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


Strong Market

2010 was not a good year for most business, but it was a great year for Russian art. Sotheby’s alone sold $82 million. Christies sales – in all categories – shot up 53% in 2010. William MacDougall, of MacDougall Auctions told The Epoch Times, “Like most markets, Russian art suffered in the economic crisis, but it has been in recovery since April 2009. Over 90 percent of the buyers are based in Moscow and Kiev, where the economies are growing. Good works attract buyers, and new world records have been set since the crisis.”

Upcoming sales include Sotheby’s sale on April 21 and 22, and Christie’s sale on April 13 in New York.

Lazare Gallery’s Moscow River School exhibition is just wrapping up in Sarasota, FL. A new show of Vyacheslav Zabelin will be up from February 4 to March 11.

MacDougall’s Rise

Telegraph News has put out an interesting article about MacDougall’s auction house. Over the last six years they have become a force in the Russian art market, competing directly with the three major fine arts auction houses, Sotheby’s, Christie’s, and Bonham’s. Here’s an excerpt:

“For more than 200 years Bonhams, Christie’s and Sotheby’s have dominated the auction world, and still rule the roost in fine art. Certainly, there are dozens of small auction houses around the globe that make a living by carving out a niche not lucrative enough to interest the big three.

MacDougall’s, however, is among the few that has gone head-to-head in a highly lucrative category with the market leaders. It has not only profited by the burgeoning Russian art market over the past six years, but it has also revolutionised it.”

Link to full article

Fall Auctions













Mother And Child – Boris Grigoriev

Sotheby’s November 2nd sale of Russian art was a success in spite of the global economic crisis. Sales totaled $13.8 million, effectively doubling presale estimates of $6-9 million. Boris Grigoriev’s portrait of Mother and Child was the top lot, selling for $1,370,500. Konstantin Korovin’s  “At the Window” and a miniature portrait of Peter the Great encrusted with diamonds – one of six rare 18th century awards – also exceeded expectations, selling for $1,178,000 and $1,314,500 respectively. The sale is an encouraging indicator of a growing sense of security among buyers. With luck, Sotheby’s Russian Art Evening sale tomorrow will further establish a rebound in the Russian art market.

Fall Russian Sales

Sale dates have been announced for Sotheby’s fall auctions. Because the major auction houses repeat the same sales each year near the same time – it’s possible to gauge changes in the Russian art market by comparing results year to year. Not only how much art is being sold, but also which artists and periods. We’ll follow developments as the sale dates approach.

Update 9/27:

Sotheby’s will hold their Russian Art Evening sale on November 30th, their Russian Paintings Sale on December first, and their Russian Art sale on November second.

Christie’s will hold their Russian Works of Art sale on December first, their Russian Pictures sale on December second and another sale of Russian Works of Art and Pictures together on December third.

Update 10/27

Art Daily has published an article on Sotheby’s upcoming Fall sales.

Summer Auction Results

The results of the Russian auctions earlier this month were in line with predictions for a year of economic decline. Total sales between all of the auction houses came to $48 million, less than half of last summer’s $105, but within pre-sale estimates. Falling oil prices and a weak ruble meant Russians were timid this year, though a number of Ukrainians made big purchases. Alina Aivazova, the wife of Kiev’s mayor, set records for artists Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin and Ilya Repin, buying works for $1.8 million and $2.3 million respectively. Alexandre and Sergei Tabalov, owners of the Art Kapital auction house in Kiev were also reported to have been “active bidders*”. The top lot at auction was Boris Kustodiev’s “The Village Fair” sold for $4.5 million, a record for the  artist, at Sotheby’s.  Contemporary works did poorly at the sales, but nearly seventy percent of lots in traditional categories found buyers. Overall, the June auctions have been declared a success within the standards of a weakened market.

William MacDougall (of MacDougall’s) said after the sales that, “Though it has not yet reached its peak of a year ago, the market is in recovery from its winter blues, and some better works are even surpassing their pre-crisis peaks.”

*For details see the Telegraph’s article on the sales

April Auctions (follow-up)

Russian Art Week wrapped up in New York  last Friday very successfully. Christie’s sold 69% of it’s 390 lots for a total of $13.2 million, just over it’s high estimate of $13 million. The top lot at the auction, Svetoslav Roerich’s Portrait of Nicholas Roerich in a Tibetan Robe sold for $2,994,500 nearly three times its high estimate of $1.1 million. The sale broke the previous record for the artist, set earlier in the week at Sotheby’s sale. The success of the sale is in part the result of reformed expectations. After a disappointing turnout at November’s auction, Christie’s, “had to readjust,” said the head of Christie’s Russian department, Alexis de Tiesenhausen, “The estimates now are about 20 percent less than in November.”

Sotheby’s held their sale before Christie’s on Wednesday. About 65 % of their 308 lots sold for a total of $13.8 million, within their estimates for the auction. The top lot was Ivan Aivazovsky’s Columbus Sailing from Palos, which sold for $1,594,000 million, well over its high estimate of $1.1 million. Svetoslav Roerich’s Three Boddisatvas sold for $262,500, more than triple it’s estimate. In fact, all but one of the ten top lots exceeded their estimates.

Sotheby’s Sonya Bekkerman and Gerard Hill called the sale, “the first test of the season,” and expressed optimism about Sotheby’s performance: “If you consider these results alongside the more than $12 million we achieved for Russian works in last November’s Impressionist and Modern sales in New York, and the nearly $38 million brought in in London in December, it’s clear that the market for Russian art remains buoyant.”

April Auctions

columbus“Columbus Sailing from Palos” – Ivan Aivazovsky

Later this month Sotheby’s and Christie’s will be holding their Spring auctions of Russian art in New York. They have recently made catalogs for the shows available online.


Sotheby’s sale will take place on April 22nd at their office in New York. A pre-sale exhibition of the work to be sold is scheduled for April 17th. Featured artists include Ivan Aivazovsky, Alexandre Iacovleff, Ivan Pokhitonov, Vasili Polenov, Nicholas Roerich, and many others. The top lot is expected to be Aivazovsky’s Columbus Sailing from Palos, which has a pre-sale estimate of $1-1.5 million.


Christie’s sale will take place on April 24th at Rockefeller Plaza. The sale will feature many of the same artists up for auction at Sotheby’s, including Ivan Aivazovsky, Nicholas Roerich, and Ivan Pokhitonov, as well as the work of Sergei Gerasimov, Arkadii Plastov and many others. The top lot is expected to be Svetoslav Roerich’s Portrait of Nicholas Roerich in a Tibetan Robe, which has a pre-sale estimate of $900,000 to $1.1 million.

Link to Sotheby’s catalog.

Link to Christie’s catalog.

November Auction Results

The results have come in on this November’s Russian art auctions in London.

MacDougall’s finished their auctions first, and saw 60% of lots go unsold. The sale made a total of $7.68 million, falling short of a presale estimate of nearly $18 million. Antiques Trade Gazette reported that, “in terms of picture sales only MacDougall’s, with a premium-inclusive total of £8.1m, just outsold Christie’s for the second time running.” Overall, however, Christies fared slightly better, selling %55 of their lots. The sale made $16.2 million, well below the low estimate of $28 million. Natalia Goncharova’s Still Life with Watermelons was the top lot, selling for $2.3 million . Even extremely hip painters like Goncharova, however, are not immune to the slowing of the market. Another of her paintings at the sale, Abstract Composition with Palate, did not sell.

Sotheby’s Russian Art Evening sale was fairly successful. Jo Vickery, the head of Sotheby’s Russian department gave a summary of the results: “Given the current state of the economic climate, we are very pleased with the total achieved for this evening’s auction which fell just short of its low estimate of £17 million. Eight new artist records were established and 30% of the buyers in the sale were not only new to Sotheby’s but also came from the CIS, which is extremely encouraging and demonstrates that there continues to be an active market for Russian Art. Works by Roerich performed particularly well and high quality paintings by the blue-chip 19th- and early 20th-century Russian artists, such as Konchalovsky, Polenov and Larionov continue to be in demand.”

Alexander Tabalov, a collector from Kiev told Bloomberg News, “The poor results […] were due to very high estimates and the fact that the market is waiting. Some potential buyers are waiting for prices to go down.” Ivan Samarine, a dealer from London told The Daily Telegraph that while high quality works sold well for the most part, results were difficult to predict because, “a lot of potential buyers were waiting to see where prices would settle, and not bidding.” It is clear: buyers are waiting. While some groups, like Hiscox, fear prices will continue to slide, there seems to be a general consensus among auction houses, collectors and dealers that the large numbers of unsold works seen at recent sales do not suggest a lack of ability or will to buy. Unsold paintings are the natural consequence of uncertainty. The auction houses are uncertain of where to place their estimates, and buyers aren’t sure how to buy in this new economic climate. As estimates become more realistic for the current market, and prices become more consistent, buyers will get their bearings and sales may pick back up again quickly. As The Daily Telegraph explained it, the market for Russian art has fallen, but back to earth, not off the deep end; “By the end, London’s Russian art sales had brought £52.8million [$78.4 million], just over half the amount realised a year ago, and back to the more realistic levels of 2006.”