An extraordinarily striking and vibrant example from the pioneering Avant-Garde artist Ilya Mashkov, The bathers is immediately familiar; the ageless occupation of washing provides a tangible thread connecting modern art to the classical. These women however are not sensual creatures in the traditional sense. In accordance with the themes of rapid industrialisation and urbanisation which preoccupied Mashkov and his contemporaries, this striking painting is in some ways a distinctly unromantic image. The clear removal from realism frees the artist from any obligation to include his 'models'' unsightly imperfections. While the figures' feminine attributes are certainly exaggerated (observe the overemphasised curve of their hips, narrow waist, elongated arms, jutting breasts and rounded stomach and buttocks), these are not Degas' soft, smiling beauties engaged in their intimate bath time rituals, observed by a enraptured viewer who is thrilled to be privy to actions traditionally taking place behind closed doors. Mashkov's women are brazen and in the open air, their nudity justified by the necessity of the task at hand, the dry surface texture of the paint serving to emphasize the rough utilitarian attributes of their towels. There is something powerful and compelling about these women, a strength conveyed by the confident forward-facing solid stance of the standing figure, their sinewy muscles conveyed via shadow and the complete indifference of the figure on the right to the observer; no half-profile here to tantalise the viewer from beneath a sheet of hair. Mashkov creates the female form using the shapes that make up the world around us: triangles for breasts, a circle for a stomach, a diamond for the lower back. In doing so he suggests continuity, a suggestion which is strengthened by the painting's tonal repetition, shades of the green grass in the white towel, the blue/black of the sky echoed in the outline of the figures and their shadows. A sense of harmony ensues: perhaps as Kenneth Clark suggests, 'The Greeks perfected the nude in order that man might feel like a god, and in a sense that is still its function, for although we no longer suppose that God is like a beautiful man, we still feel close to divinity in those flashes of self-identification when, through our own bodies, we seem to be aware of a universal order (The Nude: A Study in Ideal Form, New York, 1953, p. 29).
Executed in the Neo-Primitive style that characterised and united the works included in the inaugural Jack of Diamonds exhibition of 1910, The bathers is a crucial example of the group's bright and beautiful ground-breaking canvasses that reference folk art, woodcut prints, hand-painted trays and ancient stone sculptures. If the composition of The bathers appears to reference Matisse's 1907 Le luxe, it is too easy to assume that Mashkov's 1909 canvas is a response of sorts to Picasso's Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907, TheMuseum of Modern Art, New York) and the multitude of works produced in its wake across Europe. Rather (and fascinatingly), the singularly dynamic and colourful works of the Russian Avant-Garde were produced in parallel to the stylistically analogous French paintings, which in turn were not informed by Russian domestic ephemera, but by African sculpture, Egyptian painting and the perceived primitivism of the South Seas. Painted at a time in which there was a significant artistic exchange between Russia and France, when major Russian industrialists, most famously Ivan Morozov and Sergei Shchukin, were active patrons of the leading French artists and Russian artists had begun to exhibit their work in the major salons in Paris, Rome, Berlin and London, this striking composition reflects a unique point in history, the exploratory energy of which is unparalleled and gave rise within a single decade to the ground-breaking artistic movements such as Rayonism, Russian Futurism, Cubism and Suprematism that shaped and defined art in the 20th Century.
The bathers was acquired in 1970 by the passionate Philadelphian collector Sol (Steve) Brody (1901-1994). This painting, along with Goncharova's Still life with watermelons and Lilacs in a vase (both sold at Christie's, London, for £1.6 million in 2008 and 2007, respectively), occupied a particularly valued position in his highly diverse and important collection. Born and raised in Philadelphia where he kept alaw practice until his retirement in the 1980s, Brody was a keen traveller whose sharp eye and deep-seated artistic curiosity and passion resulted in the acquisition of works during his trips. Like so many of the finest collectors across history, his collection, which ranged from the figurative to the abstract, signifies a confidence and individuality, reflecting the taste of a cultured individual as opposed to the fashion of the time.
Brody was no doubt drawn to the attribute that consistently provides the essence of Mashkov's work: his bold use of colour. If the St Petersburg school in the early 20th century were the disciples of line, their Muscovite contemporaries were unparalleled in the boldness of their colour selection, resulting in distinctly joyful canvasses, irrespective of subject matter. Author of the authoritative monograph on Mashkov, I. S. Bolotina seeks to explain the complexities of Mashkov's distinctive palette: '[Mashkov] does not limit the harmony of his palette by means of a somewhat narrow selection of colours - he is led by the polychromatic surrounding world. It is not an easy task to try to understand the secret behind Mashkov's colouristic choices. [...] We do not find a strict adherence to a specific colour combination developed through classical art. The foundation of his palette functions each time as a unique narrative of colours, almost a colourful play - one could say a drama, were Mashkov's paintings not so optimistic. He welcomes colour associations that would be considered barbaric and 'illiterate' because of their whimsical and unexpected nature if it were not for his convincing melodies of colour which allow us to forget our prejudices.' (Il'ia Mashkov, Moscow, 1977, p. 44). Predictably, Mashkov's courageous artistic explorations during this, his most adventurous period, divided his audience. Where P. Muratov was quick to announce in the wake of the 1909 Golden Fleece exhibition: 'Suffice it to say that the most ridiculous things on display belong to Mr Mashkov (The Golden Fleece-Utro Rossii, 1909, 31 December (13 January 1910), no. 70-37, p. 6, quoted in op. cit., a subsequent review in the same journal of the next Golden Fleece exhibition declares that '[...] the best of them all are the female nudes by I. Mashkov. These are of every variation of colour except the ones that occur in nature - everything is bruised in black and blue, as if it had been bathed in tincture, as well as a yellow ace, cut in the shape of a heart, in the most inappropriate place.' (Tan in The Golden Fleece-Utro Rossii, 1910, 3 (16) January, no. 72-39, p. 3 quoted in %op. cit.). Meanwhile S. Makovsky is unwavering in his praise: '[...] among the Russian 'Matisses and Van Goghs' the most impressive talent is the Muscovite Ilia Mashkov, [...] his works set themselves visibly apart at the 'Salon' of Mr Izdebsky. He is without question the strongest and most convincing of our 'revolutionaries', and if he yields to Matisse and Van Gogh when it comes to the clarity of his colour drawings and his grasp of what it means to 'harmonise' dissonances - with which the French impress us - nevertheless through his very use of colour he can rival any celebrated figure within the realm of modernism.' ('Khudozhestvennye Itogi' [Art Review], Apollon, 1910, VII, pp. 31-32, quoted in op. cit.).