100 Years Since the Russian Revolution

While a trip to Russia sounds like the standard way to honor and recognize the centenary of the Russian Revolution, as an art lover, I would like to go to London. Currently at the Royal Academy of Arts there is an exhibit on called ‘Revolution: Russian 1917- 1932.’ This is the 15 year period when Russia was creating art that captured the optimism and the harshness of revolution and the aftermath. Artist giants included are Kazimir Malevich, Vassily Kandinsky, Marc Chagall, Alexander Rodchenko, and Lyubov Popova. However, some lesser known (but equally as important) artists in the exhibition are Isaak Brodsky, Boris Mikhailovich Kustodiev, Andrey Golubev, and Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin. This show also brings to light how all artistic forms became the manifest of revolution; photography, literature, sculpture, film making, propaganda, and graphic design.

 Isaak Brodsky,V.I.Lenin and Manifestation, 1919.

      However, in 1932, Stalin’s oppression shut it all down. Socialist Realism became the only acceptable art form meant to serve the communist party line. Thus art had to be optimistic, realistic, and heroic, revealing what the future could hold. Essentially, propaganda to keep the masses loyal to the Soviet and Communist cause.

     In addition to this exhibit, Martin Sixsmith wrote an article for the Royal Academy which acts as an art history review of this 15 year time period. I highly recommend reading it, if like me you are unable to see the exhibit. In short, he shows you why (in more detail than the above paragraph) Kazimir Malevich went from:

 Kazimir Malevich, Red SquareKazimir Malevich, Red Square, 1915,  to Kazimir Malevich, Portrait of Nikolai Punin Kazimir Malevich,Portrait of Nikolai Punin, 1933.

     Side note- I have been fortunate enough to see the Black Square in the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, and White on White (White Square) in the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Alas, by the time I got to Saint Petersburg, ready to see the Red Square in the State Russian Museum and complete some kind of art history trifecta, it was already on its way to London. So, I would REALLY love to see this show.

      At any rate, how does this connect to a 20th century Russian Realism blog? I will continue the story of Russian art briefly, where Martin Sixsmith left off.

         As we can see, realism fell from fashion in favor of something edgy and new to match the initial zeitgeist of the revolution. Representational Realism was out and avant-garde abstraction was in. During the anti bourgeoisie and tradition years, many of the Realists painters left for the countryside or painted in seclusion, as the Bolsheviks seized their schools. However, once Stalin and the Communist regime mandated Socialist Realism many of the avant-garde artists fell out of love with the revolution and consequentially, either fled or joined or died in the gulag. Stalin then saw the need for high culture to keep on par with the West, therefore, painters had to be educated. The Surikov Institute in Moscow became one of the greatest schools for fine and traditional art. So much so, that when the Nazis invaded Russia in 1941, artists and student were sent to safety in Samarkand, Uzbekistan.

YK5013L.jpg Yuri Kugach, Samarkand, 1942

        While many artists did turn to and accept Socialist Realism, there were those traditional artists who rejected it, similar to the avant-garde artists. The Russian Realists did not want to be tools for propaganda but still wanted to paint in the realism cannon. They consistently produced work under dismal circumstances creating art that is representational and transcendentally beautiful due to their high technical expertise. Their work shows an organic pride for Russia as their subject matter tends to be the beautiful country side, old towns, and traditional Russian life. Socialist Realism is often too heavy-handed in the joys of Communism and Soviet life. What I believe it boils down to were those who were prideful of Russia versus the Soviet Union.

 M. Sokolov, 1958, A Mill on the River Ozerkye

     What I hope to show is that while the Constructionists, Futurists, and Supremacists dominated during the revolution years, they were not alone in countering Stalin after 1932. Russian realism presents its own rebuttal to Socialist Realism. But for 2017, it is important that we appreciate the efforts of those revolutionaries who were so daring and yet (initially) so welcomed in their extreme abstraction.

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Revisiting Lazare Gallery

Lazare-John-and-Kathy-Wurdeman
Kathy and John with “Portrait of Man in Armchair” by A.T. Danilichev

Lazare Gallery is profiled in a new article in Distinction magazine. Since 2003, the gallery has been a destination for American and Russian collectors in search of Soviet-era Realism. As the market for this work has grown, so has Lazare’s reputation. Vern Swanson, an American art historian and collector of Soviet official art, identifies Lazare as the second largest collection of its kind in the US. 

As the market has grown, the demographics of collectors have also shifted. Today Russian clients increasingly dominate the market for Soviet Realism. 

Frontier-style capitalism in the new Russia spun off billionaire ‘oligarchs’ who moved aggressively to acquire their homeland art. Nine out of 10 purchases at auction these days are being taken back to Russia, says Swanson, the Utah museum director and consultant. Last summer, the Wurdemans sold two Yuri Kugach paintings to the art foundation created by Russian port and transportation oligarch Andrey Filatov.

Even in the heart of the recession, the market for Russian Realism has endured. The secluded Lazare gallery does not rely on foot traffic or impulse spending. It takes a long-term, slow-paced approach to its relationship with clients. 

The Wurdemans’ goal is to connect with a few new serious collectors every year, earn their trust, and bring them back.

Click here to read the full article. 

Ilya Yatsenko at Tsiolovsky Loft

Ilya2

A solo show of the work of Ilya Yatsenko has just closed at the Tsiolovsky Loft Gallery in Kaluga oblast, Russia. After spending many years in Moscow, in 2011 Yatsenko moved to the rural countryside of Kaluga with his family, setting up a new home near the Optina monastery. He and the owner’s of Lazare Gallery were interviewed by the Kaluga-based magazine Жить Хорошо just after the show’s opening in February. A translated excerpt of the full article (in Russian) is below.

Ilya

Ilya believes that the Moscow school of painting, unfortunately, is now dying.

“I am trying to continue the tradition of Realism, which I began studying at the Surikov Institute; I’m working to attain the level of mastery of my teacher Zabelin. Russian Realism didn’t enter the history of art without purpose.”

In Ilya’s opinion, true Realism is much more than the gaudy sparkle of some painters. “Loud, confrontational color is only found indoors.” The artist believes that truth is an end unto itself, which can be found in color. Realism, in it’s profoundest sense, is the idea of the embodiment of the essence of a subject on a canvas. “If we are speaking about nature, if you lie in color or in tone, the whole work will become a falsehood.” […]

John Wurdeman, the owner of Lazare Gallery in America, made a special trip to be at Ilya’s opening. But his road to art was much longer than a flight from the US to Russia. The son of the future gallery owner studied at the Surikov Institute in Moscow, and for his graduation his parents organized a New York show of Russian painting, which was a stunning success. Afterwards, the Wurdemans sold their business in decorative prints at the peak of its popularity and opened Lazare Gallery. Over the past several years, in a beautiful corner of nature near Richmond, Virginia, they have collected approximately 1100 paintings from the Soviet and Russian Realist painters. Their collection takes advantage of a great demand among the collectors of the world who are determined to find the most significant pieces of the Russian school available.

“It’s wonderful to live in the midst of this beautiful collection of art,” says John Wurdeman with heartfelt emotion.

“The people come to visit Lazare Gallery to see the collection and acquire pieces are sincere admirers of Russian painting. We meed them at the airport and put them up in cottages near the gallery. Many of the Russian collectors who collect our paintings in previous years end up collecting a number of canvases.”

It’s possible that soon the Wurdemans’ gallery will collect a new piece by Ilya Yatsenko. A massive canvas depicting two mysterious travelers, made a powerful impression on the collector. […]

We present the work of the best Russian artists of the twenty first century, and we are very discriminating in collecting their work. Nikita Fedosov, Zabelin, Surikov, Levitan – were true professionals. Ilya is an outstanding artist; he has a feeling for form, harmony, and space, explains John Wurdeman. He makes beautiful use of the skill gained from his academic education, and we are happy to present his work.

Exhibition to Honor Yuri Kugach

Viewers admiring the work of Ivan Mikhailovich Kugach, Yuri Kugach's grandson. *
Viewers admiring the work of Ivan Kugach, Yuri Kugach’s grandson.

A new exhibition of the work of Yuri Petrovich Kugach, his descendents and students is on display at the Russian Academy of Arts in Moscow. Kugach, who passed away in April of last year, was an influential teacher and leader among Russia’s Realist painters. He influenced many artists within his own family including nephew Nikita Fedosov, son Mikhail Kugach, grandson Ivan and granddaughter Ekaterina. He also organized and led the Moscow River artists group, which has become an important pillar of community for artists in the years since the disintegration of the USSR.

The exhibition features work by Olga Svetlichnaya, Ilya Yatsenko, Boris Petrenko, Jonathan Wurdeman, Ksenia Lebedevoi, Olga Demidenko, Viktoria Samonosova, Vladimir Filipov, and Dmitri Kholkin. It will run through March 23.

You can watch a short newscast on the exhibition here.

* Image courtesy of Natalya Braterskaya

The Sergeyev Dynasty – Three Generations of Painters

Nikolai Sergeyev - Old Poplar Trees 1970
Nikolai Sergeyev – Old Poplar Trees 1970

A show of work by three generations of the Sergeyev family just closed at the Heritage Museum in Moscow. The exhibition featured work by Nikolai Sergeevich Sergeev (1908-1989), Sergei Nikolaevich Sergeev (1949-), Lyudmila Fedotovna Dubovik (1917-1942), and Nikolai Sergeevich Sergeev II (1979-).

The show is dedicated to the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Sevastapol. The exhibition includes not only artwork, but also biographical materials including an essay on N.S. Sergeyev  by the late Yuri Petrovich Kugach, written for the exhibition. Kugach’s essay is reproduced in full below.

Nikolai Sergeevich Sergeyev (1908 – 1989)  by Yuri Kugach

It should be acknowledged first of all that the exhibition of works by Nikolia Sergeyevich Sergeyev is very much up to date. It goes to prove once again that we still have artists who are not swayed by fashions of the day or time-serving considerations but have their own independent views on art and depict reality sincerely and in a true-to-life manner. They develop their unique artistic individuality in the process of creation, which comes quite natural, for each person is unrepeatable. Such artists do not think up loud innovations for the sake of market success. They work hard, studying prototypes profoundly and emotionally. It often happens, however, that their art becomes known to the public and duly appreciated only towards the end of their path in life. N. S. Sergeyev belongs to this category of artists.

Coming to Sergeyev’s exhibition (regrettably posthumous) and finding himself amidst Sergeyev’s landscapes, the viewer senses all of the spiritual purity and clarity of the artist’s vision of the natural scene, sharing the feelings the artist must have experienced when painting his works.

His winter landscapes, so radiant and vibrant, gladden the eye with the purity of the snow which seems to sparkle and smell of winter freshness. One enjoys the sky, so different in each picture. Masterfully depicted, it subtlety conveys different states of nature. The artist does not accentuate the color but always brings out with amazing subtlety the coloristic distinctions of each particular landscape, masterfully conveying the idea of its uniqueness. His colors are true-to-life, gentle and unobtrusive. They are found on site rather than borrowed from someone. His landscapes are superb and very interesting compositionally. Some compositional solutions are unexpected and even challenging, for instance, a massive tree in the forefront crossing the scene vertically. Its silhouette is so interesting and so much at one with the silhouettes of other pictorial elements that the picture arouses unfeigned admiration. The entire scene is solidly built. The trees in his pictures are finely outlined and gently painted out, with no trace of that hackneyed and boring conventionalization.

In his forest scenes the artist masterfully catches that peculiar softness of penumbra with lends the forest an aura of poetical mystery. The tree trunks and boughs are painted out with great accuracy and affection. They chime in perfectly well with the rest of the scene without disrupting the feeling of harmony.

Sergeyev was utmostly sincere in his artistic conception. Working on a particular subject for several days he never lost the keenness of the first impression until the completion of the work. He was an active and energetic person in everyday life, while in his art he appears to us as a subtle poet replete with the feeling of blissful adoration of nature.

One would like to note his little sketches done in a war-ravaged Sevastopol, they are eminently truthful and well-colored. The entire exhibition of Sergeyev’s works gives one a sensation of joy of life and spiritual purity.

 

A Grand Epoch of Painting

Image

 

In a new essay, art collector and gallery director John Wurdeman makes the case for a re-evaluation of Socialist Realism in the Western record of art history. Wurdeman has had unprecedented access to the homes and studios of Russia’s most prominent Realist painters. For those involved in the contemporary art market, the values of Soviet-trained painters can seem profoundly foreign. In this piece, Wurdeman translates for a Western audience the perspective of an artistic community in which he is deeply enmeshed.

Link to full article. 

Sports in Soviet Art

As the Winter Olympics take place in Sochi, a new exhibition of Soviet paintings dealing with sports is on display in Moscow. The exhibition, which debuted this winter in London, was organized by the Institute of Russian Realist Art in Moscow. Since it was founded in 2011, the Institute of Russian Realist Art has sought to raise the profile of Russia’s Realist tradition worldwide. Alexey Ananyev, the Russian banking and IT billionaire who founded the museum, set out to revise an art historical record which has, “wrongly forgotten,” Russia’s Realist tradition. With this high profile show, the icy cold-war reception of official Soviet art appears to be thawing. 

Whereas the western narrative of official Soviet art has, since the beginning of the Cold War, focused on political coercion and censorship to the exclusion of any serious consideration of individual works or artists, the critical reception of “Soviet Sport” shows a remarkable open-mindedness to the goals and methods of Soviet artists. Jackie Wullschlager, a reviewer with the Financial Times, described the show as, ” a chance to reassess the only serious European alternative to modernism,” claiming that Socialist Realism would, “inevitably be reassessed as 21st-century scholarship recasts modern art.” This emphasis on the art-historical record, and the notion that the terms of modern art are up for reassessment is itself a shift in the dialogue about Socialist Realism. Wullschlager goes further, however, stating that Socialist Realism, ” drew on modern art in more ways than was acknowledged at the time.”

A consequence of this open reexamination of official Soviet art is the division of the monolithic style into genres, styles, periods, and ultimately an examination of individual artists. Whereas the traditional Avant-Garde vs. Kitsch binary cast Socialist Realism as a mere extension of state authority, a post-modern and post-Soviet viewpoint is able to see the trees for the forest. Wullschlager writes about the high ideals and motivations of artists Alexander Deineka and Viktor Popkov, without denouncing their views as an insincere attempt to tow the party line.

In a review for Russian Art and Culture, Jo Morgan begins by restating the established critique of Socialist Realism as a heavily censored tool of the Soviet State. This perspective does not end the discussion, however, but is used as a starting point to deepen and complicate our understanding of Soviet art. Morgan writes that,  “Despite certain ideological criteria placed upon Soviet artists, […] artists could blend aspects of the avant-garde or Impressionism in their works to produce works of genuine political, social, historical and artistic interest.”

This exhibition, at the outset of the 2014 Russian-British year of culture, has sparked an open, contemporary discussion of the place of Socialist Realism in art history. As the dialogue continues between Western and Russian art historians and critics, the “victor’s history” of 20th century art will undoubtedly continue to be challenged.

Soviet Sport will be at the Institute of Russian Realist Art through May 25th.

Link to exhibition review at the Moscow News