When she died in April 1934, aged just 37, Vera Rockline was at the peak of her fame. The Russian-born emigrée had made quite a name for herself after moving to Paris in 1921. Obituaries spoke of an ‘incomparable loss’ and a ‘prodigious talent’.
The art critic Marius-Ary Leblond went so far as to call her ‘a sister of the great Venetians and Renoir’, lamenting ‘one of the most painful [moments] that Parisian art has suffered in years’.
Rockline had exhibited regularly at the Salon d’Automne and Salon des Tuileries in Paris, and counted many celebrities as fans — including the couturier Paul Poiret. In the catalogue to her first solo exhibition at Galerie Vildrac in 1925, he pithily stated: ‘1. I like the art of Vera Rockline. 2. I pity those who don’t. 3. What does one say to those who have not yet understood?’
The artist was largely forgotten in the decades after her death, however. It wasn’t really until Elles de Montparnasse — a group exhibition at the Musée du Montparnasse in 2002, in which her work featured alongside that of female peers such as Sonia Delaunay, Tamara de Lempicka and Natalia Goncharova — that her paintings began attracting attention anew.
In 2008 Rockline’s The Card Players, below, smashed the artist’s record at auction, selling for £2,057,250 at Christie’s in London (surpassing the previous high of £265,250). The record still stands today.
The artist’s success in Paris had mainly been down to her paintings of female nudes. The Card Players, however, dates to an earlier period of her career — when she was probably at her most avant-garde. She produced it in 1919, the same year as Vue de Tiflis, a painting currently being offered in the online Russian Art sale at Christie’s.
‘Work from Rockline’s early years, before she arrived in Paris, is rare,’ affirms Sarah Mansfield, International Director of Russian Art at Christies. ‘It was a short-lived period — in a Cubo-Futurist style — that many now agree was the finest of her career.’
Born in Moscow in 1897 to a Russian father and French mother, Rockline moved to Kiev to apprentice for Aleksandra (or Alexandra) Exter. The latter was a cutting-edge figure whose art fused Cubist and Futurist elements. As civil war racked the former Russian Empire in the wake of 1917’s Bolshevik revolution, however, Vera and her husband fled to Tiflis (modern-day Tbilisi) in Georgia.
Vue de Tiflis is a stunning vision of that city, painted in a manner inspired by Exter’s Cubo-Futurism. Tiflis was renowned then, as it still is now, for a combination of narrow medieval streets and Art Nouveau architecture. In this work, Rockline warps and fragments such features to the point of semi-abstraction: planes intersect and overlap, suggesting the restless energy and bohemian buzz of the Georgian capital.
Though it would end up being seized by Soviet forces, Georgia was still an independent republic in 1919. Tiflis was a cultural hub, home to numerous artists and poets. The likes of Tolstoy and Pushkin had been frequent visitors in the 19th century, and Rockline now exhibited alongside local masters such as Niko Pirosmani and Kirill Zdanevich.
Her palette in Vue de Tiflis is earthy and warm: appropriate enough given that the climate in much of Georgia is subtropical. Those familiar with Tbilisi may also make out Jumah Mosque in the background, embellished with a soaring white minaret.
This work is one of a small number of paintings and drawings that Rockline did of Tiflis. The city has a hilly topography, and the viewer tends to adopt what’s essentially a low vantage point, looking up. Though at first glance the massed forms above may seem a jumble, there’s actually a graceful, Cézanne-like transition between them.
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Vue de Tiflis comes to the market for the first time since 1970. It depicts a city — located at an intersection on the Silk Road between Europe and Asia — that dates back to the 5th century AD. A historic city, in other words, that Rockline painted in a marvellously modern fashion.