American Expert on Socialist Realism Honored by Russian Government

Vern Swanson

Chances are you haven’t heard of Vern Swanson. In the recent history of Soviet Realism, however, he is a towering figure. Swanson was recently awarded the Plastov International Prize, for his contributions to the awareness and understanding of Soviet Realism. The Plastov Prize is currently the world’s largest art prize, with a cash award of $833,000 (25 million rubles) divided into 21 different categories. It is funded and awarded by the government of the Ulyanovsk region to support artists, scholars, schools, and museums dedicated preserving and exploring, “the diversity of forms of realist art,” in honor of Russia’s preeminent 20th century Realist, Arkady Plastov.

Beginning in the mid 19th century when the Wanderers split from the restrictive Imperial Academy, Russia has had a unique tradition of figurative art. Through the 20th century, the tradition of Russian Realism was preserved, largely through the enforced official style of Socialist Realism. In the 1990’s, however, as the USSR disintegrated so did state support for Realism. The future of this tradition, still largely invisible to the west, has been uncertain. The Plastov International Prize was established to ensure a vibrant future for the Russian Realist tradition.

Vern Swanson received the prize for his published works on Soviet Realism, and for his work assembling one of the United States’ largest collections of Russian Art. Swanson studied art history at the University of Utah and the Courtauld Institute of Art in London before becoming the head of the Springville Museum of Art in Utah. Beginning in 1991, just as the Iron Curtain fell, Swanson began travelling to the former USSR to investigate Soviet Realism. Initially skeptical, Swanson was overwhelmed by the beauty, technical virtuosity and diversity of Soviet art, and he began putting together a world-class museum collection. At that time, Swanson worked not only for himself, but also on behalf of Ray Johnson, another collector who went on to found the Museum of Russian Art in Minneapolis.

Having contributed to the establishment of the two largest collections of Soviet Realism outside of Russia, Swanson has made an enormous contribution to the preservation of this piece of Russian, Soviet, and global cultural heritage.
Click to read more about Swanson’s most recent book on Soviet art, “Soviet Impressionist Painting.” 

Russian Masterworks Site

Lazare Gallery has created a new website to showcase the most significant pieces from their collection of 20th century Soviet Realism. The site features beautiful high resolution images of each of the 400 pieces. The collection includes work by many of the most significant artists of the period, including Yuri Kugach, Arkady Plastov, Alexander Gerasimov, Olga Svetlichnaya, Viktor Tsyplakov and Nikita Fedosov. The website is available in both English and Russian.

Click to visit Lazare Gallery’s Russian Masterworks site. 

Summer Auction Results

“View From the Terrace, Gurzuf” – Konstantin Korovin

Christie’s and Sotheby’s Russian auctions earlier this June had mixed results. Sotheby’s sold just over $41 million, acceptably between the pre-sale estimate of $36-$52 million. Compared with their successes in recent months – Sotheby’s April auction exceeded its high estimate – the June sale was a change of pace. Fewer bidders attended the sale and fewer lots were bid on competitively. The same was true for Christie’s Russian sale on June 11th which missed its low estimate of $26 million pounds with a total of $22 million. Only 66% of the 298 lots sold.

It’s unclear what’s behind the disappointing results of these auctions. Katya Dolgova, an art dealer in Moscow speculated that Russians are moving on to bigger and better things in the European art market. “Rich Russians aren’t stupid. You can get a Matisse or Monet for two to four million dollars, so why spend that money on a Goncharova?” Cultural pride, however, seems to be an important part of the growing interest in Russian art. An interest in repatriating artwork has been one of the key motivating forces behind this boom. Last year, for example, billionaire Alisher Usmanov purchased the entire collection of Cellist Mstislav Rostpovich and donated it to the Russian government. Could Russian and Ukranian buyers have simply lost interest in their artistic heritage? Why, if European art holds such an appeal to this group of buyers would they have waited until now to focus on collecting it? Other dealers suspect that Christie’s estimates were overly ambitious.

In spite of the mixed overall results of the auctions, some individual pieces sold very well. At Sotheby’s Konstantin Korovin’s View from the Terrace, Gurzuf, sold for  $2,985,217  (well above its high estimate of $1,600,000) and set record for the artist at auction. At Christie’s, Ivan Shishkin’s Mast Pine Forest in Viatka Province sold for $2,761,900, more than double its high estimate of  $1,200,000.

Future auctions will make clear whether the results of these auctions are an anomaly, or the beginning of a trend.

Update:

On June 24th at Christie’s Impressionist and Modern sale, alongside work by Monet and countless other notable European artists, Natalia Goncharova’s Les Fleurs (1912) sold for $10,965,900 to a Russian buyer, setting a record for the artist at auction. The great disappointment of Christie’s auction earlier this June was that Goncharova’s Crucifixion (est. $4,984,500)  failed to sell. Any doubts about the future of this artist, however, have been cleared. The sale of Les Fleurs seems to debunk the speculation by some that Russian buyers are losing interest in Russian work, and turning their attention to European art.  Vladimir Baranoff-Rossine’s The Rhythm also sold very well, fetching $5,383,260 with fees.