Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin (1878-1939)
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Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin (1878-1939)


Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin (1878-1939)
signed with monogram (upper right)
oil on canvas
15 x 21 in. (38 x 53 cm.)
J. Meesneeks, Riga, by 1922.
J. Grinbergs, Riga, by 1932.
By direct descent to the present owner.
Exhibition catalogue, Exhibition of Russian Paintings & Drawings, Riga, L. T. A., 1922, listed as 'Vasja', no. 231.
Exhibition catalogue, Exhibition of Russian Art from the last 200 years, Riga, Riga City Art Museum, 1932, listed p. 12 as 'Vasja', no. 145.
Riga, L.T.A., Exhibition of Russian Paintings & Drawings, 14 May-14 July 1922, no. 231.
Riga, Riga City Art Museum, Exhibition of Russian Art from the last 200 years, 4-18 December 1932, no. 145.
Special notice
VAT rate of 5% is payable on hammer price and at 17.5% on the buyer's premium.

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Lot Essay

Petrov-Vodkin is responsible for some of the most iconic images of early 20th century Russian art. Phenomenal works such as Boys Playing (1911, State Russian Museum, St Petersburg) and The Bathing of the Red Horse (1912, State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow) define a historical period with the power of their symbolism. The artist's work defies classification and courts controversy with its synthesis of decadent and neo-classical themes imbued with an almost mystical realism.

A contemporary of Pavel Kuznetsov, Matiros Saryan, Mikhail Larionov and Ilya Mashkov, Petrov-Vodkin studied at the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture and exhibited with Mir iskusstva from 1911-1924 and later with the Four Arts Society of Artists from 1925-28. Time spent in the Munich studio of Anton Azbe, in addition to trips made to Italy, France and in North Africa, provided Petrov-Vodkin with a multitude of references and influences; from the symbolism of Puvis de Chavannes and the sensuous classicism of Giovanni Bellini to the colourful rhythm of Henri Matisse and the primitivism of Paul Gauguin. The Russian element in this sophisticated concoction is ever present and represented by the unmistakable influence of Victor Borisov-Musatov, Mikhail Vrubel and The Blue Rose Group as well as that of early frescos and icons.

Known to be in private hands since 1922, this sale marks the first appearance of Vasya at public auction. Exhibited in 1922 and then later in 1932 in Riga, this remarkable painting has remained in the possession of the same family since that time and has not been on public view for almost 80 years. A portrait, this work is typical of Petrov-Vodkin's work in this genre; the smooth contours of the face, complemented by the pointed bridge of the nose, penetrating gaze and taut mouth, create at once a feeling of serenity and austerity. The flat and limited palette further encourages comparisons with Byzantine art, referenced directly with the inclusion of the 'red corner' while the pared-down composition with the youth in the red shirt set against the simple wooden slats recalls works such as A Mother (1915, State Russian Museum, St Petersburg). Petrov-Vodkin's notion of 'spherical perspective', put simply that space can be depicted pictorially by means of a curved horizontal axis, is less evident in Vasya, which communicates a different sense of perspective and transport through signifiers, than in other works.

Untouched by later restoration, Vasya supplies an opportunity to learn more of Petrov-Vodkin's draftsmanship. From the contrasting palette of light blue and green evident at the turnover edges of the canvas and the traces of pentimenti, it is clear that Vasya is painted over another paint layer, most likely a fragment of a larger canvas. Familiar from Petrov-Vodkin's compositions Midday (1917, State Russian Museum, St Petersburg) and Girls on the Volga (1915, State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow), this distinctive palette can also be glimpsed through the minor areas of paint loss and where the paint surface is at its thinnest to the right of Vasya's head. Under infrared, it is possible to see the underdrawings for the present composition, indicating that Petrov-Vodkin may have originally intended to incorporate a window in the upper right quadrant and played with the position of the icon in the upper left quadrant.

Vasya, powerfully and unequivocally Russian, a metaphor of sorts for the Russian people, their stoicism and their devotion to Othodoxy, provides an exceptionally rare opportunity to acquire a work by Petrov-Vodkin, one of the most highly-regarded Russian artists of the 20th century.

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