Serge Poliakoff - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale London Tuesday, June 26, 2018 | Phillips

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  • Provenance

    Galerie Melki, Paris
    Private Collection (acquired from the above)
    Sotheby's, London, 21 June 2006, lot 48
    Acquired at the above sale by the present owner

  • Literature

    Alexis Poliakoff, Serge Poliakoff. Catalogue Raisonné, 1959-1962, vol III, Munich, 2011, no. 59-16, p. 72 (illustrated)

  • Catalogue Essay

    Through the artist’s application of a warm, organic palette and executed in compositional harmony, Composition abstraite is exemplary of Serge Poliakoff’s progressive painterly style, cementing his influence as an integral member of the Art Informel and Tachism movements. Skilfully marrying colour and form, the present work was painted in 1959, a period in which the artist’s reputation had found recognition on a worldwide stage, having refined his artistic relationship with abstraction. Composition abstraite is a celebration of the artist’s mastery over the nuances of colour as a compositional tool. Through coloured planes arranged adjacently to create vitality and areas of depth and contrast, Poliakoff expertly tessellates saturated fields of colour, composed of multiple subtle hues of varying depths and modalities. Rich in tonality, the artist utilises contrasting colours of blue and orange which evoke burnt arid earth and the inky depths of the sea and sky, elevating the viewer into his painterly microcosm with an abundance of warmth.

    After fleeing the Russian Revolution in 1917, Poliakoff trained in Paris before moving to London in 1935, where he was exposed to the works of Paul Cézanne, Juan Gris and Paul Klee, before returning to France in 1937. It was there that he truly began to pursue the process of abstraction in his own work, under the influence of fellow compatriot Wassily Kandinsky and both Sonia and Robert Delaunay. Poliakoff was directly encouraged by Kandinsky, who sought to disseminate abstraction internationally. Like the Delaunays, Poliakoff began to abandon figurative depiction in favour of the intrinsic compositional and emotional qualities of colour. Through various classes and artistic discussions with the Delaunays and his Parisian contemporaries, Poliakoff developed his own personal examination of the intensity of colour and the potential it held for expressing an artist’s unique sensitivities and emotions. ‘Poliakoff felt the futility of trying to explain abstraction. For him, that would have been as pointlessly concrete as a mechanic trying to explain an engine. A successful abstract painting for Poliakoff was above all a silent painting: one that could not be explained, only felt’ (Tobias Grey, ‘To the Point of Abstraction’, The Wall Street Journal, 24 October 2013, online). Developing his style following the Second World War, Poliakoff’s artistic practice is now celebrated as a cornerstone of Tachism, alongside fellow artists’ Hans Hartung and Pierre Soulages.

    Opposed to the use of artificially manufactured contemporary industrial paints used by his fellow artists, Poliakoff drew inspiration from Old Master painters, namely Giotto, as evident in his use of materials. Mixing powdered natural pigments with an emulsion of oil and water, Poliakoff favoured a glass plate over a traditional palette, enabling him to achieve a more precise awareness of the relative opacity or translucency of his paints. This delicate method of painting results in Poliakoff’s particular earthy and distinct palette, demonstrating the artist’s unparalleled and seemingly effortless handling of subtle hues.

    The church played a significant role in Poliakoff’s upbringing, which instilled in him a fascination for religious iconography. The artist’s divine and personal faith inspired him for the entirety of his artistic career and, in particular, the colour, placement and juxtaposition of holy icons. In the present work, Poliakoff creates a visual serenity, an arena for contemplation. This is perhaps an allusion to the luminosity and intense saturation of stained-glass window panels, which also share a formal interlocking composition as seen in the present work. Poliakoff’s absolute rejection of the use of line in favour of harnessing the sole power of colour defines and demonstrates the artist’s unparalleled mastery of the dialectic between colour and composition: ‘Poliakoff’s ability to fracture and mend space, illuminate flat planes, and structure abstract forms into a figural unity is as instructive to contemporary painting as it is awakening to witness. The works sustain a restless equilibrium’ (Rob Colvin, ‘How Serge Poliakoff Predicted 60 Years of Painting’, Hyperallergic, 27 April 2016, online). A delicate balance of tonal and formal consideration, Composition abstraite is a powerful accomplishment in the field of abstraction and European twentieth century painting.

Property from an Important American Collection


Composition abstraite

signed 'Serge Poliakoff' lower left
oil on canvas
130 x 162 cm (51 1/8 x 63 3/4 in.)
Painted in 1959.

£250,000 - 350,000 ‡ ♠

Sold for £249,000

Contact Specialist
Henry Highley
Specialist, Head of Evening Sale
+ 44 20 7318 4061 [email protected]

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

London Auction 27 June 2018