5 minutes with... A still life by Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin

Specialist Aleksandra Babenko on the remarkable backstory to a still life by Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin. The work sold for £9,286,250, becoming the most expensive painting ever at a Russian art auction


Russian Art specialist Aleksandra Babenko with Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin's Still Life with Lilac. Sold for £9,286,250 in Russian Art on 3 June 2019 at Christie’s in London

Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin (1878-1939) was one of the leading lights of Russian early-20th-century art. He is best known today for his brazen palette of primary colours, unconventional high-angle viewpoints, and his mastery of optical illusions. Still Life with Lilac  — painted at the height of his career in 1928, and sold for a world record £9,286,250 in Christie’s Russian Art  auction in London on 3 June — is a powerful example of his signature style. It also offers, thanks to infrared technology, a fascinating glimpse of how the artist tailored his style to the post-revolution Soviet regime.

That it is a recent discovery totally fresh to market, with fascinating provenance unveiling the story of cultural exchange between Soviet Russia and Italy, makes it all the more exciting, says Russian Art specialist Aleksandra Babenko. ‘You can literally count on one hand how many Petrov-Vodkin works of this calibre have appeared on the market,’ she says.

Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin (1878-1939), Still Life with Lilac, 1928. Oil on canvas. 31⅜ x 25¾ in (80 x 65.4 cm). Sold for £9,286,250 in Russian Art on 3 June 2019 at Christie’s in London

The composition is dominated by a freshly cut lilac in a glass of water, and includes a crystal inkwell, a copy of the January 1925 issue of L’Art Vivant — a Parisian bi-monthly art magazine in which Petrov-Vodkin gave an interview about his artistic innovations — fallen leaves, a matchbox and a letter, all arranged on a deep-blue tablecloth. 

The picture bears a striking resemblance to a later, well-known painting by the same artist, Branch of a Bird Cherry Tree in a Glass (1932), which is in the collection of The State Russian Museum in St Petersburg. 

As Babenko explains, Branch of a Bird Cherry Tree in a Glass is not only one of Petrov-Vodkin’s most recognisable works, it is also a very familiar image in Russian art (largely thanks to its usage as a postcard). Up until recently, the St Petersburg painting was thought to be the only version of this composition.

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The emergence of this important, earlier painting after so many years is not the only remarkable thing about it, however. The presence of an inverted inscription which references an earlier date in the lower right corner, together with the artist’s monograms on the envelope and in the lower left corner, convinced our specialists to investigate further.

‘We had presumed from the canvas’s curious inverted inscription that Petrov-Vodkin first used the canvas in the autumn of 1927 while on holiday in the Crimean town of Koktebel, and then overpainted it on his return to Detskoe Selo, near Leningrad, the following year,’ explains Babenko. ‘But now we know this to be true.’


A photograph of Still life with Lilac under infrared light reveals a Madonna and Child beneath it

Infrared analysis of the canvas revealed a Madonna and Child beneath the top-most layer of paint. The original composition, as the specialist explains, probably relates to a drawing of similar form dating to 1925, which today resides in a private collection. 

The subject of Madonna and Child occupied a significant role in Petrov-Vodkin’s early oeuvre. The advent of the Soviet regime, however, prompted the artist’s move towards secular subjects. This might also explain his decision to rework the present canvas into a still life. ‘This is an extraordinary revelation,’ states Babenko. ‘In one canvas you have two trademark Petrov-Vodkin subjects: a Madonna and Child and a still life.’


Still Life with Lilac was given to the Swiss-born Milanese art critic Giovanni Scheiwiller — here photographed in 1961 — in around 1932 in gratitude for his help in establishing the collection of Italian modern art at the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Art. Photo by Marka/UIG via Getty Images

In around 1932 the painting was given by Soviet art historian Boris Ternovets (1884-1941) to the influential Swiss-born Milanese art critic and publisher Giovanni Scheiwiller (1889-1965). Ternovets was the director of the State Museum of New Western Art, today known as the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Art, and offered the canvas to thank Scheiwiller for his help in forming the museum’s collection of Modern Italian art. As a reminder of Scheiwiller’s contribution, a portrait of him by Achille Funi (1890-1972) still hangs on display.

Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin (1878-1939), Still Life with Lilac, 1928. Oil on canvas. 31⅜ x 25¾ in (80 x 65.4 cm). Sold for £9,286,250 in Russian Art on 3 June 2019 at Christie’s in London

Prior to this, Still Life with Lilac had been exhibited at the 27th travelling international exhibition of paintings organised by the Carnegie Institute in the United States, and at the XVIII Venice Biennale in 1932. Since then it has been unseen by the public, remaining part of Scheiwiller’s private collection for almost 90 years.


Still Life with Lilac (1928) can be seen in the centre right of this photograph (bottom right), taken at the Venice Biennale in 1932

When Petrov-Vodkin died in 1939, his wife ensured that the majority of his works were housed in State museums across Russia, making it extremely rare for his paintings to come to market. It was, says Babenko, a ‘once-in-a-lifetime opportunity’. 

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