The riveting gaze of the charismatic and astonishingly talented artist conveys the intensity of Alexandre Iacovleff's personality which was playful, yet passionate. This rare portrait of Iacovleff by his friend and peer, Vasilii Shukhaev, was probably executed during a magical period in 1921 when a bohemian group of French, American, English, Danish and Russian artists converged on the Mediterranean island of Port-Cros. A comparable portrait from the same period is illustrated in Lucien Vogel's 1922 Dessins et peintures d'Extrême-Orient d'Alexandre Iacovleff; however, interestingly this work is signed with the initial for the first-name Shukhaev often used when abroad - B[asil].
On the invitation of Giselle Bunau-Varilla, Shukhaev joined Iacovleff and a fascinating group of talents including the sculptors Malvina Hoffman and Chana Orloff on the island. In her biography, Malvina Hoffman notes that there was always an 'air of detachment and elegance' about Iacovleff. In this portrait, Iacovleff's gaze is unerring, a reflection of his determination and intelligence. During the summer of 1921, Port-Cros became a creative hothouse with many of the artists working feverishly with prolific results. As suggested by the commanding expression of the portrait, Iacovleff was the inspirational ringleader who encouraged those around him to take part in his creative adventures: 'At Port-Cros, after an early breakfast, we would don bathing suits and climb down the cliffs. When we went out in the little sailboats, Sacha or Jaco, as we often called him, would strap on a pair of Japanese diving goggles and tie a handkerchief over his head so the goggles would not shift. Leaning over the rail and scrutinizing the translucent waters for shells and waving plants on the rocky bed of the Mediterranean, he would suddenly give us a signal to stand by, clamp on a sort of nose pin, and his sleek brown body would cleave the air and disappear in a splash of glistening foam...After what seemed an interminable time underwater, he would appear on the surface and lift his catch to our outstretched hands. When after repeated divings he had collected what he wanted, we would sail back to the pier, and he would bid us adieu, carrying his underwater treasures in a sack over his shoulders, trudging up over the cliffs to his studio in the old fort...One day he invited us all to the gala opening of a new dining room for the Hyksos kings. The old fort has endless space, courtyards and rooms and ramparts and his desire to decorate and transform the blank walls had wide range. To our amazement we saw the walls aglow with mysterious rainbow lighting. Candles hidden behind the iridescent shells had been arranged in a garland of patterns on the walls and hung among these garlands were oval medallions framed in shells and seaweed, each containing a life-sized portrait in red chalk of a member of our little band...There seemed to be in him an endless store of world lore to be drawn upon a moment's notice. Legendary characters, Chinese actors, Japanese wrestlers, African wood carvings, Russian icons, scenery and costumes ranging from Price Igor to Les Sylphides, frescoes of Pompeii, mathematical cubists, abstracts - anything that had come under his eagle eye had been noted and stored away in his memory. With all his knowledge of the world, he still remained at heart a child of the forest, and his love of nature's magic gave him an exhilarating joie de vivre.' (M. Hoffman,
Yesterday is tomorrow: A Personal History, New York, 1965, pp. 203-204)