27 May 2012
Still Life. Apples and Eggs, signed with a monogram, inscribed in Cyrillic "S-kand" and dated "1921-VII".
Oil on canvas, 35.5 by 47 cm.
Provenance: Collection of G. Blokh, Leningrad.
Collection of N. Efron, Leningrad.
Collection of A. Chudnovsky, Leningrad.
Private collection, Europe.
Authenticity certificate from the experts N. Aleksandrova and T. Zelyukina.
Exhibited: Avantgarde 1900–1930: Tšudnovskin kokoelma Pietarista, Ateneum, Helsinki, 14 October 1993–9 January 1994, No. 53 (label on the reverse).
Avantgarde 1900–1930: Tšudnovskin kokoelma Pietarista, Turku Art Museum, Turku, 5 February 1994–6 March 1994, No. 53 (label on the reverse).
K.S. Petrov-Vodkin. Izbrannoe, The State Russian Museum, St Petersburg, 1996 (label on the reverse).
Literature: V. Kostin, Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin, Moscow, Sovetskii khudozhnik, 1986, No. 64, illustrated; p. 157, listed.
Exhibition catalogue, Avantgarde 1900–1930: Tšudnovskin kokoelma Pietarista, Helsinki, 1993, p. 102, No. 53, illustrated.
Still Life. Apples and Eggs is one of the most typical and recognisable of Petrov-Vodkin’s works of the early 1920s. It was painted in Samarkand during the summer of 1921 when he was travelling around Central Asia with an expedition organised by the Academy of the History of Material Culture and it very clearly reflects his experimental path from the abstract space of his early years to the metaphysical world of “planetary reality”, full of colour and light.
On the table, which is covered with a vivid, rich sky-blue cloth or sheet of paper, there are apples – some red and green, one yellow – and two eggs. At first glance we are struck by the absolute verisimilitude of the depiction: the sharply delineated flattened spheres of the apples, with their light, mauve shadows, and the accurately gauged ellipse of the eggs, warmed by the sun. The modesty of this still life, fairly typical of everyday life in those hard years, did not prevent the artist from creating a serene and exceptionally harmonious piece.
In this still life we can sense that special sensitivity and pursuit of the metaphysical essence of objects and phenomena that became the defining element of Petrov-Vodkin’s works of the late 1910s and early 1920s and which resonated with the principles of his Italian contemporaries, Carrà and de Chirico. In its well thought-out haphazardness and in the seemingly random scattering of the fruit across the surface we see the artist’s carefully planned game; he is trying to trace, to get a feel for the inherent interconnection between objects by their very arrangement – the hidden life of inanimate matter. On the one hand, this “magic of corporeality” allows the artist to convey faithfully the concrete attributions of an object (of a greenish, ripe apple, of an egg) but on the other, to create a universalised image of that object, its Platonic eidos: the apple is a generous gift of the earth, the egg a symbol of the eternal beginning of life.
Arranging his colour harmonies around the subtle juxtaposition of primary and complementary colours, Petrov-Vodkin achieves a striking vibrancy and richness. The artist is looking at the foodstuffs placed about the table from on high so that their configuration can be accurately rendered and we see them “as if in the palm of our hand”. In this way the artist tries to overcome the one-sidedness of the monocular point of view, considering it neither adequate nor a reflection of genuine knowledge of the object which can and must be viewed from as many angles as possible in order to form a true idea of it. Thus Petrov-Vodkin’s still lifes always have a peculiarly intense character generated by the strong lines of “spherical perspective” which spread throughout the whole space of the canvas. For Petrov-Vodkin, the problem posed by the object is inseparable from the concept of spherical perspective. Although he noted that this acquires an “even greater kinetic sense” in relation to large-scale objects – “landscapes and urban spaces”, which are inconceivable for him without strong “planetary” motion – the apples, matches and violins of his still lifes are connected with planetary motion in exactly the same way. It is no coincidence that a tilted perspective and tilted pictorial axis appear in all of them.
The technique based on his “spherical system of perception”, allows Petrov-Vodkin to convey the whole in part, to retain in any still life a sense of the link between the object portrayed and the infinite expanse of the universe. As the artist himself confirmed, it is no coincidence that his study of the object, and by extension his principal work on still lifes, took place during the years of revolution. It seemed to him that without doing this he could not progress further; he could not solve the new artistic challenges he was presented with. Petrov-Vodkin succintly defined this genre, which was so important to him at this period: “The still life is one of the intense conversations the artist has with nature. In it, subject matter and psychology do not hinder the definition of an object in its space. What kind of object is it, where is it, and where am I, the viewer? This is the fundamental question the still life asks of us. And in this there is the great joy of knowing, which is what the viewer takes from the still life.”
Petrov-Vodkin had occasionally painted still lifes of flowers and apples earlier in his career, but it was only from about 1918 to 1920 that they became central to his work. During this period he also regularly inserted into his landscapes and portraits the motif of an appletree branch loaded with fruit or of a single fruit or vegetable (Midday, 1917; Portrait of the Artist’s Daughter with Still Life, 1930s). However, thanks to their wonderfully sculptural forms and their graceful draughtsmanship and colour design, each of this artist’s still lifes with apples (Pink Still Life, Apple Tree Branch, 1918; Apple and Cherry, 1917; Apples, 1917; Still Life with Blue Cube, 1918 etc.) proves to be as beautiful and expressive as it is self-contained.
Having resolved his major creative challenges of this period in both painting and drawing, Petrov-Vodkin did return from time to time to this genre, but the still life never again reached such heights in his oeuvre.
The conciseness and creative concentration of his still lifes from the late 1910s to early 1920s (which invoke fundamental symbols, religious and cultural principles of existence and compassion for spiritual and physical hunger) make them, perhaps, the benchmark standards of Russian art of the post-Revolutionary period, alongside Pavel Filonov’s revolutionary Formula paintings.
Notes on symbols:
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