"At the Dressing-Table", Reimagined

"At the Dressing-Table", Reimagined

I have nurtured a healthy obsession with Zinaida Serebryakova's self-portrait "At the Dressing Table" ever since I was first delighted to discover it last year.

 According to the author herself, the winter came early in that year, there was a lot of snow, but it was warm in the house, so "she started to paint herself in the mirror, entertained by drawing different small things from her dressing-table".[1]

Serebriakova explains it in such simple terms, but this work adds up to a much larger picture for me. I look at it as her taking the control back: from the outside perception of her, from the patriarchal society, from her audience.

Imagine it: you're a rare woman painter at the beginning of the 20th century. While everyone around you is painting nude women from behind, brushing their hair and getting dressed, often from curiously voyeuristic perspectives, you decide to paint yourself brushing your own hair. Straight-on, eye-level. And not only are you returning the gaze, you are owning the whole scene.

Zinaida here is not only only looking at us, she is inviting us into her space. Her smile is one of consent. "Come on in, I am just getting ready." You, the viewer are a familiar figure here. She trusts you and she wants to share this moment with you.

While her contemporaries called it a "very cute and fresh thing", and a "smile from ear to ear" [2], I see it as a power more, at any given period in time. As my tutor noticed, her hands are strong while they're doing the gentlest of tasks. She is not hiding the powder brush nor her washstand. She is, to put it in current terms, controlling her own narrative.

The scene is evoking a strong contemporary feeling to me. I can easily imagine her as one of countless You Tube stars, showing us her newest hairstyling tricks. The well-lit room, the white walls and reclaimed wood floor combination. The white candles and brass candle holders. It tells a lot about contemporary interior design relying on the designs of the past, but all these details amount to a warm space, one where we, the viewer, are not intruding.

Zinaida herself here, a woman my age, as if saying "Welcome to my dressing room, here are my perfumes, creams and my jewellery. This is how I brush my hair, and I will be putting these hairpins on." I can almost hear her reminding us to hit the Subscribe button, saying she "Has a new video up every week!"

When Dr. Sarah Lightman gave us a homework assignment "How would you re-imagine a work of art, and where would you display it?", I've jumped at the chance to show Serebriakova's work into modern context:

I aimed not to alter, but only transport the painting into today's most viewed vanity tables - the ones on myriad beauty You tube channels. I've "expanded" the lens perspective so we have the whole view of the room, just like with professional streamers.

Her willingness to share encouraged me to display her as a YouTube star, and her other self-portrait was perfect to use as an avatar. Her hair-brushing demonstration told me it was a hairstyle tutorial, but the lingo I've borrowed from today's women, inviting us into their "daily routine" videos as if we were the closest of friends.

Serebriakova's work continues to amaze me, and I doubt this is the last analysis of her work that I do. Therefore, the coveted Subscribed button is demonstratively on.

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