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

The Hamilton Spectator - - CAREERS -

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. dhaggo@thes­pec.com

Yu­lia Bir­iukova, The River­man, Frenchy Re­naud, 1935, oil on can­vas, 122 by 107 cen­time­tres.

REGINA HAGGO

PHOTOS COUR­TESY OF ART GALLERY OF HAMIL­TON

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.

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