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

Sailing boat in a cubist landscape

Boris Grigoriev (1886-1939)
Sailing boat in a cubist landscape
signed 'Boris Grigoriev' (lower left)
oil on canvas
21¼ x 26 in. (54 x 66 cm.)
Montgomery Gallery, San Francisco.
Acquired from the above by the present owner in 1985.
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Alexis de Tiesenhausen

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Lot Essay

Boris Grigoriev's Sailing boat in a cubist landscape belongs to the artist's extensive series relating to Brittany. The artist first came to this part of France, long beloved by artists across the world (Aleksei Bogoliubov, Alexandre Benois, Zinaida Serebriakova and Yuri Annenkov are among the Russian artists who worked in the region) in 1914, when the events of the First World War forced him to extend his stay. The artistic traces of the first trip to Brittany are pencil drawings fixing the likeness of the artist himself, (Self-portrait, 1914, House Museum of Iosif Brodsky, St Petersburg,) sketches of the local markets and tree studies. He was captivated by the French province which was seemingly frozen in time, with its long surviving and unchanging way of life (see Hens, Brittany, 1914, State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow); its ancient traditions and measured rhythm of everyday and festive life (A fair at Guingamp. Brittany, 1914, State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow). He was inspired by its idiosyncratic landscape, whimsically connecting the winding coastline, ancient stone walls, idyllic rural plains and flat hills, accentuated here and there by the spikes of Gothic churches.

Sailing boat in a cubist landscape was painted in the early 1920s after the artist had emigrated from Soviet Russia and, following a brief stay in Berlin, had settled in Paris. From 1921 to 1926, when he finally decided to settle down on the Riviera, Grigoriev made the journey practically every summer to work in the quiet provincial corner of Brittany he so loved. The vibrant result of these summer 'escapes' from city life became the famous Breton cycle (1921-1926) which includes portraits, still lifes and a number of landscapes, inspired by his observations of nature. They are unified not so much by their shared geographical locus as by the artist's attempts to reveal the national in art while searching for a new sculptural-pictorial language. Essentially, Brittany, with its archaic cultural context, crystal clearness, structured medieval architectural forms and richly coloured landscape provided Grigoriev with both new visual material and new ideas in terms of composition, texture and colour.

In Sailing boat in a cubist landscape, Grigoriev is evidently drawn towards 'pure' painting, to nuances of factures and colouring of the representational and even literary tendencies characteristic of his art, something he was frequently accused of by critics (see K. Terekhovich, the 'World of Art' in the Autumn Salon, Paris, 1922. no. 1, pp. 10-13). In this work, as in other Breton landscapes by Grigoriev, there is no juxtaposition of man with the natural world, characteristic of works from his 'Raseia' cycle in which the landscape provides a background for the gallery of peasant, icon-like faces. Here, however, the harmonious natural cosmos is fraught with conflict.

In the seeming idealism of the landscape where domesticated animals peacefully graze among the trees and fields, an abandoned fishing boat provides a dramatic intonation. It is posed by the framed format of the painting: the yellow and green hills, upturned against the vertical edges of the canvas, their tops delineated by the fluid brown contour of the tree-line, almost cover the sky: while the dark silhouette of the boat with its sharp-ended mast 'cuts' through the foreground of the composition with an abrupt diagonal. Reduced to simple forms, the treetops, sometimes 'shattering' into cubist facets, as well as the energetic surface of the paint, create an impression of stability and firmness.

In its colouristic and stylistic resolution, Sailing boat in a cubist landscape is close to Landscape with a yellow field (early 1920s, Private collection). Both paintings stand out to some degree from the series of surviving Breton landscapes, particularly those painted at Pont-Aven and on the Île-de-Bréhat. It is apparent that both works relate precisely to the beginning of the Breton cycle when the artist was still looking for his new, individual style. The first studies of Brittany were exhibited in the autumn of 1921 in the 14th Parisian Autumn Salon (1 November-20 December, Grand Palais, no. 2907). Subsequently, certain drawings from the cycle were included in Grigoriev's solo exhibition in the Paris gallery of Ya. Povolotsky (December 1921). Ultimately, the Breton landscapes were widely exhibited both in Grigoriev's solo exhibitions in America (Worcester Art Museum, 2-14 January 1923; New Gallery, New York, 6-28 April 1923; New Gallery, New York, 18 November-15 December 1923; Worcester Art Museum, 4 January-3 February 1924; New Gallery, New York, 5 December 1924-2 January 1925) and in numerous group exhibitions. It is highly likely that Sailing boat in a cubist landscape was exhibited in one or more of these exhibitions; however, the absence of illustrations and dimensions makes it difficult to identify individual works in the exhibition catalogues.

We are grateful to Dr. Tamara Galeeva, senior lecturer at the Ural State University, Ekaterinburg for providing this note.

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