The name Sergey Poliakoff, for me, evokes a family with strong ties to art that have lasted many generations. Alexis, Polyakoff’s artist son, has created characters such as Pixi; the grandchild Marie-Victoire, a gallerist who thought all men were painters; and today the young Sasha, a student at the Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux Arts.
Who doesn’t know Sergey Poliakoff, the painter of color, of forms that enchant us from childhood onwards, of remembered visits to the Musée Maillol, which owns an unrivaled collection of his paintings.
Museums and galleries regularly organize expositions around Polyakoff’s oeuvre. This was the case not so long ago, in fall 2013, at the Museum of Modern Art in Paris, then in London and New York, at the Cheam & Read Gallery. Sergey Poliakoff, despite the Russian origins which form the backbone of his family, is a French painter par excellence. Or, at least, France enjoys celebrating his sense of color and form, as they express the originality of a certain French school in relation to other styles, like the Italian, German or English schools. He is, from this point of view, a counterpoint to the American school. This excellent artist represented France in 1962 at Venice’s Biennale.
Visitng a Poliakoff exposition is like a journey in an abstract universe: you are seized by the colors, from blue to red, forms which seem to interlock one with another. They create a special atmosphere which pulls us almost religiously, like an Orthodox iconostasis; we quiet down to hear the music that it emanates. Before these canvases, we lend ourselves to contemplation: the famous icon of Andrey Roublev (1360-1430), the Holy Trinity, so superbly directed in the 1966 film by Andrey Tarkovsky. This is undoubtedly the reason why Sergey Poliakoff has never left his works unnamed: they are always identified by a number, as if his compositions reflected infinities of formal variations starting from a primary principle. But for me, the works shows a joie de vivre; the painter seems to let his painting lead him to all sorts of experiences.
From Ancient Egypt to haute couture, everything interests him; he doesn’t hesitate to scratch a sarcophagus to understand its material, and one of his works will be reproduced on a famous dress by Yves Saint Laurent. Sergey Poliakoff is an artisan – in the noble sense of the word – of color.
“Poliakoff and Mondrian brought me a rejuvenation and an extraordinary refreshment. They taught me purity, equality. Thanks to them, I no longer see couture as before: women, today, don’t want to be elegant, they want to seduce.” Yves Saint Laurent, l’Express 1965
His story begins in Russia. It tells of a young man who leaves his country in 1917 without even saying goodbye to his mother, whom he will never see again, fleeing the Bolsheviks and the civil war between Whites and Reds.
To make a living, Sergey Poliakoff plays guitar at night in cabarets, in the company of his uncle and aunt. For the Western audience, the Russian cabaret and “gypsy” music exist comfortably beside Western music.
Arriving in Paris in 1923, the artist continues his bohemian lifestyle. He plunges into the intense life of the Montparnasse artists, the Roaring Twenties or les Années Folles. It’s the era of Victor Marguerite’s novel The Bachelor Girl (also known as The Tomboy), where both Europe and France, exhausted after four years of a monstrous civil war and millions of dead, is reborn in Dadaism, Surrealism and the general transgression of established rules. In this artistic cauldron Serge Poliakoff meets the Russian artists Kandinsky, then Delaunay, through whom he meets new artists every Thursday.
He will get to know Otto Freundlich, who was deported and whose work was on the cover of the catalogue of the 1937 Nazi exposition of “degenerate” art, Entartete “Kunst.” This is the same Otto Feundlich whose major work Composition, contemporary of seminal paintings by Kandinsky, Kupka and Delaunay, was acquired (through sponsorship) by the modern art museum of the city of Paris. A tireless worker, Sergey Poliakoff had decided that he would be a painter, as it was his passion. And beginning in 1929, he devotes himself to it totally.
Meeting Dina Vierny he tells her, “I’m a painter,” and she burst with laughter
With painting, this quiet man gives us what he loves, his music, the colors of Orthodox churches, their very material. It is this search for abstraction that pushes him to paint. At the time – however hard it may be to believe today – his project was inconceivable for amateurs of art.
An astonishing man who loves life, he marries the British Marcelle Perreur-Llyod; she believes in his talent. They are two opposite characters that combine marvelously, a bit like the forms and colors of his paintings.
After World War II, in his Vieux Colombier mansion, where he lives with his wife and daughter, he creates a gouache called “Liberation,” a title which references both the freedom after the war and the liberation of abstraction. He was an artist who loved to paint from his own context.
In 1949, Poliakoff becomes Polyakoff.
“And suddenly I met the painter Sergey Poliakoff, who really touched me as much as one can. His is a hot, abstract painting, intelligent and human. The man who penetrates this painting might be profoundly happy. And me — it makes me happy.” – Dina Vierny
He thinks up small, intensely colored formats that he assembles on one large canvas and which leads us directly into these Orthodox churches, havens of silence and of meditation.
Denise René, known for her passion for abstract painters and kinetic art, exposes Poliakoff in her gallery among the artists Vasarely and Hartung.
At night, there’s a Russian-style party. Poliakoff meets with his friends in Saint Germain des Près around large tables, always surrounded by gypsy musicians. I imagine this music shifting from melancholic to lively according to the mood. After fifty years, a consecration: he discovers the life of a prince lost by the Russian revolution — a Rolls Royce, racing horses — but above all he has a great generosity. He has faithful friends, such as the American actor Yul Brynner.
I don’t know if it’s necessary to try to understand something in his paintings, just to contemplate, to let yourself be captivated. The French school holidays are near, and if you have planned an escape to New York, don’t hesitate to visit the Cheam & Read Gallery. If you don’t have the time (or the means) to cross the Atlantic, I invite you to watch the short introductory film from the beautiful retrospective which the Museum of Modern Art in Paris dedicates to Poliakoff, under the commission of Dominique Gagneux. It is a coincidence of time and of place: the Sergey Poliakoff exposition took place in the eastern wing of the Palais de Tokyo, while the first retrospective of his work was organized by the National Museum of Modern Art (today the Centre Pompidou), installed in the western wing. This exposition, which was one of the greatest public successes of the Museum of Modern Art of the City of Paris in 2014, recalls us to his particular place in the artistic universe of George Pompidou: Sergey Poliakoff is also an artist of the “Pompidou years,” alongside painters of “narrative figuration” and practitioners of kinetic art. Who could forget the scene captured in the intimacy of the Pompidou couple, where the president, a cigarette at his lips, in his familiarly good-natured attitude, talks with Claude Pompidou about the hanging of a Poliakoff in their private living room (in l’Elysée or in their apartment on the quai du Béthune?). A Poliakoff hung in a living room at the Fort de Brégançon is captured in a televised report by the ORTF, broadcasted the 31st of July, 1970. Sergey Poliakoff creates a napkin holder, realized by la Manufacture de Sèvres, for a table of the Elysée palace.
Sergey Poliakoff passed away in October of 1969 while preparing a large retrospective on his work (which will take place in 1970) at the National Museum of Modern Art.
Like Kandinsky discovering, in 1939, his first abstract canvas, we are convinced: “For the future, I’m betting on Poliakoff.”
Florence Briat Soulie et Anne Lesage
Translated by Landon Kramer Vassar College, Vassar-Wesleyan Program in Paris Fall 2016.
New York – Galerie Cheim & Read – Serge Poliakoff
30 March – 30 April 2016