Igor Markevitch

Magazine issue: 

* Abridged version of Markevitch Igor. "Etre et avoir  été'/Now & Before/Paris: Gallimard, 1980. Pp. 30-36, 113; 137-138.


Igor Markevitch (1912-1983)
at the house of his brother,
the cellist Dmitry Markevitch.
On the wall is the portrait of
their mother, Zoya
painted by Pavel Tchelitchew.
Paris Photo. 1960s

Not too long before the outbreak of World War I, the Markevitch family had to leave Russia due to the father’s illness. They first lived in Paris, and then in Switzerland, which is where Igor spent his early childhood. Later, when his parents settled down in Vienna, Igor started school there, learnt foreign languages as well as the piano, under his father’s instruction. When he was ten, his father died of tuberculosis, leaving his wife and three children in a difficult financial situation. However, the boy did not abandon his musical education. At the age of 12, he composed his first musical piece for the piano, “Wedding”, which was published in 1925. When the famous French pianist and conductor Alfred Cortot listened to it, he convinced Zoya to take her son to Paris to receive serious instruction in music. The Paris School of Music offered free boarding to the talented teenager. At the time, the family was receiving significant financial support from Vera Pokhitonova-Bienaime, Ivan Pokhitonov’s elder daughter. As he studied music, Markevitch gave piano classes and made money by orchestrating musical pieces by other composers. He studied musical theory and composition with Nadia Boulanger and Paul Dukas. With time, Igor Markevitch became a great pianist and composer.

In 1928, Markevitch signed a contract with Sergei Diaghilev who had become interested in the talented and promising composer. Under this contract, Markevitch wrote a piano concerto and began working on the music for the ballet “The Emperor’s New Clothes”, based on Andersen’s short tale: Serge Lifar was to be the choreographer and Pablo Picasso was to create the design. Along with Diaghilev, the young composer came to London, where he performed his concerto in 1928 in Covent Garden, and was well received. Diaghilev died two months after that, and the ballet he had envisioned was never staged. Markevitch continued to write music for ballet, including “Rebus” (1931) and “Flight of Icarus” (1933), composed pieces for vocals and symphony, and wrote publications on musical theory.

In 1932, Markevitch began working as a conductor, and his brilliance was soon acknowledged. His artful technique encouraged an atmosphere of freedom and creativity among orchestral musicians, and contributed to a better understanding of complex musical pieces.

Markevitch’s association and friendship with Feodor Chaliapin, Igor Stravinsky and Sergei Prokofiev had a great influence on his work. At about the same time he started to work in cooperation with Vaslav Nijinsky. In 1936, Igor Markevitch married Nijinsky’s daughter Kyra, but soon after the birth of their son Vaslav the couple went their separate ways.

After the divorce, Markevitch lived and worked in Italy. During World War II, he joined the Resistance, and was awarded the medal “Partisan of Northern Italy”. In 1947, Markevitch married Countess Topazia Caetani; they had three children, a daughter Allegra born in 1950, another daughter Natalya in 1951, and a son Oleg in 1956.

After World War II, Markevitch devoted himself to conducting. He worked as a guest conductor at the Boston Symphony Orchestra, in Stockholm, Montreal and Havana, as well as the Charles Lamoureux Orchestra in Paris. He first came on tour to the Soviet Union in 1960. During his next trip to Moscow in 1963, Markevitch held a four-month seminar for conductors at the Moscow Conservatory; he marked this occasion by adapting for orchestra six songs by Modest Mussorgsky, which were performed by Galina Vishnevskaya.

It was then that a personal exhibition of Ivan Pokhitonov’s work, initiated by Markevitch, was held at the Tretyakov Gallery1. Later in life, Markevitch described in his memoirs, among other things, how the idea for the exhibition originated: “The same beneficial environment - bringing us closer to the West - I also found in my early life in my maternal grandfather, the artist Ivan Pavlovich Pokhitonov. We will see that his life ended in seclusion due to some curious circumstances, and our family knew next to nothing about him until I discovered his work and started looking for information about his modest but charming talent. In 1963, I organised a retrospective exhibition of Ivan Pokhitonov’s oeuvre at the Tretyakov Gallery, and wrote a preface essay about my grandfather2. The exhibition brought together 240 paintings, including two portraits by Repin. The paintings came from Soviet museums and private collections, including my own, which had about 50 works by Pokhitonov. There is quite a comprehensive bibliography on his work in the Soviet Union.3

The overwhelming success of this exhibition4, albeit on a larger scale, was repeated by the anniversary exhibition of Pokhitonov’s art at the Tretyakov Gallery in 2010. It gave an incentive to revisit the study of Pokhitonov’s heritage, and to attempt to solve the many mysteries of his complicated life, using documents from the family archives of the artist’s descendents, including Igor Markevitch’s memoirs.5

Eleonora Paston


<...> It is rather difficult to give due credit to Pokhitonov’s art, since we are talking about great dimensions expressed on a very small scale. The issue is not about the miniature size of his paintings; the spaces he created in his paintings are sometimes [visualised - Ed] so much larger than the painting itself that they become something really exceptional, not seen before. Ivan Pokhitonov’s contemporaries realised that, and they were never mistaken. Even during his first stay in Paris in 1877, artists of different persuasions acknowledged his talent. He became friends with Gustave Moreau, Guillaumet, Harpignies, Baudry, and Carrière. Pokhitonov lived at Carrière’s studio in Impasse Helene close to the Avenue de Clichy, and some time later rented this studio for himself. A critic wrote at the time of how amazed Meissonier was at the perfection, palette and texture of Pokhitonov’s paintings, and praised their “phenomenal organisation”. For my part, I agree with [Ivan] Turgenev, who preferred Pokhitonov to Meissonier, as in his opinion, the texture of Pokhitonov’s paintings was decidedly superior to Meissonier’s. Turgenev, who was godfather to Vera Pokhitonova, my mother’s elder sister, talked with admiration about the artist. In describing the portrait Pokhitonov painted of him, Turgenev called it “fuller of life than life itself’ (the work is now at the Tretyakov Gallery).

What I especially like about Ivan Pavlovich is how demanding he was of his own art, and I think I inherited that attitude from him. In his story “The Sealed Angel”, Nikolai Leskov describes the manner in which the icon painters worked when they still carried on the great tradition of Andrei Rublev and the “Gorodets” style of painting: he might have been writing about my grandfather. The love and humility with which Pokhitonov selected wood panels, underpinned them with transverse planks to make sure the wood does not warp, covered them with thick, dark primer, and sometimes allowed years to pass before he went on to paint his skies on them
- all that belonged to a different time. It was with the same diligence that I laboured over the new sound space for my “Paradise Lost”. Even after the painting had dried, Pokhitonov did not cease his efforts to make it perfect
- he polished it with os de seiche (cuttlebone), turned it around and caressed it with his beautiful knotty hands as if he wanted to warm it with his breath. This regard for his work ensured such unfailingly fresh colours. What a miracle the human eye is, capable of taking in such radiance!

... It was Paris that let Ivan Pavlovich understand himself at the age of 27 In this melting pot of cultures
- I too would experience how invigorating it was - my grandfather’s non-conformism suddenly emerged. His penchant for the boheme - like that of a gypsy, maybe?
- made him forget the Department of Natural Sciences, and his prudent plans to manage the family estate and finances. Goodbye, calves and cows, pigs and hens.
Pokhitonov exhibited his first paintings, and instantly received commissions and contract offers. I saw his 70- year contract with Georges Petit, with monthly payments of 1,000 francs in gold and no obligations as to the volume of work the artist was to produce. It was a prosperous and careless time, when one gallery could provide for a painter until he was aged 100...

Echoes of Pokhitonov’s success in Paris reached the ears of Alexander III, who commissioned the artist to travel to Bulgaria and paint a series of landscape panels of the places where, as the heir to the Russian throne, he had lived in camps during the Russo-Turkish war. Later on, when my grandfather was asked about his reaction to the Emperor’s commission, he gave the answer of an accomplished artist: “By that time, I had already mastered my craft enough to be able to forget that I was working on commission.”

For her part, the Empress Maria Fedorovna charged Pokhitonov with painting those French landscapes which her son Georgy had admired during the illness that was eventually to take his life. As a result, my grandfather and grandmother were married in Chernivtsi [Chernovtsi] in Bulgaria, and my mother was born in Pau. Due to the same commissions, my grandfather was pronounced a “landscape and battle painter” when he was admitted to the Imperial Academy of Arts...

Pokhitonov met Matilda von Wulffert in Paris. My grandmother was studying medicine there, which was a sign of real free-thinking in her social circle. Like most of the Finnish upper classes, her family was of German- Swedish descent. Matilda also had a French grandmother, nee Parizot de la Valette, whose ancestor, a Grand Master of the Order of Malta, in 1566 founded the port which would be named after him. Matilda’s father, Baron von Wulffert6, was a general; a brave warrior, he fell completely under the influence of his wife, a woman of stern and puritanical character. I am afraid my grandmother may have inherited that inability to accept opinions contrary to her own. They both thought that they had strength of character, and really they were difficult by nature, and were equally proud of it.

My grandmother proudly proclaimed herself a feminist; to this day I remember a photograph of the Women’s League of Helsingfors (now Helsinki). What a blood-churning sight! Luckily, under no circumstances would one ever find such aggressive masculinity in men. Physically, however, Matilda was an exception. I have a photograph of her - a beautiful young woman with a resolute but undeniably direct expression. There was no tenderness there though; she only allowed herself this weakness - and she considered it a weakness - much later, with her grandchildren. It is possible that I was the main beneficiary of this late-coming tenderness. Soon after that photograph was taken, as if forbidding herself to be alluring, Matilda “crossed” her face with pince-nez, which were to become an indispensible part of her being. Nadia Boulanger was 25 when she put the same contraption on her lovely little nose to add respectability to her persona. It seems that both of them had a need to make their femininity severe, to avoid expressing it.

What I learnt about my grandmother - her Lutheran upbringing, her fight to become a doctor (she may have been the first Russian woman to be a practising physician), not to mention her symbolic pince-nez - makes it easy to imagine that Ivan Pavlovich was destined to play the role of the repenting sinner. An enemy of uncompromising austerity, this constant servant of the unspoken was in many ways like Chekhov and may have come to the same conclusion as the author of “Uncle Vanya”: “If you are afraid of being lonely, do not get married.”

However, there was no time left for philosophising. A drama was beginning to unfold, one which all its witnesses would forever talk about in hushed and shameful tones. Matilda’s mother felt that peace would soon leave her daughter’s home. Used to thinking that reality was subject to her wishes and certain that her plans were infallible, she sent her younger daughter, then aged 16,7 from St. Petersburg to France, first to inform her mother of the situation there, and then to restore harmony in her sister’s life. This was what hastened the disaster. One does not need the keen intuition of Tolstoy to predict the consequences of introducing this barely mature but already sweet young thing to the set - she was as feminine as Matilda was not, and ready to blossom. It was love at first sight. Unrelenting fate, like in a Greek tragedy, seized Ivan Pavlovich and his youthful sister-in-law. Blinded by love, it seems that they naively expected that my grandmother would accept the consequences of the situation. They found themselves up against an impenetrable wall of humiliation, pain and morality. His righteous wrath swelling, Pokhitonov fled his family’s home with Yevgenia by his side. They became pariahs in the eyes of the world. All these events took place when my mother was a small child, the youngest of the three sisters. Pokhitonov made things even worse by taking the children with them. The guilty couple, with the girls in tow, eloped from Paris to the Caucasus8, followed by my broken-hearted grandmother.9 She finally caught up with them and, since the sovereign’s will was law for the “the arrogant classes”, obtained the Tsar’s permission to have full custody of her children and live separately from her husband.

Having achieved her painful victory, Matilda went back to Paris and medicine. The collapse of her family, a wound which would remain painful for the rest of her life, fuelled her grievance against her husband. I believe, with full objectivity, that the reasons for my grandmother’s troubles became also her compensation for them. Alone with her daughters, the sole mistress of her desecrated home, she savoured her martyrdom and ruled absolutely over her family, like a true matriarch. My mother told me that her childhood years in Paris were very happy, but she did emerge with the conviction that men were wrong by definition. Sometimes, this made her unfair to me. I would bet that in her Garden of Eden, it was Adam who seduced Eve, and with a questionable fruit for that matter.

In those times, such circumstances could not fail to have an effect on my grandfather’s career. Even though his native land remained true to him, and the main Russian museums continued to buy his paintings, Pokhitonov tried to avoid everything that would remind him of the past. His growing isolation explains why his paintings, which were becoming more and more beautiful, were not popular. He did not show his work at salons or exhibitions. Pokhitonov settled in Jupille, a small village close to Liège, and was never able to marry his companion - my grandmother refused to divorce him. He and Yevgenia had a son, my uncle Boris, who I was only able to meet after 50 years.

I was once - it was in 1919 - visiting my godmother, my mother’s second sister, when suddenly there was a commotion in her apartment. My grandmother turned pale, walked across the living room where I was playing, and disappeared into her study. A robust old man came in. Joyfully, he picked me up and kissed me on both cheeks, tickling me with his scraggly beard. I remember his brown jacket which smelled of bombazine, and the sly look in his steady eyes. His eyes, which helped him create all those endless spaces, served him well till he passed away at the age of 74. All the clouds that there were around him, Pokhitonov kept in his paintings - according to my uncle10, there were never any clouds darkening his parents’ life. For half a century, my great-aunt endured without complaint all the burdens of not being able to marry Pokhitonov officially; without him, the poor old woman lost her strength and took her own life11.


  1. Organizing this exhibition of his grandfather's paintings was one of the conditions of Markevitch's cooperation with the Moscow Conservatory. This condition was agreed upon by Yekaterina Furtseva, the Minister of Culture at the time, who had invited the well-known musician to the Soviet Union.
  2. Markevitch I.B. Introduction. Ivan Pavlovich Pokhitonov. 1850-1923. Catalogue. Moscow, 1963. Pp. 5 - 12
  3. Markevitch I. Etre et avoir ete / Now and Before. Paris: Gallimard, 1980. С. 30.
  4. See lovleva L.I. Ivan Pokhitonov's Exhibition at the Tretyakov Gallery in 1963. In: Ivan Pokhitonov. "The Artist-Sorcerer”. On the 160th Anniversary of Ivan Pokhitonov's birth. 1850-1923. Moscow, 2010. Pp. 26-30
  5. We would like to extend our heartfelt thanks to Edgar Soulié, the artist's great-grandson, for the pages from Igor Markevitch's memoirs with which he kindly provided.
  6. According to a document from the archive of Alexandra Eilenstein von Wulffert, Matilda's father was a Colonel.
  7. The author is referring to Yevgenia Wulffert.
  8. No references to the Caucasus were found in publications on Pokhitonov's biography.
  9. It seems that it was then that Pokhitonov requested a permit to live "indefinitely anywhere in Russia, with his wife and daughters”, which he obtained in the consulate in Chernvtsi on May 29 1892. The document is now housed in the personal archive of Alexandra Eilenstein von Wulffert.
  10. The author refers to Boris, the son of Ivan Pokhitonov and Yevgenia Wulffert.
  11. The tragedy took place during World War II, when Yevgenia Wulffert found herself in Poland, surrounded by German troops.





Download The Tretyakov Gallery Magazine in App StoreDownload The Tretyakov Gallery Magazine in Google play