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Sunday, October 25, 2015

Konstantin Somov

Open Door onto a Garden, 1933-34, Konstantin Somov
I suppose everyone had heard at least once, the phrase, "...born with a silver spoon in his/her mouth." The phrase usually brings to mind a person having, by accident of birth, had the positive elements of wealth, education, opportunity, social skills, and moral upbringing all served up on a silver platter and all but guaranteeing womb-to-tomb success in life (depending upon one's definition of success). Or at least, that's what I've been told. God knows, I've known little of that from personal experience. I've always been so middle-class my initials even fall in the middle of the alphabet. Personally, the best I can claim is that I've played reasonably well the cards I've been dealt in life. The same could also be said of the Russian watercolor painter/illustrator, Konstantin Somov, his life, and his silver spoon.

Copyright, Jim Lane
The lower-right image is brilliant. I'll have to try combining a still-life with a self-portrait sometime. (The lower-left image had the date, 1928, inadvertently omitted.)
I suppose it's not surprising that Andrey Ivanovich Somov, a 19th-century curator of the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia, should have a son, Konstantin Somov, who, in childhood, showed the talent and desire to become a painter. His self-portrait montage (above) doesn't go back quite that far, but does present an interesting overview of the artist's development physically, stylistically, and psychologically over the course of his more than forty years as an important creative force in pre-revolutionary Russia. Born in 1869, young Somov's family was far from wealthy by Imperial Russian standards. I suppose today we'd class them as upper middle-class (or lower upper-class?). Andrey Somov, though curator of the imperial art collection and thus having plenty of important "connections" in the Russian art world at the time, was still, simply a government bureaucrat serving at the personal and political whims of Imperial Russian nobility.

The Rainbow, 1928, Konstantin Somov
Young Konstantin's training as an artist, quite naturally began at home, but just as naturally continued at the Imperial Academy of Arts under academic classicist, Ilya Repin, from 1888 to 1897.(Art studies were quite open-ended at the time, dependent more on financial considerations than curriculum or calendar.) So long as you could afford the tuition (which was likely free since his name was Somov), a student could, theoretically, become what we'd term today a "professional student" often up to the time he or she was hired as an academy instructor. There's no indication Konstantin Somov ever taught there, but he certainly made the most of his time there. His Impressionist landscape, The Rainbow (above), from 1928, sold at auction in 2006 for $7.33-million an auction record for Russian art. I'd consider his time at the academy well spent.

Walking in Winter, 1896, Konstantin Somov
Lady and Harlequin (Fireworks),
1912, Konstantin Somov
It's not difficult to spot Somov's major art influences--Fragonard and Watteau. The problem was, both these iconic artists were French (not Russian), and both were from the previous century at the time. Add to that the strict academic demands of Ilya Repin, and it's little wonder much of Somov's work seemed old-fashioned even before their watercolors were dry. Somov's Lady and Harlequin (Fireworks) (left) is reminiscent of the 18th-century French Rococo era. Somov's Walking in Winter (above), from 1896, though obviously referencing the 19th-century in fashion and painting style, at best represents art that, by the early 20th-century. was some fifty years out of date. Somov did a whole series of watercolors based upon the harlequin theme between the years 1910 and 1920.

Lady in Blue. Portrait of the Artist Yelizaveta Martynova, 1900, Konstantin Somov
Dating from around 1900, Somov spent three years working on what some critics consider his most important single work, Lady in Blue (above). The portrait is of the artist, Yelizaveta Martynova. The exceptionally long "work in progress" period was the result of Somov having deliberately painted the portrait in an 18th-century manner, though the results bear a much stronger resemblance to the near-photographic style of the British Pre-Raphaelite of the late 19th century than anything of either French or Russian origin.

Copyright, Jim Lane
Somov's portraits vary in style from Realism to Impressionism to Expression, a trait common among Russian artists during this transitional period from Academicism to various stirrings coming then to be known as "Modern Art."
However, Lady in Blue , regardless of style, is totally different than Somov's other portraits, especially those dating from the 1920s. The upper left painting (above) is of Vladimir Aleksandrovich Somov, a 1925 portrait of the artist's nephew, while the large, central figure is a Portrait of Andrey Somov, the artist's father, from 1897. The lower-right portrait is of the Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninov also dating from 1925.

Copyright, Jim Lane
The male version is at left, the large, oval, Summer Morning, from 1932, is at right.
Finally, one other facet of Somov's work needs to be dealt with. Despite a slightly old-fashioned quality in much of the artist's watercolors and published illustrations, there was nothing the least bit old-fashioned about Somov's nudes. As seen in his self-portraits painted prominently using mirrors, Somov also used mirrors with his nude bedroom scenes as well, as can be noted in his male and female dressing room paintings (above). Much more prominent in Somov's work with nude figures is his love of the male nude (speaking both figuratively and literally). Konstantin Somov was homosexual. Normally I don't mention an artist's sexual orientation unless it plays a significant, pivotal role in his or her overall work. As you can see in the very carefully edited montage (below), Somov meets that criteria. Not only was Somov gay (in today's parlance) but so were most of his friends who were involved in the 1898 founding of their monthly publication World of Art. There are so many paintings by Somov featuring very modern looking, handsome, naked, young men it's hard to pinpoint precisely how many were professional models and how many were lovers. In any case, he seems to have forsaken watercolors in favor of oils or tempera when it came to painting his male nudes.

Copyright, Jim Lane
Most of Somov's nude figures were a good deal less modest or discreetly
posed than these. All are overtly erotic in nature.
The Lovers, 1933, Konstantin Somov
It would do Somov an injustice for me to suggest that all of Somov's nude figures were blatantly homosexual. His The Lovers (right) from 1933, obviously is not. It is, in fact, much more erotic than most of Somov's male bedroom images. It is also, I might add, discreetly cropped for use in this format. I should also take note of the fact that Konstantin Somov had a rather sharp, if somewhat warped, sense of humor as see in his painting of a Greedy Monkey (below) from 1928. His watercolor drawing from Book of the Marquise. Illustration 2, (bottom), from 1918, also suggests this amusing personality disorder.

A Greedy Monkey, 1929, Konstantin Somov
With the coming of the 1918 Russian Revolution, and his more astute reading of the "handwriting on the wall" than we've seen by other Russian artist, Konstantin Somov, with no family ties to speak of, became a traveling man, escorting exhibitions of Russian art to Venice, Rome, Paris, Berlin, Amsterdam, Brussels, Birmingham (UK), Copenhagen, Belgrade, and other culture capitals of Europe during the remaining twenty years of his life. At one point Somov and his traveling roadshow found their way to New York City where he decided to stay while the art went back to mother Russia. He took up residence in the United States, but found the country "absolutely alien to his art." Old-fashioned art and a gay lifestyle don't mix very well (even in New York during the "roaring" 20s). In any case, Somov moved back to Paris, where he died in 1939, shortly before yet another war tried to catch up with him. His Open Door onto a Garden, (top) from 1933-34, is a surprisingly realistic image from the final period in Somov's eighty-year career. Ironically, alive or dead, Somov continued to have one-man shows as late as the 1950s.

Book of the Marquise, Illustration 2, 1918,
Konstantin Somov. A man's gotta do
what a man's gotta do.


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