On a stage in Moscow in 1911, the last mesmerising notes rang out from the famous gypsy singer Varya Panina as she died on stage, poisoned by her own hand while performing ‘My heart is breaking’, her swansong of unrequited love for a soldier in the Imperial Guard. The details of her demise might be more myth than truth, but Varya Panina’s celebrity at the turn of the 20th century in Russia is well documented. The gypsy darling of the beau monde, Panina courted the admiration of the country’s intelligentsia, among them writers Leo Tolstoy and Anton Chekhov, painter Konstantin Korovin – and artist-jeweller Peter Carl Fabergé.
Fabergé immortalised the gypsy singer in an exquisite hardstone carving – one of his most significant figurative works. In the indiscriminate use of common Siberian jaspers and quartz, popular bohemian subject matter and exquisite craftsmanship, the statuette is a metaphor for the defining characteristics of both the Imperial jeweller’s work and the eclectic preoccupations of the Russian avant-garde.
In a spirited evocation of Russia’s belle époque, Mir Fabergé commissioned the artist Athier to paint a series of works in response to four popular Russian fables, including The Gypsy Fortune Teller. Based on meticulous picture research and historical references, Athier’s paintings form a relationship with Fabergé and the prevailing artistic influences of the era, including the Ballet Russes and Mir Iskusstva. A graphic designer, painter and former artist-in-residence for the British Museum, Athier cites the lyrical compositions of Wassily Kandinsky (a Mir Iskusstva contributor) as inspiration in his large scale, colourful and abstract painted works.
Using a predominantly fauvist palette (chrome yellow, Prussian blue, white and red), Athier’s tetraptych interprets the mythical tales of The King Bear, The Gypsy Fortune Teller, Petrushka and the Toys and The Emperor and the Nightingale. The latter two stories were turned into ballets (Petrushka and La Chant du Rossignol) with scores composed by Igor Stravinsky for Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes. Henri Matisse also famously conceived the costumes and sets for La Chant, putting him in the company of Pablo Picasso, Natalia Goncharova and André Derain who all lent their paintbrush and pencil to designing Diaghilev’s stages.
Starting with the graphic, fragmented silhouette of each fable’s protagonist, the respective narrative details are illustrated in sections using a technique of etching into thickly layered paint. This linear relief work, in some instances accentuated with gold, is suggestive of Fabergé’s cloisonné enamel work (and also brings to mind Gustav Klimt, who exhibited with the Mir Iskusstva group). While the four works ultimately combine to form a single painting, each is a rich reflection of the story it illustrates and the spider web of connections between the legacy of Fabergé, folklore and the fin de siècle art and culture it inspired.