Why it’s time to discover Russian art
A panel of leading experts discuss the key figures in Russian art over the past century and more — Malevich, Fabergé, Ovchinnikov, Deineka, Vrubel and others, illustrated with lots offered at Christie’s
The year 2017 marks the centenary of the Russian Revolution, which ended more than 300 years of Tsarist rule and led to the emergence of the Soviet Union. In its immediate aftermath, the potential for radical artistic innovation in Russia seemed boundless — but this was not to last.
In the art world, the centenary is a moment to take stock of the trajectory of Russian art from the turn of the 20th century up to the present day. Ahead of our Russian Art sale in London on 5 June, we asked five key Russian art specialists from museums and galleries around the world to tell us about their favourite Russian artists; which Russian masters they feel have been overlooked; and their must-see locations for viewing Russian art, in Moscow and beyond.
In your opinion, which Russian artist is, or has been, most under-appreciated?
Alla Rosenfeld, Curator of Russian and European Art, The Mead Art Museum, Amherst College, USA: ‘Oleg Vassiliev (1931-2013) was a central figure of the non-conformist generation of Soviet artists that emerged in the first years after Joseph Stalin’s death in 1953. Although Vassiliev’s works are included in some of the world’s major museum’s collections, his name is still largely unknown in the critical mainstream of today’s global art world. Vassiliev immigrated to the United States after the fall of the Soviet Union. His art is closely linked with that of his better-known friends and fellow artists, Eric Bulatov and Ilya Kabakov. As Bulatov has so eloquently noted, Vassiliev connected the past with the future, uniting realist 19th-century Russian art and the formal avant-garde experiments of the 1920s with the conceptual art that rose to prominence in Moscow during the late 1960s and 1970s. In the United States, a number of his paintings can be seen in the Norton and Nancy Dodge Collection of Nonconformist Art at the Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University. One exceptional series of this artist is The House with the Mezzanine (1991), which records the full spectrum of Vassiliev’s creative style (Mead Art Museum, Amherst College).’
Zelfira Tregulova, Director General, The State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow: ‘I think that Russian art is underestimated in general. This applies to all periods of its development. The market just snatched a dozen names that sell well from a vast heritage and that it is not always a real measure of the significance of this artist's work in the history of art. Artists of the first half of the 19th century are consistently undervalued; for example, a figure like Alexander Ivanov. Market prices for individual works of Serov do not compensate for the general underestimation of his work. Vrubel, Deineka; there are many such examples.’
Anton Belov, Director, Garage Museum of Contemporary Art: ‘Other than Ilya Kabakov, all Russian artists are under-appreciated. Taking into account the weak market for Russian art, it’s an ideal time to buy key works by contemporary artists and the nonconformist artists of the 1960s.’
Gvido Trepsa, Executive Director, Nicholas Roerich Museum, New York: ‘Varvara Stepanova, wife of Aleksander Rodchenko, was as talented and influential as any of her fellow Constructivists. Her work in posters, typography, textiles and theatre still makes its mark on modern graphic design. From her androgynous sports costumes to her layouts in the literary art journal LEF, her multi-disciplinary approach merits greater standing among the avant-garde elite.’
Ann Dumas, Curator, Royal Academy of Arts: ‘For me, Alexander Deineka is the most important and interesting Russian artist of the Soviet period, yet he is not well known in the West. We have nine works by him in the Royal Academy’s exhibition Revolution: Russian Art 1917-1932, including probably his most famous painting, The Defence of Petrograd (1928), and Construction of New Workshops (1928), Textile Workers (1927) and Race (1932).
‘Although Deineka’s powerful figurative style satisfied the Soviet authorities’ demand for art that could be readily understood by the masses, he by no means simply followed a realist formula. He drew on a wide range of influences, such as avant-garde Constructivist art, film, photo-montage, and advertising that he brilliantly fused in his highly original paintings.’
Wilfried Zeisler, Curator of Russian & 19th Century Art, Hillwood Estate, Museum & Gardens: ‘I have always been interested in decorative arts, Russian art, and its interactions with Western art. Exhibitions and auctions of Russian art often feature jewellery by Fabergé, Ovchinnikov and Khlebnikov. These firms were large businesses managed by successful entrepreneurs. However, I am always fascinated by the creations of smaller ateliers, which worked in a more traditional way with a master at the head of the workshop, surrounded by a few workers and apprentices.
What do you consider to be the greatest work of Russian art, and why?
Anton Belov: ‘Of course it’s Malevich’s Black Square. There’s no argument: there was no more important work in the 20th century, no more important artist. No country produced anything of greater importance. It’s an icon of the 20th century, and even today it defines trends in the development of art.’
Alla Rosenfeld: ‘Of course, there are many great works of Russian Art. One such work is The Flight into Egypt (The Refugees) (1918?) by Pavel Filonov (1883-1941), in the collection of the Mead Art Museum. According to Professor John E. Bowlt, this work is one of only three known paintings in the United States by this important artist. Filonov preferred not to sell his works during his lifetime.
‘The Flight into Egypt, a biblical story of religious persecution and political emigration, which inspired the artist, must have seemed particularly relevant during World War I. He created this fascinating painting according to his artistic theory, which he called Analytical Art. This method sought to draw the visible and invisible phenomena of nature into artistic practice.’
Ann Dumas: ‘There are so many works that could qualify for this accolade so I will just mention one of my great favourites: Malevich’s Red Square. At the Royal Academy, we show it at the pinnacle of our reconstruction of Malevich’s 1932 exhibition. I like it because it is so daring. It was such an extraordinarily bold thing to do in 1915, to distil the essence of a painting to a single square. Ironically, perhaps, Malevich called it Painterly Realism of a Peasant Woman in Two Dimensions.
‘This work and the perhaps even more famous Black Square were the ultimate distillation of form and colour. For Malevich, these purely abstract works had a spiritual dimension. In some ways, they were a modern reinterpretation of the traditional Russian icon.’
Zelfira Tregulova: ‘Andrei Rublev’s Trinity. Again, there is no need for explanation.’
Wilfried Zeisler: ‘It may sound like a cliché, but I have a sincere interest in Mikhail Vrubel’s works. I can spend hours observing Vrubel’s ‘Demons’ at the Tretyakov Gallery or at the State Russian Museum. His 1894 plaster head of the Demon at the State Russian Museum is one of my favourites.
‘I also love the pottery he created — their glazes and colours are just beautiful. My interest in Vrubel brought me to Kiev, where I went to see his murals in the St. Cyril Church, especially Vrubel’s Madonna. The study of the head for this work, now at the Tretyakov Gallery, has the most fascinating eyes I have ever seen.’
For a newcomer to Russian art, which museum or gallery would you recommend visiting, and why?
Zelfira Tregulova: ‘The Tretyakov Gallery and the Russian Museum. There’s no need to explain why. These are two collections where everyone can understand what Russian artistic genius is.’
Margarita Pushkina, Founding Director, Cosmoscow: ‘I would definitely recommend the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow — the foremost museum representing Russian art. The “old” gallery in Lavrushinsky Lane is a great place to view works by the brilliant Andrei Rublev. The “new” space on Krymsky Val has an equally impressive collection of avant-garde masterpieces and contemporary art.’
Ann Dumas: ‘For those interested in the Russian avant-garde of the early 20th century, or Constructivist and Suprematist art, a visit to the outstanding George Kostakis Collection at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Thessaloniki, Greece, is well worthwhile.’
Alla Rosenfeld: In the United States, I would suggest to visit the following art museums with impressive collections of Russian art: Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University in New Jersey, which has the most important collection of nonconformist art from the former Soviet Union; The Museum of Russian Art in Minneapolis, Minnesota, which specialises on Soviet realist art; The Hillwood Museum in Washington, DC, which features Russian decorative arts; the Duke University Museum, which has a significant collection of Moscow Conceptualism; and the Mead Art Museum at Amherst College, with a particular focus on modern Russian art of the early twentieth century. This major collection of Russian art was donated to Amherst in 2000 by Thomas P. Whitney (1917-2007), diplomat, journalist, translator, and collector. Besides the strong Russian art collection at the Mead, there is also the Amherst Center for Russian Culture, founded in 1991. Its holdings, representing the breadth and depth of Russian cultural achievements in modern times, include rare Russian books, periodicals, and archival materials.
Anton Belov: ‘Russia is so enormous that it’s difficult to recommend a single museum. In Moscow, a visit to the new Tretyakov is a must. You should look at everything, from the Russian avant-garde to works of the 1990s.
‘Beyond Moscow, many Russian cities have excellent collections of avant-garde art and interesting 1960s and 1970s works. You’ll be surprised what masterpieces can be found in local museums in cities such as Samara or Krasnodar, including works by Malevich and Kandinsky. There’s always something interesting to discover.’