Contemporary Russian art – a primer
Emerging art market expert Diego Giolitti unravels a Russian art scene beyond billionaires and celebrity gallerists
Think of Russian art and you are more than likely to think of billionaire collectors and celebrity gallerists, but a group show in London aims to refocus attention to the work of contemporary Russian art and artists. From the deeply political work of artists from the Nonconformist movement such as Vladimir Ovchinnikov and Vyacheslav Mikhailov, to contemporary art starts like Ilya Gaponov, to emerging names like Denis Patrakeev and Alexandre Dashevsky, the show promises to be a comprehensive overview of Russian art now.
Curating Past, Present & Future is Diego Giolitti – a specialist in emerging art markets with a focus on Iranian and Russian contemporary art. Ahead of the opening, Giolitti gives Phaidon an insight into contemporary Russian art
Given Russia’s history and its current political climate, is the work in this show overtly political?
The political references in the work are not necessarily specific to the political climate of Russia, but rather to broader global issues of freedom of expression, anti-establishment tendencies, and general resistance to state authorities that suffocate the people. Political views and expressions such as these can be seen in art all over the world, not just Russian contemporary art.
We do represent a number of Nonconformist artists, but their work is not necessarily politically motivated. The term “Nonconformist” is usually employed in reference to Russian art that did not adhere to the dogma of Socialist Realism as ordained by Stalin and pursued from the 1930s throughout the 1980s, but it does not necessarily imply an anti-Soviet vision. In fact, the works of Vladimir Ovchinnikov neither challenged the system nor tried to be sensational. Rather, his paintings speak to his quest for an individual space beyond politics and Socialist ideology. That said, the Russian Nonconformist movement and Dissident Art do share the same polemical spirit regarding the denial of individual freedoms still existing in many parts of the world: prominent cases include those of Iranian artist Rokni Haerizadeh and Chinese artist Ai Weiwei arrested for his opposition to the Chinese Communist regime.
What is contemporary Russian art right now?
Russian art is a great many things right now. We are after all, now witnessing its re-emergence after many decades of invisibility. Though not strictly contemporary artists, we can speak about Russian Rayonism and Constructivism, and artists like Serge Poliakoff, a master of geometric abstract art, or indeed the founders of the Rayonism movement Natalia Gontcharova and her partner Mikhail Larionov.
Moving to the Nonconformist generation, some of the originators of the movement are still living and producing not only artwork but outstanding sales results as well such as Chemyakin, who first became famous abroad and only gained notoriety in his home country in the late 1980s, when his controversial works were able to re-enter Russia. There is Vladimir Ovchinnikov, a direct contemporary of Chemyakin, who stayed in St. Petersburg and continued the Nonconformist struggle after the 1964 Hermitage exhibition, of which both he and Chemyakin were organizers.
The perception of Russian is by and large limited to billionaire collectors, gallerists, and magazine owners – are these people giving the wrong impression of the Russian art scene?
Quite frankly, yes. In the field of art, among the so-called emerging art markets, one of the most active, fruitful and worthy of attention is Russia, but not solely for the reasons above. Russia’s entry into the international market is very interesting, both for what is on offer and for the demand for works of art. Yes, Russia is a country that boasts an ever-increasing stable market, with wealthy individuals increasing at a rate of 15 per cent per annum, but Russian collectors are interested in maintaining a healthy international market for Russian art. They are first and foremost knowledgeable collectors. Further supporting the growth of the international market for Russian art are key experts: Joanna Vickery, who has made Sotheby’s Russian Department into the most successful in the field worldwide, and private collectors like Pierre-Christian Brochet, a Frenchman living in Moscow, who has built one of the most impressive collections of contemporary Russian art in the world, to cite but two examples.
In the Russian market, contemporary art is the area where interest is the highest. Following the almost complete absence of this field in auctions over the last twenty years, it has recently created an incredible amount of interest and enthusiasm among international collectors. Sotheby’s last auction of Russian art on the 28 November 2011 brought in a staggering £5,597,000 – a truly amazing feat in these troubled times. But it should be noted that the market for contemporary Russian art is quite structured. It is backed by a solid group of national collectors and by a solid network of private Russian galleries operating in synergy in order to more effectively support artists on the international market. For example in 2007 two of the most important galleries in Moscow, the Triumph Gallery and the Yakut Gallery, joined forces precisely for this reason. The support from Russian commercial art galleries and private collectors show that the results form the auction houses are just the tip of the iceberg, allowing works to emerge after years of ‘invisible’ underground activity and private transactions.
If you’re interested in reading about a global crosseection of emerging art talents, we recommend Vitmain P2 – a dynamic overview of the best new contemporary painting from around the world – and Creamier – an up-to-date survey of the world’s most important emerging designers to know.
Past Present & Future is at London’s Erarta Galleries until April 20th and 30% of proceeds from sales will be donated to the Gift of Life foundation to aid children with cancer in Russia.
Past, Present & Future
April 12 – April 28
Erarta Galleries, London, United Kingdom
Tues – Fri: 10AM – 6PM
Sat: 11AM – 5PM
Monday by appointment