From Russia with a love of art
Painting portraits was a way of earning a living for a new Canadian, but it’s not the way to become a modernist artist
TWO SISTERS ARRIVED in Toronto in 1929. Born in Russia, they were refugees from the Russian Revolution. Shortly after their arrival, they were befriended by members of the Group of Seven.
Yulia Biriukova (1895-1972) is best known as a portrait painter. Her subjects included A.Y. Jackson and J.E.H. MacDonald, both members of the Group.
Yulia’s sister, Alexandra, became one of Canada’s first female architects. She designed an ultramodern house in Toronto for Lawren Harris.
Yulia Biriukova started exhibiting her paintings in the early 1930s. A critic said her portrait of Harris’s second wife, Bess, had “a nice sense of rhythm.” A Toronto Star critic described another portrait by Biriukova as “impressively ugly.”
In both reviews, Biriukova’s surname was misspelled, a common enough experience for an immigrant. (My own maiden name was of- ten mauled!)
Quite a few of Biriukova’s female Russianborn contemporaries embraced abstraction. Some of them stayed in Russia, others immigrated to Paris. Biriukova, the portraitist, stuck to a more representational style.
Painting portraits was a way of earning a living, but it’s not the way to become a modernist. Portraiture, after all, is about creating a likeness, and modern art is about rejecting the lifelike.
But Biriukova’s “Portrait of J.E.H. MacDonald” (1930) is not old-fashioned. She combines a close likeness with the kind of modern, dramatic landscape MacDonald was famous for.
Arms folded, a smile on his face, he looks out at us. His red hair, blue eyes and green tie seem an unlikely match for the grey suit. But these striking colours are complemented by the strong blues and greens of the landscape.
A similar connection between sitter and setting informs Biriukova’s “The Prospector, Peter Swanson” (1934), one of a series portraying ordinary working men.
With his massive arms folded across his spruce-green shirt, Swanson exudes strength and confidence. A mountain of a man, he takes up almost all of the space.
The hills behind him echo the forms and colours of his forearms, his shoulders and his eyebrows, making him look at one with the land, a closeness that draws atten- tion to his occupation.
Swanson’s frontal pose, his centrality and the way he gazes directly at us recall a saint in a traditional Russian icon, a not-too-surprising link — for her, not him.
One of Biriukova’s commissions appears to have involved the painting of icons for an iconostasis, an altar screen, for a Russian Orthodox Church in Toronto.
A year after she executed the prospector’s portrait, Biriukova tackled “The Riverman, Frenchy Renaud.”
Renaud, like Swanson, dominates the foreground. He looks restless. His muscular body faces us, but he turns his head to look at something outside the picture space.
He’s been hard at work. His shirt sleeves are rolled up and sweat glistens on his forehead and chest. He steadies a peavey, a hooked logging tool, with his hand.
The tool links him to the landscape that includes a river filled with logs. A raft carrying tents for the loggers floats in the distance.
This painting, like the other two, was given to the Art Gallery of Hamilton by MacDonald’s son, Thoreau MacDonald, who lived with Biriukova for many years.
Regina Haggo, art historian, public speaker, curator and former professor at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, teaches at the Dundas Valley School of Art. email@example.com
Yulia Biriukova, The Riverman, Frenchy Renaud, 1935, oil on canvas, 122 by 107 centimetres.
Yulia Biriukova, The Prospector, Peter Swanson, 1934, oil on canvas, 114 by 92 centimetres.
Yulia Biriukova, Portrait of J.E.H. MacDonald, 1930, oil on canvas, 67 by 54 centimetres.