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Marie Vassilieff (1884- 1957)

Poupées, 1938

Catalogue essay by Blanche Llewellyn 

A prominent figure of the Montmartre avant-garde scene in the early 20th century, Marie Vassilieff captivated her contemporaries by challenging conventions and questioning the boundaries between craftsmanship and art.

She encountered Henri Matisse at the Salon d’Automne, establishing a link that led her to study under him until 1910.

That same year, she began exhibiting at the Salon des Indépendants and the Salon d’Automne, and established her own Russian Academy of Painting and Sculpture, which was renamed the following year “the Marie Vassilieff Academy”. In 1914, with the outbreak of war, Vassilieff closed her academy and transformed it into a canteen that attracted numerous artists and personalities such as Apollinaire, Picasso, Braque, Soutine, Modigliani, Zadkine, Foujita, Utrillo, and Chagall.

At the same time, Vassilieff began creating her first “Portrait Dolls” and exhibiting them, notably one representing Pablo Picasso which was displayed in Paul Poiret’s mansion in 1916. Inspired by Russian folk tradition, the creation of these dolls became integral to her entire oeuvre.

This painting – “Poupées” – is composed of three anthropomorphic figures: a statue inspired by primitive art, a wire sculpture, and a puppet with his hands on a baby doll, whose features closely resonate with a canvas painted a few years earlier in 1921, titled “At the Rotonde.” This imaginary world of dolls and masks permeated both the artist’s paintings and her living space.

This same year, in 1938, André Breton created “Composition of Funereal Derision in Polychrome Wire,” following his journey to Mexico where he discovered a new world that captivated him through its traditional art marked by objects which he called the “splendid funeral toys.” –  showcasing alongside Vasilieff a clear mutual fascination and interest in popular arts within the Surrealist movement.

This adoption of the surrealist fantasy was mostly cherished by Vasillieff though the theme of childhood – for surrealists, childhood often resonated within a time frame of little anguish which “the father of surrealism”, André Breton, saw as a jovial and naive period: “Children set off each day without a worry in the world”.

x W54cm
Oil on canvas
Vassilieff Marie

Marie Vassilieff (1884- 1957)

Marie Vassilieff was born in Smilensk, Russia, in 1884. She studied at the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts in Saint Petersburg and from 1905 at the École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris and the Matisse Academy. In 1908, she founded the Académie Russe which was renamed the following year as the Académie Vassilieff. In 1912 she opened her own atelier in Montparnasse which became a meeting place for artists and writers, including Nina Hamnett, Olga Sacharoff and Valentine Prax. By 1913, her studio was so widely known that Fernand Léger gave two lectures there on the topic of Modern Art. What Marie Vassilieff is perhaps most remembered for, however, is her canteen which provided a full meal and a glass of wine for only a few centimes during World War 1 and became a place of nighttime entertainment, including musical and literary evenings. In 1938, Vassilieff moved to Cagnes-sur-Mer, where she painted fantastical floral bouquets. Vassilieff developed a personal style of painting inspired by Cubism and later primitivism, which also paid tribute to Russian popular art known as loubok art. As well as painting, she also made "portrait dolls" and marionettes of artists of the École de Paris, which she first exhibited at Paul Poiret’s mansion in 1916. Functioning as effigies, mementoes and decorative artefacts, these portrait dolls reflected a primitivist interest in the magical and uncanny in interwar Paris.

Artworks by the same artist