Born in Russia, the painter Serge Poliakoff was one of the major figures of the Paris School, to whom we owe a renewal of abstraction in the post-war period. His compositions, made of free, nested shapes and layered with large blocks of colour, reflect his research on the intensity of colour, the balance of construction, and the effects of the vibration and transparency of matter, since “transparency gives life.” Over the course of more than three decades of work focused on pure abstraction, Poliakoff expressed his personal approach on many substrates, canvases, papers, lithographs, even stage sets.
The artist’s biographers like to recount his romantic life. Born in Moscow in 1900, he fled the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, wandering from Constantinople to London before settling on Paris as the city of choice, where he lived a bohemian life for many years as a guitarist in Russian cabarets. It is not insignificant to recall this long journey, to emphasise that Poliakoff’s success came late, and that it took him a good twenty years to train and emerge from his first classes at various painting academies, including that of the Grande Chaumière.
Some encounters were decisive, and allowed Poliakoff to discover abstraction. The first one was with Vassily Kandinsky, in 1937, when the Bauhaus closed. Although he did not retain everything of his approach, his encounter with the great Master of Abstraction was a decisive turning point and strengthened him in the pursuit of his own path. Thanks to the Delaunay couple, whom he frequented regularly from 1938, he was introduced to the theory of simultaneous contrasts. But he was probably closest to Otto Freundlich, whom he met the same year. This great humanist’s compositions in fragmented chromatic planes, his sensitivity, and his search for the balance of colours and forms made a great impression on him.
These encounters and the evolution towards pure abstraction echoed the visual shocks that gave his pictorial approach an almost mystical dimension. In the lingering memory of the Russian churches that his mother showed him as a child, there remained a fascination for the mysterious, severe beauty of religious icons, the partitioning of their colours and the juxtaposition of spaces. Later, during his visit to the British Museum, he discovered the Egyptian sarcophagi and scratched the surface of one of them. He discovered that the superposition of layers of matter allowed for the effects of transparency and vibration. Decisive impressions and fundamental lessons succeeded each other, from which Poliakoff drew an eternal body of work.
This work, identifiable at a glance, is anchored in the pure dialogue of forms and colours. This formal language, taken for itself, is the living, vibrant matter that Poliakoff, like a great architect, used to build subtle and unique compositions, in a constant search for the interconnected balance of forms. Beyond this technique, the originality of Poliakoff’s work resides in its sensual and meditative dimension. Upon contemplating it, the spectator feels a powerful interiority, a certain invitation to calm, which partly escapes analysis but is undeniably based on the static tension of the composition.
In 1945, his first solo exhibition at the Esquisse Gallery paved the way for recognition. His first solo exhibition in the United States took place in 1953 at the Circle & Square Gallery in New York. In 1962, a room was devoted to him at the Venice Biennale and he was granted French nationality. He was awarded the Kandinsky Prize in 1947 and the Tokyo Biennale prize in 1965. His first major retrospective took place shortly after his death in 1970 at the Musée d’Art Moderne in Paris. Poliakoff’s works have been integrated into the collections of many museums including the Tate Gallery, the Centre Pompidou, the MOMA and the Kunstmuseum in Bern.