OUR INTERNATIONAL EDITOR SIMON HEWITT SURVEYS AUCTIONS & EXHIBITIONS DURING RECENT RUSSIAN WEEK IN LONDON.
THERE WAS AN UNWONTED SURFEIT of Soviet Art during Russian Week – 100 lots of it sprinkled through MacDougall’s five-hour sale, and a whole catalogue of the stuff at Sotheby’s.
Alexander Deineka (1888-1965) was the go-to man. Only Christie’s, of the four London firms, weren’t selling him. MacDougall’s and Sotheby’s each had a Deineka touted at around £3m. MacDougall’s sold theirs, Sotheby’s didn’t.
Deineka’s most famous work, his 1928 Defence of Petrograd, imbues horizontal figures – painted in an austere black/grey palette – with heroic dynamism.
Sotheby’s Deineika had the palette. MacDougall’s had the horizontal heroism – and a buyer.
In 1925 Deineka visited the Donbass coalfields of eastern Ukraine. A vast, three-figure canvas entitled At The Mine resulted. Two of the miners wielded pick-axes with revolutionary gusto. The picture was cut up and these figures lost. The third figure, a 5ft 8in Coal Miner mopping his brow rather less heroically, pick-axe at his feet, was found in Deineka’s studio after his death in 1969. It was one of three works consigned to Sotheby’s by the American collector Raymond Johnson, with a whopping estimate of £3.5-4.5 million – the equivalent, for a work whose art historical importance outweighs its visual appeal, of a bottomless pit… into which it sank without a bid.
MacDougall’s Deineka was painted a decade later. His 6ft 6in wide Heroes of the First Five-Year Plan was an early version of a panel he painted for the USSR Pavilion at the 1937 Paris Exposition Internationale. After the failure of Sotheby’s Deineka the day before, MacDougall’s client lowered his £2 million reserve ‘considerably.’ He needn’t have worried. Bidding sped to £2.85m.
Unlike Sotheby’s coal-miner, MacDougall’s Heroes were shown in Moscow ahead of the sale (see below), along with a dozen other works. Nine of these sold – seven to collectors who had seen them in the Russian capital. MacDougall’s Deineka received an indirect boost from the simultaneous presence in London of a subsequent version of his Paris heroes from the Museum of Perm, shown at the Tate Modern’s exhibition Red Star Over Russia (through February 25).
Bonhams also had a couple of Deinekas – a sketch for his painting Left March at £31,250, and a small Still Life with Game, unsold against an ambitious estimate of £130,000-150,000. Their not very convincing Petrov-Vodkin pencil and watercolour Mother & Child was withdrawn.
MacDougall’s sold 87 of their 101 Soviet paintings (86%) for a total £4.26m. Sotheby’s offered 86 pictures in their 122-lot sale Art of the Soviet Union (along with posters, photographs, prints and Non-Conformist art), selling 42 of them (49%) for a total £1.47m.
Sotheby’s extraordinary mise-en-scène will be talked about for as long as auctions are held. Their main hall was bathed in dark red light, the canvases glowing like candy but the captions – cast in a pseudy ‘Soviet-style’ typeface – plunged into illegible darkness. In another hall, Socialist Realist paintings were hidden behind antique statuary, as if to prevent anyone from viewing them close up.
Each firm posted six Soviet prices in excess of £50,000. Sotheby’s biggest seller was Georgy Rublev’s Factory Party-Meeting from 1933, snaffled by phone for a mid-estimate £489,000. The zany Fauve palette that Rublev made his own would soon disappear into the dustbin of Socialist Realist history.
Three of Sotheby’s most successful Soviet canvases were consigned by Tokyo’s Gekkoso Gallery and, although dating from the 1970s, were each radically different in style. Andrei Mylnikov’s sun-dappled, neo-Impressionistic Veranda at Matyshkino bagged £52,500; Tair Salakhov’s clinically white, Bernard Buffet-esque view of Granada rated £62,500; and Leonid Kabachek’s bizarrely titled Spring – a despondent female against a slushy background – tore to £81,000.
Another Severe Style artist in demand was Viktor Popkov, whose quasi-abstract 1958 view of a Quarry, with workers as distant coloured specks, was Russian Week’s most arresting image. The quarrymen (left) sold on estimate for a giveaway £7500.
Soviet Impressionism proved popular, whether appealing city scenes – Andrei Gorsky’s May Morning outside the Bolshoi at £75,000, Vasily Vikulov’s Palace Square outside the Hermitage at £40,000 – or floral still lifes, like Alexander Gerasimov’s 1935 twin vases of roses (another Johnson consignment) at £309,000.
Soviet industrial scenes of the 1930s failed to wow the saleroom. Serafima Ryangina’s Baltic Shipyard, expected to bring £100,000-150,000, capsized amidst indifference.
A Gerasimov painting showing Stalin and Voroshilov hovering surrealistically above a collective farm, like Goya pantomime giants, went unsold against an £80,000 reserve. This late ’50s take on Happy Agriculture had been sent for cleaning in 2013. As restorers dabbed delicately at the precious canvas, Gerasimov’s earlier portrayal of the two Communist heavies hove into view – a return from the dead almost as macabre as Chaval’s corpse in Germinal.
MacDougall’s followed up their Deineka with a cheerful 1930 flower-and-fruit still life by Gorbatov at £233,700 and Bogdanov-Belsky’s Latgalian Girls from eastern Latvia (c.1925) – one of 30 works from a ‘European Private Collection’ (just 13 sold) – at £84,500. Soviet Impressionism was again to the fore, with Alexander Osmerkin’s 1930s View of the Russian Museum landing £63,700 and Vladimir Stozharov’s Kremlin in Rostov Veliky (1956) powering to £65,000. Nikolai Tyrsa’s Young Nude (1935) aroused £52,000.
LATE 19TH / EARLY 20TH CENTURY PICTURES
Sotheby’s and MacDougall’s also went head-to head over Nikolai Fechin (1881-1955). This time Sotheby’s won out, selling Fechin’s 1908 portrait (below left) of 30 year-old Nadezhda Sapozhnikova, his student (and rumoured mistress) at the Kazan Art School, for a triple-estimate £3.65m. MacDougall’s collected a mid-estimate £913,000 for a 1926 portrait (below right) of 27 year-old Chicago banker’s daughter Duane van Vechten that had made $902,500 (then equivalent to £605,000) at Sotheby’s New York in December 2008.
Seven of Sotheby’s Picture Sale Top Ten sold to the trade. Vasily Rozhdetvensky’s 1920 Summer and Winter landscapes doubled hopes with £585,000 and £489,000. A David Shterenberg Portrait of the Artist’s Father and Sister rated a predicted £309,000, while Sergei Vinogradov’s 1917 Summer in Crimea, and Pokhitonov’s Sunlit Snowscape – Zhabovschizna (c.1905), doubled estimate on £273,000 and £249,000 respectively.
An oil on canvas Carnival In Venice, at £321,000, headed a group of 14 works by Alexandra Exter consigned by the descendants of her onetime student, later friend and executor, Ihnno Ezratty.
Natalia Goncharova starred at Christie’s with a Still Life with Teapot & Oranges that sold on the phone for a quadruple-estimate £2.41m after an excruciating slow-motion phone battle. Her undated White Peonies were bought in bidless at £280,000.
Apollinary Vasnetsov’s large, 1910 view of Old Veliky Novgorod sizzled to £849,000. Marie Vassilieff’s 1921 Café de La Rotonde squeaked to £225,000. Roerich’s 1927 Over Ergor Comes a Rider (est. £300,000-500,000) languished unsold.
Two market-fresh, early 20th century paintings from Vasily Polenov’s epic Life of Christ cycle triumphed at MacDougall’s: Christ with Mary Magdalene on £606,000 and He Resolutely Set Out for Jerusalem, consigned by the grandson of the Polish diplomat who bought it in Moscow in 1923, on £693,000. But another Polenov – his much earlier Herzegovian On The Look-Out during the Serbo-Turkish War (1876) – failed to land its £300,000 reserve at Bonhams, where Korovin’s 1935 Portrait of Yolanda Lacca top-scored on £100,000.
Aivazovsky’s serene 1874 Ship Off The Coast proved Russian Week’s leading 19th century picture, billowing to a triple-estimate £441,000 at Sotheby’s. Chechnya artist Piotr Zakharov caught the eye at MacDougall’s, where his Portrait of Anna Ermolova with Children (1840) sold for £258,500.
An 1885 Holy Family by Vasily Vereshchagin starred with £369,000 at Christie’s, whose hapless auctioneer made a double ass of himself by promptly announcing ‘Very-Shaygin Again’ for a view of Sevastopol by Piotr Vereschagin (no relation). Kryzhitsky’s Tver Province sold solidly at £187,500, as did Arkhipov’s To Vespers at £162,500. Both were painted in 1898.
WORKS OF ART
As usual Christie’s prime focus was, however, on Works of Art. Their Fabergé highlight was a gold and guilloché-enamel model of a Sedan Chair by Michael Perchin that cleared low-estimate on £789,000. There was relatively greater interest in the Fabergé silver Rhinoceros automaton that tramped to a double-estimate £704,000. An hilarious presentation video of the tank-like rhino in action could be seen at Christie’s exhibition (though was mysteriously on the blink during their Saturday night party preview).
Both items were part of a twenty-lot Fabergé collection that garnered £2.2m. The consignor was unnamed. It was a busy time for Fabergé, with New York dealership A La Vieille Russie – major lenders to the Royal Fabergé exhibition at the Sainsbury Centre in Norwich (until February 11) – busy relocating to new Manhattan premises on Fifth Avenue, and compulsive collector Alexander Ivanov adamant that the Fabergé market was ‘clearly making a strong comeback.’ The man affectionately known as ‘Big Lix’ purchased a score of Fabergé items during Russian Week, even though ‘estimates were far higher than a year ago.’ He seemed to enjoy the price hike. ‘Nearly everything sold near or over top-estimate!’ he reported enthusiastically.
It wasn’t all Fab. Christie’s also dispatched a gold and enamel Order of St Andrew (c.1807) for £590,000, five times top-estimate, while venerable weaponry ran riot. A gold and walrus-ivory Kindjal dagger (c.1841), once owned by Caucasus warlord Imam Shamil, zigzagged to £549,000, eight times estimate, while an Infantry Office Shashka made for Grand Duke Piotr Nikolayevich by Fokin of St Petersburg (c.1909) slashed its way to £273,000.
Another Christie’s highlight was an imposing, 4ft 6in Imperial Porcelain vase, painted by Mescheriakov in 1838, at a triple-estimate £693,000 (see above). All but two of a 20-lot collection of early 19th century Gardiner porcelain figures found takers, led by a figure of a Don Cossack at £37,500, ten times estimate.
Sotheby’s included 16 Nikolai I Imperial Porcelain plates with military scenes, from a private collection; all sold handsomely, for a total £583,000, with top individual price £72,500 for a Drum Major & Flag-Bearer from 1830. A selection of early Soviet porcelain plates featured Workers of the World Unite, painted by Zinaida Kobyletskaya in 1927 to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the October Revolution, at a mighty £162,500 (see detail above). But Bonhams were sadly unable to sell their spectacular catalogue-cover lot: a 1931 Lomonosov part tea-service by Sergei Chekhonin and Ludmila Protopopova, with zany industrial patterning of cranes, ladders, chains and ropes (est. £40,000-60,000).
The London firms rustled up 45 Icons between them, selling 58% for a total £176,500. Top price was just £47,500 at Christie’s for a cloisonné enamel mandylion by Khlebnikov of Moscow (c.1903) – a far cry from the icon highlights at Bruun Rasmussen in Copenhagen on December 1, when a 16th century Tikhvinskaya Mother of God brought DKK750,000 (£89,000) and an early 17th century Yaroslavl Entry Into Jerusalem DKK1.35m (£160,000).
RED STARS OVER LONDON
RUSSIA’S CONTEMPORARY SOUL: FROM GORBACHOV TO PUSSY RIOT
AUCTION SALES of Contemporary Art during Russian Week totalled £2.1m, with a healthy across-the-board selling-rate of 73%. Sotheby’s led the way with Bulatov’s Farewell Lenin at £369,000 – also earning £75,000 for View of the Statue of Liberty on a Foggy Night by his stablemate Vasiliev. Both works dated from the landmark year 1991.
Grisha Bruskin’s whimsical 1982 painting of a dancing couple, teetering on the edge of a plinth in the Moonlight, waltzed to a triple-estimate £112,500. An early solo work by Vitaly Komar, Niche Surrounding a Drunken Man (1971), lurched to £27,500.
Semyon Faibisovch’s ironically serene 1989 Portrait of Gorbachov, showing the great glasnost-gleaner striding through Mother Russia in a sharp suit, claimed £52,500.
Two gigantic deep-purple Tselkovs from the mid-1980s met differing fates: his Four-Headed Woman freaked to £125,000 at Christie’s, but his Scissors-Wielding Couple fell on their sword, so to speak, at Bonhams, short of their £70,000 reserve. A rare early Tselkov – a fauve Portrait from 1966 – was also unsold at Christie’s despite an enticing £60,000-80,000 estimate.
MacDougall’s healthy return of 39/50 lots sold reflected strength in the £5,000-10,000 range; the top three lots – by Kabakov, Bruskin and Vasiliev, each touted at around £70,000 – failed to sell. Eduard Steinberg’s 1995 Eurasia triptych (above) impressed with a double-estimate £10,400, despite the shambling disregard with which it was hung at the viewing. A 2006 Guryanov Sailor topscored with £39,150.
BIGGLES LOOKS BACK
Russian Week in the salerooms overlapped with two blockbuster museum shows devoted to Russian Contemporary Art: Ilya & Emilia Kabakov at Tate Modern, and Art Riot: Post-Soviet Actionism at the Saatchi.
The Kabakov show, granted the portentous subtitle Not Everyone Will Be Taken Into The Future, is a workmanlike retrospective. Although the Tate’s vast spaces enable visitors to gain some idea of Ilya’s penchant for acre-eating installations, the show declines to address the impact on/contribution to his œuvre of his distant cousin Emilia (their output has been jointly signed since their marriage in 1992).
The Tate show does little to dispel the perceived wisdom in Russian artistic circles that Ilya’s genius has waned since Emilia made herself felt. The installation highlight here – especially to those who have never been inside a communalka apartment block – is his 1990 Labyrinth: a sparsely lit, endlessly twisting corridor lined with family photographs. It is a shock to emerge from this atmospheric work into a hall full of the hugely appalling paintings that blight the Kabakovs’ recent years.
The show’s most surprising room is the first, where little-seen works from private collections cast light on the start of Ilya Kabakov’s career. A 1959 Self-Portrait in an aviator’s cap, looking like a solemn Soviet Biggles, stares out from a dappled background indebted to Robert Falk, whose influence is even more apparent in The Bush (1961).
Yet by the mid-1960s Kabakov was already moving away from easel-painting to the sort of optical/conceptual trickery redolent of early Picabia. Perhaps he sought an alternative means of expression because he felt his painterly technique inferior to that of his associates (and fellow Falk fans) Eric Bulatov and Oleg Vasiliev.
Kabakov would, however, remain a superlative draughtsman. Evidence of his precocious skill is to be found at Red Star Over Russia, across in the Tate’s new Blavatnik Wing, which features his illustrations for the 1956 edition of Olevsky’s Osya And His Friends.
Red Star Over Russia consists mainly of posters and photographs from the collection of the late David King, acquired by the Tate in 2016, and has little to interest anyone acquainted with King’s excellent book of the same title published in 2009. The show’s dismal lighting does the exhibits – and the Tate’s new building – rough justice.
The exhibit that caught my eye through the murk was a cover of the February 1940 issue of USSR In Construction, showing a Red Army soldier receiving a kiss of welcome from a man in a Belorussian shirt during the recent Soviet invasion of eastern Poland. I hadn’t realized how this improbable image clearly inspired the Blue Noses’ Era Of Mercy (2007) – arguably the most iconic Russian photograph of the 21st century (whose homosexual makeover recalls Serge Gainsbourg’s treatment of Edith Piaf’s Mon Légionnaire).
Blue Noses figure prominently in Igor Tsukanov’s latest production at the Saatchi. Art Riot is a great title, but ‘actionism’ is a difficult theme to transfer from the street to the gallery, and Igor’s ambitious show is as much a curate’s egg as his Post Pop extravaganza of three years ago.
Post-Soviet Actionism, as it is sub-titled (the word Russia is studiously avoided), centres on that scrotum-nailing Piotr Pavlensky and those altar-trampling punkettes Pussy Riot. Their courage and beliefs are to be applauded, but where does art come into it?
That was the conundrum facing curator Marat Guelman. His response makes an interesting museological case-study. Screening performance videos was the easy part.
His Pussy Riot hall combines commissioned artworks with pre-existing ones. The walls are ringed by Lusine Djanyan’s acrylic portraits of Pussy Rioters in coloured balaclavas, Viktoria Lonasko’s posters with challenging Cyrillic slogans, and Evgenia Maltceva’s gold-on-black religious paintings.
In the centre stands a hut. The colours of its walls echo those of Djanyan’s balaclavas. It contains a Kulik gridwork Madonna outlined by tiny angels, and an Artem Loskutov lightbox painted with a haloed, hooded Pussy Rioter sporting a youthful Mary medallion on her chest. The lightbox, conceived in 2012 in the form of a freestanding street advertisement, has been mounted as an altarpiece.
The walls of the hut contain two niches. One contains Andrei Lyublinsky’s hooded matroshka dolls, the other a ceramic group by Tatiana Antoishina, showing Pussy Riot in full cry. Each niche is fronted by bars. Bar Maltceva’s paintings it’s all a bit kitsch. But how do you put the Punk into Pussy in the heart of Sloane Rangerland?
With, it transpires, a 60-minute ‘immersive production’ entitled Inside Pussy Riot. This involves a series of tableaux – manfully interpreted by female drama troupe Les Enfants Terribles – evoking the prison fate of Nadya Tolokonnikova and Masha Alyokhina after their 2012 ‘punk prayer’ in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. For £21.50 you get told to belt up, strip off and sport a balaclava. However, after a knockabout court scene indebted to Pink Floyd’s The Wall, the dread you are meant to feel gives way to a mood of Disneyfied Gulag.
The Pavlensky section carries more weight. It centres on Pavlensky’s own criminal files, displayed as trophies of war. Pavlensky turns the tables on the state security apparatus – effectively making the officers, investigators and judges he came up against part of his performance. Whereas the Pussy Riot section majors on artistic derivatives, Pavlensky’s majors on primary evidence: facts, files, photos and even CC-TV footage of him setting fire to the doors of the Lubyanka. One camera, positioned at the top of Teatralny Proezd, poignantly juxtaposes the Lubyanka with the famous toy-store Detsky Mir.
One of Pavlensky’s interrogations is acted out by two figures in silhouette behind a grey screen. Here, unfortunately, the deadpan, documentary tone is abandoned, with the exchange ‘dramatized’ for a Western audience. As with Inside Pussy Riot, the exhibition skirts with infotainment, its impact trivialized.
There are some unforgettable photos of Pavlensky in action (or rather inertia). The image of him reclining naked inside coils of barbed wire is an unforgettable blend of serenity and barbarity.
The section starts and ends with two sculptures of Pavlensky by Oleg Kulik: a Janus-like bronze bust, and a statuette of Pavlensky banging an outsized nail into his outsized balls with his outsized fist. This statuette is flanked by two ingenious grid-metal portraits of Pavlensky by Konstantin Benkovich and several large Arsen Savadov photos of sweaty miners in ballet tutus. Just one of these photos would have sufficed (although their relevance escapes me). It is twenty years – seven decades after Deineka – since Savadov visited the Donbass, and his images’ capacity for shock and awe have long since evaporated through over-exposure.
Oleg Kulik bestrides the exhibition like an Old Testament Prophet, which is what this soft-spoken, grizzle-bearded, erstwhile bystander-biting dog-impersonator has pretty much become. Kulik occupies the exhibition’s first hall – with a few familiar photographs, a sculpture, lots of farmyard straw and an enormous monochrome painting of himself headbutting a car windscreen in the nude. Kulik has never been much of a painter, as this exhibition confirms, but he was once Europe’s most provocative post-Gainsbourg provocateur, as proven by grainy video footage visitors can enjoy while lolling on bales of more straw.
The final two halls see Art Riot peter out. The first bizarrely contains printed banners with doctored architectural scenes from AES+F’s Islamic Project (1996-03). The second is devoted to artists from the Russian provinces – although this is only apparent if you read the catalogue.
This lavishly illustrated 250-page tome is good value at £25, but too wide for a normal bookshelf (though its zany lay-out contrives to have the text almost running off the page). It is also weighed down by curatorial texts pontificating about actionism. The whole point of actionism, surely, is that actions speak louder than words.
Novosibirsk’s Blue Noses dominate the final hall. Their clever-clever cardboard boxes containing smutty videos, last seen at the Pompidou Centre a few months ago, are topped by more of the infantile photo-collages of unclad figures cavorting on settees that they have been peddling since the days of George Bush, Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden. For Art Riot, the Noses have graciously consented to replace their heads with those of Donald Trump, Emmanuel Macron and Kim Jong-Un. Thanks, boys.
The painted ‘Siberian’ flags of Damir Muratov (Omsk), bereft of their fluttering original context, fall literally flat. The axe-head portraits of Putin, Brezhnev, Andropov et al by Vasily Slonov (Novosobirsk) seem ponderous compared to his viciously satirical (and far funnier) posters for the Saatchi – sorry, Sochi – Olympics, which have been mysteriously banned. Best things here are the rusting Red Stars of Rinat Voligamsi (Ufa), sprouting grotesque extra arms as if afflicted by a monstrous disease. Witty, concise, politically eloquent.
The pot pourri nature of this final hall, which includes a ho-ho bust of Lenin made from hare-skin and a portrait of Dostoyevsky chiselled from the spines of Lenin’s Complete Works, makes it all the harder to comprehend the absence of Anatoly Osmolovsky – arguably an earlier and more political Actionist than Oleg Kulik – or Katrin Nenasheva, who last year traipsed around Moscow for three weeks with a metal bed-frame strapped to her back in protest against Human Rights abuse in Russian orphanages.
The Saatchi’s only actionist heroines, it seems, can be Pussy Riot. They’ve earned the adulation. But have they lost their souls en route?
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