25 November 2012
Rendezvous, signed and indistinctly dated 1918 (?).
Oil on canvas, laid on board, 27 by 22 cm.
Provenance: Private collection, Europe.
Authenticity of the work has been confirmed by the expert M. Krasilin.
Literature: L. Korotkina, Konstantin Andreevich Somov, St Petersburg, Zolotoi Vek, 2004, pl. 118, illustrated.
The “harlequin and lady” motif – imbued with the piquant, frivolous atmosphere of masquerades in the era of galanterie, the Italian commedia dell’arte and a fin de siècle nostalgia – is one of the most captivating in Konstantin Somov’s repertoire. The small-scale canvas Rendezvous, a development of this subject so loved by the artist’s contemporaries and later generations, is one of these very rare painted works.
“His retrospectiveness,” wrote the poet Mikhail Kuzmin, “is more than just historical illustrations of his favourite epoch: it is an essential metaphysical element ever-present in his work, the smiling ennui of eternal repetition… The unease, the irony, the puppet-like theatricality of the world, the comedy of eroticism… the automaticity of lovers’ poses, the ghastliness and dread behind gracious smiles – this is the essence of Somov’s work. How very merry is our gallant Somov!”
In Rendezvous, the idea of life as a masquerade, from Somov’s early works, gives way to a full-blown spectacle acted out in the walkways of the grounds of an estate and against the background of a night sky illuminated by the flare of fireworks. The lady’s turquoise dress strikingly complements the harlequin’s three-cornered hat and brightly-patterned costume. Both figures are brought into the foreground and brightly-lit as though on stage. The whole composition is unreal, theatrical, decorative, as if woven from the principal predilections of the era – Watteau’s suggestive poses, Rameau and Grétry’s operatic arias, Parny’s poetry, walks through the prickly avenues of Tsarskoe Selo and Strelna. The objects are just as elegant as the protagonists themselves. The still life set up on the table is painted with such care, such virtuosity that it recalls the Dutch Masters and Fedotov, with whom Somov had been familiar since childhood. He is wonderfully skilled at showing the splendour of things, the “spirit of charming, insubstantial trifles”, objects serving to intensify the atmosphere of sensuous languor that pervades the image.
Rendezvous is a well-staged pantomime. As in all Somov’s works, the storyline is only lightly traced. The languid pair have hidden themselves in the greenery, but they are being watched. What is the figure in the domino costume and Bauta mask carrying? Is this the confidant who has arranged this secret rendezvous at a well-stocked table in the park and now guards their privacy, or is he a spy sent by a jealous spouse? Or perhaps it is Mozart’s “man in black” who has come into the midst of a celebration of life to commission a requiem – or even death itself (a not uncommon motif in Somov), an invisible presence at a feast in time of plague, hiding behind a mask?
The artist elaborates the story without explaining it. Most important for Somov is the music of colour, the aroma of theatrical spectacle, the grace of movement, the languor, coquetry and refinement of poses, the sensual tension in lascivious smiles. In Rendezvous, Somov demonstrates his virtuoso technical mastery. The strength of this group of works lies in the miniaturist delicacy of the brushwork and the elegant, graphic look reminiscent of watercolour and gouache. Everything in this world is ephemeral: both love and life itself flare up for just an instant before being, inevitably, snuffed out, as short-lived as a rainbow. And it is certainly the sense in this picture of things left unsaid, the feeling of uneasy gaiety, that makes it one of the best of Somov’s small genre “retrospective” works.
Notes on symbols:
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