The interest in Russian contemporary art is still in its infancy but the market has the potential for huge growth. Read about the key artists and the prices that their works have been fetching.
The interest in Russian contemporary art is still in its infancy but the market has the potential for huge growth.
It's official: the Russian art market is booming. Comparisons are already being drawn with the more mature Chinese market, as prices soar at auctions. Like in China, Russia's artists have emerged from the communist era – in this case, the iron curtain of the Soviet Union – and their works are being snapped up by Russia's new rich and business class in addition to speculative Western investors.
While much attention has focused on 19th and early 20th century modern art, "unofficial" art from the Soviet period is also earning favor along with work by a younger generation of artists. "Unofficial" art is art that was not approved by the Russian state and was either hidden away or smuggled out of the USSR to the West.
"Most of these artists were underground painters, not state painters, and could not exhibit their work during the communist era," says Jo Vickery, senior director and head of Sotheby's Russian art department in London. "There was the famous bulldozer exhibition of unofficial art in 1974 when an exhibition by Moscow's avant-garde artists was torn down by the police with bulldozers. So before, this art was mainly bought by foreigners and entered Western collections through diplomats and politicians based in Moscow."
Today, Russian art buyers are keen to repatriate these artworks and fill in the gap of this overlooked segment of Russian art history. According to Sotheby's, Russian buyers account for two thirds of the Russian art market. In the last year, sales devoted to Russian contemporary art have been held at Sotheby's, Phillips de Pury and Macdougall's, which specializes in auctions of Russian art.
Russia itself is also developing into a burgeoning, supportive platform. Events such as the Moscow Biennale, the first edition of which was launched in 2005, have been pivotal in stimulating interest, as has the establishment of galleries in Moscow. Sotheby's, which opened a Moscow office in 2007, collaborated with the Marat Guelman, Aidan, XL, Regina and Triumph galleries on its two sales. Nine of Moscow's leading galleries are based in Winzavod, a sprawling, 20,000 metre squared exhibition hall in an industrial sector just outside Moscow. A former winery, Winzavod is now home to a vibrant art scene where artists and photographers also have their studios.
"Winzavod is very cutting-edge and it's where you find a lot of the top, chic, contemporary art galleries," says Vickery. "There are lots of developments happening there along with private collections. This will attract the public and bring in new people who might turn into collectors in this field in the future."
The late February sale of 39 lots at Phillips de Pury far exceeded estimates to achieve a record-breaking £6.5 million. The works are believed to have been owned by Volkert Klaucke, a German investment banker who was the president of Sovart, a New York-based group that made trips to the USSR in the 1980s to consign Russian art for sale in American galleries.
Highlights included the arresting painting "Beetle" (1982) by Ilya Kabakov, who is known as the father of Moscow conceptualism and the star of Russian contemporary art. The painting, which sold to a Russian collector for £2.9 million, following an estimate of £1.2-1.8 million, broke a new record for a contemporary Russian artist. Inscribed over the painting is a children's poem narrating the story of a beetle that does not want to be forced into a boy's insect collection, an ironic metaphor for the artist protesting about consumer society. Now based in New York, 74-year-old Kabakov was the first Russian artist to break the £100,000 barrier at auction in 2006.
The Phillips de Pury sale also included the painting "Glory to the Communist Party of the Soviet Union" (1975) by Eric Bulatov, another leading figure of Moscow conceptualism. It depicts a Soviet propaganda slogan and was exhibited in the Sots Art exhibition, tracing political art in Russia from 1972 to the present, at La Maison Rouge in Paris this winter. Two decades after being priced less than £20,000 when it was shown in New York in 1987, it was bought by a Russian collector for £1.1 million. The estimate was £500,000-£700,000.
The Sotheby's sale in mid-March, which generated £4.1 million, set new records for 17 artists, including Oleg Vassiliev, Semen Faibisovich and Ivan Chuikov. Vassiliev's work "Before the Sunset" (1990), depicting a statue of Lenin against a black and golden sky, sold for £468,500. (Estimate: £200,000-£300,000.) Made a year after the artist's emigration to the US, it was one of his early political-historical works. Vassiliev, now 76, was one of the leading artists in the "unofficial" art movement.
"Bronze Warrior no. 4" by AES+F went for £120,500. AES+F is the hip collective consisting of Tatiana Arzamasova, Lev Evzovitch, Evgeny Svyatsky and Vladimir Fridkes. Their video, "The Last Riot", was presented to high acclaim in the Russian pavilion during the Venice Biennale 2007. Shown across three wide screens, it features real models in a post-apocalyptic animated world. Trains derail and descend into ravines; oil tankers spill chemicals into rivers; airplanes fly over volcanoes, then crash. Attractive, androgynous youngsters of different nationalities fight bloodlessly on ice-covered mountains with swords and baseball bats. In this mutated, virtual world, accompanied by music by Wagner, there is little distinction between the victim and the aggressor, male and female. An unsold silkscreen print, based on a photographic image from "The Last Riot", featured in the Sotheby's sale. Since their success at the biennale, AES+F have had several exhibitions focusing on this series of works over the last year.
Other strong points were Alexander Kosolapov's humorous painting "Marlborough Malevich", which transposes the name of the Ukrainian Cubist painter, Kazimir Malevich, onto a Marlborough cigarette packet. It sold for £48,500, over double the pre-sale estimate of £15,000-£20,000. Born in 1943 and now based in the US, Kosolapov has made several tongue-in-cheek works; for instance, other paintings have incorporated portraits of Lenin and Jesus Christ into advertising slogans for Coca-Cola and McDonalds.
Andrei Molodkin's "Yes", an acrylic sculpture filled with crude oil, sold for £23,000. Constructed from currency signs for the yen, the euro and the dollar, it refers to the controversial, monetary nature of crude oil. Based in Paris, Molodkin, who is 41, belongs to the younger generation of Russian artists that are enjoying international success. He has produced acrylic sculptures filled with crude Iraqi and Chechen oil of Christ, the Madonna and words reading Democracy and Human Rights – cryptically suggesting the US government's so-called exportation of democracy and how the idea of religion has been used to justify the Iraq War. His exhibition, "Guts à la Russe", is at Galerie Orel Art, 40 rue Quincampoix, 75004 Paris, from April 11 through May 31, 2008. Tel. 33 (0)1 47 20 22 54. www.orelart.com. Orel Art is also presenting his work at Art Paris, at the Grand Palais in Paris, from April 3-7, 2008. http://www.artparis.fr/
Galerie Rabouan Moussion is another Parisian gallery that has been instrumental in showcasing Russian art in France. At Art Paris, an annual art fair in the French capital, the gallery is presenting new works by several artists, including the upcoming P G Group, comprising Ilya Falkovsky and Alexei Katalkin. Their digitally composed lightbox, "China", imagines a fictitious scene whereby Putin's office has been invaded by the Chinese. A man is hanging upside down, handcuffed to a computer being monitored by a Chinese person. It shows a news broadcast of Chinese soldiers parading on Moscow's Red Square. A man in Chinese dress is having sex with a blonde woman on the carpet, while another sinks his teeth into a black dog. A multitude of Chinese hats and a Chinese dragon fill the Red Square, glimpsed from the window, and Chinese symbols have been erected over a map of Russia.
The lightbox was among several works by the P G Group that were banned by Russia's ministry of culture from being included in the Sots Art exhibition at the Maison Rouge (http://www.lamaisonrouge.org). "The ministry thought it brought shame on Russia," says the artists. "They were very angry that a president should be seen in this embarrassing situation."
Galerie Rabouan Moussion is at 121 rue Vieille du Temple, 75003 Paris, Tel. +33 (0)1 48 87 75 91, http://www.rabouan-moussion.com.
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