Boris Grigoriev (1886-1939)
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Boris Grigoriev (1886-1939)

Russian man

Boris Grigoriev (1886-1939)
Russian man
signed 'Boris Grigoriev' (lower right)
oil on canvas
23 x 20¼ in. (58.4 x 51.1 cm.)
Painted in 1920
Gimbel Galleries, Philadelphia (label on the stretcher).
Acquired from the above by a private collector, New York, circa 1927.
Acquired directly from the above by the previous owner in 1988.
B. Grigoriev, Rasseia, Berlin, 1922, illustrated (in its original form as a double portrait: fig. 1).
Exhibition catalogue, Boris Grigoriev Paintings, Philadelphia, Gimbel Galleries, 1927, listed no. 26 or no. 27.
Philadelphia, Gimbel Galleries, 16 March-4 April 1927, no. 26 or no. 27.
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Lot Essay

This characteristic almost frighteningly powerful work forms part of Grigoriev's much lauded 'Rasseia' series. Painted in 1920 while the artist was living in Berlin, the series, a precursor to the subsequent Faces of Russia collection reveals the artist's continuing preoccupation with the homeland he had quit two years prior. Part of the series was first exhibited in the World of Art exhibition in February 1918 at the St Petersburg Academy of Fine Arts. Complimented by the artist's 1922 publication by the same name in which this work is illustrated in its original form (fig. 1), the series was well received, essentially providing the foundation stone for Grigoriev's highly successful career. Works from the series can be seen at the State Russian Museum, St Petersburg, the State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow and the State United Historical, Architectural and Fine Arts Museum-Reserve, Pskov (fig. 2).

Like many of Russia's greatest artists and writers before him, in this series and that of Faces of Russia, Grigoriev painted the Russian people, and the peasantry in particular, in order to suggest the nature of the Russian soul. Prior to his departure, the artist had made several trips to the countryside so that he might observe the people there. Sidestepping the temptation to ape the 19th century Slavophile movement by praising the virtues of peasant life, Grigoriev's findings were more akin to those of Ilya Repin. Both Repin and Grigoriev sought to capture the humanity of the Russian people rather than to promote any idealised conception. Where Repin however, in works such as A Shy Peasant (1877, State Art Museum, Nizhniy Novgorod) and A Peasant with an Evil Eye, (1877, State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow) primarily seeks to confirm the individuality of those he painted, Grigoriev searches for characteristics common to the narod en masse. Russian Man alludes to the potential of the Russian people for brutality, as witnessed firsthand by Grigoriev who had observed the population at both war and in revolt.

Originally conceived and executed as a double portrait, Grigoriev's subsequent revision of the composition: removing the second man to the right, transforming the disc from two-tone to a single colour and adding a fresh signature, renders the work more imposing still. The disc serves to pen the man in awkwardly as he stares menacingly at the viewer while the breadth of his shoulders seems constrained by the canvas size he inhabits. The cubist-inspired face is simultaneously unearthly and yet animalistic, almost bovine. The work testifies above all else to the power of the Russian man:

My conception of the Russian people is both intuitive and artistic. Even as a child I was struck by the animal aspect of the Russian people. It is this same animal that I see in the Russian peasant of today...

Boris Grigoriev writing to curator Christian Brinton

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