$11.4 Million of Russian Art up for Auction in Sweden

Portrait of Isaac Ilich Levitan
“Portrait of Isaac Ilich Levitan” – Vasily Polenov 1891

Today the Swedish auction house Auktionsverk began its second auction of Russian Art this year. The 493 paintings, drawings, sculptures, icons, and decorative works are expected to fetch more than $9.2 million. The auction includes work by several important realist painters of the 19th century including Isaac Levitan, Leonid Pasternak, Ivan Shishkin, Ilya Repin,Vladimir Makovsky,Valentin Serov and Vasily Polenov. Polenev’s portrait of his student and friend Issac Levitan is considered by Auktionsverk to be the highlight of the collection. The painting has been ‘missing’ for nearly a century, and was discovered in a private collection in Europe. It is expected to sell for up to $530,000, making it one of the auction’s top lots, second only to Ivan Aivazovsky’s, “Classical Poets by the Water’s Edge in Ancient Greece,” which has an upper estimate of $622,000.

Browsing the auction’s catalog on-line, one of the exciting smaller works I found was a study for Ilya Repin’s famous Barge Haulers on the Volga. There is also some interesting soviet-era work by Konstantin Gorbatov.

On the Island of Capri
“On the Island of Capri” – Konstantin Gorbatov 1926

Beyond the quality of the work itself, the auction is significant in that it helps establish Auktionsverk as a force in the Russian Art market. Auktionsverk will be competing with the world’s two largest auction houses – Christie’s and Sotheby’s – but they remain optimistic about their future in the market. The head of the Russian art division at Auktionsverk told Bloomberg news that, “for geographical, cultural and historical reasons, Scandinavia has always been a rich source of Russian art. As a smaller operation we offer both buyers and sellers a more personal service.”

The auction will end tomorrow.

Rostropovich Collection to Be Displayed in St. Petersburg

Konstantin Palace

The art collection of renowned cellist Mstislav Rostropovich and his wife, opera singer Galina Vishnevskaya, will be moving to the Konstantin palace outside of St. Petersburg. Alisher Usmanov, the billionaire tycoon who spent 72 million to return the collection to its country of origin, told a news conference, “We [considered] the wish of the owner who wanted to see it displayed in one of the wonderful palaces in Saint Petersburg. After consulting with experts, we came to the decision to place the collection in the recently restored Konstantin palace as a permanent display.”

The move to the palace, which was home to the G8 summit last year, has been criticized on the grounds that official functions may keep the collection hidden from the public.

Usmanov told the RIA-Novosti news service the collection should be sent to the palace by Christmas.

Rostropovich-Vishnevskaya Collection Returns to Russia

Here’s an excerpt from an article by the Associated Press on the surprising cancellation of Sotheby’s monumental auction:

MOSCOW — The prized collection of art collected by the renowned late cellist Mstislav Rostropovich is being returned to Russia, a top cultural official said, after a politically connected billionaire tycoon paid a premium for the collection in a surprise deal announced on the eve of its auction. […]

Federal Culture Agency chief Mikhail Shvydkoi told a news conference that the government agency presented Sotheby’s with guarantees that “the transaction would be in the interest of the Russian Federation.”

He did not elaborate on the guarantees, but said that the Russian government itself did not try to buy the collection because it did not have sufficient funds. “The culture ministry, and I personally, began to appeal to business representatives to buy the collection in its entirety.”

Link to full article at the International Herald Tribune site.

Sotheby’s Doubles Rostropovich-Vishnevskaya Collection

Kornei Chukovsky - Ilya Repin
“Portrait of Kornei Chukovsky” * – Ilya Repin

Yesterday Bloomberg news reported that Sotheby’s has doubled the number of works of Russian art to be auctioned from the collection of cellist Mstislav Rostropovich and his wife, opera singer Galina Vishnevskaya. Of the 450 lots, there are now 12 valued at a million dollars or more.

” ‘This is the biggest and best collection of Russian art outside of Russia,’ said Mikhail Kamensky, director of Sotheby’s Moscow office. `This is a great opportunity to acquire art from a unique collection put together by two world cultural figures.’ ”

Link to the full article

* This portrait is one of the twelve lots expected to sell at a million dollars or more.

Surikov Graduate at the Museum of Russian Art

Raising the Banner
“Raising the Banner” – Gely Korzhev 1957-1960

On Monday, an exhibition of the work of soviet artist Geli Korzhev will open at the Museum of Russian Art in Minneapolis. Korzhev graduated from the Surikov Art Institute in 1950, and is still painting today.

An article on the exhibition by the Minneapolis Star Tribune focused on the rebelliousness of Korzhev’s work. At first glance, Korzhev doesn’t seem to be the best example of a challenge to the communist status quo. Once the chairman of the Moscow chapter of the Union of Soviet Artists, Korzhev is still loyal to his Communist ideals. There is, however, surprising breadth in Korshev’s work. The show includes student work and small, intimate portraits, as well as monumental images of war, Biblical subjects, and even one painting of Don Quixote.

Morning” – Gely Korzhev 1958

Regardless of the independence of his work, the article brings up an interesting point about the relationship between the government and the most talented soviet artists:

“Asked why Soviet officials would allow a painter to challenge official ideology, [Alisa Lyubimova – curator of 20th century art at the State Russian Museum in St. Petersburg] shrugged and smiled wryly. ‘The authorities, even in strict times, would understand what is good and bad, wrong and right,” she said. “And he was so strong a person that they couldn’t take away his art.’ ”

Surprisingly, at a time when the government seemed to have little respect for free expression in any form, it gave its most talented artists a wide berth, and extensive resources. The soviet government’s generous patronage is one of the many paradoxes of this movement. A brief history of realism in Russia since the revolution might help answer some of the questions these paradoxes bring up. You can find one here, on the Lazare Gallery website. 

The Tribune’s article ends with advice about Korzhev’s work which resonates beyond the scope of the exhibition. The education director of the Museum, Brad Shinkle, urges us to reserve judgment; “To understand his 60-year career, you have to see it all.”

The show will run through January 5th.

Link to the Star Tribute’s article

Link to exhibition

Update 11/12

Korzhev’s show got some additional press yesterday on Minnesota public radio. The piece included an interesting quote from Korzhev’s on the relationship of his work to communism. Of his painting “Raising the Banner” (top of the article) Korzhev said:

“I depicted a heroic act common to all mankind, not a specific action of a communist. Personally, I share the ideas of communism, therefore I called the painting the way I did, but the painting itself isn’t about communism, it is about a heroic act. The flag could be any color.”

Northern Artists

First Snow
“First Snow” – Rem Ermolin 1963

An exhibition of Soviet Realism at the Central House of Artists in Moscow ended yesterday. The show focused on depictions of the culture and landscape of northern Russia from the 1950’s to the 1980’s. Last month, Russia Today talked to the exhibition’s organizers, who encountered surprising difficulties assembling the work:

“Some of the rare or even previously unknown canvases were found in odd places, including the dusty closets of the artists’ friends and acquaintances.”

We often see socialist realism used as an example of how low art can sink under a totalitarian regime. Though much of soviet art was smothered under the weight of strict artists unions, there are significant exceptions to this image of a state-run movement.

These artists worked at a time when voices of dissent in other mediums were able to break through the soviet bureaucracy. Russian authors were as strictly controlled as any other artists of the time, and yet it was in the early 1960’s that Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was able to publish ‘One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.” Mikhail Bulgakov’s revolutionary novel The Master and Margarita first ventured from the drawer of his desk in 1967, twenty-six years after its completion and his death.

The example of The Master and Margarita, in particular, gives hope to the cause of lost and forgotten art. An excerpt from the introduction to the novel by Richard Pevear can help us gauge the impact its release had, long after its execution:

“The monthly magazine Moskva […] carried the first part of The Master and Margarita in its November 1966 issue. The 150,000 copies sold out within hours. In the weeks that followed, group readings were held, people meeting each other would quote and compare favourite passages, there was talk of little else. Certain sentences from the novel immediately became proverbial. ”

This delayed publication was particularly significant as the adventurous, satirical novel was unlike anything the author had published during his lifetime. Bulgakov’s most well know work before 1966 was likely The White Guard, known to be a favorite of Stalin’s.

What other masterpieces are lurking in attics and basements across Russia, ready to show themselves to the world? How many ‘propagandists’ are waiting to be vindicated in history by work unseen during their lifetimes?

All great work is not hidden, however. Only recently has this work become accessible outside of Russia; the names of the greatest artists of this period are still unknown to the west. Great work in this style a thing of the past, either. The realist school in Russia is still active – carried on by artists free from the restrictions of Communist rule.

Featured artists in the exhibition include Yuntunen Jeikkievich, Stanislav Torlopov, Pyotr Mironov and Rem Ermolin.

Bonjour Russia

Ilya Repin October 17, 1905
“October 17, 1905” – Ilya Repin

Starting this month in Germany, the Museum Kunst Palast – in Duesseldorf – is exhibiting 125 French and Russian paintings from the 1860’s to the 1920’s. The show will be organized into four chronological sections, the earliest of which is devoted to ‘Russian Realism and the Influence of French Naturalism.’ Exhibition organizer Norman Rosenthal had this to say about the exhibition, and the debt of Russian art to the French:

“The exhibition will focus on the changes that took place in Russia under the influence of their Parisian masters. Here it should not be forgotten how quickly the pupils overtook their masters, opening up new horizons in art not only for Russia, but also for the whole of Europe, and exploring realms hitherto unimaginable in art.”

The exhibition will run from September 15 to January 6, 2008.
Link to the official website

Update 10/27: Just to be clear: this show will be running in London under the name ‘From Russia‘ starting January.

Christie’s to Open Branch in Russia

Solomon’s Wall
“Solomon’s Wall” * – Vasily Vereshchagin 1884-1885

Three months after Sotheby’s opened it’s first Russian office in Moscow, Christie’s International is following suit. The Russian new rich have been confronted by a roaring mob of bare-walled mansions, and art from the Motherland is filling the void. Here’s an excerpt from the full article at Bloomberg News:

“Christie’s said its sales of Russian art increased more than sevenfold between 2000 and 2006. In the first half of 2007, the auction house sold $69 million worth of Russian art worldwide. The house took in $70.5 million for Russian art for all of 2006.

Sotheby’s said its Russian art sales have risen more than 20-fold since 2000, totaling $153.5 million in 2006. So far this year, Sotheby’s Russian art sales have totaled $107.2 million.”

Link to the full article

*Sold at Christie’s in April for $3,624,000

Poetry or Propaganda?

Evacuation - Yuri Kugach
“Evacuation” – Yuri Kugach 1942

The LA Times recently ran an article addressing the growing popularity of soviet-era realism. The article questions the interest in a movement it condemns as, “glorified renderings of happy, toiling Soviet peasants.”

The Times presents us with the opinions of a few investors and collectors, each with their own understanding of soviet art. At the end of the article, we are left with several different views of what soviet realism could be, and without any means of judging it ourselves. We can find an indication of where to begin looking for answers, however, in an interview with Yuri Kugach, one of the premier artists of the era. Here the article begins to break the surface of the issue; piercing through the dissonant chorus of voices, we hear Kugach insisting that, “the main thing is poetry […] this is the essence of all my work.”

Where in between poetry and propaganda does this movement lie? We’re faced with this question, and for the answer we must turn to the work itself – work with a voice of its own.

link to the article
link to a gallery of Yuri Kugach’s work

A show broadcast on Southern California’s largest public radio station, KCRW, responded to the LA Times article and generally to the boom in soviet art.

link to a transcript of the show

Big In Japan

What a Freedom!
“What a Freedom!” – Ilya Repin 1903

An exhibition of Russian music, theatre, film, circus and dance opened in Tokyo earlier this July. The festival will feature productions by the Bolshoi and Mariinsky theaters, folk music troupes, and the work of filmmakers such as Alexander Sokurov. It ends on November 5th.


Currently, there are also two exhibitions of Russian art showing at museums in Japan. “The Greatest Treasures of the Russian Czars” will remain at the National Museum of Art, Osaka until Sept. 17. “Masterpieces of the State Russian Museum From the Late 18th Century to the Early 20th Century,” ended its run at the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum July 8th, but will be traveling the country until May. This show includes over 100 paintings and features the work of Peredvizhniki (or ‘Wanderers’) such as Ivan Kramskoi and Ilya Repin, masters of Russia’s ‘Golden Age.’ The strength, conviction and humanism of these artists make them well suited to a cross-cultural dialogue.