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Zinaida Serebriakova in Moscow
Ross Hunter

One of the treats of a great art gallery is serendipity. I confess that when I first explored the Tretyakov, I had not heard of Zinaida Serebriakova, and was zipping at disgraceful speed towards the (few) paintings well-known outside Russia when stopped in my tracks by her two most compelling pictures. Self Portrait At the Dressing Table (1915) is deservedly her most famous, with At Breakfast (1914), beside it—painted in 1915, and displayed in the old Tretyakov! I have quizzed everyone I know: when? A few late 1930s, otherwise not before the 1960s. Twenty to fifty years ahead of her time. Just like the great engineer Shukov, and just as unjustly obscure.

ZS self portrait, turning

ZS peasants man and wife

The young lady with the hair brush is as timeless as her art: she was 31 at the time, with four young children, but like most of her images, it is hard to guess her age. Evidently an optimistic nature helps preserve nature’s goodness. The few, great, works in Moscow’s greatest gallery are deeply fascinating, but also create yet more questions: why so few? What was her range? Where can I see more?

Happily, most of these are answered at the Dom Nashchokina Gallery, next to Mayakovskaya, 12 Vorotnikovsky Per. www.domnaschokina. ru. While a few frames got stuck at home, scores and scores of paintings, sketches, photos, and souvenirs have been collected from France, Ukraine, Russia and beyond. The display is unassuming to the point of modesty, and one ambles around rooms, floors, galleries and cellars. But the display is clearly and logically presented, and well lit, unless you are trying to take photos (the permit is still worth it!). Until 30 January, this is a unique chance to assemble your own portrait of this most unclassifiable artist. One visit is vital, two are better.

Serebriakova Savoie Alps above Annecy

Zinaida Serebriakova (1884-1967) was well-born and wellconnected, and lived on an estate fittingly called Neskuchnoye, translated loosely as “not bored”. She had a positive and generous outlook on life, throughout her 82 years. A bolshie critic might argue that wealth makes that easier. However, among her best works are touchingly sincere portraits of working people, unfettered by class. The revolution destroyed everything, denied her the chance to show her work, and split her family. Working exile in Paris, France and Morocco doesn’t seem too bad, but isolated from her older children, and making a living as an artist in the depressed 1930s cannot have been easy.

Serebriakova dancers

Despite all this, her works are eternally fresh, know no conventions and constantly reveal beauty in whatever she saw. Undoubtedly, she was at her best with portraits of herself, her beloved children and women generally. These are suspiciously attractive, but the photos on show prove them to be utterly realistic. She painted peasants and princesses, Moroccans and Russians, dancers and nudes. Her ballet dancers rival Degas’, her nudes evoke Titian. If that is a shade generous, it is well-earned. Her subjects are ready to step out of the picture and continue chatting; each shows she enjoyed sitting for the painter.

Her eye for detail is fine, and best at intimate scales. If her landscapes are not imposing, they are inviting. She enjoyed the Alps, and one pastoral view above the wonderful Lac d’Annecy, framed by the limestone teethcliffs of Savoie, is spot on. It frames a landscape I know well, and I want to stroll into it. Style? All her own, cheerfully disregarding passing fashions and so unique in their appeal. I can’t afford one myself but if, dear reader, you choose any two, I’ll gladly treasure your lesser, and be happy with it.

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