MacDougall's Russian Art Auctions 25-27 November 2019

25 November 2019

Artist Index / Full Catalogue

Bathing Boys

215. PETROV-VODKIN, KUZMA (1878–1939)

Bathing Boys, signed with a monogram, inscribed “S-kand” and dated “1921 28/IX”.

Oil on canvas, 42 by 49.5 cm.
500,000–1,000,000 GBP

Authenticity of the work has been confirmed by the expert Yu. Rybakova.
Authenticity has also been confirmed by the expert V. Petrov.

Literature: V. Kostin, K.S. Petrov-Vodkin, Moscow, Sovetskii khudozhnik, 1966, p. 97, illustrated in black and white; p. 155, listed under the works from 1921; p. 165, listed.

Related Literature: For other works from the Samarkand series, see K. Petrov-Vodkin, Samarkandiia, St Petersburg, Akvilon, 1923, pp. 9, 13, 17, 19, 23, 27, 29, 33, 37, 41, 45, 47, 51 and 53.
V. Kostin, K.S. Petrov-Vodkin, Moscow, Sovetskii khudozhnik, 1966, pp. 94–96.
V. Kostin, Petrov-Vodkine, Leningrad, Aurora Art Publishers, 1976, ill. 53–61. K. Petrov-Vodkin, Khlynovsk. Prostranstvo Evklida. Samarkandiia, Leningrad, Iskusstvo, 1982, pp. 567, 569, 570, 572–575, 591, 594–596.
V. Kostin, Kuzma Sergeevich Petrov-Vodkin, Moscow, Sovetskii khudozhnik, 1986, ill. 57–63.
Yu. Rusakov, N. Barabanova, Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin. Zhivopis, Grafika, Teatralno-dekoratsionnoe iskusstvo, Leningrad, Aurora Art Publishers, 1986, ill. 148–161.
N. Adaskina, K.S. Petrov-Vodkin. Zhizn i tvorchestvo, Moscow, BuksMArt, 2014, pp. 140, 141, 276–278.

The painting Bathing Boys, now presented for auction, belongs to one of the most important series in the œuvre of Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin — the depiction of boys or youths in or near water. The exploration of this topic became crucial for the artist in the 1910s, when he first conceived the ideas which translated into such iconic works as Boys (Boys Playing, 1911, The State Russian Museum), Bathing of the Red Horse (1912, The State Tretyakov Gallery) and Thirsty Warrior (1915, The State Russian Museum).

The present work is a typical example of Petrov-Vodkin's output from the late 1910s and early 1920s. Painted in Samarkand in September 1921, when he was on an expedition to Central Asia with the Academy of the History of Material Culture, it showcases his artistic search while he was moving away from the abstract space of his early years to the colourful and luminous metaphysical world of “planetary reality”.

The subject — the young bathers — at first glance suggests a literal interpretation of the work: a mundane scene encountered by the artist. It is a depiction of a riverbank, with a group of boys who have chosen a spot near the water. Two of them are still undressing on the bank, while the other two are already in the water. It is not impossible that this is exactly how the artist remembered his own childhood, which he spent by the Volga, which gave him a life-long attachment to water, propelling him to seek it no matter where he was. In his essay Samarkandiia, written in 1923 just after returning from the trip, Petrov-Vodkin wrote that, even in scorching Turkestan, he would start the morning with an invigorating dip in a silvery stream, while his trips to the “turbulent emerald-grey waters of the Siab” gave him particular pleasure, since there, in the drowsy silence, “under the elms, nothing distracts the wandering painter striving to depict on canvas that what he sees”.

Yet the painting is not the result of the plein air observations. It also contains the combination of two figurative planes — the ordinary and the symbolic — that is a constant feature of Petrov-Vodkin’s œuvre. This semantic duality predetermines the picture’s whole spatial structure. The light-blue expanse of the river is ambiguous: it is certainly real water, in which the tanned, youthful bodies are immersed, but it is also a blue substance, visible from a great height, in which the faceted ripples of the streams that are in motion, flowing in different directions, are subject to their own logic. The composition leads one to feel a special sensitivity to, and craving for, the metaphysical essence of things and phenomena — something that came to be uppermost in the works that Petrov-Vodkin produced in the late 1910s and early 1920s. In the markedly casual treatment of the scene and in what seem to be randomly adopted viewing angles, one can detect a carefully considered research objective — that of finding and perceiving, in the real connection between people and things, their inner relationship with each other and with nature, of comprehending the laws governing the hidden life of matter. That is why it comes as no surprise that variations of the same “random poses” can be encountered in Petrov-Vodkin’s other works: the stiffly raised arm of the youth in the water is found in Thirsty Warrior and Boys (Boys Playing), and the figure in the foreground with his back towards us, who is holding his shirt in his hands, certainly harks back to the sketch Two Models, made in 1920.

In using a colouristic approach based on the juxtaposition of various shades of ochre and blue, Petrov-Vodkin didn’t just make references to the colours of Samarkand and Afrasiyab, featuring the combination of goldenhued sand and the pure turquoise of the mosques’ majolica domes, which had made such an impression on him.

He also seemed to be emphasising the non-specific location and a timeless nature of the scene. Nothing definite can be said about the characters: their gender, the country or time in which they might have lived are irrelevant to the artist. This “planetary” approach to the subject is all the more expressive because, when the painting was X-rayed, a different composition was revealed underneath. It shows a townscape, typical of Petrov-Vodkin’s Samarkand work, with the figure of an Uzbek boy wearing a tyubeteika in the foreground on the left. Here, on the contrary, the composition depicts a very specific “oriental” way of life — a huge building with porticos, a camel and a donkey moving along the road, and a road-side tree.

We will never know why the artist abandoned the original composition. He did work on subjects similar to that one later, after returning to Petrograd — for instance, in the painting Samarkand (1926). Conversely, Petrov-Vodkin had stopped painting bathing scenes already in the early 1920s, having found other subjects that interested him. This makes Bathing Boys a unique find on the market where most other similar works belong to museum collections.

Notes on symbols:
* Indicates 5% Import Duty Charge applies.
Ω Indicates 20% Import Duty Charge applies.
§ Indicates Artist's Resale Right applies.
† Indicates Standard VAT scheme applies, and the rate of 20% VAT will be charged on both hammer price and premium.