Serge Poliakoff

Serge Poliakoff
08.01.1900 (Moscow) - 12.10.1969 (Paris)

Nationality: Russian


Serge Poliakoff was one of the most representative and most stable of the post-war generation that gave Paris its abstract school. One of the most personal too, with his non-figurative conception of painting that offered new directions for abstraction. One of the specific characteristics of Poliakoff’s painting is the absence of any real evolution, despite this painting’s constant renewal. His paintings maintain a dialogue and form a formal and expressive continuity – a musical continuity, one might be tempted to add. Although there is a silence in his painting, it is above all, to use the artist’s own expression, a “plastic poem” with subtle vibrations. Refuting an empiricism that is only superficial, the forms in his paintings are arranged with rigour so that they fit into each other, so that none of them can break away from the others, and if this were to happen, so that they cannot be replaced, and naturally find their place elsewhere. Distanced from the slightest figurative reference or from geometrical subjects, and even more so from any symbolic interpretation, his compositions have neither depth nor perspective, generating their own space which, as Poliakoff liked to say, “makes the form”. Attempting to define his painting, he stated: “What interests me in painting is its purity.”

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. Over the years 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. 

Poliakoff exhibited widely and from 1938 – 1945 contributed to the Salon des Indépendants. He was also 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) and following Poliakoff’s nationalisation in France in 1962 the artist received his own room at the Venice Biennale. Poliakoff’s work is included in significant collections throughout the world, including the Tate, UK; Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam; Guggenheim Museum, NY; Moma, NY; Musée d’Art modern de la Ville de Paris, France; Musée national d’Art moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, France; etc. Serge Poliakoff died in Paris in 1969



1974  Retrospective, Fabre Museum Montpellier, France
1971–1972 Exposition Poliakoff, Tel-Aviv Museum Tel-Aviv, Israël
1969  Retrospective, Despiau-Wlerick Museum Mont-de-Marsan, France
1969  Galleria del Naviglio Venice, Italy
1968  Retrospective, Maison de la Culture de Caen Caen, France
1966  Retrospective, Saint-Gall Museum 
1963  Retrospective, Whitechapel Art Gallery London, England
1962  Biennale de Venise, Venice, Italy
1961  Efteraars-Udstilligen, Palais Charlottenborg Copenhagen, Danemark
1958  International Exhibition of Contemporary Painting, Carnegie Institute Pittsburgh, PA
1958  50 ans d'Art Moderne, Brussels, Belgium
1946  Centre des Recherches Paris, France
1945  Salon de Réalités Nouvelles, Paris, France