MacDougall Auctions 2-3 December 2009

2 December 2009

Artist Index / Full Catalogue



Nude signed and dated 1932

Oil on canvas, 73 by 50 cm.
1,000,000-1,500,000 pounds

Provenance: Acquired directly from the artist’s family.
Private collection, France.

Authenticity has been confirmed by Vladimir Kruglov.

Exhibited: Zinaida Serebriakova, The Embassy of the Russian Federation, Paris, 1995.

Literature: Exhibition catalogue, Zinaida Serebriakova, Syseca, France, 1995, p. 13, illustrated.

Related literature: For similar works, see V. Kruglov, Zinaida Serebriakova, Zolotoi Vek, St Petersburg, 2004, pp. 155, 167, 168.

Nude is a typical example of Zinaida Serebriakova’s work in the 1920s to 1930s – full of harmony, purity and poetry. She had by this time developed her recognisable, special painting style, which was distinguished by its free, flowing brushstrokes and its precise, clear form.

The interpretation of the life model motif in this work conveys the poetics of the naked human body that the artist devoted herself to in the second decade of the 20th century. This period saw the appearance of Serebriakova’s first two versions of The Bathhouse (1912 and 1913), in addition to her sketches and studies for Bathing (1917). As was always the case with Serebriakova, the artistic image she created in Nude was distinguished by the harmony of its spiritual and physical principles and by its delicacy and lively grace.

The portrayal of the naked body occupied a central role in Serebriakova’s painting during the 1920s and 1930s. From her memoirs we know that her models were Russian girls, a number of whom married around 1934 and ceased to model, thereby forcing the artist to “close” the subject. She could not afford to pay professional life models. 1926 saw the appearance of two compositions bearing the title The Bathhouse. They effectively convey, particularly in the horizontal composition, the beauty and suppleness of young women’s bodies. The vertical canvas appears more “contrived” in comparison. The artist evidently felt that girls from Russian intelligentsia families in Paris did not fit well with the image of rural Russian bathhouses, and abandoned her plan to continue The Bathhouse series. She did not wish to follow in the footsteps of Konstantin Korovin, who would on demand produce nostalgic, cheap popular print-type paintings depicting winter scenes and troikas next to inns. From then on she only worked on studies, without attempting, like Kabanel, to transform her life models into “bathers” or into heroines of ancient mythology. The principles of E. Degas and A. Renoir were closer to her heart. Her young women and girls pose serenely, lying on sheets or sleeping, coming out of the bath, towel drying themselves or relaxing in the fresh air. Constantine Somov rated these works very highly, and in his diary and letters he always remarked upon her taste and mastery of painting. Alexander Benois described them as “incomparable”. In 1927 Serebriakova created one of the most poetic nudes, featuring a sleeping adolescent girl. The girl’s pose and the angle – a view from above – bear some resemblance to Modigliani. In this canvas the artist has achieved a sense of harmony between the physical form and the space. The light colours deployed here are extraordinarily well-suited to the nature of the image.

Serebriakova painted high quality nudes using both pastels and oils. Pastels were well-suited to conveying the fine nuances of light and delicate colours, and poeticised the femininity of amateur models (Nude (1929) and Nude (1932)). Her oils were more austere and more direct in their interpretation of the physical form and state of the models (Nude Braiding her Hair (1930) and Nude (1932)). Specifics of the imagery and the level of completion were also determined by the tasks that the artist had set herself – whether she was working on a light and lively study in which even an apparently misplaced stroke of pastel seemed to convey the thrill of life (Standing Nude, 1932), or studying the formal rules of form as she was painting in oil (Nude, 1932).

In the early 1930s Serebriakova began to exhibit a proclivity for tackling the issues of dimension and volume, and created a lot of studies featuring standing models. This tendency cannot be linked to her personal artistic development only: around this time, Serebriakova gradually began to practice for a new commission of monumental works from Baron J.-A. de Brouwer of Belgium. After 1934, Serebriakova would from time to time return to her favourite topic, delighting art connoisseurs with such indisputable masterpieces as Nude with a Book (1940) and Nude Leaning on Her Elbow (1940). Nude Plaiting her Hair (1930) and Nude with a Book (1940), full of internal movement and featuring dreamy models, seem to be particularly potent in eliciting the quintessential “Russianness” of these girls – a feature so poeticised by the artist. Alexander Benois wrote enthusiastically of such works: “In these studies of the nude female body there lives not sensuality in general, but something more specific, something familiar to us from our very own literature, our very own music, as well as from our personal experiences. This truly is flesh of our flesh; here we see the grace, the sensuality and a certain intimacy and domesticity of Eros which is more alluring, more delicate and at the same time also more cunning and dangerous than what Gauguin had found in Tahiti.”

Vladimir Kruglov,
author and compiler of the monograph on Zinaida Serebriakova

Dmitry Sarabyanov once shrewdly noted that the critics wishing to compliment Serebriakova would invariably muse about her “male hand”. Even Alexander Benois once referred to the artist’s works as “masculine”. Sarabyanov, however, believes that it is Serebriakova’s femininity that is the most appealing aspect of her art. It is hard to argue with him, inasmuch as this femininity “is expressed in equal measure in her art, her life, as well as in her appearance. Her whole appearance is marked by the purity of her soul, the shining of her eyes; her feelings are all so natural, whilst her motives, embodied in the paintings, reflect her clear understanding of human purpose. There is simple beauty in all of this. The artist herself seems to be translating these qualities onto the world around her. The natural beauty of life – assumed [by Serebriakova] to have an independent existence – becomes the aesthetic criterion that defines her artistic position, her opinion about herself and her surroundings.”

Nude presented for the auction is one of the best, most expressive manifestations of this femininity in Serebriakova’s oeuvre. It is as if Serebriakova imbues her young model with the poetry and cordiality typical of the artist herself. In fact, Serebriakova had long before been noted for the practice of “personalising” every image, or instilling her models with a vague self-resemblance. It is true that Serebriakova’s sister modelled for her famous Bathers of 1911; however, it sometimes appears as if all the nudes of her multiple Bathhouses were painted after her sisters or perhaps the artist herself. Anna Ostroumova-Lebedeva, writing about this feature of Serebriakova’s works, noted that even in the artist’s portraits “there is a lot of grace and artistic revelation but… no resemblance [of the model]. In general, her portraits bear little resemblance to the sitters. Rather, all images of women resemble the artist herself. Well, why should it be otherwise?”

Needless to say, Serebriakova borrowed from classical art. Her Nude invokes allusions to Venetsianov’s renowned Nude Bathers, where the models, clutching their towels, are also portrayed with eyes modestly downcast. Moreover, Serebriakova tenderly recalled that spiritually she felt “very close” to Venetsianov. In the beginning of the 1930s, accompanied by her daughter Katya, the artist would visit the Louvre almost every day, studying her favourite Rubens, Velasquez and Titian for hours on end, or making sketches of antique marbles.

The barely perceptible melancholy that permeates the image of the nude model largely stems from the structure of the composition. The space is arranged in accordance with the principles of bas-relief. The slightly elongated figure of the model is positioned diagonally and thus occupies the whole of the composition. Cold and restrained colours lend the features a particular, almost sculture-like, precision. Her pose is calm and full of grace, her expression is serene and slightly pensive. Here we see one of the artist’s favourite subjects – a young woman with a nice posture and luscious breasts, and a refined “Serebriakova” nose. The soft light illuminates the model’s body, emphasising her smooth young skin with a hint of golden tan. There is nothing contrived about this composition, and the pose of the model is relaxed and casual.

Serebriakova’s talent for monumental painting, already visible – if, alas, unrecognised – in her murals for the Kazansky train station in Moscow is revealed here it to full extent. A few years later, she further mastered this skill as she created a series of monumental works for Baron de Brouwer’s villa, Manoir du Relais in Belgium. As she was working on allegorical images of nudes representing Jurisprudence, Flora, Art, Cardinal Points and Seasons, Serebriakova, naturally, drew on her studies executed back in the 1930s. However, these allegoric images, constrained by the rigid structure of the composition, as well as by complex symbolic references and abundant paraphernalia, lacked the lyricism of their smaller-scale predecessors. These easel paintings and drawings of nudes – often left untitled – are true representations of Serebriakova’s artistic genius.

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.