28 Nov 2018
The Game of Billiards. Aristarkh Lentulov and Petr Konchalovsky, titled in Cyrillic, numbered "307" and dated twice 1918 on the reverse.
Oil on canvas, 134.5 by 172 cm
Provenance: Collection of the artist’s family. Important private collection, Europe.
Exhibited: 1-aia vystavka proizvedenii Petra Petrovicha Konchalovskogo, State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, April 1922. Unknown Konchalovsky, Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow, 30 March–2 June 2002.
Les Peintres Russes du“Valet de Carreau”. Entre Cézanne et L’Avant-Garde, Salle d’expositions de la Principauté de Monaco, Monaco, 11 March–12 April 2004.
“Bubnovyi Valet” v russkom avangarde, State Russian Museum, 9 July–15 November 2004; State Tretyakov Gallery, 1 February–15 May 2005.
Persona. Image. Time. Human Representation in Art: from Modernism to the Present-Day, Cultural Foundation Ekaterina, Moscow, 18 September–13 December 2009.
Literature: V. Nikolskii, Petr Petrovich Konchalovsky, Moscow, Vsekokhudozhnik, 1936, p. 9, listed as Billiard.
Konchalovsky. Khudozhestvennoe nasledie, Moscow, Iskusstvo, 1964, p. 102, listed as “zhi 252”.
Exhibition catalogue, N. Avtonomova, A. Lukanova (eds), Unknown Konchalovsky, Moscow, Axiom Graphic, 2002, p. 238, No. 39, illustrated; p. 287, listed under the year 1918; p. 291, listed under the year 1918.
Exhibition catalogue, A. Sarabianov, Z. Tregulova (eds), Les Peintres Russes du Valet de Carreau. Entre Cézanne et L’Avant- Garde, St Petersburg, Palace Editions Europe, 2004, pp. 142 and 143, illustrated and listed; p. 150, No. 26, listed.
Exhibition catalogue, E. Petrova, L. Iovleva, A. Morozov (eds), “Bubnovyi Valet” v russkom avangarde, St Petersburg, Palace Editions, 2004, pp. 312 and 313, illustrated and listed.
V. Turchin, Petr Konchalovsky, Moscow, Belyi Good, 2008, p. 133, illustrated and listed.
Exhibition catalogue, Persona. Image. Time. Human Representation in Art: from Modernism to the Present-Day, Moscow, Cultural Foundation Ekaterina, 2009, p. 27, illustrated.
Petr Konchalovsky’s 1918 The Game of Billiards. Aristarkh Lentulov and Petr Konchalovsky is an iconic work from one of the most important European collections of Russian art. The picture, a double portrait of Aristarkh Lentulov and Konchalovsky himself, the leading artists of the 20th century, ushers in a new stage in the painter’s work. After the recent World War I, which had cooled the ardour of the avant-garde artistic pursuits of the masters in the Jack of Diamonds group, the end of 1910s saw the beginnings of a new creative and emotional uplift. It was a period in which, as Gleb Pospelov put it, “... among all the recent members of the Jack of Diamonds circle, the social ferment that had come into being outside the walls of their workshops seems to have spurred them on and made them work with unbridled enthusiasm. The actual pace of their “artistic output” was increasing, as well as the actual speed of the work, making one recall the canvasses of the beginning of the decade... the elevated mood was shaped by the urge towards a natural kind of existence that had until then seemed to be suppressed and then, in the post-revolutionary age, to be uninhibited for the first time” (G. Pospelov, Jack of Diamonds, Moscow, Pinakoteka, 2008, p. 216).
The painting is a sort of reflection on and a new interpretation of an idea that came sensationally to the fore at the first exhibition of the young Jack of Diamonds group in Moscow in the winter of 1910–1911. At that time, Ilya Mashkov’s enormous satirical picture Self-Portrait and Portrait of Petr Konchalovsky (1910, State Russian Museum) came to be a kind of manifesto for Jack of Diamonds painting as a whole. The half-naked, farcical wrestlers with their weights, frozen as though in a poster while performing the lyrical romance Bombita, were issuing their artistic challenge both to the academic tradition and to symbolist art. Several volumes, one of which featured the name Cézanne on its spine, could be seen standing on the piano in one corner, giving a keynote expression to their creative credo.
Eight years later, Konchalovsky again depicted himself and his Jack of Diamonds pal as sportsmen, but this time respectably dressed and playing billiards. There is also an obvious nod in the direction of Cézanne, which is now seen not as something like a manifesto, but as a tried and tested artistic method. However, over the years separating the pictures of Mashkov and Konchalovsky, much had changed in the work of their painters and models, and Konchalovsky’s composition in 1918 is a splendid and telling embodiment of the path pursued by the artist during that time.
The artists in the picture are most likely to be playing in the famous billiard room of the luxurious Metropol Hotel, as is indicated both by the extremely similar lamps and by the baize-covered table. After the revolution of 1917, the Soviet government was based in the Metropol, which had previously been not only an iconic place for the carousing of the rich, but also a favourite haven for poets and artists. The hotel came to be an arena for tumultuous historical events — something that could not fail to impress Konchalovsky, who was inspired by the political changes in the country. For that reason, the choice of setting for the work The Game of Billiards. Aristarkh Lentulov and Petr Konchalovsky, imbued as it is with energy and its own dynamic, was by no means a matter of chance.
After being demobilised from the army, Konchalovsky returned to Moscow and took up teaching work at the SVOMAS (Free State Art Studios) from October 1918 onwards together with Aristarkh Lentulov. Subsequently, looking back, the artist acknowledged that “... by the end of my military service ... I felt instinctively that the opportunities I had intended to pursue in painting seemed to have exhausted themselves already and I had to look for something different and new” (Konchalovsky. Khudozhestvennoe nasledie, Moscow, Iskusstvo, 1964, p. 25). Their work at SVOMAS, later VKhUTEMAS (Higher Art and Technical Studios), and training of young people prompted the artists to think about their own artistic method, making them look back to fundamental principles, and Konchalovsky and Lentulov again focused on Cézanne.
But reverting to Cézanne in 1918 was by then not so much a signal of the assault on the traditional artistic canons, as in the early Jack of Diamonds years; rather it was driven by the idea of restoring an intelligible language in art. The artists were now engrossed not in “conceptual” exploration, but in tackling the issue of colour. Taking Cézanne as his starting point, Konchalovsky sought to achieve an uncompromising portrayal of reality. By the artist’s own admission, he wished passionately to create something “alive” — portraits, landscapes and genre scenes. It is no mere coincidence that, at precisely that moment, he set about depicting something dynamic in his portraits and genre compositions for virtually the first time.
Konchalovsky’s pre-revolutionary self-portraits tended to express the general Jack of Diamonds approach, with the result that the artist appeared in them with or without his family in a series of playful, often grotesque pictures that retained the spirit of merchants’ photographs. Now, however, his models seem to have been caught unawares while performing some kind of action (Portrait of the Violinist Grigory Romashkov, 1918; Children at the Piano, 1919). This new motif, unprecedented in Konchalovsky’s earlier work, may indicate the fascination with movement in general and the sense of the dynamic nature of life that possessed the artist as he played an active part in the work of the Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies and Vkhutemas.
The Game of Billiards. Aristarkh Lentulov and Petr Konchalovsky can be called a classic example of this dynamic approach in the late 1910s. While portraying himself and Lentulov enjoying a game, Konchalovsky preserves the slight tint of irony that is inherent in many of his self-portraits. Moreover, the choice of subject and its main characters may, perhaps, be explained not only by the longstanding friendly relationship between the two artists, but also by the attention that they paid to each other’s work at that time. For example, in the Portrait of the Verigin Family Pianists, painted in the same year, 1918, Konchalovsky manifestly draws on Lentulov’s experience as he searches for a rejuvenated artistic language.
Virtually, the whole expanse of the picture is built around the billiard table, which is angled so as to be parallel to the canvas and depicted with a literally “still-life” representationalism. The Cézanne-style combination of the ochre shades of its wooden base and the green of the baize, which engages in a dialogue with the red drapes in the background, sets up the colour dynamics that the artist needs. The actual splashes of colour, the distribution of volumes and the small spatial shifts already lend vivacity and mobility to the composition. The picture is full of life despite its considerable still-life foundations. There is a certain harmony between the dynamism of the subject and the fluidity of the brushstrokes. Broad brushstrokes alternate with tiny, almost linear ones. One can sense freedom in everything, as well as a light, sometimes transparent “painter’s shorthand”, and the splashes of colour are not concentrated towards the centre of the picture, as previously in the first half of 1910s, but are spread out, setting up spatial emphases from one edge of the canvas to the other.
Once again, there is here a distinct echo of Cézanne. But Cézanne’s method — constructing shape with splashes of colour — is combined with a penchant for classical nature and with the expression of a vigorous, cheerful outlook on life, departing further and further from the structure of Cézanne’s works. The primitivistic vigour, so typical of the works at the be- ginning of the decade, gives way to speed of artistic reaction and rapidity of skilful, inspired underpainting.
Konchalovsky portrayed himself on the fringe of the picture, still, intensely concentrated and closely following the movement of the cue. But the figure of Lentulov, who is preparing to strike the ball, is also only the formal centre of the composition. The surrounding objects — the lamps, billiard table, door curtains and even the little table with the bottles in the background — cluster around the player in a tight ring, creating spatial tension, counterbalanced by the lighter tone of the floor and walls. It is not by chance that Konchalovsky pays more attention than in earlier years to the atmosphere in his portraits and genre scenes of this time, and a new feature appears in his paintings — the urge to convey the concentrated or rarefied nature of that atmosphere. The artist himself gave the following explanation of his approach: “The sensation of a person’s life amid other objects is a feeling of a cosmic order, and, once it has been experienced, it is hard to forget it” (Konchalovsky. Khudozhestvennoe nasledie, Moscow, Iskusstvo, 1964, p. 26).
Having fully incorporated that sensation into his best works between 1917 and 1920, Konchalovsky soon turned to other artistic pursuits. The Cézannist spirit in the artist’s work was gradually fading, and his guidelines shifted towards Titian, Rembrandt and other great masters of the past. At the same time, his fondness for choosing “dynamic” themes was also disappearing, as too was the free and easy movement of the brush, with both being replaced in his painting by stability and solidity.
Freedom and the richness of his colours, the crude vigour of his painting, the expressiveness of his forms and the wish to capture in a picture the intensity and the actual movement of life came to be Konchalovsky’s supreme achievement in the late 1910s. The museum quality picture The Game of Billiards. Aristarkh Lentulov and Petr Konchalovsky belongs to the best, most important works of the period.
Notes on symbols:
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