Portraying the Revolution – Glass is granted an intimate view of Russian Art Week, London

“…Blessed are those who visited this world
In moments of its destination.”

Fyodr Tyutchev,  Cicero (1830)

Last month, I was given an insider’s taste of Russian Art Week, a bi-annual event which brings together the major Russian art auctions in London. My greatest impression was one of confusion and awe; I was stunned by the variety of paintings, the manic pace, the storm of faces, the incessant digits churned out in thousands and millions until eventually numbers lost all meaning. By Wednesday’s auctions, a million for a painting seemed like a trivial price. But what made Russian Art Week different from other auctions? Perhaps the answer lies in its enigmatic nature; how this emerging market of Russian art has this year managed to rival Old Master Paintings.  Yet, to a Western audience, Russian art remains a mostly mysterious, unknown terrain, full of undeservedly forgotten artists.

Russian paintings have had a turbulent history, especially those created during the revolutionary years 1917 – 1924. After the revolution, many were dispersed to collectors all over the world, some still thought to be lost or stolen. Avant-garde artists themselves escaped from the socio-political unrest and unscrupulous repressions of the period, seeking refuge in the West. During the last 30 years, these exceptionally rare collections of paintings and the unheard stories of oppressed artists have began to re-emerge, with some interesting revelations. We begin to see just how much Russian artists were indebted to European artistic tradition. In spite of this European influence, Russian artists kept a distinctly nationalistic voice, through their borrowing from Russian folklore and archaic religious images, especially icons and lubok (popular prints – see here). This is what imbues Russian art with such mystery: its borrowed folk language is so removed from a European visual syntax,  but is still perceived through a Western art historical narrative. Yet, seen through a prism of Russian art history, the images begin to tell a different story.

The highlight painting during the week was Robert Falk’s Portrait of Yakov Kagan-Shabshai, a prominent Jewish collector – which sold privately at Sotheby’s. Signed 1917, the portrait is a clear symbol of the period in which it was painted. It depicts Kagan-Shabshai with with resounding energy, the striking red evoking the aggressive emotion of the revolution.

Still Life with Mexican Pottery Pig, Fechin

Still Life with Mexican Pottery Pig, Fechin

Robert Falk was born in Moscow in 1886 and went on to train at the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture. In the early 1910’s, he was one of the foremost exhibitors with the Jack of Diamond group, the most innovative and energetic group of young avant-garde artists in Moscow before the revolution. Falk left his home city for Paris following the unrest caused by the revolution, only returning to Russia in 1938, where he continued to paint.

Kena Vidre, a Russian memoirist, describes Falk in her Memoirs. She writes that upon his return to Moscow, he was not one of the artists repressed by the Stalinist regime, but he was also not forgiven by the state for fleeing Communism. Falk’s work was branded as “formalistic” (a denounced style of art) and omitted from exhibitions of the state-approved Socialist Realist art of the 30s.

Yet, he refused to give into the Stalinist doctrines, and continued to paint in his lucid, neo-impressionistic style, producing  portraits and still-lives. Vedra recounts Falk’s time between 1939 and 1958 (his death) as a period of poverty and struggle. He lived in a cold studio in Moscow, having returned from Paris, and sold his paintings from there for ‘laughable’ sums. A moment that was particularly memorable for her when Falk asked to take a break from their visit, and calmly picked up a metal bowl of porridge, poured cold milk over it, and sat eating it in silence, slowly. He died in 1958, his status as an important Russian artist virtually forgotten under Communism, only re-emerging again in the 80’s.

Robert Falk, Man in a bowler hatRobert Falk, Man in a bowler hat

The present work was painted before his emigration to Paris, during the idealistic Jack of Diamond period of Russian art. The portrait depicts the collector, Yakov Kagan-Shabshai, reflecting the fact collectors in Russia were important patrons for artists before the revolution. Kagan-Shabshai was an especially significant patron figure in the Russian avant-garde. An electrical engineer by day, the collector amassed an enormous body of paintings, particularly that of Marc Chagall, which he hoped to house in a newly-built Jewish Museum, the plans for which were never realised. Falk’s portrait presents Kagan-Shabshai sitting on a chair in the centre of the image against a blood red background, wearing a black suit and a Jewish bowler hat.

Kagan-Shabshai’s body is lodged into the small space between the red walls, desk and floor, inducing a feeling of claustrophobia. He appears reserved (almost impenetrable) as he is depicted with a stern facial expression, piercingly furrowed eyebrows and the yellow-green hue illuminating his face. The collector is presented from a high and frontal perspective, the angle closing in on him, foreshortening his body and making it look as if he is collapsing off the chair he is sitting on. The hovering perspective also has the effect of tightening the space of the canvas to produce a sensation of vertigo and “toppling”, as if indicating the onset of a great drama. With its bold reds, the painting portents the fate of many collectors and artists that suffered under the Red Terror. Upon his death in 1939, Kagan-Shabshai’s collection was dispatched to be in the possession of his brother, also a collector. It is a strangely prescient work in light of the revolution of the same year.

The portrait sold before the official auction date to an unnamed buyer for an undisclosed sum. This is only the third time this has happened in Sotheby’s history (both other times also to Russian clients). All we were told was that the painting went far in excess of its pre-sale estimate, and broke a number of world records for the artist. We also know that the same buyer purchased the family portrait by Piotr Konchalovsky. These two sales put the Sotheby’s Russian auction total at its highest for five years, making more than £24 million (not including the Falk).


Petr Konchalovsky, Family Portrait in the Artist’s Studio, 1917Petr Konchalovsky, Family Portrait in the Artist’s Studio, 1917

Perhaps, the best painting was this monumental work by Konchalovsky Portrait of the Artist and his Family, which sold for £4.3m, making it the most expensive Konchalovsy ever sold. Also painted in 1917, it’s allure is clear: it is bigger than life-size (2.5 x 3.5 m), consuming any room it inhabits and remains in immaculate condition.

Konchalosvky’s education began in Kharkov, later moving to Moscow, then Paris, where he was introduced to French artists. Soon after, he took a formative trip to Spain, which charged his style with an epic energy and distinguished him from other members of the Jack of Diamonds. Upon his return to Moscow, he was one of the founding members of the Jack of Diamonds group, the period from which this picture comes.  After the revolution, Konchalovsky was repressed by the state for his ‘formalist’ pictures, and began painting more conventional themes, particularly ceremonial portraits. Soon after, he began to express his subversion through paintings once more. Like Falk, he deliberately used vivid colours and a distorted perspective to challenge Socialist Realist standards.

The portrait comprises of Konchalovsky, his wife and two children standing in the artist’s studio: the artist and his wife as the focal point of the painting, and the two children engaged in activity on either side. On first glance, it is a classical family portrait  – a glorifying depiction of the artist and his family of epic proportions. It could have been a commissioned portrait for a royal family, also reflected in the colossal dimensions of the image. Yet the painting has an  intimate atmosphere inspite of the initial grandeur. We see into the private world of the artist: his studio and his family. For this reason, the work is disconcerting as it blends intimacy with large scale; the heavy bodies of the family become confrontational in their closeness.

Moreover, it lacks a refined, classical finish, instead the brushstrokes are brash and unhesitating. With avant-garde spirit, subverts the classical tradition of portrait painting, using a rough and heavily layered paint, the faces of the family expressionless, verging on austere. It is by no means a flattering portrayal, classical only its in its size and formality.

Like the Falk painting, it was conceived during the Jack of Diamonds period, when the artist was at the self-proclaimed height of his skill. The Jack of Diamond group focused on the importance of form over content, technical proficiency over ideology, exploring the materiality of paint without reducing their work to formalism; they addressed the problems of perception and representation, using a blend of classical and modern styles.

In this painting in particular, we see Konchalovsky challenging what it means to “represent” his subject, and instead almost “recreating” larger than life versions of his family through the pure, dense blocks of colour. Looking closer into the painting, we can see how Konchalovsky literally sculptured with his paint, layering the forms of his family onto the canvas like clay. In spite of the size and the sensuality of the paint, the overall impression is that of simplicity; the lines, colours and composition of the painting reduced, blending Cubist influence with the scale and vision of Velazquez’s Las Meninas.

Nikolai Fechin, NudeNikolai Fechin, Nude

The Jack of Diamonds group was inaugurated by artists Falk, Konchalovsky, Lentulov and Mashkov. The group began with an exhibition in 1910, which caused confusion from the beginning with its misleading title, as people assumed the exhition was a gambling house or brothel. The first real avant-garde collective was organised by Lentulov, Larionov and Goncharova, with the aim of providing an organisation for young artists who failed to be accepted into the clique-y artistic spheres of the time. Instead, these artists created their own group with the intention of spreading “modern”, experimental concepts of art to Moscow.

The focus of the artists was on the prevalence of craftsmanship over ideology; of form over content. Their aims were bound up with their European counterparts, as many of the avant-garde artists trained in Paris alongside Picasso, Matisse and Vuillard. They followed in the footsteps of Impressionism, Post-Impressionism and particularly Cezanne.  Their work, however, rather than merely copying the European technique, established its own character. It was an answer and an interpretation of the French style, but with a distinctly Russian feeling which was inspired by the Russian folklore: lubok (woodcuts) and icon painting.

Christie’s top lot from the early Jack of Diamonds period was Ilya Mashkov’s The Bathers (click for image). The work was conceived in 1911, in the early stages of the Jack of Diamonds group, when it was at its most experimental, before its subsequent rupture into various factions. Mashkov emerged from a peasant background, moving to Moscow, where he studied under Korovin and Serov. He was expelled for his independent thinking and disregard for Classical rules. Instead, he travelled around Western Europe, Turkey and Egypt, absorbing these cultures which went on to influence his neo-primativist style.

This can especially be seen in The Bathers, which pays homage to African sculpture and Egyptian painting through the bulbous, protruding forms of the Bathers’ bodies and their naïve sexuality. The work portrays two nude women bathing by a pool of water painted in gaudy greens and pinks, with harsh lines and jutting forms. Mashkov’s shocking image was a challenge to classical ideals of fragile female beauty, transforming the nude into an aggressive form. They are more like Picasso’s Mademoisselles D’avingnon than Degas’ ethereal beauties.

Bonhams again featured a work by Roerich, Kanchenjunga (1935-36), their strongest painting on offer. Nicholas Roerich artistic career spanned many years, stages and countries. He was a prolific artist (producing more than 7,000 paintings), a designer of the Ballet-Russes, as well being a writer, archaeologist and theosophist. His achievments include the foundation the Roerich Pact (Pax Cultura), set up to protect cultural and scientific institutions and historical monuments, signed by Roosevelt in 1935. He later was featured in one of Diaghelev’ s first exhibitions of Russian art in 1906, and in 1909 was introduced as a costume and set designer for Diagelev’s Ivan Terrible, alongside the opera singer Fyodr Shalyapin.

With the impact of WWII and the Russian Revolution in 1917, Roerich sought peace abroad, travelling West to settle in America, where he founded the Master Institute for United Arts in New York, later becoming the famous Nicholas Roerich Museum. By 1923, the Roerichs were again on the move, arriving in Bombay.  From here, they embarked on an expedition of India, visiting philosophers, scientists and historical sites, which ended in 1928. The Roerichs finally settled in the Himalayas in a lodging elevated at 6,500 feet and founded the Urusvati Himalayan Centre there. It is during this concluding stage of his life that Kangchenjunga was conceived.

To many, this time was height of Roerich’s artistic powers, his sublime vision and spiritual mission. The soaring mountains represent the goals of humanity. Their distance suggests the voyages that man must embark on to achieve such heights. Roerich was a great proponent cross-cultural dialogue, unveiling undiscovered areas of Asia through his documentation. He also hoped to heal Russo-American relations with his foundation of the ARCA (American-Russia Cultural Association), with support including Hemingway, Rockwell Kent and Charlie Chaplin.

Peasant Girl, FechinPeasant Girl, Fechin

Roerich believed that an individual’s full potential could only be unlocked after he had assimilated foreign cultures. Thus, in this painting, the idea of travel is conveyed with sublime force. The work portrays Mt. Kanchenjunga, long considered the highest mountain, and is described by Bonhams as the most technically accomplished painting by Roerich of the spectacular mountain. The painting immediately catches the eye with its mystical, rich blues and sharply articulated mountain tops, illuminated by white charcoal, struck by bright sunlight.

Finally, the work of Nicolai Fechin stood out. A student of Repin, he emigrated to America in the 1940s, and established a successful career as an artist there with the help of American patrons. This is why he is not frequently included in Russian sales. The work of the artist, however, is beautiful. Artworks featured in the Sotheby’s sale were his Nude (sold by the Palm Springs Art Museum to Benefit the Montgomery Acquisition Fund)  as well as Peasant Girl and Still Life with Mexican Pottery Pig, while Christie’s featured his Little Peasant Boy. The pictures are haunting, capturing ordinary subjects, such as children, young women and still lives.

They are sensuous, delicate – especially due to the subject matter – but executed with a roughness, recalling the distorted paintings of Gerhard Richter. Fechin’s wide, rapid strokes and strips of chalky yet exotic colour are particularly felt in Nude. Fechin’s work resembles that of Fillip Maliavin, also his teacher in St Petersburg, through his use of an exotic colour palette and jagged brushstrokes.

A memory of the week that will stay with me was of a towering girl dressed in a sky-blue coat, perched on transparent heels that seemed to be taller than the pillars framing the room, strutting effortlessly around the Christie’s Winter Party. As if for a dramatic denouement, she was the last person in the room, and circled the hall rapidly – with obvious nonchalance.

For a moment, she paused with me in front of Harlamoff’s Two Girls Arranging Flowers, and we were the only two people left in the room. In a second, she vanished – floated down the stairs. This moment, for me, said so much about Russian art and its clients. The bold, unashamed beauty and aspiration towards display and exhibitionism; she was not afraid to be ostentatious, glamorous – but remained paradoxically mysterious. Small wonder, then, the enigma surrounding the sale of Falk’s Portrait of Yakov Kagan-Shabshai.

by Diana Kurakina

Russian Art Week  took place in London from November 22-29