5 Jun 2019
Bakhchisarai, signed and dated 1917.
Oil on canvas, 80.5 by 94 cm.
Provenance: Collection of N.D. Andersen, Leningrad.
Acquired by the grandfather of a previous owner.
Private collection, UK.
Authenticity of the work has been confirmed by the expert V. Petrov.
Exhibited: Mir Iskusstva, Petrograd, 1918.
Boris Mikhailovich Kustodiev, State Russian Museum, Leningrad, 1959.
Literature: Exhibition catalogue Mir Iskusstva, St Petersburg, 1918, p. 9, No. 174, listed.
V. Voinov, B.M. Kustodiev, Leningrad, Gosudarstvennoe izdatelstvo, 1925, p. 84, listed under the works from 1917.
Exhibition catalogue, Kustodiev, Leningrad, 1959, p. 37, listed under the works from 1917.
M. Etkind, Boris Mikhailovich Kustodiev, Leningrad, Iskusstvo, 1960, p. 197, listed under the works from 1915, marked as completed in 1917.
M. Etkind, Boris Kustodiev, Moscow, Sovetskii khudozhnik, 1982, p. 178, listed under the works from 1917.
Related literature: For a study for the present work, see Gosudarstvennaia kartinnaia galereia Armenii. Zhivopis. Skulptura. Risunok. Teatr. Katalog, Yerevan, Aiastan, 1965, p. 502, listed as Prodavtsy fruktov. Bakhchisarai.
Boris Kustodiev’s painting Bakhchisarai, offered here for auction, is a unique work in the artist’s legacy. Among his classic easel works, it stands out because of its unexpected Oriental subject, which is more reminiscent of a stage set than the canvasses typically associated with the artist; and also because of the precise geographical siting of the motif and the vibrant range of colours in the night landscape — a palette that is unusual even for Kustodiev.
In 1915, the artist spent two months in the Crimea, but, through a combination of circumstances, Bakhchisarai is now the only reminder of this trip. Perhaps this is because the journey to the Crimea was something that the artist needed, rather than wanted, to do. Kustodiev’s spinal illness was growing progressively worse, and he urgently required a change of climate; he also wanted to try a medicinal mud treatment. In a letter to the art historian and collector Fyodor Notgaft dated 2 September 1915, he complained: “I came to Moscow, and soon I have to leave it again — the doctors insist, and I feel it myself, since my health is very, very poor.... I’m going to Simferopol on the 11th, and from there on to Yalta. I’ll be in a clinic there for 2 weeks, and then I’ll be living near Yalta for about a month and a half...” (B.M. Kustodiev. Pisma, statii, zametki, interviu, Leningrad, Khudozhnik RSFSR, 1967, p. 151).
We know very little about the artist’s stay in the Crimea. More precisely, we know only the scant details that he revealed to his relatives and friends in letters. At the beginning of October, Kustodiev writes from Yalta to his daughter Irina: “Mum and I have a large, very bright room facing south — there are poplars, palm trees, roses and pines in front of the windows — there are mountains in the distance. The windows are wide open all day, it’s very warm. At 4 o’clock, they treat me with black, rather foul-smelling mud, then I take a bath, after that I lie down for a while on the bed till dinner, which is at 7 o’clock in the evening. It is really rather boring here, and we can’t wait to leave...”
The same sort of despondency — albeit even more acute due to the change in weather — can also be seen in a letter that Kustodiev sent a few days later to the actor Vasily Luzhsky: “I’m listless and depressed. I don’t want to do anything. Despite even the muchhyped warmth and sunshine here, it’s very dreary and boring. Now we barely see either of them, it’s cold, the sun comes out for about two hours in the morning, and almost the whole sky is covered in rain clouds.” Because of his bad mood and poor state of health, Kustodiev does little work in Yalta. He is dispirited because the mud therapy, on which the doctors had pinned their hopes, has not brought about any positive changes, and a week before his departure, planned for 22 October, he, seemingly reluctantly, blurts out in a letter to Luzhsky: “I won’t write about myself — everything’s the same or even seems worse....”
It is likely, therefore, that the only artistic impression associated with the artist’s stay in the Crimea was a trip to Bakhchisarai. It is from there that he brought one small watercolour study. Today, this sheet, which has preserved the original composition showing the small square near the old palace of the Crimean Khan, where the fruit vendors have taken up their positions, is housed in the National Gallery of Armenia in Yerevan. The drawing was made from real life in the morning, when there was still no bright sunlight, and the sellers were just laying out their wares in the square among the small buildings of the ancient capital of the Crimean Khanate, surrounded by mountains. This study was used for the big picture, dated 1917, which Kustodiev executed when back in his studio in Petrograd.
During work on the canvas, Kustodiev altered the sketch quite substantially. The central emphasis in the figural and dynamic structure of the picture is now not so much on the landscape but rather on the conveying of light and colours of an evening street in the little Tatar town. The composition boasts an abundance of characters and eloquent details that reveal the subject because of their convincingly realistic and authentic rendering. However, the groundwork for the structural design of the composition was undoubtedly laid by the watercolour sketch. The mountains encircle the space in the distance, so that the main action, devoid of any centre, takes place in what looks like a narrow stage setting, bounded by a backdrop of characteristic Oriental structures.
The repeated horizontal divisions — the outlines of the gently sloping mountains and oblong roofs — contrast with the vertical forms of the minaret and the rising smoke from a furnace and, combined with the bustling crowd in the foreground, constitute the basis of a rhythm, the vibrant waves of which run through the market square, the diagonally diverging streets and the picture as a whole. The artist eschews any literal handling of real life and daringly creates the provocatively gaudy colour combination of an orange sunset sky, dark-blue shadows and the thin sickle of a moon, the cold light of which is offset by the blindingly hot light of the windows.
As Kustodiev creates a universal image of “the east”, he is looking for a generalisation that is convincing because of specifically recognisable details and literal quotations from what he has seen in reality. He chooses to combine the impressions of what he has seen at different times of the day and in different places; yet it is not a chaotic, random and arbitrary mishmash, but a strictly organised whole. Unusual though it may be, Bakhchisarai undoubtedly fits into Kustodiev’s artistic system of the 1910s, in which the theme of the colourful street fair and street trading is prominent. From Village Bazaar (1903) and The Fair (1906) onwards, the persistent theme in Kustodiev’s work comes to be that of crowded and plentiful shopping squares, market days and Volga vegetable displays, which symbolise the inherent, natural wealth of the land and the fruitfulness of farm labour.
Captivated by the delightful opportunity to show the vivid colourfulness of everyday Russian life and the hospitable, jovial nature of trade, the artist creates an idyllic world of happy and festive abundance that pours out towards the viewer in an endless stream of wealth — in the Sunday village market, in more orderly trading by the Volga quayside and at the height of the national Nizhny Novgorod Fair. This world is as removed from the Russian reality of the 1900s and 1910s as a night-time bazaar is unimaginable in Bakhchisarai. Kustodiev admitted in a conversation with the artist Vsevolod Voinov: “They call me a realist! What nonsense! I never paint my pictures from life. All this is a flight of my imagination and fancy. They’re called naturalistic only because they give the impression of real life, but I, for one, have never seen it and it has never existed” (B.M. Kustodiev. Pisma, statii, zametki, interviu, Leningrad, Khudozhnik RSFSR, 1967, p. 154).
For Kustodiev, a European from St Petersburg and member of the Mir Iskusstva group, practically bedridden by a debilitating illness, the barbaric beauty that he himself fashioned and the spontaneous power of the vital energy of the Russian and Oriental bazaars come to be the dream of a promised earthly paradise that is inaccessible and never existed for him in the sublunary world, but which offers the tangible and possible fullness of a joyful existence. That is why the only painting that Kustodiev produced from his Crimean impressions of the 1910s is interpreted by him in the same vein as the Russian country bazaars. It is no coincidence that the vegetable display cut off by the right-hand lower edge, with half a watermelon, orange-coloured pumpkins and a golden profusion of ripe apples, seems like a literal quotation from Kustodiev’s Volga fairs.
Notes on symbols:
* Indicates 5% Import Duty Charge applies.
Ω Indicates 20% Import Duty Charge applies.
§ Indicates Artist's Resale Right applies.
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