Jean Albert Pougny, whose real name was Ivan Puni, was of Italian descent: his grandfather was the composer César Puni and his father was a violinist. He was attracted to art from an early age, but from 1900 to 1908 was educated in the corps of cadets at St Petersburg, despite having no interest in the army. During 1908-1909 he received an academic education and in 1910 he spent his first period of time in Paris, where he was a student at the Académie Julian and other private academies, and was very impressed by Fauvism and Cubism. In 1912 he travelled to Italy, then returned to St Petersburg and married Xenia Bogouslavskaya. (She survived him by many years, coming almost every day to put flowers on his Russian Orthodox grave in Montparnasse Cemetery.) In 1913-1914 he again went to Paris, returning to St Petersburg after the declaration of war in 1914 and becoming friends there with Maïakovski and Khlebnikov.
In 1915 he organised two historic exhibitions in St Petersburg: First Exhibition of Tramway V Futurist Paintings and Last Futurist Exhibition of 0.10 Paintings, in which Cubo-Futurist works were shown for the first time. These two exhibitions echoed in St Petersburg the artistic events of the Jack of Diamonds group in Moscow. It was from these various group artistic events that the more specifically Russian movement of the international avant-garde would detach itself. This movement, called Constructivism, took clearer shape in the Suprematism of Malevich and Tatlin, whose manifesto Pougny signed in 1916.
He was mobilised in 1917, and in 1918, after the October Revolution, he was appointed a lecturer at the academy of fine art in Petrograd (St Petersburg). In 1918 he took part in the decoration of the streets of Petrograd for the celebration of the anniversary of the Revolution: 'The streets will be our paintbrushes', declared Mayakovski. Extending his revolutionary ideas into art, he joined the Constructive Realism movement, which was to become Formalism. In 1919 he moved to Vitebsk to teach at the academy set up and directed by Chagall, but when Zhdanov stigmatised the avant-garde movements, he left the USSR for Finland. From 1920 to 1922 he lived in Berlin, becoming part of the Russian colony of artists there and meeting Hans Richter, Eggeling and Van Doesburg. In July 1923 he created the stage scenery and costumes for a Polish play at the Prague Opera. In 1923-1924 he moved to Paris, where he settled permanently, becoming close friends with Fernand Léger, Amédée Ozenfant, Marcoussis and Séverini. In 1940 he moved to Antibes with Robert Delaunay, before returning to Paris in 1942. After his French naturalisation in 1946, he was appointed a Chevalier of the Légion d'Honneur in 1947.
From his early days in St Petersburg, Pougny was encouraged by Repine, who painted a Portrait of Tolstoy. At the time of his visit to Paris in 1913-14, he was evolving in a Cubist direction. In Tramway V in 1915, Pougny showed a dozen paintings of Cubist inspiration and a relief, The Card Players. In the same year, he showed at 0.10 the 'alogical' painting (in a description coined by Malevich) The Hairdresser, in which he depicted a collection of unusual objects with a text by Mayakovski: 'Through the window pane sparkles the button that one does not see...' He also showed a board painted green, a premonition of future monochromes, and a still-life consisting of a hammer hanging from a nail on three sheets of paper of different colours. In this painting, in his words, 'the object is free of meaning', and he was foreshadowing Dadaism, although an aesthetic concern with presentation is already present. He also executed totally abstract compositions in Indian ink.
After the limited innovations of the two historic exhibitions, in his first series of paintings Pougny, in a Cubist style tending to total Abstraction, integrated groups of letters, or even complete texts (as in the painting BHK of 1916) into geometric coloured plans. Again in 1916, foreshadowing Dadaist approaches, he set a china plate on a board. After the Revolution, radicalising his first innovations, he took more and more liberties with the flatness of the canvas, producing reliefs, 'pictorial sculptures', in polychrome cardboard and wood, incorporating letters, numbers and everyday items as well as magnified objects. In these works, colour played a predominant role, although in general colour was absent from the works of the other artists produced by the Revolution (apart from Malevich), who felt colour stemmed from bourgeois superfluity. After 1918, along with his aesthetic demand for the use of colour, his natural evolution distanced him from the rigours of both revolutionary art and Suprematism. He returned to Cubo-Futurism in 'Realist Formalism', again integrating elements of reality in compositions with a geometric and faintly Suprematist tendency. This phase ended with The Synthetic Musician of 1921, which was close to Synthetic Cubism, apart from the frankly volumetric modulation of the face, and with drawings of urban subjects, in which the narrative and dynamic subject coexists with static geometric organisation: 'basically, Suprematism remains an experimental construction within the painting'.
In 1924, after he had finally settled in Paris, he began to use pure pigment to obtain subtle refinements in the expression of colour. At this time he was moving away from his previous abstract work into hybrid compositions of Post-Cubism with Surrealist borrowings. In his last period, starting around 1935, he began to paint interiors, street scenes, harlequins, landscapes and still-lifes. Though these works were of undoubted originality, he was probably influenced by Vuillard. Under the hand of the man who from then on signed himself Jean Pougny, all the intimate fairy-tale themes for which Vuillard used quite large formats were reduced to the most modest scale. There is a great charm in these compositions. He creates atmosphere with subtle combinations of toned-down colours, uses layers of pigments, and prepares his canvases by trampling on them to produce cracking, which he puts across as a nostalgia for the ravages of time.
Pougny, who became less innovative after his Suprematist and Constructivist periods, was a painter loved by painters. In his apparent renunciation of the pursuit of modernity, he knew how to preserve and celebrate what was for him the essential thing: the pleasure of painting.
Pougny took part in group exhibitions, including: 1912, St Petersburg, Union of Youth; 1914, Paris, Salon des Indépendants; 1915, St Petersburg, Tramway V, with Malevich, Tatlin, Exter and Oudaltsova; 1915-16, 0.10, with Malevich and Tatlin; 1923, Berlin, Great Berlin Art Exhibition, Novembergruppe; 1924, Paris, first Salon des Tuileries, of which he became one of the most faithful participants; 1925, Paris, Salon d'Automne; 1931 Paris, Galerie Katia Granoff and Galerie Paul Rosenberg; 1935, Paris, Galerie Jeanne Castel; 1946, Vienna and Cairo; then France, Moscow and Brussels; 1949, travelling exhibition in several American museums; 1950, Pittsburgh, Carnegie Foundation exhibition; 1951, Menton Biennale; and after his death: 1977, Paris, Historical Aspects of Constructivism and Concrete Art, Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris; 1979, Paris Paris-Moscow, Centre Georges Pompidou; 2003, Russian Paris 1910-1960, an exhibition on Russian art and artists in Paris, organised by the Russian Museum of St Petersburg, presented at the Von der Heydt-Museum in Wuppertal, and then at the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Bordeaux.
He often exhibited as an individual: 1915, exhibition of drawings, Galerie Dobitchine, Petrograd; 1921, Galerie Der Sturm, Berlin; 1925, an exhibition prefaced by Henri Salmon, Galerie Barbazanges, Paris; 1926, Paris; 1933, an exhibition organised and prefaced by Paul Guillaume, and which confirmed his new style, Galerie Jeanne Castel, Paris; 1943, Galerie Louis Carré, Paris; 1947, after obtaining French nationality, an important exhibition prefaced by Charles Estienne, Galerie de France, Paris; 1949, first exhibition, Knoedler Gallery, New York; 1950, Adams Brothers Gallery in London and Galerie de France in Paris; 1952, Knoedler Gallery, New York; 1950, Adams Brothers Gallery in London and Galerie de France in Paris; 1952, Knoedler Gallery, New York; 1953, 1956, Galerie Coard, Paris. After his death, numerous retrospectives were devoted to his work: 1958, Musée National d'Art Moderne, Paris; and then Albi, St-Étienne and Clermond-Ferrand; 1959, Galerie Coard, Paris; 1960, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Zurich; 1961, Galerie Charpentier, Paris; 1960, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam; 1962, Galleria d'Arte Moderna, Turin; 1964, Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris; 1964, Kunsthalle, Baden-Baden; 1966, exhibition of the Donation Pougny, Musée de l'Orangerie des Tuileries, Paris; 1980, Galerie Bellint, Paris; 1989, Musée Bourdelle, Paris; 1997, Galerie Coard, Paris; 2003, Galerie Zlotowski, Paris; 2003, Ivan Puni, Works from the Berninger Collection, Musée Jean Tinguely, Basel.
Museum and Gallery Holdings
Albi (Mus. Toulouse-Lautrec): Woman at a Blue Easel (1938-1939); Landscape
Algiers (Mus. National des Beaux-Arts): Garden (1949)
Amsterdam (Stedelijk Mus.)
Berlin (Berlinische Gal.): Synthetic Musician (1921)
Cologne: Man with Top Hat
Grenoble (Mus. de Grenoble): Interior; Landscape
Moscow: Bouquet of Lilac
New York (MoMA)
Paris (BNF, Prints Collection): donation of linocut works
Paris (MAMVP): Chair, Violin and Globe
Paris (MNAM-CCI, Pougny Bequest): Self-portrait (1912); Chair and Violin Case (1914-1915, ink); Revolution (1914-1920, colour linograph); Aerial Bridge (1914-1920, colour linograph); Cellist (1914-1920, colour linograph); Vitebsk (1914-1920, colour linograph); Interior (1914-1920, colour linograph); Door (1914-1920, colour linograph); Staircase (1914-1920, colour linograph); Gangway (1914-1920, colour linograph); Entrance to the House (1914-1920, colour linograph); Hairdresser (1915); White Ball (1915); Interior with Mannequin (1915-1916, ink); Violin (1919); Still-life with Ball (1921); Bottle and Glove (1921-1922, red pencil and gouache); Bottle and Alarm Clock (1928-1929); Woman Seated (1939-1940, watercolour and gouache); Chair and Plate of Fruit (1939-1942); Seated Model (1942-1943, pencil, charcoal, ink and oil); Woman with Red Hat (1942-1943, gouache); Chair and Piano (1944); Studio (1944-1945); Mother and Child (1945, charcoal); Figure in an Armchair (1946-1948, pencil); Study of an Interior (c. 1948, pencil); Head of Harlequin (1950); Man Reading in an Interior (1950); Woman Seated near a Painting (1950, pencil); Man Seated (1952, pencil); Seine (1953); Public Garden (1954); Interior with Piano (1955); At the Races (1956)
Prague (Národní Muz.): Still-life
St Petersburg (Gosudarstvennyj Russkij Muz.): Still-life with Letters (1919)