Exhibition Review: Zinaida Serebryakova at the Tretyakov
The Tretyakov gallery’s summer’s blockbuster exhibition is the biggest ever retrospective of Zinaida Serebryakova – perhaps the most famous Russian artist you’ve never heard of…
Zinaida Serebryakova (1884-1967), deserves to be far better known than she is. One of the most remarkable female artists in Russian history, her long career spanned multiple different styles and international influences. She’s most celebrated for creating colourful, rich, Renoir-esque portraits of Russian life – which now sell for a fortune, snapped up by oligarchs in auction houses.
The recent revival of interest in Russian art has encouraged the Tretyakov to put on the second exhibition on Serebryakova in three years. The last one, in 2014, focused exclusively on her foreign period, its success proved there’s a strong audience interested in revisiting the life of the artist, leading to this extensive retrospective.
The exhibition is huge – occupying two whole floors of the Engineering building of the Tretyakov gallery, (the only other artist to whom the entire exhibition space has been devoted was Marc Chagall). The sheer expanse means we can, for the first time, witness a true overview of Serebryakova’s career through over 200 paintings and drawings. It give us a new perceptive on a career which has remained patchy for too long, with many works here shown in Russia for the first time, including some considered lost during the Second World War, as well as paintings from private European collections. This exhibition draws the whole selection together, chronologically, allowing us to trace her development throughout the decades.
The star of the exhibition is Serebryakova’s most famous painting – and the only one audience goers are likely to be familiar with, her celebrated 1909 self-portrait. We see the artist at her dressing table, combing her hair and reflected in the mirror. Initially, it may seem like a trivialised portrayal of domesticity – but the sugary panel colours belie the psychological depth of the image. Look closer, and you notice that the painting is actually making a profound commentary on the nature of spectatorship – the conspicuous way the candle is featured twice, in the lower left hand corner for instance. Serebryakova deliberately includes both the candle in reality, and its reflection – which calls attention to the barely-visible mirror frame on the left hand side of the image, emphasising the illusion of the canvas just as Manet did in his famous painting A Bar at Folies-Bergère.
Born to bohemian parents in 1884, Serebriakova was part of the illustrious Benoit artistic dynasty, (her uncle was Alexandre Benois, a famous painter and founder of the Mir Iskusstva art group). She was brought up on an estate delightfully named Neskuchnoye (not boring) surrounded by figures of Russia’s culture elite, and studied under the renowned realist, Ilya Repin.
Her career is especially interesting for the way it embodies the path of so much Russian art itself. It beginning with the dreamlike pastel tones of Symbolism, all sugary interiors and family portraits, then takes an abrupt turn into her post-revolutionary phase, where she began creating monumental paintings of peasant women. Like so many Russian cultural figures, Serebryanka suffered after the revolution, her husband dying in a Bolshevik prison, and for many decades after her emmigration, she was separated from her family, including from her children. The final part of the exhibition shows works made in exile during this period of her life – in France, Italy, Belgium, Morocco. This artistic trajectory – Imperial elite, Socialist Realism, and finally, European exile, is familiar to so many cultural figures of Russia’s turbulent early twentieth century, and means that this retrospective is just as much a portrait of the country as a portrait of a woman.
You can see the Zinaida Serebryakova show at the Tretyakov Gallery until 31st July.
This blog was brought to you by Kamila, currently studying Russian at Liden & Denz.