Serge Poliakoff (Russian/French, 1900-1969) Composition abstraite 1955

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Lot 27AR
Serge Poliakoff
(Russian/French, 1900-1969)
Composition abstraite

Sold for £ 128,500 (US$ 177,711) inc. premium
Serge Poliakoff (Russian/French, 1900-1969)
Composition abstraite

signed; signed on the reverse
oil on canvas

100 by 81 cm.
39 3/8 by 31 7/8 in.

This work was executed in 1955.


  • This work is registered in the Archives Serge Poliakoff, Paris, under no. 955060, and will be included in the forthcoming fifth volume of Serge Poliakoff Catalogue Raisonné being prepared by Monsieur Alexis Poliakoff.

    Galerie Ariel, Paris (no. 5292)
    Galerie Romanet-Rive Gauche, Paris
    Galerie Cats, Brussels
    Acquired directly from the above by the previous owner
    Thence by descent to the present owner

    It would be hard to concoct a tale as romantic, as dramatic as that of the early years of Serge Poliakoff; his biography reads like a storybook, or one of the epic Russian novels that the artist greatly enjoyed as a child. Born to a wealthy family in Moscow in 1900, his youth was one of privilege and pampering, and although he showed no particular interest in painting himself, as a young boy he always remembered being fascinated by the icons which decorated the city's many churches. The Revolution in 1917 changed everything of course, and it is after 1918 that his biography becomes truly fantastic. Leaving Moscow, Poliakoff split from this mother and sister and set off into the wide world carrying only a packed suitcase and a diamond. His adventures took him from Constantinople, Sofia, Belgrade and Vienna to Paris, where he arrived in 1923, and started experimenting with visual art while surviving on income as a musician.

    Like many artists of this period, Poliakoff's first paintings were figurative, influenced by the teaching at the rather traditional Parisian art academies that he attended. By his own admission, his development was slow and gradual: "'Evolution, slow, slow evolution – not revolution' does not matter who got in first with this or that. The master is the man who follows up the 'discovery'"(Serge Poliakoff, quoted in Serge Poliakoff, Gérard Durozoi, 2001, unpaginated preface). That this slow evolution was also ultimately radical is made clear in Composition abstraite of 1955, a work painted at a time when the artist had finally reached his mature style. The conservative approach of the academies had by then been superseded by the influence of other artists, in particular the group of influential Russian ex-patriots who were to become his friends. We know that Kandinsky had a huge influence on Poliakoff's approach to painting, and Composition abstraite, 1955 also reveals the important input of Robert and Sonia Delaunay. Poliakoff attended a number of artistic get-togethers at the home of Delaunays in 1938-9, meetings attended by other aspiring artists, critics and collectors, and it was these meetings which helped his own vision to emerge. Echoes of the stunning abstract paintings of Robert Delaunay can be detected in various aspects the present lot, which shares the careful composition and painterly finish of his most masterly works.

    Poliakoff's growing success as a painter allowed him to give up the work as a musician to concentrate fully on his art in 1952, and in 1953 he already had his first museum show at the Palais de Beaux-Arts in Brussels, and the Guggenheim in New York purchased a painting. Solo shows in Amsterdam, Cologne and Paris in 1954 were met with huge critical acclaim, and in 1955, the year that the present work was created, Poliakoff installed himself permanently in a studio at 51, rue de Seine in his adopted city.
    Composition abstraite, 1955 demonstrates the confidence manifested in his work of this period, with the artist now completely in charge of his materials and his composition. The tones in the present work are delicate and the colours chosen are organic and raw; with its browns, terracottas and umbers pulled together by the bold slabs of black and white at their centre, the painting resounds with the colours of the very earth from which its pigments emerged. The rhythm produced in Composition abstraite of 1955, as the blocks of colour intersect and play against one another, is sharp and exact, but the painterly brushstrokes add a sense of life, of vigour and force. The proportions are precisely executed, each form neatly concordant with those which surround it. The overall result is a mood of a lively and satisfying, if rather capricious, harmony.

    Although undoubtedly modernist in its outlook, bursting with the avant-garde audacity of the École de Paris, this painting also preserves elements of Poliakoff's past. His admiration for Russian icons is often cited, and their impact can be detected here too in the carefully constructed relationship between the planes of colour. The methods for producing these colours were also unusually old-fashioned; by this stage he insisted on laboriously grinding and mixing his own pigments, a technique rarely indulged since the days of the Old Masters. In doing so, he developed a closer link between the artist and his painting, becoming more involved in every step of its creation, imbuing the canvas with a sense of spirit and soul unique to his work. For Poliakoff, the making of art was an almost primal experience, as man and object formed an unyielding bond. His paintings, with their mixture of chaos and calm, of changeability and control surely mirror this fairy tale life, in which nothing was done by halves. As the present work reveals, Serge Poliakoff was to become a master of abstraction, a man who, both in life and in his art, could successfully reign in the most unexpected elements and draw them together into an intriguing unanimity. The journey to reach artistic maturity may have been long and slow for the artist himself, but Composition abstraite, 1955 ultimately proves that it was definitely worth the effort.
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