Unmistakably identifiable as a quintessential Petrov-Vodkin, Still life with lilac strikes the viewer with its brazen use of pure colours, its mastery of optical illusions and above all its daring command of perspective, which propelled the artist not only to the league of leading masters in Russian Art, but made him an international household name among 20th century artists. The still life, having been exhibited at the high-profile XVIII Venice Biennale and offered from the collection of the discerning Italian art critic and publisher, Giovanni Scheiwiller, reveals a story of cultural exchange between the Soviet Union and Italy in the 1920s-1930s and pays tribute to Petrov-Vodkin’s artistic legacy.
Departing from a traditional linear perspective, Petrov-Vodkin challenges the observer with an unconventional high-angle viewpoint as he ostentatiously turns the surface of the table outwards and expertly balances the objects on the canvas by introducing multiple vanishing points, working against the rules of foreshortening. The three-dimensionality of the solid crystal inkwell, which substantially occupies the upper left quadrant and almost outweighs the entire composition, is achieved by capturing the reflections of its well-defined facets as the light travels and refracts through the object. This effect is accentuated by the soft shadows and light rays cast on the palpable texture of the blue tablecloth unifying the entire composition.
The focal point of the canvas is a freshly cut branch of blooming lilac, with a multitude of delicate purple flowers creating a spontaneous shape and thus counterweighing the rigorous definition of the manmade objects of the still life. As the leafy branch sinks down the glass and dips into the water, the artist closely observes the distortion of forms and light, which enable him to convey the translucency of the still water and the dazzling reflections of light on the vivid red cover of a magazine. Carefully rendered fallen leaves within the still life connote the notion of memento mori, a possible reminder to the viewer of the transience of life. The artist clearly outlines the compositional space by ruthlessly cropping out the almost superfluous edges of the magazine, envelopes and even the lilac.
Painted in Petrov-Vodkin’s signature palette, the still life attests to the artist’s theoretical studies on colour and his famous ‘trekhtsvetka [three colours]’ as he juxtaposes the brilliant primary colours of red and blue, supplemented by the yellow, to reach a level of maximum saturation and impact. Petrov-Vodkin was convinced that ‘colour manifests the culture of a painter, as it is impossible to conceal one’s poor mind, willpower and feelings (if any present) with even the most elaborate decorative devices: the colour would reveal one’s taste and real character’.
A student of Russia’s leading Silver Age artist, Valentin Serov (1865-1911), at the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture, Petrov-Vodkin honed his artistic skills by attending the fashionable art schools of Munich and Paris in the early 1900s. Upon his return to Russia he dove into symbolist and modernist endeavours, however, by 1912 he had formed his own artistic vision and shook artistic society to its core with his iconic painting Bathing of a Red Horse (State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow), which became symbolic of the coming social changes in Russia.
Much like many other Russian Avant-garde artists, Petrov-Vodkin welcomed the Revolution of 1917, seeing it as a revolution in the Arts and liberation from the canons of the old school. He was invited to reform the former Imperial Academy of Arts in St Petersburg in order to train a completely new generation of artists. Between 1920 and 1922 Petrov-Vodkin devised an educational programme which consolidated many years of his previous teaching experience in Elizaveta Zvantseva’s school and, along with standard artistic training disciplines, his program included modules on cosmography, optics, advance mathematics and mechanics of motion. Typical students’ assignments in his studio were ‘Landscape seen by a falling person’, ‘Room seen by a lying person’ or ‘Street seen by a running person’. As part of his teaching career Petrov-Vodkin defined his foundational principles in art, known as the ‘Science of seeing’, ‘Trekhtsvetka [three colours]’ of primary colours and ‘Spherical perspective’.
Painted in 1928 at the height of the artist’s career, Still life with lilac embodies the artist’s foray into the science of optics, through colour and spherical perspective, thus foreshadowing the closely related and later composition, Branch of a Bird Cherry Tree in a Glass (1932), from the collection of the State Russian Museum in St Petersburg, deemed to be one of the most recognisable still lifes by the artist, largely thanks to its wide usage as a postcard as early as 1933 and as a front cover of the 1986 monograph on the artist by Yury Rusakov (1926-1995).
Upon closer inspection, the seemingly unidentified setting and objects captured in Still life with lilac provide the viewer with a glimpse into the private world of Petrov-Vodkin. The artist’s daughter Elena Dunaeva (1922-2008) nostalgically recalls in her memoirs the blue tablecloth of the father’s desk, which was his irreplaceable companion as they moved houses and provided settings for several notable still lifes by the artist (A. Barzilovich (ed.), Petrov-Vodkin. V tsentre zhiznei. Vospominaniia. Pis’ma. Documenty. [In the centre of lives. Memoirs. Letters. Documents], St Petersburg, 2018, p. 22). The appearance of the envelope and letters is not accidental: throughout his entire life, Petrov-Vodkin maintained a close link with his mother Anna Panteleevna, corroborated by the multitude of letters they exchanged over the years. The inkwell might allude not only to his correspondence with his mother, but also to Petrov-Vodkin’s epistolary output, best expressed in his biographical novels Khlynovsk and Prostranstvo Evklida [Euclid’s space]. Indeed, in the early days of his career Petrov-Vodkin was determined to become a writer, but his talent for painting prevailed.
Another notable object in the still life is a magazine: ‘L’Art Vivant’: a Parisian bimonthly art magazine, published by Les Nouvelles littéraires between 1924 and 1939. In July 1924, the Academy sent Petrov-Vodkin to France in order for him to learn new methods of artistic education and assess the state of contemporary Western Art. One could suppose that the red cover depicted in Still life with lilac is the January 1925 issue of ‘L’Art Vivant’, in which Petrov-Vodkin gave an interview to Jacques Guenne and Serge Romoff summarising his artistic and theoretical endeavours and teaching practices: ‘[…] an impression made on us by an object is a sum of perceptions, viewed by us from various positions which the object occupies relative to us either because of our movement around the object, or the movement of the object itself. By changing the place from which we observe the object, we feel its movement; the law of optics says that simultaneously the object can only be seen from one point of view. If we simultaneously observe two objects, then each of them affects the perception of the other. […] The illusion of visual perception, created by painting, should at least, accurately convey our perception of the object. I teach my students how important it is to consider that objects do not have a permanent appearance in a space while we occupy different positions relative to them; I explain to them that precisely this sequence of impressions should be conveyed in a painting. Note that cubism has never explored this subject’ (quoted from: S. Romoff, ‘L’Art Russe après la Révolution’, L’Art vivant, Paris, January 1925, no. 1).
One peculiar detail will not escape the eye of the observant viewer: an inverted date and inscription in the lower right corner ‘13–14. 27/IX Kokt.’ alludes to a rather disturbing experience endured by the artist in September 1927. Thanks to the poet Maximilian Voloshin’s (1877-1932) invitation, Petrov-Vodkin and his family vacationed at the poet’s estate in Koktebel, Crimea, which in the hottest summer months provided a refuge to the members of the artistic and intellectual milieu of the big cities. On the night of 11 September, a severe earthquake broke out with aftershocks continuing for several days, causing many casualties and catastrophic damage to Crimean coastal villages. Petrov-Vodkin described this unsettling event in his memoirs and depicted the episode in his powerful canvas Earthquake in Crimea (1928, The State Russian Museum, St Petersburg). One is left to wonder what was first captured on the present canvas a day after the earthquake; however, dissatisfied with that result, Petrov-Vodkin reused the canvas half a year later with the much more serene subject of blossoming lilac.
Giovanni Scheiwiller and the cultural exchange between Soviet Russia and Italy
Remembered by contemporaries as eccentric and extravagant, Giovanni Scheiwiller was an acerbic and influential Swiss-born Milanese art critic and publisher, profoundly versed in and deeply passionate about contemporary Italian art. He started his career in Ulrico Hoepli’s (1847-1935) publishing house and remained its chief-editor and director for many years. Scheiwiller’s aspiration was to bridge the gap between modern Italian and European art. Under the umbrella of Hoepli he produced his famed series ‘Arte moderna straniera’ and ‘Arte moderna Italiana’, in which he introduced the readers to such titans of European 20th century art as Henri Matisse, Amedeo Modigliani, Paul Cézanne, Giorgio de Chirico and Gino Severini, to name a few. In 1936 Scheiwiller launched his private publishing brand All’Insegna del Pesce d’Oro, which was distinguished by the exceptional quality and refinement of its small format limited editions on Fine Art, designed to cater for the tastes of bibliophiles and art connoisseurs. As a close friend to many artists and writers, Scheiwiller helped many stars to rise in the early days of their careers as evidenced by the extensive records of his correspondence, now held in the Fondo Apice, Milan.
Meanwhile, another influential art critic and an artist himself, Boris Ternovets (1884-1941) was one of a handful of art historians in Soviet Russia, who was well versed in contemporary Western art and thus eager to introduce Modern Italian art to the Soviet public. Ternovets’ curatorial vocation started in 1918 with cataloguing recently nationalised Moscow and St Petersburg art collections on the request of Narkompros (the People’s Commissariat for Education). Shortly afterwards Ternovets was commissioned to systemise, catalogue and study the superb collection of French Impressionists assembled by the famed textile magnate Ivan Morozov (1871-1921). This collection laid the foundation of the Second Museum of Modern Western Art, whilst Ternovets’ close acquaintance and yet another talented art historian Yakov Tugendhold (1882-1928), was appointed to oversee the renowned collection of the industrialist Sergei Shchukin (1854-1936), forming the First Museum of Modern Western Art. Owing to the similar nature of the collections, on 10 March 1923 both museums were merged to form the State Museum of New Western Art and Ternovets was appointed a director of the new institution.
In his new capacity Ternovets was entrusted with raising the profile of the Soviet Art abroad by organising exhibitions and exchanging paintings of contemporary Western Art for Soviet artists. This enabled Ternovets to secure several trips to France and Italy to establish contacts with leading artists, museums, collectors and art historians. In 1924 Ternovets curated the Soviet pavilion of the XIV Venice Biennale, in 1925 he was one of the organisers of the USSR pavilion at Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris and in 1927 in he was put in charge of the Soviet section at the III Mostra Internazionale delle Arti Decorative in Monza, Italy. Ternovets wrote extensively on Soviet participation at international exhibitions as well as covered current trends in Western art. He was the only art historian in the USSR who studied Modern Italian art, when he published the academic article ‘Novaia italianskaia zhivopis [New Italian Art]’ in Nauka i iskusstvo [Science and Arts] in 1926. It is likely that it was Ternovets’s passion for Italian art that provided a good basis for his introduction to Giovanni Scheiwiller, which resulted in a fruitful collaboration that spanned over a decade and facilitated cultural exchanges between the two countries.
Ahead of one of his trips to Italy Ternovets approached several Soviet artists asking them to assist the museum in exchanging their works with those by Western artists. Petr Konchalovsky (1876-1956), Georgy Vereysky (1886-1962), Aleksandr Tyshler (1898-1980), and crucially, Petrov-Vodkin, were among the artists who supported Ternovets in this endeavour over the years. Thanks to Ternovets’s efforts, the works of these artists were successfully exhibited at international art shows, including Still life with lilac, which was exhibited at the Twenty-Seventh travelling International exhibition of paintings organised by the Carnegie Institute in the United States, following by XVIII Venice Biennale and then given to Giovanni Scheiwiller afterwards to thank him for his help in forming the Italian collection of the museum, as evidenced by a letter from Ternovets to Scheiwiller from 14 August 1932.
Ternovets was first to introduce Giorgio Morandi (1890-1964) to a Soviet audience, which would not have happened without Scheiwiller’s support, as evidenced through the exchange of letters between Morandi and Scheiwiller in 1930: ‘Dear Mr Scheiwiller, thank you very much for your letter and the interest you show in my work. It is with great pleasure that I have read the letter from the director of the Moscow gallery […] As for the painting for the Moscow gallery, I will be very glad to provide you with one’ (quoted from T. Birchenough, Giorgio Morandi: A Master of Stillness, ‘The Tretyakov Gallery Magazine’, Moscow, 2011, p. 90). Thus, Morandi’s Still Life from circa 1925 entered the collection of the Museum of New Western Art and is now held in the collection of the State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg following the former’s division in 1948.
Later Ternovets recollected: ‘Thanks to the indispensable assistance of the art critic and publisher Giovanni Scheiwiller, we managed to organize an exchange of works by Soviet artists for their Italian counterparts. […] This exchange enabled the Museum of New Western Art to create a superb collection of Italian art, which was absent in the [nationalized] private collections, without enduring any significant expenses. The leading contemporary artists of Italy are now represented in full by their paintings and drawings’ (S. Laskin, ‘… Zalozhnik vechnosti [A hostage of eternity]’, Neva, no. 4, Leningrad, 1991, p. 104). As a reminder of Scheiwiller’s contribution to the development of the museum’s holdings, a portrait of him by Achille Funi (1890-1972) is still kept in the collection of the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts.
In December 1930, the congress of museum workers, organised by Narkompros, drew up new plans for the development of museums which were aligned with the needs of Socialist society and ideological doctrines of the Union. In the years that followed, Realist art ousted Formalist works from the museum’s walls and in December 1937 Ternovets was dismissed from his post of director. In 1948, the collection of the museum was divided between the State Hermitage and the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts.
With few canvases by Petrov-Vodkin in private hands, the appearance of Still life with lilac at auction presents discerning collectors with a truly unique opportunity to acquire an archetypal piece by the artist from his sought-after period, which was exhibited at the most prestigious international shows and remained in the same notable collection for almost 90 years.
We are grateful to Valentina Borodina, Deputy Director of the Petrov-Vodkin House-Museum in Khvalynsk for her assistance in cataloguing this work.