Le Pouliguen belongs to Boris Grigoriev’s important Breton cycle which brings together paintings and drawings executed in the quiet corners of the northern province of France, far from the comforts of civilisation, in the 1920s following the artist’s emigration.
Grigoriev visited the region for the first time in 1914, on the eve of the First World War. Initially, the outbreak of hostilities prevented his return to Russia. Brittany, long-adored by international artists throughout history, attracted intense interest from Grigoriev’s compatriots from the late 19th until the mid-20th century: Aleksei Bogoliubov (1824-1896), Alexandre Benois (1870-1960), Zinaida Serebriakova (1884-1967), Yuri Annenkov (1889-1974) and André Lanskoy (1902-1976), among others, all found inspiration in this most extraordinary of places and achieved notable success. Grigoriev immediately succumbed to the charms of the French province, with its traditions and unchanging way of life, as if frozen in time; its preservation of national holidays and rituals; and its unique landscape consisting of idyllic rural plains and hills connected by ribbons of seashores and accentuated by the spires of Gothic cathedrals.
Based in Paris since 1920, Grigoriev tried to spend each summer with his family in Normandy and Brittany, where he delighted in the peace and quiet of the cosy seaside towns and, most importantly, where he was able to work zealously without interruption. Consequently, by the mid-1920s, an extensive 'Breton cycle' emerged, comprising various genres based on the artist’s mental observations and pencil sketches. The conceptual core of the cycle is represented by Grigoriev’s portraits of Breton elders, fishermen, children and village musicians, all of which share a characteristic and eternal quality.
Le Pouliguen was painted in 1923, the year Grigoriev spent more than three months in the Villa Fleurie in the small town of Le Pouliguen in Brittany, now in the Loire-Atlantique department. Here, he once more experienced the archaic atmosphere of Brittany. ‘There is a lot of heritage in the villages there. The ineffable ancientness of the inhabitants themselves fascinates me’, the artist admits in one of his first letters from Le Pouliguen to Alexander Shervashidze (1867-1968), a fellow member of Mir iskusstva (letter from Boris Grigoriev to Alexander Shervashidze from 14 June 1923, Bakhmeteff Archive of Russian and Eastern European Culture, Columbia University). Working intensively, the artist created almost fifty works during this period: ‘In the summer I worked tirelessly, creating seven portraits and forty drawings. I’m very tired but tanned and in good spirits’ (letter from Boris Grigoriev to Alexander Shervashidze from 17 August 1923, Bakhmeteff Archive of Russian and Eastern European Culture, Columbia University). Of the works created that summer, the majority are landscapes and views of fishing villages; however, it is the portraits that are the most significant: Le Pouliguen, alongside Breton fisherman and Mother of a fisherman, form a unique triptych. With these compositions, the artist rejects the individuality of the subject in favour a more symbolic representation of the Breton people.
In Le Pouliguen, the young Breton woman tenderly cradles her half-naked baby, while dangling a make-shift mobile of red and gold fish from her upturned palm – an allusion to the main occupation of her village. The modest dark dress, embroidered collar and white transparent cap of her traditional Breton costume, emphasise her silhouette in the closeted interior of the house. The yellow background starkly reveals the slightly weathered face of a young mother, with her enormous eyes directed straight at the viewer. The figures of the mother and child are carefully depicted in warm hues, and the contrast between light and dark forms within the composition creates an internal tension. The fisherwoman’s focused expression, her work-worn hands and the expressive gesture of flat palm lend a universality to the composition. There is a sense of the individual’s subordination to the laws of nature, those which constantly and persistently dictate life, irrespective of nationality.
The ancient cultural context of Brittany, the crystallised structure of its medieval architecture, the wealth of colour of its natural forms and the diversity of its human subjects constantly provided Grigoriev with new figurative, pictorial and textural inspiration. In the paintings created in Le Pouliguen, as with much of the Breton cycle, the Russian master juxtaposed the paradoxical traditions of the Russian academic school with the medieval notions of primitivism, the methods of French cubism and the scenic elements of German New Objectivity.
Grigoriev returned to the figure of the young woman from Le Pouliguen, together with other characters from the cycle, for his monumental Faces of the world, 1920-1931 (the National Gallery, Prague). It is no coincidence that the composition resembles a medieval altarpiece: painted on canvas, the work was divided between seven connected wooden panels, creating a single entity. The depiction of the crowd of faces emphasises the artist’s symbolic intent: to capture a broad range of contemporary ethnicities. Not only are there portraits of recognisable figures from various parts of the world, such as ‘the grandmother of the Russian revolution’ Ekaterina Breshko-Breshkovskaya (1844-1934), the director Vsevolod Meyerhold (1874-1940), the pianist Wanda Landowska (1879-1959), Archbishop Wedgwood (1883-1951), and the Metropolitan Platon (1866-1934), but their spiritual essence, or perhaps more accurately, presence is felt. Grigoriev’s ambitious artistic aim to capture the symbolic faces or liki of mankind also plays with meaning, for lik also denotes a composition of saints, angels and ethereal spirits.
Le Pouliguen is one of the most successful and characteristic of the Breton cycle. The work was included in Grigoriev’s important solo show at the New Gallery in New York that ran from 19 November to 15 December 1923. The artist himself was present at its opening, first arriving in the USA at the invitation of the critic and organiser of the exhibition Christian Brinton (1870-1942), who alongside numerous distinguished guests, including leading actors from the Moscow Art Theatre, Olga Knipper (1868-1959), Ivan Moskvin (1874-1946), Vasily Kachalov (1875-1948) and Konstantin Stanislavski (1863-1938), also attended the opening ceremony. A year later, the painting was exhibited at the Worcester Art Museum in February. Also significant was its inclusion in one of the largest exhibitions of Russian Art in the USA of the 1920s and 1930s, which was held in New York at Grand Central Palace from 8 March to 15 April 1924.
We are grateful to Dr Tamara Galeeva, Senior Lecturer at the Ural State University, Ekaterinburg, for providing this catalogue note.
A DISTINGUISHED HISTORY
This season, almost 100 years after it was painted, Le Pouliguen reappears at public auction. Treasured in a private collection for over fifty years, further research into the painting's history has revealed a fascinating provenance. According to Grigoriev’s unpublished archive, Le Pouliguen, along with Paimpol (also from the Breton cycle) and a self-portrait, were formerly in the collection of Charles E. Merrill (1885-1956), the self-made investment banker who in 1914 founded the firm now known as Merrill Lynch & Co.. Famous for predicting the Wall Street Crash of 1929, Merrill was known as much for his flamboyant lifestyle as he was for his business acumen. Although the extent of Merrill’s connection with Grigoriev has yet to be established, unpublished correspondence suggests that Grigoriev was in touch with Merrill in December 1924. Furthermore, in 1926 Merrill gifted a work on paper by Grigoriev titled Farm Compound (1923) to Mead Art Museum at Amherst College.