Saturday, 31 December 2011

PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST IN TIMES OF CHANGE

You think you've got career problems?  Russian artist Zinaida Serebriakova launched her career just as the world was starting to unravel.

Self-portrait as a young art student

Zinaida turned 21 during the Russian Revolution of 1905 when widespread violence, poverty and political upheaval did little to help the art market.  Even bigger revolutions were just around the corner.  In 1905, a young patent clerk named Albert Einstein published the theories that would overturn centuries of scientific beliefs and transform our understanding of space and time.  That same year, Sigmund Freud published his revolutionary book describing how our "logical" behavior was really governed by subliminal compulsions and irrational urges.  As if to confirm that the Age of Reason was truly dead, hostile nations were already spiraling toward World War I. 

It was in this unpromising environment that Zinaida set out in search of beauty.
Zinaida brushing her hair in the mirror

During her lifetime search, Zinaida painted a remarkable series of self-portraits.

Newly married at age 22
Age 27, by candle light
Modeling a scarf
Age 30: a mother
In art as in politics, the old rules were coming apart like wet tissue paper.  Zinaida had been trained traditionally by the great Russian illustrator Repin but now artists such as Picasso and Matisse were pursuing what Hilton Kramer called "a netherworld of strange gods and violent emotions."  Soon the futurist painters would add their own fiery polemic:
What is the use of looking behind?... Time and Space died yesterday.... We want to glorify war — the only cure for the world — militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of the anarchists, the beautiful ideas which kill, and contempt for woman....We want to demolish museums and libraries, fight morality, feminism....
Despite all this, Zinaida steadfastly continued to pursue her own notion of beauty, lovingly painting the human body in a representational style.

During times of disintegration, revolutionaries, priests and utopian ideologues compete to fill the vacuum (usually causing widespread misery for the innocents caught in the crossfire).

Zinaida fell in love with a young engineering student but the church barred their marriage due to questions about the young man's faith. The couple got around the church's objections, married and had children shortly before politics intervened in the form of the February Revolution of 1917. Violence returned again that same year with the October Revolution, when Zinaida's lifelong home on the grounds of the Neskuchnoye estate was burned and its food supply plundered.  The new Bolshevik government rejected democracy in favor of a "dictatorship of the proletariat" and threw many people in jail, including Zinaida's husband.  There he contracted typhus.  He was released shortly before he died in 1919.

In the words of Leon Trotsky,
"You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you."
Zinaida was left with no money, four hungry children and a sick mother.




She managed to feed her family by drawing pencil illustrations for the Kharkov Anthropological Museum.


Then in 1924 she learned of an art job in Paris. Zinaida left Russia temporarily only to find when her project was completed that hostile relations between the countries prevented her from returning to her family.  With the help of the red cross, the distraught mother was able to smuggle her two smallest children out of the country.  However, she remained separated from her two older children for over 30 years.

Zinaida felt relatively safe working in France until the Nazis invaded.  Then her  Russian citizenship was sure to get her arrested, so she became a French citizen.  All the while, she continued to draw and paint.
Age 54
Age 62
Age 71
Looking over this lifetime of self-portraits, I am struck by the persistence of Zinaida's smile, and the tenderness that seems to have outlasted the forces that buffeted her.

She resisted assignments painting Soviet generals and commissars and refused to become caught up in ideological painting of her day.  Instead, she turned again and again to the purity and tenderness of the naked human form.  Her daughter recalled:

The female nude was mother's favourite subject. While she was in Russia young peasant women would pose for her. In Paris her friends would come over to her studio, drink a cup of tea, then they would stay and pose for her. They were not the professional models that you might find in Montparnasse and maybe this is the reason why they are so natural and graceful.



Today on the cusp of 2012, we can already see the next crop of despots eager to impose their solutions.  They've had a century to refine Lenin's special math that justifies sacrificing individual human beings to achieve some glorious future for humankind.  By now, they have become positively glib at it.

But Zinaida's joyous pictures suggest that she viewed the math differently, from the side of the equation where the individual is everything.  Pink cheeks here and now outweighed any blueprint for a distant utopia. Her math seems to have helped her remain indomitable during the years when artists with a more intellectual approach reacted with cynicism and despair. If you ever meet a person with such an attitude, marry them quick.  It will be the best thing you can do for the quality of your day-to-day life.

I wish all of you a happy, healthy 2012.