PORTRAIT OF ZINOVII GRZHEBIN

Author

Yuri Pavlovich Annenkov

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Signed in Cyrillic and dated 1919 l.l. oil on canvas. Portrait ofZinovii Grzhebin is a striking example of Yuri Annenkov's distinctive style and undoubtedly one of the most important works by the artist ever to appear on the international market. Painter, draughtsman and designer for both stage and screen, Yuri Annenkov belonged to an extraordinary generation of the Russian avant-garde. A contemporary of Nathan Altman and Jean Pougny, he received his artistic training in St. Petersburg at the private art academy of Savely Zeidenberg, where Chagall was a pupil, and also in Paris from 1911-12 at the academies of La Grande Chaumiere and La Palette, studying under Maurice Denis and Felix Vallotton. On his return to Russia he worked for several theatre companies and illustrated books and journals, producing designs which testify to his profound understanding of the aesthetic language of Cubism. After taking part in the 14* Venice Biennale in 1924, he moved permanently to Paris where he further broadened his artistic scope to include the design of cinema sets and costume designs. His contributions to Max Ophuls' 1953 cinematic masterpiece The Earrings of Madame de... even won him an Oscar nomination. It is his portraits of key figures of the post-revolutionary period however, that contribute most significantly to his artistic legacy and bear testament to a uniguely turbulent and creative era. His sitters include Lenin, Benois, Akhmatova, Blok and the photographer Miron Sherling (fig 2) to name but a few. In his introduction to the 1922 edition of his collected portraits, Annenkov notes that he did not conceive of them as a cycle and yet, 'when brought together, these portraits lent unexpected meaning to my personal experiences of recent years. 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... I feel an indestructible organic link with each of them'. Portrait ofZinovii Grzhebin dates from a period when avant-garde art embarked on a truly original path of synthesis, combining the nonobjective world of geometric forms inherited from Cubism and Suprematism with an interest in the real world. Specific features of the sitter's face are combined here with a faceted treatment of the painterly surface, which appears as a sign of modernity. This is not simply a case of superimposition or juxtaposition of the figurative and the abstract, but a subtle interweaving similar to that in damask silks, in which the intertwining of warp and weft creates an effect both matt and reflective. Although keen to convey an accurate likeness, Annenkov's treatment of the lenses is also indicative of his acknowledgment of the Futurists' explorations on the relation between man and machine: the right lens is transparent and draws attention to the sitter's eye intently focused on his reading, whereas reflected light plays on the surface of the other and introduces the mechanical element. The resulting effect inevitably recalls Dziga Vertov's The Man with a Movie Camera or Rodchenko's photographic portrait of Osip Brik from 1924 (fig l), in which the three block capitals within one of the lenses are a direct borrowing from Cubist and Futurist compositions. The Futurist requirement to convey energy and movement is also an important component in Annenkov's portraits. As Mikhail Kuzmin comments, all of Annenkov's works are unexpectedly alive, from the most modest sketch to his fullest oils: "Quite apart from the expression of apparent movement, in his more static works Annenkov sought even more keenly to convey elements of movement, an oscillating atmosphere, that stream of life which emanates from static matter, both animate and inanimate. This is the secret of his portraits... (M.Kuzmin, 'The Oscillation of Life's Ebb and Flow' [Kolebaniya zhiznennykh tokov], in Yu.Annenkov, Portrety, 1922). Distinctive for each sitter according to Kuzmin, this 'theosphic aura' around the subject 'flows with life's vibrations'. Annekov's allusion to the profession of his subject in the offered lot is characteristic; 'shards of the sitter's life' as Kuzmin calls them, 'are demonstrably evident in each of Annenkov's portraits'. Zinovii Grzhebin (1877—1929) was an eminent editor who played a vital role in the intellectual life of Russia in the early twentieth century. An eclectic personality, he understood the importance of his role in society and was exasperated by the State's efforts to regulate his activities, as he explained in a letter to his close friend Maxim Gorky in February 1924: 'Some people think of me as a counter-revolutionary, others as a Bolshevik mercenary. Personally, I'd happily send them all to the devil as long as I could get on with my job; in spite of all these difficulties, I've already made a certain cultural impact as an editor and could exert even more influence without all these obstacles!' Zinovii Grzhebin studied at the Kharkov School of Art and moved to Munich in 1899. He was accepted as a student in the studio of Shimon Holloshy, which was attended by numerous Russian artists including future members of the World of Art group, Igor Grabar and Mstislav Dobuzhinsky. In spite of the latter's remarks that Grzhebin 'worked ceaselessly and was one of Holloshy's favourite students', he did not pursue an artistic career and chose instead to devote himself to publishing, moving back to St. Petersburg in 1905 to launch a new art journal based on the World of Art model. He harnessed first-rate writers and artists, including Dobuzhinsky, Evgeny Lanceray, Ivan Bilibin, and Valentin Serov, who were among the founders of the journal Zhupel (The Scarecrow). The journal's predominantly satirical content, however, led to its being banned shortly after the publication of the third issue. Grzhebin was tried and briefly incarcerated for publishing a cartoon of a stylised two-headed Imperial eagle, inscribed 'Constitution', which when inverted turns into a grotesque caricature of Nicholas II (fig 3). Undeterred, Grzhebin founded the Shipovnik (Dog Rose) publishing house in 1906, which survived until 1918 (fig 4). During this period he published several literary and artistic reviews with an expanded circle of impressive contributors, including the artists Alexander Benois, Konstantin Somov, Leon Bakst, Nikolai Roerich and writers Andrei Bely, Valery Bryusov, Alexander Blok and Fyodor Sologub. Grzhebin's house on Potemkin Street soon became an artistic hub, as one of Grzhebin's three daughters, Helene, described: 'In the evenings, friends would often meet up in our home... Yury Annenkov, Kornei Chukovsky, Shklovsky, Kuzmin, Benois and many others' (H.Grjebine, 1987, p.17). In 1918, at Gorky's instigation, Grzhebin helped to set up 'World Literature', one of the first publishing houses of the new Soviet state (fig 5), described by Dobuzhinsky as a "colossal project with aims to become a formidable cultural vehicle" (M.Dobuzhinsky. Recollections, Moscow, 1987, p.30l). The following year however, Grzhebin took the decision to set up his own publishing house and print books abroad. Despite their personal support of his activities, neither Anatoly Lunarcharsky nor Gorky could curb the incessant threats of the State and Grzhebin finally left Russia to settle in Berlin. Many writers who had lost confidence in the new Bolshevik regime had emigrated there, taking in their wake the publishers who had supported them, and from late 1920 until 1924, the German capital became the publishing centre of the Russian emigration. It was just about that time that Grzhebin entirely lost the support of the Soviet State publishing house, Gosizdat, which resolved to put an end to Grzhebin's activities and block his access to the Russian market. In 1923 the trial of Grzhebin against the Soviet Trade Representation opened in Berlin. Although the judge ruled in Grzhebin's favour, the publisher had no option but to leave Berlin for Paris. Before his departure, Grzhebin organised a farewell exhibition, which testified to his extraordinary output from May 1922 and October 1923. The 225 publications which he produced over this brief period cover the most diverse fields, from Russian classics and books on art to atlases and textbooks. Alongside the works of Lermontov, Leskov, Nekrasov and Chekhov he also published the contemporary writers Belyi, Esenin and Gorky and brought out finely illustrated volumes such as Muratov's Images of Italy and the critically acclaimed edition of Lazarevsky's Among Collectors. His edition of Pasternak's My Sister, My Life even featured a portrait of the author by Yuri Annenkov. Once in Paris, Grzhebin's home on the Champ de Mars became the hub of artistic and literary activity. In her memoirs, The Italics are Mine (1972), Nina Berberova, the wife of Vladislav Khodasevich, describes the bohemian atmosphere in the apartment in 1924, which was peopled with tutors, old Russian duchesses, 'and from morning until late at night, a crowd of languid, noisy and hungry guests eating, drinking, chattering and laughing uproariously... poets, ex-grand dukes, famous and lesser-known artists, cabaret singers and unemployed journalists...' Clearly a generous host, Berberova also recalls that a discretionary stack of theatre tickets would be left available in the dining room. Grzhebin corresponded regularly with writers and in 1924 organised another exhibition of his complete publications, which was ultimately transferred to the Turgenev Library. Berberova describes Grzhebin's unflagging enthusiasm to continue publishing in Russia, an ambition that sadly was never realised, and recounts how unforeseen his eventual ruin was, when faced with criminal charges for bankruptcy he was taken to the police station to be photographed and fingerprinted like a common criminal'. He died of a heart attack on 4 February 1929, leaving a grieving wife and doting children. There is no question that Annenkov's contemporaries saw him as a chronicler of the era, and in his portrait of this maverick publisher, Annenkov truly fulfils his vocation. 'If the atmosphere of modernity is made from the breath of living people,' wrote Mikhail Kuzmin, "then perhaps more than anyone it is Annenkov who has been granted the ability to convey the spirit of our era. Quite apart 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 the incurable simplicity of domestic life, which came to a head at the end of the first quarter of the twentieth century' (M.Kuzmin, idem). As Evgeny Zamyatin conludes his essay on Annenkov's portraits 'O Sintetizme', 'These portraits are extracts from faces, from people, from every one of us; each is the biography of a person and of an epoch' (E.Zamyatin in YuAnnenkov, Portrety, 1922).