Serge Poliakoff - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Day Sale London Thursday, October 14, 2021 | Phillips

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  • In the catalogue raisonné, the artist’s son Alexis Poliakoff talks of being taken into the morning tranquillity of his father’s studio in 1958 to be introduced to Serge Poliakoff’s method of constructing pictures: ‘The frame, placed vertically on the easel, seemed to be an extension of his own being. There was no preparatory outline or sketch, the composition simply formed itself on the canvas that he had prepared with two coats of size. A framework, which appeared to me to be an extricable mixture of lines in chalk and charcoal, covered the whole surface of the canvas. At this stage in the construction, I saw the intervention of his talents, his golden rule, his experience and his energy.’i 

    In 1917, Poliakoff fled the Russian Revolution and began his artistic training in Paris in 1923. His early academic style of painting underwent a transformation when the artist relocated to London to study at the Slade School of Art in 1935. It was here that Poliakoff was introduced to abstraction proper. Upon his return to Paris in 1937, Poliakoff met several artists who were to have a formative and important influence on his artistic practice henceforth: Wassily Kandinsky, Sonia and Robert Delaunay, and Otto Freundlich. Whilst Kandinsky showed Poliakoff the powerful potential of colour as a way to compose his pictures, Sonia and Robert Delaunay showed Poliakoff how colour could trigger an intense emotional reaction in his viewers: placing colours harmoniously alongside one another or alternatively in cacophonous apposition, evoked a certain mood as well as visual aesthetic. A later important discovery was the art of the Cubo-Futuristic Russian Modernist, Kasimir Malevich. In 1952, the artist encountered the exhibition Works of the Twentieth Century at the Museum of Modern Art, Paris. Malevich’s innovative Suprematist compositions and minimal palette inspired Poliakoff to condense his pictorial vocabulary, strengthening his abstract forms of interlocking tones and colours.


    Kasimir Malevich, Suprematie, 1919, watercolour, ink, and gouache on paper, Private Collection. Photo credit Universal History Archive/UIG / Bridgeman Images.

    An excellent example of Serge Poliakoff’s purely abstract works that he began in the early 1950s, Composition abstraite, 1960, demonstrates the artist’s implementation of his unique geometric vocabulary formed using a deliberately limited range of colours. Working from a palette constructed from two blues, two reds, a green, a yellow, a black and a white, Poliakoff crafts a fluid surface in which the colours move seamlessly from one to another. There is a rhythm and flow as the eye transitions between the modulating hues. The fluidity between the colours in the individual works also crept across the multitude of canvases assembled in the artist’s studio. Working across multiple canvases at any one time allowed for the transparent washes to dry, creating the artist’s signature depth and richness. The result is one that is full of warmth and a naturality, perhaps derived from the fact that the artist prepared his own paints from pigments. As Denys Chevalier stated in L’Observateur, Paris in 1959: ‘Abstract in presentation, lyrical in expression and intimate in the delicacy of its sensitivity, Poliakoff’s painting is blessed with a rare human.’ii


    Serge Poliakoff was born in Moscow in 1900, the thirteenth of fourteen children. His mother was deeply religious and Poliakoff attended church almost daily as a child. The strong colours and reflective, imitative power of religious icons fascinated him and is echoed in the contemplative quality and tranquillity that emit from his abstracted painted surfaces. 

    Throughout his exploration into abstraction, Poliakoff varied his distinctive repertoire of forms with an incredible diversity, consistently creating new assemblages. Mixing, superimposing and building his limited colour palette whilst avoiding overly geometric lines and forms, Poliakoff’s oeuvre is infinite in its depth and expressive richness. Having discovered a technique and concept, Poliakoff pursued his explorations until his death, without it ever leading to stagnation or repetition. 

    i Alexis Poliakoff, quoted in Alexis Poliakoff, Serge Poliakoff: Catalogue raisonné. Volume III 1959-1962, Paris, 2011, no. 60-71, p. 10
    ii Denys Chevalier, quoted in Alexis Poliakoff, Serge Poliakoff: Catalogue raisonné. Volume III 1959-1962, Paris, 2011, no. 60-71, p. 29

    • Provenance

      Knoedler & Co., New York
      Haaken Christensen, Oslo
      Sotheby's, London, 2 July 2008, lot 168
      Acquired at the above sale by the present owner

    • Exhibited

      Oslo, Galleri Haaken, Serge Poliakoff, November 1962
      Oslo, Kunstnernes Hus, Serge Poliakoff, 13 - 28 May 1972
      Hovikodden, Henie-Onstad Kunstsenter, Poliakoff 1900 - 1969, 5 February - 14 March 1976, no. 49 (erroneously dated 1962)
      Oslo, Galleri Haaken, Serge Poliakoff, 19 April - 25 June, no. 4 (illustrated)
      Oslo, Henie Onstad Kunstsenter, Sal Haaken, 2003, p. 162 (illustrated, p. 163, erroneously dated 1958)

    • Literature

      Alexis Poliakoff, Serge Poliakoff: Catalogue raisonné. Volume III 1959-1962, Paris, 2011, no. 60-71, p. 181 (illustrated)


Composition abstraite

signed 'SErgE PoLIAKoFF' lower right
oil on canvas
60.4 x 73.4 cm (23 3/4 x 28 7/8 in.)
Painted in 1960.

Thaddée Poliakoff has kindly confirmed the authenticity of this work.

Full Cataloguing

£80,000 - 120,000 ‡ ♠

Sold for £113,400

Contact Specialist

Tamila Kerimova
Specialist, Director, Head of Day Sale

20th Century & Contemporary Art

+44 20 7318 4065
[email protected]

20th Century & Contemporary Art Day Sale

London Auction 14 October 2021