Born in Khvalynsk, provincial town near Saratov in Russia, into the
family of a shoemaker, Petrov-Vodkin felt the desire for drawing very early,
though there was not much opportunity to develop his talent. First the
boy found himself an icon painter, who agreed to teach him his art. Only
at the age of 15 he started to get the lessons in painting in classes of
drawing and painting of F.E. Burov.
In 1895 sponsors sent him to Petersburg to study in the Central School of Technical Drawing of Baron Stiglitz (1876-1922), but very soon his teachers understood that the young man was not a technician, and his vocation was fine arts. In 1897, Petrov-Vodkin was transferred to the Moscow School of Painting and Sculpture, where he studied in the class of Valentin Serov, and from which he graduated in 1904. Besides the Moscow School he stayed in Munich in 1901 and studied in the studio of A. Ashbee. The studies in the Moscow School were marked with his hard work in painting and creative writing. Petrov-Vodkin even hesitated for some time on which way to choose – to become a writer or a painter. His choice in favor of painting was determined by a journey to Italy and a long stay in Paris, where he studied in many Parisian studios and art schools.
His trip to North Africa and the studies made there became the basis of his works exhibited in the Paris Salon in 1908.
In 1910 Petrov-Vodkin became a member of the artistic union ‘World of Art’ and remained in it until its dissolution in 1924, though he ultimately did not become identified with any particular school.
Already Petrov-Vodkin’s early works are symbolic (e.g. Elegy, 1906; Bank, 1908; Dream 1910), all of them are influenced by Mikhail Vrubel, Victor Borisov-Musatov, Pierre Puvis de Chavannes and by the Belgian writer Maurice Maeterlinck (1862-1949). The canvas ‘Dream’ stirred heated discussion and brought fame to the young artist; the negatively minded critics were headed by the famous Ilya Repin and their opponents were headed by Alexander Benois. The first group saw in Petrov-Vodkin the newest decadent, unable to develop the art, the second - the expressionist of neo-classical tendencies. The painter himself could not characterize his works so definitely, he said that he was ‘a difficult painter’. His evolution proved that he did not show off. Playing Boys, 1911, Bathing of Red Horse, 1912 are a new stage in his work, his attempt to synthesize Eastern and Western painting traditions.
In the 1910s the creative search of Petrov-Vodkin was very wide. Beside the monumental-decorative works, such as ‘Girls on Volga’, 1915, there are works devoted to the First World War, e.g. ‘On the Line of Fire’ 1916 and works devoted to motherhood, Mother 1913, Mother 1915; Morning. Bathers 1917.
In the late 1910s he developed and wrote about a new theory concerning the depiction of space. His so-called ‘spherical perspective’ differs from the traditional ‘Italian’ perspective. The artist creates different spaces on the canvas, connected by gravity; bent axes of bodies make up a ‘fan’, which is opening from within the picture. Paintings with such compositional structure should be viewed by a moving spectator from different points, e.g. Midday. Summer 1917; Sleeping Child. 1924; First Steps 1925; Death of Commissar 1928; Spring 1935 and others. Such treatment of space and very specific coloring (based on primary colors – red, yellow and blue) determine the mature style of Petrov-Vodkin.
After the Bolshevik Revolution (November 1917) Petrov-Vodkin painted still-lifes more and more often: Morning Still-Life. 1918; Still-Life with Mirror. 1919; Still-Life with Blue Ashtray 1920, though the new themes are also present in his art, e.g. The Year 1918 in Petrograd (1920), and Workers (1926).
In the late 1920s-early 1930s he had to abandon painting for a time because of illness; he returned to writing. He wrote two autobiographical novels ‘Khvalynsk’ and ‘Euclid’s Space’, in which he expressed his views and theories on nature and possibilities of fine arts. The latest of Petrov-Vodkin’s works 1919. Alarm, 1934, though it was about the actual situation of 1919, became the political symbol of the whole epoch and the viewers of the 1930s referred it to their own time.
The work of Petrov-Vodkin did not correspond to the Soviet ideology of the Stalin's period and after his death in 1939 the painter was quickly ‘forgotten’, happily not for long.
Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin. By V. Kostin. Moscow. 1966.
Petrov-Vodkin. Yury Rusakov. Leningrad. 1975.
Petrov-Vodkine. Editions d’art Aurore. Leningrad. 1976. (in French)
Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin. Painting. Graphic Works. Theatre. Leningrad. 1986.
Chambers Biographical Dictionary. Cambridge University Press. 1996.