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Composition, 1938

gouache on cardboard

From 1935 to 1937, Poliakoff stayed in London where he studied at the Slade School of Art and discovered two things that marked him deeply: the art of Kandinsky and Sonia Delaunay and the bright colors of Egyptian sarcophagi. Composition (1938) was made a year after his return from the English capital, and we can see that the turn towards abstract art was underway in Poliakoff's work. However, he had not yet adopted his characteristic style, playing with soft geometric figures. Here, Poliakoff's style is more in line with a premature lyrical abstraction, privileging the gesture. The black line of the painting gives rhythm to the canvas like a thread, linking the different colors together. The choice of primary colors is important for Poliakoff, and we can already see it in this painting. He also chose to leave a large part of the canvas in reserve, which gives it a raw and spontaneous aspect. To a certain extent, this work can also recall the biomorphism found in some abstract surrealist paintings: the rounded lines in the lower right corner resemble a chest, the three white areas in the upper part of the canvas are reminiscent of teeth... here and there, the human is evoked, a specificity that disappears completely from Poliakoff's paintings later on.

However, one can already feel in this painting the reflexions that Poliakoff develops in his later works about the space of the canvas. This manifests itself in the application and superposition of colors, in the way the painting is applied, which mixes flatness, colors, and blending. But this reflection is synthesized by a detail: Poliakoff paints a frame. He paints a frame inside, in the space of the painting. The painter plays, literally, with his work since he has fun deceiving the spectator with what could be called a visual pun. He decides where the painting begins and ends, it is no longer the canvas itself that determines this limit. There is thus a tension between the object-painting and what the painter does with it, especially since Poliakoff himself does not strictly respect this frame that he paints: here and there, he draws lines and the painting overflows. This canvas contains the seeds of all the reflections that Poliakoff develops in his future works. It is not only a work that bears witness to what Poliakoff's production became from the 1950s onwards, but also to what abstract painting became in the second half of the 20th century.

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