Zinaida Serebriakova and the Soviet Nude


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At The Dressing Table, 1909, by Zinaida Serebriakova

If you were asked to write from memory what you can remember of a painting in words, it is quite a task, but quite a revealing one, because it highlights the details you focussed upon. I for example remember a young woman in her early twenties, sat before a mirror, she is attending to her hair. The painting is exuberant, even cheerful in its characterisation of the sitter and in the choice of the palette. I got the impression of youth and joy of life. It was a portrait of optimism and above all confidence in being a woman. The other impression was that it seemed very modern despite being painted a century ago.

Now I am looking at the portrait. It is an autobiographical portrait – the sitter is the painter herself, Zinaida Serebriakova (1884-1967). Notice the use of white in the modelling of the face and in nearly every object. It is white that reflects back to us as the viewer and gives us here a sense of the brightness – look how the linen in the reflection is used to contrast and delineate her face and hair, how the planes of white lead into each other.

There are other interesting elements in this portrait. When we look at the portrait we realise that though it has depth of field, it is mostly outside of the body and the objects, flat like the abstracts of the same period. We can see this in the following detail which I have abstracted:

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Of course the abstraction here is an exaggeration, but nevertheless one can see that the artist was treating the painting in terms of planes and masses in a modernist manner. The painting though as a whole does come across as being, in its deference to modelling and tonality, an example of the portraiture common in the late nineteenth century – except for the demeanour of the sitter which is one of control. She is relaxed and despite the off the shoulder look, she is not being solicitous. Indeed if we look at the Freudian iconography – particularly the candles which seem in an eroticized reading to be phallic – the wicks are out and limp! Perhaps this is part of the humour of the painting. Such a reading is not to be scorned, because in 1909 when this self portrait At the Dressing Table was painted, it was the Fin de siècle or Silver Age period in Russian cultural history – a time of cultural, social and political experimentation. It was, in other words, during the height of the avant-garde movements.

It was also a time when the limits of artistic expression were to be tested. In the following year Natalie Goncharova’s twenty or so nudes were confiscated by the Russian police on the grounds that they were pornographic. Nobody would have paid much attention to the nudes, because they were fairly tame by the standards of the day, if it was not for a male reporter who in a tabloidesque manner sensationalised the exhibition, referring to the explicit nature of the paintings – which was palpably untrue. Nevertheless the establishment reacted. Though Goncharova was acquitted, the fact she had been charged signalled male chauvinism, since one could find in the period literary journals and gazettes which contained numerous examples of pornographic images that were accepted by the authorities.

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Nude, circa  1906, by Natalia Goncharova

In her defence, as we can see in this painting above, Goncharova was actually painting against the genre of the nude, especially the academic nude. Her paintings, while depicting the naked body, cannot be said to be a celebration of the body from a woman’s perspective, nor remotely erotic from a male’s gaze as claimed by the reporter. Actually the model here seems rather bored! Maybe this put off those Russian oligarchs who have been recently busily buying Russian art but left this one in the auction house. The painting above is stylistically similar to the later painting of Ida Rubinstein by Valentin Serov (1865-1911) painted in 1910:

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Ida Rubinstein,  1910, by Valentin Serov

In this painting we see the division of the canvas into two principle colour fields, and the use of the scarf to define depth. Though it is in some respects more decorative than abstract, the painting is “flatter” than his many society portraits. Returning to the central painting by Serebriakova you will see that the dressing table has many traditional motifs which belong to Russian folklore and decorative arts:

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Both Serebriakova and Goncharova, though members of avant-garde movements, were heavily influenced by Russian folklore and culture. This is not surprising as we only have to turn to the early work of one of the greatest abstract artists of the twentieth century, Wassily Kandinsky, (1866-1944), to find Russian folklore informing his key paintings. Though in many of these cases the modern artists were looking at the peasants, their life styles and their religion from an aesthetic point of view, Kandinsky for example, was also keen on painting nobility in historical – though abstracted – settings. For Kazimir Malevich the cult of the Peasant held a tremendous sway over his early art and his later abstracts. However, just as Gustav Mahler took the tunes of the fairground and turned them into symphonies, Kandinsky, impressed by the colours of the Russian landscape and culture, created the first abstract paintings – and one could see his abstract art works which have a chromatic musicality about them, as symphonies based on those impressions. Other artists, notably the realist Repin, would paint the Russian people from less distance: certainly there is a world of difference between a Repin portrait of a woman and a Serov portrait. In this respect, Serebriakova’s self portrait is more honest to the “Itinerant” or realist school; even though the pearls signify wealth, her appearance is closer to that of a peasant woman.

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Reclining Nude, 1930, Zinaida Serebriakova

In this nude portrait of 1930 we see a real mixture of influences of anachronistic styles. The composition is rococco in form and oriental in tone (See the Boucher paintings in my previous essay on this site). The face belongs to an Ingres portrait. Unlike the Goncharova nude, here the body is sensual, the sensuality emphasised by the texture and volumes in the fabrics. It is a self portrait and seems more serious than her self portrait at the dressing table – perhaps she painted from life rather than a photograph. The nude started in all probability as a drawing – and in this respect might be said to be less painterly. Also there is overall tone homogeneity in comparison with the Fauvist coloration in the Goncharova nude. Compare this nude with the nude by the younger Russian born Art Deco artist Tamara de Lempincka (1898-1980):

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Nude with Dove, 1928, Tamara de Lempincka

In the painting there is an interplay between the geometical forms of the torso and the flesh. It is also stresses sexuality more than sensuality. The Serebriakova nudes are generally softer in tones and the musculature is less defined. In the nude by Lempicka we also have an example of a figurative abstract after the great abstract revolution that started in 1907 with Pablo Picasso’s cubist Les Demoiselles d’Avignon – it is the kind of painting more acceptable to patrons from High Society than the cubist or futurist nudes where the body is segmented. Here is an example of Lubov Popova drawn in 1914:

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Nude drawing, Lubov Popova

I have for the most part been analysing the formal aspects of the nude i.e., the Kenneth Clark (1956) approach to the nude which more or less looked as I have done at the form of the nude; this has been superseded by orthodox feminist criticism that looks at the nude as a contested genre and space. In this view Natalie Goncharova’s anti-academic nudes challenged the phallocentric establishment. Whereas the Lempicka nudes are problematic; because though they seem to accede to the demands of the male gaze they could, in a 1980’s feminist optics, sport with the narrative and provide another level of pleasure available to the female as well.

What then of the Serebriakova nudes? They are not in the sense of the modernist art canon really striking – there is no deconstruction of the female body, nor are they particularly provocative in their poses. One needs only have to compare them with the other nudes of the period by Henri Matisse or Amedeo Modigliani. But this might not be the whole truth because when she painted her nudes during the Silver Age period she did so as a challenge to the male dominated genre – as did Goncharova. The very act of a woman artist painting a nude of herself was a feminist act in that she became the subject rather than object.

This notion of the artist or even the model being able to engage in the same practices as men, without succumbing to alienation or gender heresy, is very contentious. Today in the era of post-pornography, where pornography as a cultural space of the male has been opened to feminist empowerment (through “cunt” power politics), the re-framing or re-figuring of women’s art on those terms has perhaps over emphasised the synchronic over the diachronic or historical context. They also often forget that women artists had to earn money, and this meant they had to negotiate with a male dominated art market. Consider by way of example, Anais Nin’s apparently duplicitous role in her writing pornography for a male orientated market, and her private-but-public erotic exposes in her autobiographical writings. What’s the difference? That’s at the heart of the problem of the nude.

We could also tackle another perspective of the nude – in terms of political ideology. Serebriakova’s dressing table portrait was used for a Russian postage stamp, signalling her acceptance by the post-Soviet Russia. Like numerous Russians she has, after the war, been claimed by the country of her origin, namely Ukraine. On top of this she was Catholic and not Russian Orthodox. Her husband died of typhus – a man who believed in the communist future. Although she came from a family noted for being part of the intelligentsia, she was, like the other avant-garde artists, in favour of a New Russia, and took an active role in the 1920’s cultural scene, one determined by Soviet ideals. Her brother went on to become a leading social realist. Does any of this have a bearing directly on the nude? Certainly if we look at the work of Alexander Deyneka, (1899-1969), one of the “greatest” Soviet figurative artists, we can see a classical example of propaganda in the depiction of the body.

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Play With Ball, Alexander Deyneka

The paintings that took Adolf Hitler’s credo “Art and Power” to heart are those that extol atheleticism, healthiness, and race. In this painting we have all three. The cult of the body goes back to the Nineteenth century and the various naturalist movements that sprang from gymnastic clubs. However, one can see in this picture the typical dilemma of the male artist who wants also to include the erotic – two of the players are not really engaged with the game! At roughly the same time Serebriakova painted the nude below:

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Reclining Nude, 1935, Zinaida Serebriakova

This painting would not have passed the Stalinist-run art institutions’ standards as the pose is 1) not maternal (connoting Mother Russia or Soviet Mother) 2) atheletic 3) ethnic or ethographical. But the head with rosy apple cheeks is typical of socialist realist women’s heads. The Soviet Union would have to wait many years until a nude like the above could be accepted – and now such paintings are in great demand, the market directed by the fact it is Russian and erotic to a certain extent. If we compare the painting with the 1911 nude, we see that it is altogether rougher in the outlines and the flesh tones, especially the pinks, are in the ascendant – exaggerating the nipples. Also note the pubic hair, something that troubled the censors for years. Unless you were depicting tractor operators:

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Tractor driver, 1942, Arkady Alexandrovich Plastov

The two operators here were obviously painted in a studio. The poses belong to the classical tradition stretching back to the Ancient Greeks. Indeed, the arms behind the head as in the Serebriakova painting and the above one by Plastov (influenced clearly by Lovis Corinth among others) connotes, in nude semiotics, sexual availability and vulnerability. Artists working under dictatorships, especially men, frequently found wherever possible a space to express their libidinal needs. Look at the ambivalence in this next painting. On the one hand Plastov is propagandising the “mother” and the sacrifices made by Russian women – but he is also using it as an opportunity to paint the nude in a less atheletic pose.

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Spring, 1954, Arkady Alexandrovich Plastov

The woman in the painting of 1954, above, has a mythological or unworldy look to her. One point to note is that the colour red is not so significant. In most socialist realist paintings red has to be included as a symbol of the Revolution. One could see in these paintings a battle going on between the past and the present. The women in the tractor painting, belong to a time before the tractor. Also who is the person in pink on the cart looking at them? A voyeur? The people’s artist V.A. Serov (1910-1968) painted a historical picture of two soldiers after the storming of the Winter Palace:

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Rest after Storming The Winter Palace, 1954, Vladimir Alexsandrovich Serov (1910-1968)

In this painting the juxtapositioning of the two soldiers against the gold relief and the opulence of the palace’s decor is meant to be satirical and was sanctioned by the Soviet establishment – it was painted in 1954. The male sculpture has a fig leaf and the female sculpture directly above is bare breasted. That was the typical of the Tsarist double standards  and was the Soviet way too – when there was a protest about the lack of beauty in the Socialist Realist art, it often was male artists wanting to paint female bodies. These double standards also exist today in Russia and Ukraine where freedom of expression has sanctioned pornography as art. We also see in the USSR, like in Imperial Britain, a bifocal approach to “the Other”. They were to be included in the supranational territory as “citizens”, but they were to be studied and ultimately sexualised as one found in the geographical magazines which were ruthlessly ethnoscopic in design.

What of Serebriakova’s pastels like this one:

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A Young Moroccan Girl, 1928, Zinaida Serebriakova

Is the work beautiful because the “object” is different? Does her difference make the pastel more “desirable”? Again, the painting is anachronistic and similar to, say, the French and German Orientalists – the very artists who Edward Said deconstructed! An example of this is the Odalisque by Ingres:

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Odalisque with Slave, 1839, by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780-1867)

This painting above actually provides us with an excellent point of departure for re-reading the Serebriakova nudes – because nearly all her nudes have an identical pose with the arms behind the head, and many have that generalised palette which gives the impression of a sculpture. The Ingres painting has often been interpreted as a male fantasy – the woman who is a slave and available whenever the man needs her. If we could in a rather flippant manner compare the erotics of art to drug addiction, then these nudes are like C class drugs or C class (soft) pornography with all the problems that entails. Does Serebriakova deserve her reputation? Can we criticize her art after the Silver Period as being anachronistic, and racist at times? Can a female nude painting by a woman of a different ethnic background be excused because the painting is by a woman?

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Portrait d’une négresse, 1800, by Marie-Guillemine Benoist de Laville-Leroux (1768-1826)

These questions perplex and confront those campaigning to recover the woman artist and her canon. Does she “own” the female body when she paints it – or is the painting like all art open to arbitariness? When someone takes “an innocent” picture of themselves, where they sincerely believe that it is “beautiful”, the same photograph taken out of context becomes pornography. Can the body lose its carnality? The Soviet nude shows us that like the Nazi nude, she is at once a symbol of the power of the state (why else did Queen Victoria approve?), a mother, a symbol of healthiness, of racial supremacy (or dominance), and at the same time the object of carnal interest. The famous Cranach nudes reveal this bifocality quite well, where a system of symbols – Christian iconology –  could also be re-read or decoded by the viewer in terms of carnality. All those naked virgins were no different from the page three tabloid girls – except the context was “religious”. One was not supposed to read sex into the body. A painting which I think sums up this dual reading quite nicely is this one by the artist Nikolay Borisovich Terpsykhorov in 1924.

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First Slogan, 1924, Terpsykhorov, Nikolay Borisovich  (1890 -1960)

The painting, like The Rest after Storming the Winter Palace, is intended to demonstrate that the art of the bourgeoisie is now over, and artists are finding new avenues for their creativity. Notice how the statue on the right is of a man and symbolises strength. But look at the copy of Venus de Milo. She is completely ignored by the man – yet she is still a nude and the male sculpture’s hand is almost grabbing her breasts which are the second main focus of the painting:

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Somehow the Soviet male artist needed an outlet for his fantasies and this was provided ironically by using the very same objects of desire that once captivated the aristocrats.

Stephen Pain was born in London in 1956. He studied art at Herefordshire College, later went to UEA and studied literature. He worked abroad then came back to do a law degree. He has had poetry published in New Poetry, Snakeskin, Dada, Pif etc. Currently a researcher in zoosemiotics based in Denmark.




  • bjorn

    Thank you for an interesting article. I recently attended an exhibit with several of Serebriakova’s paintings – mostly nudes – and was blown away. I’ve since read some brief bios, and now some intelligent commentary.

  • Not “Lempincka” – she’s “Lempicka” (Łępicka in polish) and she was born in Poland, not in Russia.
    But still thank you for the article – I’m writing an essay about Serebriakova so it was very helpfull.

  • stephenpain

    Yes you are right on two counts – apologies