What if it were possible to get outside one's fate and one's deserts, to cut the threads binding us to our lives, to step aside, be forever an observer rather than a participant? Well?
Maria Iakunchikova to Elena Polenova - 31 May 1889
A member of the symbolist generation, Maria Iakunchikova's work is rendered distinctive by her intuition and ability to infuse her chosen medium, be it canvas, panel or cloth with a great sense of feeling. Her works, an interesting and representative selection of which are presented here for auction (lots 1-14), are highly evocative, conveying to the viewer a sense of nostalgia for the ephemeral world of Russia in the late 19th century, as well as the artist's own nostalgia for a time preceding her own. Her work and that of Elena Polenova embraced and celebrated folk art, seeking inspiration in traditional Russian fairy tales and the natural world. Her common motifs of unmistakably Russian landscapes and peasant women and children speak to a broad audience and are rendered all the more evocative by their juxtaposition with works revealing her own inner world encapsulated by somewhat melancholic women daydreaming as in her beautiful self-portrait Unattainable (lot 8, part) and the captivating Reflection of an intimate world.
Iakunchikova's refined sense of composition reflects the company she encountered in her youth; Pavel Tretyakov, whose collection now forms Moscow's State Tretyakov Gallery, was married to her aunt, while her sister Natalia married Vasily Polenov in the church at Abramtsevo depicted in lot 4. At her sister's home, Maria Iakunchikova became acquainted with a milieu of Moscow's finest artists including Isaak Levitan, the influence of whose landscapes is easily discernible.
Time spent in Paris subsequent to her expedition to Austria and Italy in 1888 was a source of great inspiration for the young artist. Immersion in a world of rapid contemporary developments introduced a distinctly Art Nouveau element to her work. Reflection of an intimate world depicts the evidently pensive young artist, who by this time was already suffering from tuberculosis, looking wistfully out of the window. By presenting herself via the reflection in the glass, Iakunchikova achieves a sense of distance between herself and the viewer; even lengthy contemplation of her figure will not permit us to truly enter her inner realm, her thoughts will remain distorted and as such enigmatic.
As Sergei Diaghilev's lyrical obituary makes clear, Iakunchikova's untimely demise was felt keenly by the contemporary art world: 'The life of Iakunchikova has been too short for all the things she could have done. But, amid the troubles of caring for her children and the fast-pace of Paris, she managed to reveal the depth of an admirable talent, a profound love for our Russian forests, oh! so far away, those little pine-trees and fir-trees that, for her, had been filled with a religious sentiment towards which she strove her entire life. Her entire existence has been a tragedy. She could not be enough for everything, she, the dear poet of the Russian forests, of the pastures, of the small village cemeteries with their crosses in the middle, of the fences of convents and of the country-side verandas. How could she, so sweet and frail, have found the strength to fight for her life?' (quoted in S. Lifar, Serge de Diaghilev: Sa vie, Son Oeuvre, Sa Légende, Monaco, 1954, p. 20).