25 November 2012
Palmyra, signed and dated 1933.
Oil on canvas, 100 by 252.5 cm.
Provenance: Private collection, UK.
Authenticity of the work has been confirmed by the expert Yu. Rybakova.
Exhibited: Alexandre Iacovleff. Peintre attaché à l’Expédition Citroën Centre-Asie, Galerie J. Charpentier, Paris, 16 May–4 June 1933.
Literature: Exhibition catalogue, Alexandre Iacovleff. Peintre attaché à l’Expédition Citroën Centre-Asie, Paris, 1933, p. 5, listed.
The solo exhibition of the celebrated Russian artist and traveller Alexander Evgenievich Yakovlev, which opened on 16 May 1933 at the prestigious Jean Charpentier gallery, was one of the outstanding events of artistic life in Paris. The exhibition represented the creative fruits of the Trans-Asian expedition organised by the French automobile company Citroen. Like the earlier Trans-African expedition (1924–1925), this Asian journey (1931–1932) had scientific, cultural and promotional aims. It began in Beirut and ended in Peking, passing through Syria, Kurdistan, Persia, Afghanistan, Kashmir, the Pamir Himalayas, Sinkiang, Turkestan, Mongolia and China. The progress of the vehicles and the work of the expedition were complicated by geographical, political, religious and criminal factors. Nevertheless, the team managed to assemble extremely valuable materials relating to the cultural, geological, botanical and zoological worlds of the Asian continent. Alexander Yakovlev brought back hundreds of drawings, sketches and studies which, once back in Paris, he worked up into a whole series of paintings.
It appears from the catalogue that the artist presented 377 paintings and drawings at the exhibition. Amazed by their “abundance” and “high quality”, Alexander Benois wrote that “It is difficult to believe that every exhibit was the work of a single hand and executed in a very short space of time, very many of them on the spot, in the most uncomfortable conditions, requiring an iron constitution and an utterly exceptional adaptability.” Adaptability was indeed crucially important in Asia, for the local populations were by no means always hospitable towards Europeans. The issue of posing for pictures was also difficult, since the Koran forbids the portraying of likenesses. The travellers’ lives were further complicated by natural climatic disasters: dust storms, for example, impeded the view of Syria’s most important site, the celebrated Palmyra. It is no coincidence that three of the six pictures worked up from studies done in situ were entitled Palmyra in a Sand-Storm, The Necropolis of Palmyra after a Sand-Storm and Caravan Caught in a Sand-Storm. The other three canvasses had the far shorter title of Palmyra. The present lot is one of these works.
In this horizontally elongated picture the artist depicts a panorama of the ruins of ancient Palmyra, once the most beautiful town of the Roman province which astonished people of the time with its magnificent temples, tombs and colonnades. In the 3rd century, the town was destroyed by the Romans, however under the Byzantine regime that followed, it nevertheless remained a border post and then fell into complete decay under Arab rule. A new wave of celebrity hit Palmyra in the second half of the 19th century, when European travellers and scientific expeditions flooded in. Local people sold them reliefs stolen from despoiled tombs. Alexander Yakovlev had heard about the historical monuments of classical Palmyra when still a student at the St Petersburg Academy of Arts. When he saw it with his own eyes, he immediately recorded his impression of “unending rows of columns punctuated in places by arches or ruined temples”. The artist wrote in his diary that “in the sad lifelessness of evening in the desert, where a thin, dark curtain of sand obscures the vivid colours of sunset”, there appeared before him an “extraordinary vision – the colossal skeleton of a dead city stretched across several kilometres”. This impression was reinforced by the light and the fact that “the view was revealed through a valley of death, a valley where dozens of towers were built to preserve hundreds and thousands of corpses”.
Yakovlev composed the painting as he did so as to encompass the greatest possible expanse, to show the scale of the ruined stone-built town, its major ancient structures and the way they related to each other. On the left, on the line of the horizon, he depicts the famous Temple of Baal, its colonnade and the remains of other buildings, and on the right, in the distance, a barely-visible but easily recognisable Great Colonnade of Palmyra. The artist has literally filled the whole central contour of the composition with his depiction of endless ruins covered in sand, the remains of shattered columns and decorated capitals, and in the bottom right-hand corner of the picture, in the foreground, he has even placed the head of the statue of a god, lying among the detritus. Yet even so, in this seemingly unpopulated and desolate world, there are signs of life. If you look closely, you can see an entrance down into either an underground dwelling or a well and, nearby, two female figures are advancing. Right of centre, in the distance, sheep are moving along and, on the left, a man driving a donkey. In the foreground, to the left, the painting is animated by the figures of two women in long, dark garments with enormous pitchers on their heads. The introduction of Arab women into the composition of this “Romantic antique landscape” leads us to reflect on the “superposition” of one culture upon the other within the confines of a single space. “One infuses another and the whole thing grows, like wild grass, into the present day”, wrote Yakovlev. Alongside its value as a documentary record, the picture also has an undoubted philosophical aspect, evoking ideas about the fragility of existence, the shifts and downfalls of civilisations, the destruction of harmony and about life, struggling on through it all.
Dr Elena Yakovleva, Art Historian
Notes on symbols:
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