25 Nov 2012
Red Army General .
Oil on canvas, 46 by 61 cm.
Executed in the 1930s.
Provenance: Private collection, Europe.
Authenticity of the work has been confirmed by the expert I. Vakar.
Red Army General, which Boris Grigoriev painted in the 1930s, is now seen as a continuation of his celebrated cycle Visages de Russie, which he had produced a decade earlier in Paris. After that period, Grigoriev worked in Europe and the USA and taught in Latin America – everywhere with a success that was extraordinary for a Russian émigré artist.
Wherever he was, even in the 1930s, he never abandoned his Russian theme, supplementing his Visages de Russie cycle with the canvas frieze, Characters from Gogol’s Play “The Government Inspector” (1933–1935), and the present lot, Red Army General. Logically developing the formula that he had devised back in Russia in his cycle Rasseya, Grigoriev endows these late images with a pronounced grotesquerie. Although all the faces in this work were originally based on real prototypes, they have been so expressively distorted under the artist’s hand that they acquire the features of surreal, ghost-like masks.
Freed from incidental detail, Grigoriev’s Red Army General becomes a symbol of Soviet Russia as seen from afar: bearing the imprint of Bolshevik terror and degradation. He is one of Alexander Blok’s twelve apostles of the Revolution, standing in the centre of the composition in a red-starred cowl, leading his country towards the new Communist faith. His comrades and brothers-in-arms stand on either side. In the distance we see an edifice resembling something between the bell-tower of the Peter and Paul Cathedral (shrine of the Imperial House of Romanov) and a Kremlin tower, its spire crowned with a red star: a cupola without crosses. Overhead, “their red flag strikes the watchful eye”.
Grigoriev significantly enlarges his characters’ faces, placing them against a symbolic background delineated in only a few strokes and lining them up in silent expectation at the very edge of the canvas. Thus the central hero, who bears a distinct resemblance to Mikhail Tukhachevsky, “the red Bonaparte”, and his stiff, lifeless companions appear, on the one hand, isolated from the background, but at the same time, governed by the overall rhythms of the two-dimensional image.
The combination of a large-scale foreground configuration (sharply cropped, zoomed-in and fixed, as in a photograph) with a symbolical architectural landscape in the background is a compositional method Grigoriev had been using as early as his portraits of 1916–1917, and which he then used consistently in Rasseya, Visages de Russie and other works of the 1920s. However, in the picture Red Army General, the sombre, Expressionist treatment of the subject, pronounced Primitivism, economy of form and elemental nature of the colour resonances help the artist overcome any repetitiveness when he references his own previously devised images and sculptural forms.
The “shadow of Rasseya”, as Alexander Benois so picturesquely put it, was cast over all Grigoriev’s later work, including Red Army General. We can therefore consider this distinctive picture as one of the last Visages de Russie conceived by this artist. Red Army General is a development and in a way, the culmination of the cycle: it embodies, as Gleb Pospelov rightly says, an image of the Motherland that is “if not more joyful, then certainly deeper and more multi-faceted than that of Rasseya”.
Notes on symbols:
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