March 01, 2010

Lunch in Ages Past

Zinaida Serebriakova’s beautiful painting At Lunch captures a world that was soon to disappear in Russia. Painted in 1914, this intimate portrait depicts three of Serebriakova’s four children — Zhenya, Sasha, and Tanya — as they are about to enjoy their midday meal. Serebriakova’s devotion to realism is striking in the context of 1914, a year defined by extraordinary artistic experimentation: Kazimir Malevich was working on his radically abstract Suprematist canvases, Vladimir Tatlin was creating non-objective Constructivist reliefs, and Liubov Popova was painting Cubo-Futurist cityscapes. By contrast, Serebriakova belonged to the Union of Russian Artists, a group representing the second-generation World of Art movement, whose founders included her uncle Aleksandr Benois and her brother Evgeny Lansere. Thus her adherence to the principles of realism is hardly surprising.

Although Serebriakova endows her children with classical features, At Lunch nevertheless evinces a warm domesticity and a palpable maternal love. The artistic details are perfect, down to the lace of Tanya’s pinafore, the booster seat upon which she perches, the wooden trivet the hot tureen rests on, and the floral pattern of the porcelain. The painting’s overall blue and white palette is enhanced by the lustrous golden highlights of the pitcher, the rolls, the soup, and the napkin ring, subtly evoking the famous “gold in azure” of Russian Orthodox cathedrals.

The title of the painting, Za zavtrakom, reveals a different conception of mealtimes in Russia. First-year students of Russian learn that the word zavtrak means “breakfast,” while obed (“dinner”) is used for the large, midday meal — a meal that always includes soup. At suppertime the lighter uzhin is served. But in the past, the word zavtrak carried a couple of different meanings. Malenky zavtrak, or “little breakfast,” referred to an early-morning meal consisting of light, simple fare taken before the morning chores. It was only later in the day, usually between eleven and twelve, that a more substantial meal was prepared for the “second” (vtoroy) breakfast, such as the one depicted in Serebriakova’s painting.

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