‘I was just awestruck by the ancient towns of France’ — Vasilii Shukhaev, the painter who came in from the cold
With a helping hand from his fellow artist Alexandre Iacovleff, Vasilii Shukhaev fled post-revolutionary Russia for Paris. Then, in 1927, he bought a car and headed for the south with his wife Vera, determined to paint its ‘almost unknown’ settlements
In the wake of the Russian Revolution, and in the midst of the ensuing civil war, the artist Vasilii Shukhaev (1887-1973) fled his homeland. The precarious political climate encouraged him to fulfil what he called his ‘dream’ — of living and working in Paris.
His good friend Alexandre Iacovleff (1887-1938), who’d recently made the same move, helped Shukhaev and his wife Vera secure visas, and in 1921 the couple arrived in France.
Shukhaev set up a studio in Montparnasse, then the epicentre of the Parisian art scene. Success was swift, including a joint exhibition with Iacovleff at the Galerie Barbazanges.
He mixed with — and in many cases painted the portraits of — Paris’s large community of Russian émigrés: the likes of opera singer Feodor Chaliapin, composers Sergei Prokofiev and Igor Stravinsky, and the ballerina Anna Pavlova (a portrait of whom was sold at Christie’s in 2007, for what is still the record auction price for a work by Shukhaev).
The artist also began a productive relationship with the publishing house La Pléiade, providing illustrations for its translations of Russian classics such as Pushkin’s The Queen of Spades and Boris Godunov.
In the mid-1920s, Shukhaev had the idea for an altogether more ambitious publishing project. Two of its results — both of which have been held in the same private collection in Australia since 1929 — feature in the Russian Art sale at Christie’s on 7 June.
In the footsteps of Monet, Renoir and Cézanne
During his first summers in France, Shukhaev liked to holiday with Iacovleff on the Mediterranean island of Port-Cros. This seems to have whetted his appetite to explore — and paint — the landscapes of southern France.
In doing so, he’d be following in the footsteps of some very illustrious recent forebears, including Monet, Renoir, Cézanne, Gauguin and Vincent van Gogh (who declared in an 1888 letter to his brother Theo in Paris, ‘I believe the future of new art… lies in the south’).
Shukhaev’s plan was to create a series of views of Provence, Corsica and the Côte d'Azur — featuring peaceful old towns and picturesque natural landmarks — and publish them in a multi-volume album.
‘Standing before the towers and houses, I was glad to be painting the same models as the great primitives’ — Vasilii Shukhaev
In 1927, he duly bought himself a car and headed out of Paris, seeking spots to paint.
‘I was just awestruck by the ancient towns of France,’ Shukhaev said. ‘Many of them are almost unknown… Standing before the towers and houses, I was glad to be painting the same models as the great primitives.’
Shukhaev embarked on trips south for a number of years, ending up with a set of around 30 canvases. He painted them mostly from life, adding the finishing touches in his studio with the help of photos taken by Vera in situ.
In later life, she would recall his ‘determination at all costs’ to find the right view, and the way that, at the end of each day, they were both ‘exhausted by the heat’.
Shukhaev’s landscapes are distinguished by their restrained palette, fine draughtsmanship, airy perspectives and well-conceived compositions. In St Petersburg in the 1910s, he and Iacovleff had co-founded the Painting Workshop of St Luke, with the aim of reviving the techniques of the Old Masters — and his French landscapes remained true to those roots.
The two paintings coming to auction, 1927’s Les Ponts (Collioure) and Les Forêts (Cassis sur Mer) from 1928, respectively depict the coastal towns of Collioure, in French Catalonia, and Cassis, some 240 miles to the east, near Marseilles.
The former is an angular affair, dominated by a low stone bridge that extends from one end to the other at a sharp diagonal. It also features the austere façades of local houses, and a castle on a mountain in the distance. A dynamic cloud formation in the sky contrasts with the static character of Collioure’s old stone constructions below.
It was a trip to Collioure in 1905, incidentally, that had inspired Henri Matisse and André Derain to paint the first works of Fauvism. In a canvas such as Landscape at Collioure, however, Matisse’s marks are so brightly coloured and his line is so unrestrained that the town is unrecognisable.
As for Les Forêts (Cassis sur Mer), Shukhaev named it after the cedar forest visible on the distant hilltop. Most of the composition is taken up by houses and tree-dotted plots of land in the middle ground — from which a local man and his dog emerge, walking down a winding lane towards us.
As the artist’s biographer Igor Miamlin put it, this is a scene with ‘no deliberate colourfulness, dashing brushstrokes or intricate ethnographic details, yet [it is] full of the discreet beauty of the French provinces’.
For reasons that have never fully been explained, Shukhaev and Vera moved back to their homeland in 1935. He would never realise his album of French landscapes. The individual paintings have always been sought-after, however, and have ended up in public and private collections around the world.
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As for Shukhaev himself, he met a less agreeable fate. Within two years of returning to the Soviet Union, he was arrested on false charges of espionage and sentenced to 10 years in a gulag in the freezing port town of Magadan.
Upon release, in 1947, he settled for the rest of his life in Georgia, where he taught drawing at the Tbilisi State Academy of Arts. It was all a far cry from his salad days in Collioure and Cassis.