Portrait of a Chinese Man .
Sanguine, charcoal and crayon on paper, laid on paper, 155 by 63.5 cm.
Executed c. 1918.
Provenance: Collection of the opera singer Alexandra Yakovleva (1889–1979), the artist’s sister.
Acquired from the above by the previous owner in 1978 (inscription on the backing paper).
Private collection, USA.
Exhibited: Possibly, Exhibition of works by Alexander Yakovlev, Gallery Barbazanges, Paris, April–May 1920.
Possibly, Exhibition of works by Alexander Yakovlev, Grafton Gallery, London, May–June 1920.
Authenticity of the work has been confirmed by the expert E. Yakovleva.
The graphic work Portrait of a Chinese Man, measuring one and a half metres in height, that is offered for auction is one of the very rare pictures that Alexander Yakovlev produced on such a scale, and it was created during his first Far Eastern journey in 1917–1919. The artist went to China, Mongolia and Japan on a scholarship from the Academy of Arts, but his impressions and encounters with unusual models and subjects so captivated him that, once the period of his study trip had expired, Yakovlev sought an opportunity to extend his stay in Asia.
He visited temples and poor neighbourhoods in towns, accompanied camel drivers, went out to sea with fishermen, befriended pearl divers and attended festive ceremonies and burials. The natural landscapes, the human diversity, the distinctive character of the way of life, and the brightness of the national costumes and adornments struck the European’s imagination, and he ecstatically depicted actors at the traditional Chinese and Japanese theatres, Tibetan lamas, Imperial military leaders and Mongolian nomads. He brought back from the trip hundreds of sketches and easel drawings, executed in the most difficult field conditions.
In a report to his professor at the Academy, Dmitry Kardovsky, about these wanderings, the artist declared: “China, Mongolia, Japan. Stages on the journey. Infinitely interesting countries... abundant images. Rich in colours. Fantastic in shapes. Strikingly diverse in culture. Different myths. More diverse than those that took root in our little Europe. I worked hard; life was often very lonely. Especially psychologically... A very difficult first year in Pekin without money or income... I had a stroke of luck when life became totally difficult. I arranged an exhibition in Shanghai, where I didn’t sell very much, but I got many commissions for portraits. That enabled me to pay off my debts and go on to Japan, where I spent an unforgettable summer on the island of Oshima.”
These lines illustrate the importance of the series of full-length portraits when seen against the background of the exotic genre and landscape scenes. The work on offer is one of the most accomplished of them and is marked by skilful drawing, expressiveness and brilliant mastery of brushstrokes and lines when conveying the characteristic features of the figure and face. By blending academic clarity and exotic colouring, Yakovlev was able to create a stylised ethnic image that was both expressive and credible. Portrait of a Chinese Man is a finished easel piece, where the sharp characteristics of the model are conveyed with a meticulous authenticity that captures both the individual and the generalised, ethnic and historical features of the appearance of someone living in the Celestial Empire. According to the eminent critic Abram Efros, it is not a matter of chance that, since it was on his first Eastern journey that he emerged as an artist, Yakovlev forever “remained the same brilliant, academic, exotic personality, the Vereschagin of the 1920s – minus realism, plus decorativism....”
At the review exhibition of the results of the trip, which the artist presented in 1920, first in Paris and then in London, the Chinese works were especially prominent. Public and critics alike enthusiastically hailed the works’ exotic authenticity and artistic mastery. Nicholas Roerich, who visited the exhibition in London and was himself infatuated at the time with the East, later recalled: “I remember Yakovlev’s 1920 exhibition in London: the large display rooms were filled with astonishing paintings from China. What a delicate and convincing power lay in them, yet at the same time there was no imitation; originality resonated everywhere."
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