Grigoriev’s early years
The Russian artist Boris Grigoriev (1886-1939) was born in Moscow, the illegitimate son of a banker who adopted him when he was four years old, and raised him in the city of Rybinsk in western Russia. His upper-class mother had a love of music, reading and art.
‘The fact that his parents didn’t share the same social and cultural statuses has often been linked to the sense of isolation found in Grigoriev’s work,’ says Christie’s Russian Art specialist Isabel Husband.
After a stint at the Practical Academy of Commercial Sciences in Moscow, Grigoriev transferred to the Stroganov School of Art and Industry in 1906. There he pursued his passion, studying under the tutelage of the artist Dmitry Shcherbinovsky, who had been one of the best students of Ilya Repin.
‘By 1908 Grigoriev was exhibiting his paintings as a member of the Union of Impressionists, citing the work of Cézanne, Van Gogh and André Derain among his influences,’ explains Husband. ‘By 1913 he was a member of the World of Art association — which included the likes of Mstislav Dobuzhinsky, Léon Bakst, Sergei Diaghilev and Konstantin Somov — and exhibiting alongside them.’
Experimentation: Cubism, Expressionism and Fauvism
Grigoriev’s work, which spanned portraiture, illustration and poetry, also drew cues from Cubism, Expressionism and Fauvism. ‘He moved in Russia’s avant-garde circles,' says the specialist, ‘but he classified himself as a loner, never fully subscribing to any artistic movement.’
He experimented with materials, initially favouring charcoal and graphite on paper, before switching to work in vibrantly coloured oils, gouache and tempera on canvas.
The Russian artist and contemporary of Grigoriev, Alexandre Benois, once said, ‘How can one not call his quick but perceptive manner wonderful? How can one fail to admire the courage of his colourful contrasts, which are always harmonious, and with all the beautiful and bold combinations?’
The Intimité series and the Raseya cycle
‘It is astounding to think that Grigoriev was creating his Intimité series, dedicated to the prostitutes he encountered while living in France, at the same time as the Raseya cycle, which is concerned with the impoverished, downtrodden peasants of Russia,’ says Husband. ‘The common thread that links his work is a refusal to romanticise or idolise his subjects and their circumstances.’
Unlike many of his Russian contemporaries, Grigoriev’s work had no political motivations and he remained ambivalent towards the 1917 Russian Revolution. Unfortunately, his Raseya cycle was wrongly interpreted as a denunciation of Soviet paradise, and the consequential political pressure resulted in his emigration to France two years later.
Grigoriev and the Russian regime
The Russian regime quickly removed Grigoriev’s works from museums and locked them away in archives of banned art and literature known as ‘Spetskhran’. Apart from a few art historians operating in a closed circle, few in Russia knew of his name until an exhibition of his work at the Pskov Museum in 1989 brought Grigoriev back into the spotlight.
Summers in Brittany
Grigoriev’s work was greatly shaped by his travels. Between 1921 and 1926 he spent summers in Brittany, painting landscapes and portraits of the local fishermen, peasants and elders.
‘He focused on their traditional Breton clothes, stoic eyes, and faces weathered by the Atlantic winds,’ says the specialist. ‘The artist adored the archaic villages and characters of Brittany, untouched by the passing of time and the technological progress that galvanised his contemporaries in the Cubo-Futurist movement.’
Among the important works that belong to Grigoriev’s Breton cycle is Le Pouliguen, part of a symbolic triptych painted in the summer of 1923. In this striking portrait, offered in our forthcoming Russian Art sale on 23 November at Christie’s London, the young Breton mother cradles her newborn child in her arms, her enormous, intent eyes fixed directly on the viewer. The subjects depicted in Le Pouliguen are also present in Grigoriev’s monumental ‘Faces of the World’ series, from 1920 to 1931 (National Gallery, Prague), which was supposedly inspired by the League of Nations.
Travels to the US and South America, and influence on others
Grigoriev also lived in Finland, Germany, the USA and South America, and his reputation spread with his travels. While living in Chile he taught at the Academy of Arts in Santiago and exhibited his paintings at the Palace of Fine Arts; these would go on to have a profound influence on Chilean avant-garde art, and, in particular, on the painter Camilo Mori (1896-1973).
‘As a result of his constant moves, you’ll rack up quite a few air miles tracking down Grigoriev’s works,’ Husband explains. ‘In the US alone you can find the masterpieces Portrait of the Artist’s Son in the Worcester Art Museum, An Old Man with a Goat at the Mead Art Museum and Sergei Esenin as a Youth at the Met,’ she says.
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Russian museums have also returned his work to display. ‘In St Petersburg’s State Museum you can view one of his most famous paintings, Portrait of Vsyevolod Meierhold, among others, while the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow holds a number of masterpieces, including An Old Milkwoman.’