A decade after the fall of the Communist regime, there is stirring interest in the vibrantly-hued and often decorative aspects of Russian art - both period and contemporary. But are today's post-Soviet artists playing Russian Roulette with the marketplace?
Ever since glasnost and perestoika, Russian art has been gaining popularity in this country and in Europe. Along with the Vivat! festival, there have been a spate of recent exhibits, events and collaborations that evidence a rising tide of interest in Russian art in the West. For instance, the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston and the State Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow have shaken hands on a long-term alliance between the two institutions to exchange art works. Marketplace interest is growing as well. Some contemporary Russian emigre artists, such as San Francisco resident Vladimir Vitkovsky and Philadelphia resident Alex Kanevsky, are finding success in U.S. art galleries.
A few U.S. art publishers, among them Fingerhut, Marco Fine Arts, Summit Art and Brown Barn, are also issuing editions by contemporary Russian artists living in the former U.S.S.R., Europe and the United States. To publishers, said Elliott Blinder of Marco Fine Art, which has published work by Sergei Ossovsky, "Russian art is different to look at-unusual, very colorful and often decorative."
Period Russian Work Heats Up
There is also increasing interest internationally in period Russian work. In May, a Sotheby's auction of Russian pictures in London set world-record auction prices for a number of artists, including a $1.3 million price for Boris Mikhailovich Kustodiev's "Belle (Krasavitsa)" and a $836,000 sale of Mikhail Vasilievich Nesterov's "Vision of the Boy Bartholomew." "The market is just getting stronger and stronger," observed Sotheby's specialist Joanna Vickery. "This was the best sale we've ever had."
Sotheby's has produced Russian-themed sales since the mid-1980s. About a year ago, the auction house decided to launch additional sales for Russian paintings alone, concentrating primarily on early 20th-century and 19th- century figurative works. "There's a large boom in the 1910 to 1920 era," Vickery said. "The center of the market is London, and the prices are being driven by Moscow and London collectors. This sale had more Russian buyers than ever before"
A Flourishing of Russian-Themed Exhibits
Exhibitions of Russian paintings, drawings and photographs spanning the breadth of historical Russian art movements and styles - from icons and folk, landscapes and portraits, avant-garde and Social Realism - are being regularly staged by U. S. and European museums and galleries these days.
For one month this year, the whole town of Baltimore said, "Vivat!--Long Live St.Petersburg." In February, nearly 75 Baltimore art museums, galleries, arts institutions and organizations joined forces to celebrate 300 years of Russian visual arts and culture in a citywide festival. In programming ranging from exhibits of Russian Avant Garde Art, Art of the Ballet Russes, The Faberge Menagerie, Russian Outsiders and a variety of gallery exhibits of contemporary Russian art, to performances of Russian opera, folk music, dance and theater, Vivat!
St.Petersburg honored the contributions of Russia's cultural capital to worldwide arts through the centuries. "It was the largest collaboration this city had ever done," said Dan Lincoln, senior vice-president of the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association. "It seemed as if we were all Russian for a month."
"Origins of the Russian Avant-Garde," which was on display at the Waiters Art Museum in Baltimore this spring, explored the period between 1908 to 1925 when the Russian visual arts were a part of the international Modernist movement. The exhibit included 90 paintings by some of the most important modern Russian artists, including Vassily Kandinskiy, Kasimir Malevich andNatalia Goncharova.
Malevich, renowned as one of the seminal forces behind abstract, non-objective art, is also the subject of an exhibit, "Kazimir Malevich: Suprematism," which was seen by a record 70,000 visitors at the Deutsche Guggenheim Berlin in its debut presentation. It is on view until Sept. 7 at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, and will then travel to The Menil Collection in Houston, from Oct. 3 through Jan. 11, 2004.
In 1915, Malevich created an international revolution in art when he established a non-objective art style he called Suprematism by painting a simple black square on a white background. The Guggenheim show includes this painting - the first time the composition has been exhibited outside Russia. The fourth "Black Square" by Kasimir Malevich belonging to Inkombank, which collapsed during the financial crisis in 1998, is now exhibited in the Hermitage.
In addition, there have been two presentations of Russian outsider art this year. In January, Galerie St. Etienne in New York exhibited "Russia's Self-Taught Artists: A New Perspective on the 'Outsider." In February, in conjunction with the Vivat! festival, Baltimore's American Visionary Art Museum presented "Russian Outsiders: Voices of Dissent/Champions of Liberty."
"In this country, the treasure trove [of folk art] has been thoroughly mined in the past 20 years," explained Jane Kallir of Galerie St. Etienne. "The new discoveries are all to be found in Europe. So, the Russian material was greeted warmly."
Once Hidden From Western Eyes
For much of the 20th century, Russian art - whether it was outsider, non-conformist, traditional, avant-garde or even Soviet-supported Socialist Realism, was unavailable in the West. Despite the isolation, Russian artists, who were educated in Soviet and, before 1917, Tsarist art academies, were considered among the world's most technically adept.
"Russian painting has, in general, the look and feel of European painting," according to Matthew Cullerne Bown, author of Socialist Realist Painting, a comprehensive survey of 20th century art created under the Soviet regime. "However, long periods of political and cultural self-absorption ... established a chronology of change that is peculiarly Russian."
Until the 18th century in Russia, the reigning artistic influence was still the Middle Ages Byzantium style. Even to this day, Russian icons, with their soulful eyes, flattened perspective, elongated features and gold highlights, remain characteristic in the region's artistic output. But in 1701 Tsar Peter Alexeevich - Peter the Great - set the foundation of a new Russian capital in St.Petersburg, as well as the foundation for a new culture and art forms conceived in imitation of Western European. Under his rule, artists were sent abroad to study, and painters from Western Europe were brought to work in Russia. A drawing school was established, and then many Academies were established.
The prevailing painting genre through the 18th century was portraiture, based primarily on classical aesthetics. In the 19th century, several other painting categories began to hold sway. "Bytovoi zhhanr", the painting of everyday life, particularly depicted serfs in the country, remained influential through the Soviet years. Later in the century, the Itinerants became serious rivals to Academy-trained artists, and by 1870 had become the key force in Russian art. They emphasized realistic, socially concerned images of Russian life.
The distinctive aesthetic principles of traditional Russian art were now well established: painterly realism, earth colors and a high moral tone, according to Bown. At the same time, there was frenzied creative activity among artists who were breaking from tradition. In addition to Malevich's explorations of abstraction with Suprematicism, there were a series of art "isms" that had their roots in whole or part with Russian artists, including Rayonism, Constructivism, Cubo-futurism and Neo-primitivism. Many important names in Modern art came from Russia, including Kandinskiy, Chagall and Rodchenko.
After the 1917 Revolution, some of these artists moved West, while others stayed in the new Soviet Union, lured by promises of some artistic freedom while also enticed by the possibilities of creating art supportive of the new workers' society. For a decade, the artists continued to experiment with Modernism.
However, in 1928 the Soviet government shuttered all independent art organizations and began to define an official Soviet artistic method and style. The doctrine of Socialist Realism was applicable to all art forms and remained official policy until Gorbachev's reforms loosened government control of artistic output. Stylistically, Socialist Realism was founded on Russian Academic traditions, but its content served to support the communist worker state.
In the three decades before the fall of the Soviet regime, however, artists in the U.S.S.R. began to chafe under the authoritarian controls of the government and the Communist Party. From 1960 to 1980, various groups and clubs of artists began to appear throughout Russia and the other Soviet states. Their efforts have been labeled variously as "underground art," "non-conformist art," "The Other Art" and "non-official art." These artists continued to try to exhibit, mostly in apartments in Moscow. Often, Soviet authorities permitted the exhibitions, but for only a few hours before shutting them down. In 1974 came the infamous "Bulldozer Exhibition," when the government sent a group of bulldozers to publicly scatter an outdoor art exhibit. The incident outraged the international press and eventually forced Soviet officials to give leeway to the independent artists. Within the year, several outdoor public exhibits were allowed.
Although the non-conformist and underground artists gained ground in their ability to exhibit, they still had no market to sell their works. There were no commercial galleries nor auction houses to sell art works by Soviet artists. Many of these artists, official and non-conforming alike spent many free hours in their studios painting for the love of art, not material wealth.
"Since only a small part of their production was ever exhibited, and there was no marketplace for their work, these artists painted for themselves," explained Jeffrey Morseburg, owner of Morseburg Galleries in West Hollywood, Calif. Morseburg specializes in traditional paintings of the 19th and 20th century, including Russian realism. According to Morseburg, this resulted in "a very vibrant" body of work, albeit focused on traditional, academic forms long abandoned in the West. "It's a very painterly form of realism, loose and atmospheric, normally," said Morseburg. "There are certain things which are very sentimental to Russians, like birch trees and lilacs."
St.Petersburg-born artist Alexander Volkov, who as a young man exhibited with a group of underground artists and who now lives in New Jersey, added, "The Russian mind is very symbolic. Russians tend to think in terms of metaphors. For example, the idea of a road or a river is a symbol of a never-ending or everlasting journey. Russian paintings have a lot of dark backgrounds or dark interiors of churches with a singular light source - a symbol of the icon. And Russian landscapes are often big and empty, an analogy to the soul, which is depthless."
In the 1960s and 1970s, some Russian artists began to look farther back to their cultural traditions, to folk art as well as the art of icons. The artist Yuri Kugach, for instance, likened the colors of icon paintings to Russia itself. He wrote, "Azurite is the color of our lakes and rivers, green of the grass, cinnabar of flowers, white of snow, and the gold on the background of icons is the color of wood, the color of logs ... The Russian people from time immemorial have lived in log houses."
When the Soviet Union finally collapsed in 1991, a tide of artists moved to the West, eager to escape the quickly escalating economic deterioration in their homeland. They had discovered that "freedom of expression" was also a "freedom to starve," with no marketplace within the former U.S.S.R. for their paintings, drawings or sculptures.
"Art was subsidized by the government. But when the Soviet Union collapsed, everything collapsed. The movie industry collapsed. Art exhibitions collapsed," recalled artist Tatiyeana Kravevskaya, who now lives in southern California. Kravevskaya has concentrated on her fine art career since emigrating. Her paintings have been described as New Age abstraction influenced in part byKandinskiy, though she explained, "Everything influences me. In the Soviet Union I did portraits and still life, but here it was a new environment with a lot of culture shock. Now I combine modern styles together, part Surrealism, part abstraction, part Expressionism." Finding Success in the West.
Many of the Russian artists who have had a measure of success in this country have an element of joy in their work, as well as a bit of Russian history and folk imagery. For example, Sergey Smirnov, a Moscow-based artist published by Fingerhut Art Group, has painted a series of portraits of historic Russian heroes, composers and authors, including Anastasia and Peter the Great. "He celebrates Russian culture and history" said Rann Shinar, Fingerhut vice president.
Shinar has seen his share of Russian artists' work, since so many are eager to find their fortune in the U.S. art market. Indeed, since the mid-1990s, many art dealers and publishers, particularly in New York, have seen far too many Russian artists carrying suitcases filled with their canvases, most not quite right for the marketplace. "A lot of Russian artists are very good - they come from a sound background of technical skill" Shinar observed. "Yet that individual, creative spark is missing. Most don't have that unique expression we look for." Philadelphia gallery owner Rosenfeld has had the same experience, particularly as other Russian artists have learned of his association with Kanevskiy. "I don't think of Kanevskiy as a Russian artist - he is very Russian but he has become an international artist with a very personal expression," said Rosenfeld. But, he added, "I've been inundated with submissions by Russian artists and, for the most part, it's terrible work. It's very self- conscious and shallow."
In Baltimore, Clayworks gallery participated in the Vivat! festival by presenting sculptural and functional contemporary art from eight Russian ceramic artists. "The work was of excellent quality, and the show itself was stellar, but my experience of working with Russian artists was tainted by red tape," observed Clayworks program director Leigh Taylor Mickelson.
Clayworks unexpectedly was hit with a customs fee from the Russian culture ministry. "I find it hard to understand why Russia is making it harder for their artists' work to be seen by the rest of the world," said Mickelson. At the same time, she added, "the artists put prices on their pieces that were exorbitant, perhaps due to their inexperience with the American market. Or else their expectations were a little too high. Unfortunately, we didn't end up selling anything."
So, while Russian art in general has become more popular and a number of contemporary Russian artists have found success in the West, it is clear that today's Russian artists still have multiple barriers to overcome.