Introduction to the Russian Art Market by Ivan Lindsay.

Dec 23rd, 2009 | By | Category: Essays

The aim of this essay is to give an introduction to the Russian Art Market as of writing, summer 2006. With the exception of a few areas that have attracted Western collectors, such as the early 20th century painters like the Cubists and the Supremacists, interest in Russian art lay dormant for most of the last century. During the Soviet period, say 1920 to 1980, travel to Russia was difficult, information hard to come by, and Russian art was often dismissed by Western art historians as second rate.

With the collapse of Communism in 1989 and the newfound ability of the Russian businessmen to start making great fortunes the Russian Art market has woken from over 50 years of slumber. Although Russian art sales are now attracting considerable press coverage, prices are still a fraction of those paid for their Western contemporaries. For example, let’s examine the recent star lots of Sotheby’s London Russian sale of 31st May 2006. Konstantin Korovin is considered one of Russia’s leading painters from the first generation of Impressionists. A good example of his work came up at Sotheby’s, ‘Fishing on a sunny day’. It sold for US$1.65m against an estimate of US$1.28m. In the same sale, an earlier work of 1823, Nikanor Chernetsov’s ‘A view of Orianda’ sold for an upper estimate US$552,680. The ever popular Ivan Aivazovsky’s was represented with an 1876 canvas, ‘Dneiper’ The Varangians on the Dnieper’, which sold for US$3.2m against an upper estimate of US$3.7m. The total sale made US$ 52.1m making it the highest grossing Russian sale ever and breaking the previous record of US$46.7m set by Sotheby’s New York on 26th April.

During the same round of sales McDougal’s of London, an auction room set up in 2004 purely to cater to the Russian market, sold US$4.78 worth of art. Likewise, Bonham’s, in their second ever sale of Russian art sold 74% of its 442 lots for US$7.18m. All this shows a developing market and a healthy market. Of course their will be corrections along the way which in Russia usually means a political problem or a decline in the oil price but this a market in its infancy which is set to develop.

It is only when you compare these results with what is happening with Western artists of a similar calibre that is becomes apparent how modestly priced the Russian market is. Western art prices are much higher because art markets take time to develop as collectors gradually get used to having to pay higher and higher prices. For the sake of this exercise only a few of the most famous 19th and 20th century painters have been selected. Here are some record prices:-

Table showing prices

Old Master painters have not reached these heights but they are catching up with good examples of Canaletto selling for £15,000,000, Rubens for up to £40,000,000 and Rembrandt for up to £30,000,000. Therefore it can be seen that exceptional Russian paintings are selling for a couple of million dollars and exceptional Western artist are selling for up to a hundred million dollars. Doubters will no doubt argue that the Western artist are much better than the Russians but it only takes an afternoon in Moscow’s Tretyakov Gallery to see that is not true and the best of the Russians are a match for anyone. The Russian artists are certainly influenced by the West and many of the Western artists listed above were indeed trendsetters after which the Russians followed. However, this exercise is designed to show the discrepancy in value. Whereas the Western artists probably should be worth more and no one is suggesting Korovin is as important as Picasso the discrepancy in value is too big and The Russians are going to catch up and fast. The same can be said for the Chinese and Indian art markets but that discussion is for another time.

It is also worth looking at what is happening in Russia to see what is going to happen to the art market. Despite problems of infrastructure, corruption and a falling population Russia has huge supplies of natural resources including oil, gas, diamonds, timber minerals, water and food. As the West needs these resources Russian businessmen are making fortunes and increasing amounts of this money will feed into the art market. In addition, as Russian art becomes better known in the West, western collectors and museums will start to collect it. After all, Russian art is part of the western tradition of painting.

However, before being too simplistic about this, it is important to realise that the Russian market is already broken up into many schools and periods. At present, the auctions rooms such as Christies and Sotheby’s are controlling the market and pushing collectors and dealers into pursuing the artists that suit them. The great landscapists of the 19th century such as Isaak Levitan, Arkip Kuindzhi, Ivan Shishkin, Fedor Vasilev, Vasili Polenov and Mikail Nestov will always attract buyers but there is very little of their work available. With the success of exhibitions such as ‘Russia’ at the Guggenheim museum in New York(September 16th 2005 – January 11th 2006) Western museums and collectors are starting to take an interest alongside the Russian collectors.

The avant garde of the early 20th century have always attracted Western interest. These artists could travel to the West before the revolution so their work has always been known in the West. The Russian empire went through many crises at this time culminating in the revolution of 1917. The tradition of the ‘Wanderers’ group in Russia was fading and this, along with the tension and pressure for change in Russia created a diverse and extraordinary flowering of creative energy from the avant garde. Some of the more famous names are:- Kazimir Malevich, Mikhail Matiushin, Vladimir Tatlin, Marc Chagall, Pavel Filonov, Natalia Goncharova, Vasily Kandinsky, Mikail Larionov, Liubov Popova, Nadezhda Udaltsova, Alexander Rodchenko and El Lissitsky. For those who could not travel, early Russian collectors of Matisse and Picasso such as Sergey Schukin and Ivan Morozow played an important role. Without going into the distinctions of Cubo-Futurism, Cubism, Suprematism and Constructivism, whilst this art is still much cheaper than Western art it is closer in value to Western art because it has a much stronger following and is better known in the West. Malevich, for example, has sold for US$ 17,052,500 at auction(‘Supremacist composition’, 1991, Phillips, New York, May 11th 2000) and over US$25,000,000 in private sales. In addition, this area is awash with fakes and you have to be very careful.

More fruitful hunting is to be found amongst Soviet period art, non conformist art and contemporary art. Soviet period art has long been dismissed in the West as political kitsch pumped out as propaganda for Stalin. Most people only know the political pictures of this period which are usually either images glorifying the compassion or stature of Stalin and Lenin or images of happy workers striving happily away in the factories and fields.

A proper analysis of this period, say 1920 to 1980 actually requires a book and there are a few good ones out there for anyone interested( a couple are listed below under further reading). Lenin and Stalin both understood the propaganda value of art and controlled artist production through the State. Art of this period is known as ‘Socialist Realism’ as it famously had to be realistic in style and socialist in content. It was designed to portray a successful socialist state as it could be in the future. The sun shines and people look radiantly happy as they work towards the success of the state. This period is almost completely ridiculed in the West and even the Russians have some problems with the subject matter as it reminds them of unhappier times.

The truth of the production of this period is, of course, mush more varied and interesting than the simple stereotype suggests. It can actually be broken down decade by decade but for the sake of this essay it will be broken down into the Stalin period up until his death in 1953 and a second period which starts with the Khrushchev ‘thaw’. In the Stalin period, the avant garde was deemed western and subversive and consequently crushed. Artist guidelines were laid down to artists on what they could produce and a very heavy Socialist and dry art was initially produced. Artists such as Alexander Gerasimov, Issak Brodski, Alexander Deinika, Vasily Efanov, Serafima Ryangina, Yuri Pimenov, Sergei Gerasimov, Pavel Korin, Aleksandr Laktionov and Alexander Samokhvalov were all very accomplished artists. They were well trained at art schools and lived well compared to normal citizens in a similar fashion to sportsman and scientists. Each year they had to produce a small amount of official paintings for the state. There is little appetite for these big political statements in Russia or the West but some of them are powerful images of their time and will become historically interesting in the future. As art works it will be interesting to see how the Western collectors and museums see them in the future.

Perhaps more interesting are the paintings they painted quietly in their free time. Artists such as Alexander Gerasimov were accomplished proponents of the Impressionist tradition and painted fine still lives and portraits. These paintings have always been collected by the Russians but were almost completely unknown in the West before 1989 and are only just beginning to appear on the Western collector’s radar.

With Stalin’s death in 1953 the official art of Socialist realism simply became a part of the Soviet bureaucracy. Known as the Khrushchev ‘thaw’ it allowed artists to pander to the old socialist doctrine whilst exploring their own ideas. A series of exhibitions of international modern and contemporary art in Russia reconnected Russian artists back to the Western tradition. Impressionism, which had been entering Russian art through painters such as Korovin pre-revolution had been crushed by Stalin. Now there was a revival and a burst of fine artistic activity which produced many great artists. Artists such as Arkady Plastov, Tkachev brothers and Vladimir Stozharov started reconnecting with the 19th century tradition of drawing simple subject matter from the Russian countryside. Geli Korzev developed a gritty and powerful realism in the 1960’s. Russian collectors are starting to wake up to the enormous talent of these artists but they are, so far, little known in the West. The auction rooms are primarily focusing on pre-revolution art. They are also just starting on the non-conformist art of the 1960’s through the 1980’s and contemporary art largely ignoring the Soviet period. This makes the art hard to find and unless you have the time to trawl around Russia meeting the descendants of these artists you will need to develop some good relationships with the handful of dealers who are focusing on the area. As with the earlier period, but to a lesser extent, you have to be cautious and wary of copies and fakes.

At the same time as art was dominated by the official doctrine of Socialist Realism, particularly in the post war period, a small amount of brave artists resisted and produced the art which is now known as ‘non-conformist’ or the unofficial art of the Soviet Union. The pressure brought on them by the state to conform varied . At one end of the scale it was merely administrative and indirect resulting in a lack of official commissions and a withholding of privileges. More serious pressure led to arrests, intimidation and sometimes execution. The artists coped with this pressure in different ways. Some were simply crushed and gave up. Others resisted with cunning or public indignation. Some managed to get certified as insane and kept their ‘certificate of lunacy’ pasted on the wall at the entrance to their studio. If artists kept their production private and avoided contact with other artists they were considered less dangerous. Consequently, the art of this period cannot be considered a movement, more a selection of the work of some brave and individual artists.

When artists tried to emerge from their shells they were persecuted, as in the famous incident in 1974, when bulldozers crushed an open-air exhibition on the edge of Moscow. Interestingly, it was permissible for artists to show their work to foreigners. Thus, visiting journalists, diplomats and participants in cultural exchanges became the principal public and buyers of this art. The audience for the art was neither Russian nor particularly well informed. Despite setting themselves up for charges of disloyalty and lack of patriotism it did at least allow these artists and their art to survive. Certain individuals have both collected and pioneered interest in these artists. Alexander Glezer, friend of many of the artists, arrived in Vienna in 1975 bringing several dozen pictures from his collection. He later started the ‘Russian Museum in Exile’ at Montgeron near Paris. His landmark book, ‘Unofficial Art of the Soviet Union’, co-written by Igor Golomshtok, and introduced by Sir Roland Penrose, introduced to the West such outstanding artists such as Oscar Rabin, Dmitri Plavinsky, Boris Sveshnikov and Viktor Kulbac.

The bulldozing of the exhibition in 1974 caused an international outcry and resulted an exhibition of Soviet underground art at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London in 1977. At the time few Western commentators found the art impressive and most subconsciously were looking to compare it the early flowering of the Russian avant garde at the turn of the century. A few brave collectors saw quality ahead of their time such as the German Peter Ludwig and the American Norton Dodge. However, when Gorbachov came to power in 1985 most Western audiences were completely unaware of Soviet visual culture whether the Soviet realism of the mainstream or the avant garde reaction against it. Gorabachov’s arrival as General Secretary of the Soviet Communist party heralded a relaxing of policy against the avant garde and the George Costakis collection of avant garde art was rehabilitated and put display in the Tretyakov Gallery in 1986. Costakis himself was welcomed back as an honoured guest. Gradually this period is entering the mainstream of Western culture and interest in this field is developing. Much of this art belongs to those earlier Western pioneers mentioned above and it is starting to filter back onto the market.

Russian contemporary art, along with its Indian and Chinese counterparts is a strong and developing market. It is collected primarily by the Russians and increasingly developing an international following. As Russia develops its identity and reasserts itself on the international stage its artists reflect that growing confidence. There are no longer any official directives and artists are free to explore their own direction. It might not be wise to ridicule the state or leadership but within reason it would appear the market is now conforming to the Western model. There is a flourishing group of galleries in Moscow showing these artists and the international auction rooms are working hard to develop a secondary market. Along with their western counterparts artists and the fashions are changing so fast it is difficult to name the current top names without appearing out of date within months. Suffice to say, if you are interested in this area it would be best to go to Moscow and met the top dealers to find out what is going on.

In conclusion, it is hoped that this assay has provided the reader with an introduction to the Russian art market. As can be seen, like other art markets, there is a large variety of periods and subject matter. This is a young market where it often difficult to find literature to refer to, experts to consult and know who to trust. For those who like to know exactly what they are doing and buying, it might be better to stick to the highly developed money machines that are modern western art markets. For those who prefer the Wild West side of collecting and are prepared to take some risks the Russian art market is in its infancy and contains some superb artists still available at modest prices.

Further reading:-

‘Art of the Soviets’, Painting, sculpture and architecture in a one party state, edited by Mathew Cullerne Bown and Brandon Taylor, Manchester University Press, 1993.

‘Unofficial Art from the Soviet Union’, Igor Golomshtok and Alexander Glezer, Martin Secker and Warburg ltd, 1977.

‘Russia!’, Nine hundred years of Masterpieces and Master Collections, Guggenheim Museum, 2006.

‘Socialist Realism Painting’, Mathew Cullerne Bown,

‘Russian Landscape’ exhibition catalogue, Groniger Museum/National Gallery London, a selection of work including essays by Henk van Os, David Jackson and Sjeng Scheijen.

‘An introduction to Russian Art and Architecture’, R. Auty and D. Oblonsky, Cambridge 1980.

‘The Russian school of painting’, A. Benois, London, 1916.

‘The Art and Artists of Russia’, R. Hare, London, 1965.

‘History of Modern Russian painting, 1840 – 1940’, G. Loukomski, London, 1945.

Tags: Introduction to Russian art, Ivan Lindsay, Pricing, Russian art market., Russian paintings

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