As a painter, graphic artist and designer for stage and screen, Yuri Annenkov (1889–1974) was both creator and chronicler of his time, living through the upheaval of the early 20th century and encountering some of the most influential artists of the age.
He began his career as a law student in St Petersburg but was attracted to the avant-garde movement and studied for a short time with Marc Chagall before moving to Paris in 1911. It was in the French capital that he found himself frequenting the same cafes and restaurants as such important painters as Cézanne, Braque and Picasso.
Like many of his Russian contemporaries who also worked in Paris during this dynamic period in art history, Annenkov was profoundly influenced by Parisian Cubism, with its geometric stylisation, emphasis on line and fractured planes. Following his debut at the Société des Artistes Indépendants in 1913, when he exhibited alongside Robert Delaunay and Francis Picabia among others, Annenkov returned to Russia filled with enthusiasm for the latest developments in art, and eager to explore his own personal style.
Back in St Petersburg, and against the stormy backdrop of World War I and revolution, Annenkov became heavily involved in theatre, experimenting with directing and scenography. He also concentrated on graphic work, providing illustrations for a number of books and satirical journals.
More importantly, Annenkov was also the only Russian artist to complete a portrait gallery of the most powerful and influential political figures of the time, including Lenin and Trotsky, as well as the brightest literary and artistic talents, including Maxim Gorky and Boris Pasternak.
The portrait demonstrates Annenkov’s ability to synthesise -isms into an original, harmonious whole
If Annenkov captured the most significant personalities in the Arts, it was Aleksandr Tikhonov who was undoubtedly the convener, the person who drew the illustrious characters together. An author and literary personage, Tikhonov dedicated his life to literature, first as a writer under the pseudonym A. Serebrov, and later as a critic, editor and publisher.
The most telling contribution Tikhonov was to make to the intellectual-artistic life of Petrograd, as it was known, was his role, along with Gorky and Korney Chukovsky, as a founder of the famous literary society Dom Iskusstv [House of Arts], a gathering place for writers and artists during the chaos and social dislocation of the years 1919–1922. Annenkov was a regular there and met many of the people who inspired him to create the gallery of his contemporaries.
Painted in 1922, Portrait of Aleksandr Tikhonov (1880–1956) was selected for exhibition at the 1924 XIVth International Biennale in Venice together with portraits of Trotsky and the journalist and historian Vyacheslav Polonskii. An example of Annenkov’s ability to capture a likeness with gravitas and wit, the work combines exceptional draughtsmanship with artisanal spirit, suggested by the sculptural additions that reference early Cubist experiments with collage, as well as folk art championed by Russian Primitivists.
Remarkably, despite this wide range of influences, there are no jarring elements; Portrait of Aleksandr Tikhonov (1880–1956) demonstrates Annenkov’s ability to synthesise -isms into an original, harmonious whole, and represents one of the most important Russian paintings ever to be offered for sale at Christie’s.