Vasilii Shukhaev’s painting – The Finnish Village – was sold for £690,850 ($1,116,414) in London during the “Russian art” auction event by Christie’s
A Finnish village. Roofs has featured in seminal exhibitions of Russian art held at the Galerie La Boëtie and Galerie Barbazanges in Paris and is arguably among the finest of Vasilii Shukhaev’s distinctive series of works depicting the Finnish landscape.
In the wake of the tumult caused by revolution and civil war, in 1920 Shukaev and his wife left Russia and briefly settled in the small border village of Mustamyaki in rural Finland. Isolated from his peers and artistic life, Shukhaev saw Finland as a stepping stone to Paris, the capital of Russian émigré culture. In a letter to I. Myamlin, Shukhaev recounted the sequence of events: ‘In 1920 we found ourselves in Finland. Having learnt that [Alexandre] Iacovleff was in Paris I immediately wrote to him. He tried to arrange French visas for us. While we were students in Rome it was our dream to continue our artistic development in Paris’ (I. Miamlin, Vasilii Ivanovich Shukhaev, Leningrad, 1972, p. 45).
Prior to his departure from Petrograd, Moscow-born Shukhaev had co-founded The Painting Workshop of St Luke with his close friend and peer, Alexandre Iacovleff. Dedicated to the revival of the techniques and ideals of the Old Masters, the workshop played an important role in the development of Russian Neo-classicism. The artists had both studied at the Imperial Academy of Arts in St Petersburg and had been particularly influenced by Dmitry Kardovskii, who cultivated the art of fine draftsmanship and encouraged his students to emulate the palette used by the Old Masters. As Shukhaev later confessed to his old professor, he credited Kardovskii for instilling the importance of technical virtuosity upon the impressionable young artists: ‘You taught us about the possibilities of art and handicrafts; you always told us that you were not making painters but craftsmen out of us. The idea of craftsmanship devours me’ (op. cit. p. 12).
The series of pictures conceived during Shukhaev’s residence in Finland shows the influence of both his formal artistic training and his temporary social dislocation. A Finnish village. Roofs is marked by its restricted palette of browns and its angular shapes, such as the leafless trees stretching into the pale cyan-green sky, and the sharp thorny forms of the roof tops. Miamlin, in his monograph on the artist, goes further to describe the theatrical qualities of A Finnish Village. Roofs: ‘[It is] constructed like a fragment of theatrical decoration, with pointed houses and sharp-cornered roofs. On the porch a woman splashes water out of a basin, with a silhouette in the foreground of a peasant going into a black bath-house’ (op. cit. p. 45).
Like other works in the series, A Finnish village. Roofs is unusual in Shukhaev’s oeuvre for its stark, unmodelled forms and its primitive, almost nave, figures which are reminiscent of the peasant scenes of Natalia Goncharova. Yet, at the same time, obvious allusions can also be drawn to the work of Pieter Bruegel (1525-1569), the Flemish Renaissance painter. Similarly famous for his landscape and peasant genre scenes, he valued and wanted to do justice to the landscape in its own right, rather than depict the work in the genre of history painting. Bruegel’s work is distinguished by its bold contrasts using a strong yet subdued palette.
In 1921 Shukhaev finally joined Iacovleff in Paris and set up a studio in Montparnasse. Together they participated in perhaps the most significant Russian art exhibition of the 1920s, the show organised by the Mir isskustva, or World of Art group, at Galerie Boëtie. Shukhaev’s Finnish series, including A Finnish Village. Roofs, was one of the highlights of the show.