Serge Poliakoff was a key member of the School of Paris and contributor to the rise of abstraction following the Second World War. Celebrated for his poetic approach to colour and a daring exploration of form, Poliakoff’s abstract aesthetic was greatly influenced by his meeting with Wassily Kandinsky in 1938.
Poliakoff was one of countless Russians that fled the Revolution in 1917, eventually settling in Paris in 1923 after travelling through Constantinople, Belgrade, Vienna and Berlin. Playing the guitar at night in the city’s cabarets, Poliakoff made his living as a musician while training as an artist at the Académie Forchot and Académie de la Grande Chaumière. However, it was only at the Slade School of Art in London in 1935 that Poliakoff first truly discovered abstract painting.
With this innovative control of form and colour, Poliakoff sought to achieve what he called “le silence complet”: a singular moment when all the aspects of a work of art are entirely resolved. He described this as “when a painting is silent it means it is successful. Some of my paintings begin with turmoil. They are explosive. But I am satisfied only when they become silent. A form has to be listened to and not be looked at.”
In this wonderful late example from the ‘forme unique’ series, Poliakoff reduces his composition to simple central shapes in red and white. Focusing on the power of individual form, Poliakoff gives the impression that a resolved composition can extend forever beyond the edges of the canvas. In his Cahier I (1965) Poliakoff explained this concept saying, “Painting should be monumental, that is to say larger than its dimensions.” The single potent form also has a spiritual significance in Poliakoff’s oeuvre as it references the artist’s relationship to the majestic relics and altarpieces of his youth in Moscow. Indeed, Poliakoff saw painting as a ‘holy art’ and relished the mystical quality that Russian icons shared with his work.
For Poliakoff, however, the significance of form was really activated by the confrontation between colours. This understanding of colour theory was crucially influenced by the harmonies of Simultaneous Contrast and Orphism in the work of Otto Freundlich, and Sonia and Robert Delaunay. A regular guest at the couple’s soirées from 1938, Poliakoff joined a group of young artists exploring the resonance of colour, injecting a further vitality into his palette with handmade pigment. Poliakoff explained the careful balance between colour and form saying, “If you let it your colour will take charge of you. Similarly with your forms: the spontaneous form for an artist to use is always an organic one, but you’ve got to be in control of it. A child will use all the colours in the box at once, instinctively, and if you don’t want to make that same mistake...”
Poliakoff achieved great success during his lifetime, with a retrospective of his work at the Whitechapel Gallery, London (1963), and displays at Documenta III (1964) and Venice Biennale (1962). Poliakoff’s work can now be found in international collections such as Tate, UK; Stedelijk Museum, The Netherlands; Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, USA; Museum of Modern Art, USA; Musée d’Art modern de la Ville de Paris, France; Museum Ludwig, Germany; Moderna Museet, Sweden; Kunstmuseum Basel, Switzerland; Museum of Modern Art, Rio de Janeiro, Brasil; Museo de Arte modern de la Ciudad Buenos Aires, Argentina; and Centre Georges Pompidou, France.
Collection Doctor Bachmann, Teufen
Galerie Malingue, Paris
Private collection, Italy
Musée National d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, 23 September – 16 November 1970, N°81
Kunstverein, St-Gall, Ostchweizer privatbesitz, N°37, 1977
Kunstmuseum, St-Gall, Sammlung T, N°65, 1988
Musée National d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, 17 October 2013-22 February 2014
Giuseppe Marchiori, Serge Poliakoff, Paris 1976, ill. p.110-111
Kunstmuseum, Sammlung T, catalogue de l’exposition, St-Gall, 1988, N°65, ill.
Françoise Brütsch, Serge Poliakoff, editions Ide et Calendes, 1993, ill. p.69
This work is accompanied by a certificate issued by Alexis Poliakoff and dated 15 May, 2011.