#3 2020 (68)
The exhibition “Maria Yakunchikova-Weber” has been prepared by the Tretyakov Gallery to mark the 150th anniversary of a very talented painter who is not very well known in Russia. Maria Vasilievna Yakunchikova (1870-1902) died young, not even reaching the age of 33, but her life as an artist was a fulfilling one. Due to her poor health, from the age of 19 she had to live abroad, returning to Russia only in the summer. The painter spent her last days in Chêne-Bougeries, Switzerland.
In European art, the period 1850-1900 saw a crisis in engraving as a printing technique and the birth of engraving as a new artform with its own distinctive means of expression. The pace of this revolution was especially dynamic in Paris, one of the most advanced centres of printmaking development, and it was from this global centre of attraction for all artistic souls and communities of the era that the process spread to different countries and art schools. As it happened, in Russia creative printmaking was pioneered by women. In the early 20th century, Anna Ostroumova-Lebedeva was discovering the potential of printing on wood, Nadezhda Voitinskaya-Levidova, the potential of lithography and Yelizaveta Kruglikova, the potential of etching.
“Are we capable of leaving a unique mark on European art, or can we hope only to keep up?” [...] In order to win this dazzling European competition, we need both serious preparation and true audacity.” As Sergei Diaghilev contemplated the possibilities, he remained convinced that actively engaging with Western art was imperative, both to steer clear of shallow imitations and to find similar pursuits of national identities in other cultures.
Until about a decade ago, very little was known about Netta Peacock (1864-1938), an English art writer who became involved in Russian art circles at the fin de siecle. Her close friendships with the artists Maria Vasilievna Yakunchikova and Yelena Dmitrievna Polenova in the 1890s led her to begin a campaign to promote knowledge of Russian art and design in western Europe.
Maria Yakunchikova’s Parisian letters to Yelena Polenova contain a brief account of her acquaintance with the artist, who is little known today, even in France, but who, in his time, undoubtedly enjoyed popularity across all of Europe, including Russia.
One of Yakunchikova’s first biographers, the poet and artist Maximilian Voloshin, noted that her works had profoundly personal beginnings. The heroine of the etchings “is always herself, forever the same, svelte and sad, and you keep the vision of her arms, powerless and thin like the boughs of a birch swaying in the blue sky”. Yakunchikova once created a composition entitled “Reflet intime” (Reflection of an Intimate World) and this intimate world can be felt in most of her works, but “the reflection is too real”, as Voloshin put it. The personal and the creative are inseparable for the artist. Her works are made up of sensations and anxieties and everything is an emotional investment, everything is hard won.
The name of Leon (Lev) Weber (1870-1956) is hardly known to the general public. In publications dedicated to Maria Yakunchikova-Weber, he is mentioned incidentally and generically. Essentially, these references are limited to the friendship between Maria and Leon that began in 1889 and resulted in a happy marriage in 1897, his care for the artist in the last years of her life and the role he played in conserving her artistic heritage and organising her first personal exhibition in 1905. In publications on the life story of Weber’s mother, Alexandra Golshtein, his name is mentioned even less.
In the early 1990s, Alexandre Liapine (Alexander Alexandrovich Lyapin) brought the archive of the Yakunchikov family from France and gave it to the Tretyakov Gallery’s Manuscript Department. He continued to add new materials to this collection (which was given the identifying number 205) on his subsequent visits to Russia until 2008, as well as bringing documents related to the lives of Russian artists in France and of emigres connected with Russian culture. Being acutely aware of the importance of detailed information, he ordered xerocopies from French public agencies of biographical documents related to individuals who interested him and us. The final batch of documents was sent by his widow, Nicole Liapine, after his death.
Maria Vasilievna Yakunchikova appears in a number of memoirs, although few memoirists knew her as well as Alexandra Vasilievna Golshtein, who was married to Maria’s cousin and later became her mother-in-law.