Yuri Annenkov’s Portrait of Aleksandr Tikhonov (1880–1956) is an audacious paradigm of the Russian Avant-Garde that melds textures, patterns and perspectives, absorbing the jostling influences of Russian folk art, Cubo-Futurism and Expressionism to embody the artist’s New Synthetism.
Painter, graphic artist and designer for stage and screen, Annenkov was both creator and chronicler. His career ran parallel to the seismic events of the 20th century, spanning almost 70 years, traversing two continents and creating links between the Silver Age, post-revolutionary Russia and post-war Europe. Throughout the 1920s he participated in some of the decade’s most significant international exhibitions, including those in Berlin (1922), Venice (1924) and Paris (1925), and capped his scenographic career in 1954 with an Academy Award nomination for best costume design for his work on Max Ophüls’s (1902–1957), ‘The Earrings of Madame de...’.
Born in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky where his father had been exiled for anti-tsarist activities, Annenkov returned to St Petersburg with his family in the early 1890s where he later attempted to complete a law degree while simultaneously pursuing his artistic education. Unsurprisingly, Annenkov’s pretensions to a legal career were swiftly superseded by his nascent talent and artistic ambition.
Although the influence of Ilya Repin (1844–1930) still loomed large in Russian artistic life, Annenkov was drawn to the new and experimental, the Avant-Garde. Following an initial period of study at the studios of Savely Zeidenberg (1908–1909) with fellow pupil Marc Chagall (1887–1985), and Jan Tsionglinsky (1909–1911), Annenkov embarked on a new and exciting stage of his development when he moved to Paris to study at L’ Académie de la Grande Chaumière and La Palette in 1911.
With a studio on rue Campagne-Première in Montparnasse, Annenkov found himself at the centre of artistic life in Paris. His training was completed as much under Maurice Denis (1870–1943) and Félix Vallotton (1865–1925) as it was alongside the artists who frequented La Rotonde and La Coupole, where he imbibed the influences of Cézanne, Braque and Picasso.
Like many of his Russian contemporaries who also worked in Paris during this dynamic period in art history, including Natan Altman (1889–1970), Varvara Stepanova (1894–1958), Lyubov Popova (1889–1924) and Nadezhda Udaltsova (1886–1961), 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 Delauney (1885–1941), Albert Gleizes
(1881–1953), Jean Metzinger (1883–1956) and Francis Picabia (1879–1953) among others, Annenkov returned to Russia full of enthusiasm for the latest developments in art and eager to explore his own permutations across a broad range of artistic disciplines.
Back in St Petersburg against the stormy backdrop of World War I and revolution, Annenkov became heavily involved in theatre, experimenting with directing and scenography, as shown by his early collaboration with Nikolai Evreinov (1879–1953) on the production of Homo Sapiens at the Krivoe zerkalo [Curved mirror] theatre. Annenkov also concentrated on graphic work, his sharp line equally matched to his acute political sense, providing illustrations for books and satirical journals, such as Satirikon, Solntse Rossii [Russia’s sun], Lukomor’e [The Cove] and Argus. With the advent of revolution, Annenkov’s creative energies were mirrored by the radical fervour of the time, symbolised by his illustrations for Alexander Blok’s (1880–1921) 1918 publication of his Dvenadtsat’ [The Twelve], a hugely controversial poetic rumination on the October Revolution. His significant contribution to the realisation of Evreinov’s 1920 Vziatie Zimnego Dvortsa [The Taking of the Winter Palace], the last and most ambitious of the mass spectacles conceived along
Marxist-Leninist lines to educate the masses, showcased Annenkov’s propensity to capture the spirit of the time through aesthetic means, mythologising the subject while popularising it. A cast of approximately 8,000, the vast majority of whom were amateurs, were masterfully choreographed to reenact the first moments of revolution, in front of a reported audience of 100,000 that at times was interspersed with the cast. Annenkov’s role in creating the visual impact of this embryonic and politicised example of immersive theatre, simultaneously creating whilst recording history, echoes the import of his momentous series of portraits completed during the period 1916–1923.
Annenkov was the only Russian artist to complete a portrait gallery of the most powerful and influential political figures of the time, including Vladimir Lenin (1870–1924), Leon Trotsky (1879–1940), Anatoly Lunacharsky (1875–1933), Vladimir Antonov-Ovseyenko (1883–1938) and Grigory Zinoviev (1883–1936), as well as a visual line-up of the brightest literary and artistic talents, including Maxim Gorky (1868–1936), Vsevolod Meyerhold (1874–1940), Anna Akhmatova (1889–1966), Boris Pasternak (1890–1960), Alexandre Benois (1870–1960) and Miron Sherling (1880–1958). In his introduction to Portrety [Portraits], published in 1922, Annenkov reveals that although he did not conceive of his portraits as a cycle, assembled they held an unexpected greater significance, that of a historical record: While some of my subjects impressed themselves on the bedrock of our era’s history and others are lost to anonymity, they are all without exception marked with one and the same symbol – that of Revolution. Each will act as living remembrances to me of those tragedies and hopes, falls and upsurges, according to which we were fated to march onwards together, side by side, friends and enemies alike... (Y. Annenkov, Portrety [Portraits], Petrograd, 1922, p. 11).
If Annenkov captured the most significant personalities in the Arts, Aleksandr Tikhonov 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, then as a critic, editor and publisher. Among his numerous credits, Tikhonov edited the journal Letopis’ [The chronicle] published in Paris 1915–17 and the newspaper Novaia Zhizn’ [The New Life] in 1917–18, managed the publishing house Vsemirnaia Literatura [World Literature] between 1918 and 1924 and later edited Soviet publications ‘Vostok [The East]’, ‘Russkii Sovremenik [Russian Contemporary]’ and ‘Sovremennyi Zapad [The Contemporary West]’. However, Tikhonov’s most important contribution to the intellectual artistic life of Petrograd was his role, along with Gorky and Korney Chukovsky (1882-1969), as a founder of the famous literary society Dom Iskusstv [The House of Arts], a gathering place for writers and artists active during the chaos and social dislocation of the years 1919–1922. Annenkov was a regular and met there many of the people who inspired him to create the gallery of his contemporaries, such as Anna Akhmatova, Boris Pasternak, H. G. Wells (1886–1946) and Vladimir Pyast (1886–1940).
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 Leon Trotsky and the journalist and historian, Vyacheslav Polonskii (1886–1932). An extraordinary example of Annenkov’s unique ability to capture a likeness with gravitas and wit, Portrait of Aleksandr Tikhonov (1880–1956) 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. The bold palette and multifaceted treatment of the subject is reminiscent of Natan Altman’s unforgettable depiction of Akhmatova from 1914, yet Annenkov’s portrait is more complex, combining Constructivist and even Dadaist elements, such as the bell-push, to enliven the surface and further integrate the two- and three-dimensional planes.
Remarkably, despite the range of influences, there are no jarring elements; Portrait of Aleksandr Tikhonov (1880–1956) demonstrates Annenkov’s overarching aesthetic sense and ability to synthesise –isms into an original, harmonious whole. While some of his contemporaries moved towards abstraction, Annenkov honed his distinctive neo-realist approach, an elegant confection of line and ornament.
None of Annenkov’s calligraphic line is lost in oil, nor is the effectiveness of his technique to create energy and movement by contrasting textures with patterns. The stiff stray lock of hair that creates a shadow over Tikhonov’s forehead is juxtaposed with the spiky bristles of his manicured moustache; the vibrant blue tie, trapped by a stiff white collar and framed by a flecked jacket, is perforated by neat rows of white dots; and the smooth, angular pocket square juts out from the canvas in stark contrast to the crumpled sleeves and lapels of the jacket. The overall effect creates an ‘oscillating atmosphere’, Mikhail Kuzmin (1872–1936) wrote, ‘that stream of life which emanates from static matter (both animate and inanimate). This is the main secret of [Annenkov’s] portraits.’ (M. Kuzmin, ‘Kolebanie zhiznennykh tokov [The oscillations of life’s current]’ in Portrety [Portraits], Petrograd, 1922, p. 48).
Above all, however, the work is a striking and successful portrait that conveys the status and quality of the sitter. The character of Tikhonov is silhouetted against a background of artistic play; his serious, stoic expression is accentuated by the worked surfaces that reveal his features, and by extent, his personality in relief. This effect is heightened by the inclusion of the print after Johann Georg Meyer von Bremen’s (1813–1886) Schicksalsgenossen (roughly translated as ‘Partners in Destiny’), painted in 1855, perhaps an allusion to Tikhonov’s solidarity with his peers and resilience during the turbulence of civil war, famine and social and political upheaval.
Annenkov’s Portrait of Aleksandr Tikhonov (1880–1956), a work of immense cultural import, is without question one of the most important Russian paintings ever to appear at Christie’s. In the same way that Annenkov’s Dnevnik moikh vstrech [Journal of my meetings] published in 1966 served as a collective memoir of the period, his portraits are historical artefacts that were hailed as such at the time of their execution. To quote Kuzmin once more: ‘If the atmosphere of modernity is made from the breath of living people, then perhaps more than anyone it is Annenkov who has been granted the ability to convey the spirit of our days. Aside from their artistic value, his series of portraits will forever serve as a reflection of the contradictory and hostile undercurrents, the brutality and heroism, the soaring flights and incurable simplicity of domestic life, which came to a head at the end of the first quarter of the 20th century.’ (M. Kuzmin, Ibid. p. 51).
We would like to thank René Guerra for his assistance in cataloguing the present work.