Self-portrait or Selfie? This artist blurred the line.
She survived revolution, exile, and immigration. Her artistic voice never altered through it all.
A young woman stands at her dressing table. The table itself is covered in the bits and baubles of feminine adornment — necklaces, hair pins, lace, a bottle of perfume. She combs out her hair and a smirk forms on her lips as she examines herself. An awareness plays about her eyes. She is both taking in and dismissing her own youthful looks. Zinaida Serebryakova’s self-portrait reminds me so much of a modern selfie. She’s even standing to face a mirror — a key feature of both the self-portrait and the modern selfie alike.
But the painting lacks the key characteristic of the selfie — an arm out of frame. In the case of the self-portrait, Serebryakova lacks the usual inclusion of a painterly brush or palette. She is in the middle of combing her hair, not her studio.
Young Russian women were known at the time for their long braided hair — in a single braid if they were unmarried and two long plaits after marriage. Serebryakova flaunts her hair as much as she shows the work behind maintaining it so long. She’s an artist painting herself actively working, but not actively working as an artist. She’s pictured herself doing the intimate work of being a woman.
And Serebryakova’s looking right at you, the viewer. She’s arrested you with her eyes — daring you to watch, daring you to look away. One eyebrow arched, she nearly looks like she’s laughing at us.
Then there’s the fact that this self-portrait put the artist on the map: first shown at a large exhibition mounted by the Union of Russian Artists in 1910. An intimate portrait made for a large-scale, public setting.
Serebryakova belongs to that class of artists I often have trouble stomaching — the ones who painted peasants for their “charm,” their “authenticity,” their “rustic beauty.” (See also: Gauguin). She paints herself in this way — fresh colors within a simple scene. It is a kind of artistry and movement that seeks to glorify that which the artist cannot understand.
Serebryakova was also an artist caught up in a wave of history. She would be widowed young, her husband dying of typhus in a Bolshevik prison after the revolution. Left with four children and her mother to care for, Serebryakova went from a woman of the leisure class who could make art to a woman who had to live and support a family by her trade. When she left to do a mural in Paris in 1924, she was not allowed to return back to Russia. It took her two years to get her younger children to Paris and she would not see her two elder children for another 36 years.
And still she worked. Still she made paintings of the country folk where she traveled — from across France through Morocco and the Atlas Mountains. Even when all she could afford were charcoal and pencil. Even when realism fell out of fashion. She knew her voice. She knew her style. She knew what she wanted to paint, how she wanted to express herself to the world.
So I go back to this bold young girl, staring at us as she combs her hair. She has painted herself while both her hands are visibly occupied. An impossible position. This is a daring kind of confidence you only seen in someone who knows the ways they command their own talents.
Critical work on women artists is hard to come by; exhibitions are even harder. The Saatchi Gallery in London is currently having a 30th Anniversary Show — “Champagne Life” — featuring only female artists. Check out the exhibition here.
Aminah Mae Safi is a writer who loves superheroes and men in breeches. If you want more on books she’s read, movies she loves, or spotlights on women artist’s, get the newsletter.