In symphonic music, a piece revolves around a period, generally eight measures that define the theme. In its most abstract form it’s a shape of sound. This shape will be used throughout the piece: stretched, twisted, turned. Always returning us to the delight of the original theme.
Valentin Serov (1865-1911), the son of two Russian composers, studied with Ilya Repin at the Saint Petersburg Academy of Arts. His masterful use of shape, his ability to maximize it for all its worth, defines his legacy. In Portrait of the Artist Pavel Tchistyakov, Serov composes the main shape of the lighted area of the face and sets it against the dark shape of the hair, background, and clothing. Allowing the minor shape of the eye socket as an accent of dark and the clothing as slivers of light. Light against dark, dark against light. Serov uses the modified hexagon for the eye shape, a idea he would utilize throughout his work.
Portrait of the Artist Pavel Tchistyakov, 1881, Charcoal on paper, (original and value-reduced)
In Serov’s Portrait of Konstantin Korovin, the left diagonal of the painting is a dark shape with a few light shapes. The right diagonal it a light shape with a few dark shapes. Again we see the modified hexagon for the eye shape. Serov takes advantage of a series of repeated shapes in the rectangles of the torso, arms, pillow, furniture, and paintings on the wall. He’s twisting and turning that main theme, utilizing it for all it’s possibility.
Portrait of Konstantin Korovin, 1891, Oil on canvas, (original and value-reduced)
In Portrait of the Singer Angelo Mazini, Serov summons Rembrandt’s ghost and reduces his composition to one major shape of light surrounded by dark. It’s one of the most powerful visual expressions in Art. The head is conceived in a box-like structure with the hexagon shape in the lighted area of the face and in the eye shapes.
Portrait of the Singer Angelo Mazini, 1890, Oil on canvas, (original and value-reduced)
The stunning painting, Portrait of the artist Isaak Ilyich Levitan, again summons the two-value, chiaroscuro power. Serov uses a theme of square shapes in the head, chair, and background, with a strong diagonal in the hand. The beautiful structure of the hexagon is in full force. So simple and so powerful.
Portrait of the artist Isaak Ilyich Levitan, 1893, Oil on canvas, (original and value-reduced)
The shapes in Portrait of Yevdokia Loseva are so simple and so wonderful. The hexagon is the dominant theme with a minor square supporting it. Serov chose these shapes, this couch, the hair, they were all phrases in his symphony.
Portrait of Yevdokia Loseva, 1903, Oil on canvas, (original and value-reduced)
Serov’s drawing, Portrait of the pianist Wanda Landowska, is such a gorgeous example of shape that a value reduction isn’t necessary. Box shapes, hexagons, triangles, all harmonized within the single dominant shape of the figure and minor dominant shapes in the head and arm.
Portrait of the pianist Wanda Landowska, 1907, Charcoal on Paper
In Portrait of Izabella Grunberg, Serov gives us a small piece with extraordinary power. The hair and face merge into one major theme but each holds something of itself. The hexagon is dominant all throughout and the lyrical quality of line works as the minor theme.
Portrait of Izabella Grunberg, 1910, Charcoal on Paper
Serov pursued these themes throughout his life. Stretching them, twisting them, turning them. Symphonies of shape.