Our Notes & References
Fine example of the first English edition of Grigoriev’s celebrated extended cycle of Russian portraits. Limited to 500 copies only, this one num. 7.
Faces of Russia started its life as Grigoriev’s initial project, the album titled ‘Raseya’ (a slang word for peasant Russia), published in Petrograd in 1918. At the time, Grigoriev was already scandalously famous: in 1913 he was expelled from the St Petersburg Art Academy and invited to take part in ‘Mir Iskusstva’ exhibition; in 1916 he produced one of his iconic paintings – a portrait of Vsevolod Meyerhold. In ‘Raseya’, he presented harsh, Cubist-style portraits of Russian peasants – a stark contrast to the idealised image of the spiritual Russian peasant popular in the West at the time. However, the album was neither in line with the Bolshevik vision of the Russian peasant class.
In 1919 Grigoriev left Russia and settled in Europe, where he published the 2nd, expanded, edition of ‘Raseya’: it appeared in Berlin in 1921 in Russian and in 1922 in German. In 1921 Grigoriev moved to Paris, where in 1922 he witnessed the first Paris tour of Stanislavsky’s Moscow Art Theatre (MKhT). The MKhT company performed Aleksei Tolstoy’s “Tsar Fedor Ioannovich”, Gorky’s “The Lower Depths”, and Chekhov’s “Cherry Orchard”. Grigoriev was inspired again: he missed Russia, and Stanislavky’s actors revived in his mind painful images of Russian grandeur and suffering. With his backstage access, he became fascinated by the actors themselves, their transformations: his portrait of Kachalov ‘making himself up for the part of Czar Feodor’ made it into the current edition.
In 1923 the MKhT returned to Paris, with a theatre version of Dostoevsky’s “Brothers Karamazov” added to their repertoire. Grigoriev did three sketches of actors playing Sniegirev, Lise, and Alyosha Karamazov: he intended them to be included in the new edition straight after the theatre tour.
Thus Liki Rossii (Faces of Russia) was born, first in Paris in 1923, and then in London, in 1924. In Faces of Russia, Grigoriev interspersed selected images of Russian peasants from “Raseya” with four new groups of paintings:
– landscape sketches,
– interior sketches,
– portraits of actors of the Moscow Art Theatre,
– images of his children (‘Welt-Kind’, 1921, and ‘Waking Children’ (n.d.)
After Paris, the MkhT toured the USA in 1923 and 1924. “At the moment of the Moscow Art Theatre debut, the Brooklyn Museum produced the greatest Ryssian Art exhibition that included more modern artists than have ever been gathered together even in Russia … It was on this occasion that America got to know the work of Boris Grigoriev” (Sheridan). The overview of the American reception, by Clare Sheridan, sculptor and friend of Winston Churchill, is included in the current edition. Sheridan became interested in Russia after her meeting with Kamenev in London in 1920, following which she visited Moscow and created busts of Lenin, Dzerzhinsky, and Leon Trotsky. Sheridan wrote her article on Grigoriev after her family’s disapproval of her Russian connections forced her to move to New York.
Along with Sheridan’s essay, the edition includes essays by Louis Reau (director of the French Institute of Saint-Petersburg in Russia before the Revolution), Andre Levinson (famous ballet historian), Claude Farrere (French novelist), and Andre Antoine (French actor, theatre manager and critic). In total, the book contains 30 illustrations, including full-page plates and tipped in reproductions of Grigoriev’s work.
“…You ask me how I came to paint the series of pictures entitled ‘Visages Russes.’ I have been watching and studying the Russian people for many years, both before and since the war and revolution, and these paintings are the fruits of my observation. If, during the revolution, I have been studying the people so intently, and if the work I have done at this period manifests its spirit so frankly and strongly, it may be due to the fact that circumstances compelled me to remain in Russia so long without leaving. My conception of the Russian people is both intuitive and artistic. Even as a child I was struck by the animal aspect of the Russian people. It is this same animal that I see in the Russian peasant of today, and I am glad to note that Gorky has come to a similar conclusion, for Gorky’s impression proves that I had a clearer vision of reality than those who were idealizing the Russian masses, or did not know the actual Slav…” (From a letter from Boris Grigoriev to curator Christian Brinton, printed in the exhibition catalogue for Grigoriev’s 1923 exhibition at the Worcester Art Museum).
“Among many Russian artists, dispersed all over the world by the blast of October Revolution, Boris Grigoriev is doubtless one of the most interesting and the most remarkable” (Louis Reau)
“Some consider him a “Bolshevik” in painting, others are offended by his “Raseya”, others still are eager to comprehend through him the iconic essence of a mysterious Slavic person, silent as a stone, and some turn away with anger, saying “Raseya” is a lie, there is no such Russia and never was… You carry this birch-bark Russia in yourselves, that is why his paintings are so moving, through them you look deep into your own self, where at the bottom sleeps this birch-bark yearning, still not expurgated, deaf – this wrinkle of the ancient land.” (Aleksei Tolstoi, in his Preface to 1922 edition of “Raseia”).
Pikkon-Vallen Beatris. “I dol’she veka dlitsya teatr: russkiy teatr vo Frantsii: gastroli, vstrechi, spektakli, obrazovatel’nyye proyekty”, Voprosy teatra, no. 1-2, 2014, pp. 183-196.
Antipova, R.N. “Khudozhestvennaya zhizn 1920-kh gg.”, Pskov, no. 13, 2000.