her most famous works of that period was one entitled The Cyclist in which her depiction cleverly captures the energy of the man on his bike as he passes by.  The blurred background adds to the sense of speed and movement.

Goncharova and Larionov were fervent believers of Rayonism, so much so they issued a joint manifesto in 1913 of what Rayonism meant to them.  The manifesto entitled Rayonists and Futurists, The Manifesto, began with:

“…We, rayonists and futurists, do not wish to speak about new or old art, and even less about modern Western art. We leave the old art to die and leave the “new” art to do battle with it; and incidentally, apart from a battle and a very easy one, the “new” art cannot advance anything of its own. It is useful to put manure on barren ground, but this dirty work does not interest us. People shout about enemies closing in on them, but in fact, these enemies are, in any case, their closest friends. Their argument with old art long since departed is nothing but a resurrection of the dead, a boring, decadent love of paltriness and a stupid desire to march at the head of contemporary, philistine interests. We are not declaring any war, for where can we find an opponent our equal? The future is behind us. All the same we will crush in our advance all those who undermine us and all those who stand aside. We don’t need popularization—our art will, in any case, take its full place in life—that’s a matter of time……..”

The American art historian, Camilla Gray, in her book gave her definition of Rayonism as:

“…[as an art style which] encompasses all existing styles and forms of the art of the past, as they, like life, are simply points of departure for a Rayonist perception and construction of a picture…”

Larionov and Goncharova started to believe that light was the indispensable source of our sensory appreciation of the world and believed that for any object to be observed it had to be lit up and the Rayonist style was to incorporate rays of light that then allows us to view a particular scene. Their manifesto explained:

 “…In fact, we do not sense the object as such. We perceive a sum of rays proceeding from a source of light; these are reflected from the object and enter our field of vision…”

The Forest by Natalia Goncharova (c.1913)
The Forest by Natalia Goncharova (c.1913)

In March 1913 Goncharova’s friend Larionov organised an exhibition entitled Mishen (Target) to introduce the Donkey’s Tail group of painters to the Moscow art critics and public.  One of the paintings Goncharova exhibited at the show was entitled La Forêt (The Forest) which is now part of the National Gallery of Scotland collection.  Although this is looked upon as an example of Goncharova’s Rayonist style with its coloured rays shooting out in different directions, it offers up the thought that Goncharova was more influenced by the Cubist style when she painted this work.  The shapes she has used in the depiction of trees in this work was replicated in a number of her works around this time.  It is a truly fascinating work.

 

The Forest by Natalia Goncharova (c.1913)
The Forest by Natalia Goncharova (c.1913)

Goncharova went on to design ballet costumes and sets for ballets in Geneva and in 1914 she and Larionov moved to Paris to work alongside the great Russian ballet impresario, Sergei Diaghliev, during which time they designed a number of stage sets for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes.  Goncharova still found time to carry on painting and exhibited works at the Salon d’Automne, Salon des Tuileries and the Salon des Indépendants.

Goncharova was quite a controversial character.  She was a woman that did not “toe the line” of convention.  It was said that she would sometimes appear topless in public, with symbols painted on her body. In a sense, their use of odd, possibly meaningless symbols united the masses with the past Symbolist aesthetic. In John Bowlt’s 1990 article in the Art Journal entitled Natalia Goncharova and Futurist Theatre, he commented on her bizarre behaviour writing:

“…in private relations and behavior, Goncharova enjoyed a license that only actresses and gypsies were permitted, and perhaps because of this dubious social reputation rather than as the result of any apparent innuendos in her paintings, she was said to traverse the ‘boundary of decency’ and to ‘hurt your eyes…”

According to Mary Charmot who wrote an article in 1955 for the Burlington Magazine entitled The Early Work of Goncharova and Larionov, Diaghliev was full of praise for this unconventional painter who had brought life to his ballets.  He talked of her, saying:

“…The most celebrated of these advanced painters is a woman. [. . .] This woman has all Saint Petersburg and all Moscow at her feet. And you will be interested to know that she has imitators not only of her paintings but of her person. She has started a fashion of nightdress-frocks in black and white, blue and orange. But that is nothing. She has painted flowers on her face. And soon the nobility and Bohemia will be driving out in sledges, with horses and houses drawn and painted on their cheeks, foreheads and necks…”

Project poster for the ballet by Manuel de Falla, El amor brujo by Natalia Goncharova (1935)
Project poster for the ballet by Manuel de Falla, El amor brujo by Natalia Goncharova (1935)

Goncharova and Larionov had lived together shortly after their first meeting in 1900 as fellow students at the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture and they stayed together as an unmarried couple for more than fifty years.  She and Larionov became French citizens in 1939 and in 1955 the two artists married.  The reason for marrying so late in their romantic relationship was believed to be so that their paintings would revert to the surviving partner.  In the latter years Larionov and Goncharova suffered financially.   Goncharova suffered badly with arthritis in her hands and it is said that to carry on painting she had to tie the paint brushes to her wrist.  Goncharova died in Paris, in October 1962 and Larionov died two years later.

So what happened to their works of art?  The story goes that when the couple had both died, most of their collections were inherited by another Russian émigré, Alexandra Tomilina, who had met Larionov in the 1930’s when she was his student, and later became his mistress.   After Goncharova died in 1962, Larionov married Tomilina in order that she would inherit all the paintings, which by this time was numbered in the thousands, and by doing so the two artists would continue to be remembered and therefore it would safeguard both artists’ legacies.  Sadly Tomilina had always viewed Goncharova as a love rival and so hated her, so much so that she gave away, destroyed or disposed of many of Goncharova’s works. Tomalina’s old age became one of a life of poverty and so, desperate to pay off her debts, contacted the Soviet authorities and offered them all the remaining artworks if they would financially support her for the rest of her life.  This they agreed to.  When Tomilina died in 1987, her ashes were buried in Goncharova and Larionov’s double grave

Picking Apples by Natalia Goncharova (1909)
Picking Apples by Natalia Goncharova (1909)

After her death, Goncharova was almost forgotten as a painter in the West. Why?  Maybe it was because she painted in many styles — Cubism, Futurism, Neo-Primitivism, Rayism, and  also maybe because she worked in many forms, from oil painting to textile design. This lack of recognition was all to change in 2007 when her work, Picking Apples, which she completed in 1909, was sold at Christie’s Modern and Impressionist sale in London for £4.9 million ($9.8 million), a record for a female artist, only to be bested a year later when her painting, The Flowers, sold for £5.53 million ($10.8 million).

The Flowers by Natalia Goncharova (1912)
The Flowers by Natalia Goncharova (1912)

Goncharova’s life, like her art, was very colourful.  She was unconventional and actually fell foul of the law on a number of occasions.  She was tried for pornography after a show of nude paintings in 1910 and as I mentioned earlier, her religious paintings were forcibly removed from several exhibitions and for a time were banned by the Holy Synod.

Alexsei Savrasov – the lyrical landscape artist

Portrait of Alexei Savrasov by Vasily Perov (1878)
Portrait of Alexei Savrasov by Vasily Perov (1878)

My last two blogs featured the life and works of the great nineteenth century landscape painter, Isaac Levitan.  Whilst I was researching his early life as a student at the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture I came across the name of Alexei Kondratyevich Savrasov who was one of Levitan’s tutors.  Having a rest from writing about Levitan, I had a look at some of the works of Savrasov, who had influenced Levitan and amongst them I came across the most exquisite painting and the one Savrasov was probably most famous for; but more about that later.

Alexei Savrasov was born on 12 May 1830 into the family of a Moscow merchant.  As a young boy he developed the love of drawing and by the age of twelve he was experimenting with painting gouache and watercolour landscapes and during his early years he managed to exchange his paintings with vendors for chicken feed.  He persuaded his father to let him study art and at the young of eight he attended the painting school.

In 1844, when Savrasov was fourteen years of age, and plans for his future career had to be discussed with the family.  His father was adamant that his son should follow him and become a merchant and thus end all the time his son spent painting which his father regarded as just a hobby.    However for Alexei, his heart was set on becoming an artist.  Alexei eventually had his way and enrolled at the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture and in 1848 he was fortunate to join the special studio of perspective and landscape painting which was run by Karl Rabus, who was the Professor of Landscape painting.  Alexei loved the genre of landscape painting and began to specialise in it. Soon he was widely acknowledged by the tutors as the best student of landscape painting in the School.    During the last years at the painting school, Savrasov, received a bursary from a well-known Moscow art patron and member of the Moscow Art Society, Likhachev, which enabled him to go on a painting and sketching trip to Odessa, where he captured the beauty of the local landscape.

View of the Kremlin from the Krymsky Bridge in Inclement Weather by Alexei Savrasov (1851)
View of the Kremlin from the Krymsky Bridge in Inclement Weather by Alexei Savrasov (1851)

In 1850 Savrasov graduated from the Moscow School of Painting receiving the official title of “unclassed artist”.  One of the first paintings Savrasov completed after leaving the art school was entitled View of the Kremlin from Krymski Bridge during Inclement Weather.  The storm clouds rush from the right to the left of the painting pushed relentlessly by the strong winds which have caused the branches of the trees to bend towards the river.  The sun has pierced the clouds and illuminated the Kremlin in the background of the painting.  In the foreground of the painting we see that the sun has lit up a small patch of land where the water from the Moskva River laps the sandy ground.  A woman, pail in hand, rushes past.  Her hand clutches her coat to hold it closed while  the wind whips at her skirt which is billowing in the gale.

View in the Neighbourhood of Oranienbaum by Alexei Savrasov (1854)
View in the Neighbourhood of Oranienbaum by Alexei Savrasov (1854)

Savrasov travelled to the Ukraine in 1852 and steadily built up a portfolio of sketches and paintings and with them he started to develop a reputation as an up and coming artist.  Two years later, in 1854, he received a painting commission for several works of art for the Russian Art Academy from the Grand Duchess Maria Nikolayevna,   She was one of the daughters of Emperor Nicholas I of Russia.    She was an avid and well-known art collector and President of the Russian Academy of Arts in St Petersburg.  To carry out his commission, Savrasov moved from Moscow to the Gulf of Finland, close to St Petersburg.  Two of the paintings he produced, View in the Neighborhood of Oranienbaum and Seashore in the Neighborhood of Oranienbaum, are now looked upon as excellent examples of the genre known as romantic landscapes   These works of art by Savrasov allowed him to depict, with great fondness, the charm and appeal of a summer evening at the sea, with the moistness associated with the sea air in the shade of ancient rocks, whilst envisioning the twilight which we observe under the spread­ing branches of trees.  The works Savrasov produced during this period, and these two works in particular, earned him the title of Fellow of the Russian Art Academy.

Alexi Savrasov had studied at the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture for ten years from 1844 to 1854, some of the time under the tutorship of Karl Rabus.  When Rabus died in 1857 Savrasov was asked to take over Rabus’ landscape class which he did and remained in post until 1882.  During his tenure he took many students under his wing, including the subject of my last blog, Isaac Levitan.  Savrasov was an excellent teacher and much loved and admired by his students.  In 1857 Savrasov married Sophia Hertz, the sister of art historian and archaeologist, K. Hertz; the couple went on to have several children. In their home they entertained artists and collectors including the famous art collector and patron of the arts, Pavel Tretyakov, who gave his name to the Moscow Art Gallery.

After leaving the Moscow School of Art in 1862, Savrasov took up the suggestion made to him by the Art Amateurs’ Society and left Russia on a painting expedition of Europe.   He travelled to that year’s World Fair in London, where he exhibited his painting View of the Surroundings Oranienbaum, and was amazed by what he saw and was unstinting in his praise, writing:

“…no academies in the world could so advance an artist as the present world exhibition…”

View of the Swiss Alps from Interlaken by Alexsei Savrasov (1862)
View of the Swiss Alps from Interlaken by Alexsei Savrasov (1862)

On the way back home he visited Paris, Switzerland, Copenhagen, Berlin, Dresden, Leipzig.  During his European travels the two landscape painter whom he admired the most were the English artist, John Constable and the Swiss landscape painter Alexandre Calame.   One of the paintings he completed in 1862 originated from his travels through Switzerland.  It was entitled View of the Swiss Alps from Interlaken and was completed in 1862.

Rafts by Alexei Savrasov (1868)
Rafts by Alexei Savrasov (1868)

I particularly like his painting entitled Rafts which he painted in 1868.

Elk Island in Sokolniki by Alexi Savrasov (1869)
Elk Island in Sokolniki by Alexi Savrasov (1869)

However the painting of his which drew the most acclaim in this period was a beautiful landscape work entitled Elk Island in Sokolniki, which he finished in 1869 and for which he was awarded the first prize at a painting competition organised by the Moscow Art Amateurs’ Society.  Elk Island straddles the boundary between the centre of Moscow and its suburbs to the north of the city.  It is home to a remarkable variety of animal and plant life.  The area was believed to have been a favourite place for Ivan the Terrible to enjoy falconry and bear-hunting. The area was given the name Elk Island in the early 17th century, when documents say that the place was used for hunting “all manner of game birds, and especially elk”.

Caves Monastery near Nizhny Novgorod by Aklexei Savrasov  (1871)
Caves Monastery near Nizhny Novgorod by Aklexei Savrasov (1871)

In December 1870 Savrasov, his wife and family went to live in Yaroslavl which lies on the Volga, three hundred kilometres north of Moscow.   Whilst there he produced the beautiful work of art entitled  Caves Monastery near Nizhny Novgorod, which is now housed in the Gorky State Art Museum in Nizhny Novgorod.  It was one of the largest canvases Savrasov ever painted.    The left hand side of this wide panoramic view is taken up by the confluence of the Oka and Volga Rivers with the blue lagoons whilst the right hand side of the painting depicts the Pechersky Voznesensky monastery.  The original monastery is believed to have been founded around 1330 by St. Dionysius, who, along with several followers, arrived in Nizhny Novgorod from Kiev Pechersk Lavra also known as the Kiev Monastery of the Caves, (pechery meaning ‘caves), hence the title of the painting.  On arrival at Nizhny Novgorod they dug a cave on the shoreline of the Volga and later it became the site of a monastery and church.  The original monastery was destroyed by a landslide in 1597; but in the same year a new monastery was built a short distance upstream.

Detail from Caves Monastery near Nizhny Novgorod
Detail from Caves Monastery near Nizhny Novgorod

In the right foreground, we see suburban homes with their small gardens awash with greenery which contrasts with the towering white stonework of the monastery.

The Rooks have Come Back by Alexei Savrasov (1871)
The Rooks have Come Back by Alexei Savrasov (1871)

The last work of Savrasov, which I am showcasing, is the one I talked about at the start of this blog.  Its beauty and simplicity immediately struck me and I was reminded of one of my favourite artists Pieter Breugel the Elder who had a propensity of including rooks or magpies in his winter scenes, such as his 1565 painting The Hunters in the Snow.  This painting by Savrasov entitled The Rooks have Come Back was completed in 1871 at the height of his artistic career.

Members of the Peredvizhniki group (Savrasov,with beard, standing, third from left)
Members of the Peredvizhniki group (Savrasov,with beard, standing, third from left)

A year earlier he had became a member of the Peredvizhniki group, often known as  The Wanderers or The Itinerants who were a group of Russian Realist artists, who like many artists throughout Europe railed against the Academic restrictions and decided to go off on their own and set up artists’ cooperative.   The Wanderers eventually evolved into the Society for Travelling Art Exhibitions.  It is a simple painting with an equally simple theme – the birds returning home in Spring.  It was a transitional depiction.  A transition of nature from winter to spring heralded by the return of the rooks. This landscape work with all its simplicity was termed a lyrical landscape painting later to be termed a mood landscape painting and Savrasov was one of the founding exponents of this type of landscape art.  His pupil Isaac Levitan would continue with this style.  Of this painting the artist, art critic and leader of the Russian Democratic Art movement, Ivan Kramskoi,  wrote:

“…The Rooks Have Come Back was the best he’d ever seen; and despite the fact that there were similar landscapes painted by other renowned Russian artists, only “The Rooks” mirrored the artist’s soul.

Savrasov’s former pupil and fellow landscape painter Isaac Levitan declared the painting:

“…to be “very simple, but beneath the simplicity there is the tender artist’s soul, who loves nature and values it…”

Although the year 1871 and this painting marked the height of Savrasov’s fame it also marked the beginning of the end of the great man for in  February 1871 Savrasov’s life took a tragic turn with the sudden death of his baby daughter.  This was the third child he and his wife had lost.  Maybe it was “the straw which broke the camel’s back” as Savrasov never recovered from this loss and descended into deep depression and despite friends who tried to help him he took to alcohol to ease the pain..  His work suffered and by 1882 he could no longer hold down the post of professor at the Moscow Art School and was sacked.   His wife eventually left him and took their children with her,  His bad manners and unpleasant demeanour caused friends and family to eventually desert him and his alcoholism and lack of sales of his work culminated  in the 1880’s with him living the life of a pauper.  In 1890 Savrasov went to live with Evdokiya Morgunova, and the couple had two children.

Savrasov's grave in Vagankovo Cemetery, Moscow
Savrasov’s grave in Vagankovo Cemetery, Moscow

Alexei Savrasov died in September 1897 in a city hospital, in a ward for paupers. When it came to his funeral, the doorkeeper of the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture and Pavel Tretyakov, who later founded the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, were the only people to attend Savrasov’s funeral .

I will leave you with a quote from his pupil Isaak Levitan, who wrote of his mentor:

“…One of the most profound Russian landscape-artists has passed away. With him, lyricism came to land­scape painting, and boundless love for one’s na­tive land. Yes, Savrasov was the father of Rus­sian landscape painting, and this undisputed merit of his will never be forgotten in the field of Russian art…”

Zinaida Serebriakova – Part 2.

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.

In Ballet Dressing Room (Big Ballerinas) by Zinaida Serebriakova (1922)
In Ballet Dressing Room (Big Ballerinas) by Zinaida Serebriakova (1922)

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…”

Sleeping Nude (Katya).by Zinaida Serebriakova (1934)
Sleeping Nude (Katya).by Zinaida Serebriakova (1934)

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.

Sleeping Girl in the Blue (Katyusha on a Blanket)by Zinaida Serebriakova (1923)
Sleeping Girl in the Blue (Katyusha on a Blanket)
by Zinaida Serebriakova (1923)

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.

Reclining woman (Etude de femme hadija) Marakech by Zinaida Serebriakova (1932)
Reclining woman (Etude de femme hadija) Marakech by Zinaida Serebriakova (1932)

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.

Jurisprudence by Zinaida Serebriakova (1937-8)
Jurisprudence by Zinaida Serebriakova (1937-8)

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.