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Serge Poliakoff | The dream of forms

The Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris is devoting a large-scale retrospective to the abstract painter Serge Poliakoff (1900-1969): in all, some 70 paintings and many works on paper from the period 1936-1969. Since 1970 there has been no significant exhibition of the work of this major representative of the School of Paris in what became his home city. Lauded by such leading historians of abstraction as Charles Estienne, Michel Ragon and Dora Vallier, and championed by dealers Denise René and Dina Vierny, Poliakoff drew the interest of many private collectors.

The exhibition is laid out in sequences revolving around key works: from his exploratory years and the postwar period – when he was part of the abstract avant-garde, showed in various salons and caught Kandinsky’s eye – until the more pared-down modernity of the late paintings (1968-1969).

Like all practitioners of full abstraction, Poliakoff was concerned with the relationships between line and surface, form and content, colour and light. But the apparent formal unity of his works conceals a host of painterly solutions clearly revealed by the exhibition itinerary. Crucial here are concentration of colour, vibrancy of texture and skilful arrangement of forms that balance each other in contained, energetic tension.
This is the interpretation offered by an exhibition that demonstrates the singularity of an especially sensitive approach and the intense spirituality of a body of work rigorously focused on what Pierre Guéguen called the ‘dream of forms in themselves which is the great mystery of “the abstract”‘.
The presentation is rounded off by a cluster of gouaches, while other projects involving fabrics, stained glass and ceramics underscore Poliakoff’s fruitful relationship with the ornamental.

The exhibition is backed up by a mass of documentary material – photographs and visual and sound archives –providing an insight into the painter’s life. The tumultuous beginnings of a young Russian emigrant fleeing the revolution; the postwar artistic ambience; and ultimately the years of success, during which his work attracted the attention of such figures from the worlds of politics, fashion and the cinema as Yves Saint-Laurent, Greta Garbo, Yul Brynner and Anatol Litvak; but most of all, the young art scene of the 1960s, which saw Poliakoff as one of painting’s most radical modernists.

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