La Grande Iza1882 by Vlaho Bukovac

Having studied in Paris during the last decades of the 19th century, where ideas about artistic creation and visual perception were rapidly changing, painter Vlaho Bukovac was instrumental in the development of Croatian modernism.....

With the help of a small oil study titled Hand, Bukovac was accepted to the École des Beaux Arts in 1877, and just a year later, he began participating in the Paris Salon. In 1882, he exhibited La Grande Iza, a painting depicting a dark-haired courtesan reclining against lavish drapery while a maid bathes her legs.

La Grande Iza illustrates Bukovac’s engagement with the evolving styles of the era: the nude is a classic subject and at first glance the painting appears to be academic in motive. However, this courtesan stares directly at the viewer, her pose is strikingly unnatural, and she sits on a cushioned bench that appears to float between the dark background and a lion skin rug that seems to meld with the floor, creating spatial ambiguity – all of which reveal an interest in experimenting with modernist modes of representation.

With his painting La Grande Iza, Vlaho Bukovac started exhibiting his series of magnificent nudes at the Paris Salon in 1882. The canvas of the young and still unknown artist, who had not been noticed by critics earlier, generated considerable interest from the press, so that the street vendors were shouting “Le clou du Salon! La Grande Iza par Bukovac!”, and the photographic reproduction of this painting sold thousands of copies.

Inspired by Alexis Bouvier’s popular pulp novel from 1879 about a famous courtesan with the same title, published in installments in the newspaper La Lanterne, the painting was produced in the style of Manet’s Olympia, almost two decades older. Although today it looks like a typical academic realist painting, a female nude, with a certain sensuality, soft modelling, as well as a provocative posture, openly looking at the observer, at the time it represented a refreshing break from the the lifeless and conventional nudes which could usually be seen in Salons.

Bukovac was fond of painting female nudes like Iza. During his entire creative life he painted nudes in interiors full of heavy drapery, or in a romantic landscape, where he used the play of sunlight on nature as a means of modeling. In time his palette grew more voluptuous.... Bukovac used a Parisian courtesan, who posed for him on subsequent occasions as well, as a model for his masterpiece; he would engage other models for the details. The painter was driven to this by the criticism of his teacher, Cabanel, who made him scrape off the original version of the nude. An English industrialist, Samson Fox, wanted to buy the painting, but it was purchased only 10 days after the exhibition was opened, by an unknown Englishman, and later, in 1913, a friend of Fox and Bukovac, and a collector of his paintings, an industrialist from West Derby near Liverpool, Richard Le Doux, added it to his collection. World War I prevented Bukovac from paying a visit to Le Doux in order to see the painting, and he never got a second chance. This leads us to the conclusion that the changes in the painting (the maid-servant was given an orange headband and a waistcoat) were not made by the painter, but by an unknown restorer. Pavle Beljanski bought the painting at an auction in L’ Hôtel Drouot in Paris, on 18 March 1929, under the title of Odalisque at the Toilette. Seeing that Beljanski was interested in the painting, the painter Paja Jovanović, who was attending the auction in order to acquire pieces of art for the Royal Collection in Belgrade, withdrew from the bidding. Beljanski later framed the painting, gathered its provenance and shipped it to Belgrade. He gave it to the Memorial Collection and through a Donation Contract on 27 May 1965 established a prize for “students of the Faculty of Philosophy, Department of Art History, for the best graduation and seminar papers.” At the same time he allowed the painting to be used to raise funds for the financial part of this prize. The painting has not left its place in the The Pavle Beljanski Memorial Collection to this day, and the prize has regularly been awarded since 1967.
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