Serge Poliakoff

Serge Poliakoff (b. Moscow, 1903) is one of the most important members of the School of Paris. Known for his striking palette and bold exploration of form, Poliakoff was a leading figure in the post-war abstract movement in Europe. Poliakoff’s influence was far reaching: in his lifetime he had work acquired by Greta Garbo, and inspired a collection by Yves Saint Laurent.
Poliakoff fled the Russian Revolution in 1917, first going to Constantinople and then to Paris in 1923, where he spent most of his life. He began studying painting while earning a living as a musician, enrolling at the Académie Forchot and Académie de la Grande Chaumière in Paris 1929. Poliakoff studied at the Slade School of Art after relocating to London in 1935, and it was here that the artist discovered abstract painting, as well as the importance of layering colour.
After this time, Poliakoff increasingly turned towards abstract art, employing colour as colour without any figurative context. A decisive influence in this direction was fellow Russian, Wassily Kandinsky, whom Poliakoff met after his return to Paris. Sonia and Robert Delaunay taught Poliakoff to appreciate the emotive potential of colour and awakened an interest in simultaneous contrasts. Another important source of Poliakoff’s pictorial language was the sculptor Otto Freundlich, with his curved colour-form compositions.
Poliakoff developed a very individual form of abstract painting, arranging different fields of colour alongside one another. Shades of brown and grey were his preferred colours during the 1940s, while from the 1950s he extended his palette to include bright contrasting tones. In the early 1950s Poliakoff stopped using outlines to juxtapose forms on canvas; only colour was left to distinguish between them. Particularly concerned with giving the canvas an animated sense of its own life, Poliakoff abandoned industrial paints to instead pursue a painstaking process of grinding his own pigments. By the time of his final ‘forme unique’ oil paintings, that Poliakoff conceived well into his sixties, colour itself became the medium. Each depicting a single form, the late paintings burst against the edges of the canvas with masterly control. “The painting should be monumental, that is to say larger than its dimensions,” declared Serge Poliakoff in his Cahier I of 1965.
Poliakoff’s work is included in significant collections throughout the world, including Tate, UK; Stedelijk Museum, The Netherlands; Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, USA; Museum of Modern Art, USA; Musée d’Art modern de la Ville de Paris, France; Hirshhorn Museum, USA; Museum Ludwig, Germany; Moderna Museet, Sweden; Kunstmuseum Basel, Switzerland; The Art Institute of Chicago, USA; Fondation Thyssen-Bornemisza, Spain; Museum of Modern Art, Rio de Janeiro, Brasil; Museo de Arte modern de la Ciudad Buenos Aires, Argentina; and Musée national d’Art moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, France.
Poliakoff exhibited widely. From 1938 – 1945 he contributed to the Salon des Indépendants. On the other hand, he was included in the most prestigious exhibitions of modern post-war art, including Documenta II, Kassel, Germany (1959); and the Carnegie International, Pittsburg, USA (1958). A retrospective covering the years 1938 – 1963 was held at the Whitechapel Gallery, London (1963). Following Poliakoff’s nationalisation in France in 1962 the artist received his own room at the Venice Biennale. Serge Poliakoff died in Paris in 1969.


The Europe of the Informal