INTERVIEW: Our editor Theodora Clarke meets Elena Sudakova, founder of the new Gallery for Russian Arts and Design in London
GRAD (the Gallery for Russian Arts and Design) is a new not-for-profit gallery in central London that opened in June 2013. The gallery exhibits Russian art, including rarely seen graphic arts and other works from Russian collections and specially commissioned pieces. GRAD will also hold special exhibitions with co-curators from Russia, and seminars dedicated to academic and curatorial developments in the expanding field of international studies in Russian art from the early 20th century to the present day. With the gallery’s first exhibition still in place, our editor Theodora Clarke spoke to GRAD’s director Elena Sudakova at the new gallery in Fitzrovia.
Theodora Clarke: Why did you decide to set up a new Russian art gallery in London?
Elena Sudakova: I studied at Moscow State University and had been working with Russian art for ten years before I came to London and completed my MA in Russian Art at the Courtauld Institute. I realised that there are two different ways of looking at the same subject. I had a feeling that we, in Russia, are so immersed within the context of Russian art that it is difficult to distance ourselves and look at it from a different angle. At the same time, people here are also looking at it from a very far-away perspective. I thought that knowing people both here and there would make me an ideal candidate to bring the two together.
We are showing art that breaks stereotypes in terms of understanding Russian art. I believe there are still a lot of clichés: Russian art is more or less associated either with icons or Russian dolls (matryoshki). There is so much more to Russian art than just the top names; in the West those are mostly Malevich, Lissitsky, Chagall and Kandinsky, and that’s it. I feel that any history of art is not made up of top names, but rather of the people who made it happen. These people are totally not on the map in the Western perception of Russian art and I thought it was important to widen the perspective. That’s what I am aiming to do.
TC: There have been several Russian galleries opening in London, such as Calvert 22 and St Petersburg Gallery. Why do you think London has become such a hub for Russian culture?
ES: London is a cultural centre, a universal place where art is being brought to from all over the world. Everybody aims to have a show in London – many countries do, not just Russia. There are lots of galleries showcasing Chinese and Arabic art, for example, because London is such a wonderful place to do this.
TC: What would you say makes GRAD distinctive from these other Russian galleries in London?
ES: We have only just opened and we recognise how much work has been done by Russian galleries such as Calvert 22. But as far as I know they focus more on Eastern European art and contemporary works of art. We will indeed be showing some contemporary artists, but we are aiming to showcase everything that has proved interesting for the past three centuries in Russian art. I hope we will be able to collaborate with other London-based galleries, but the things that we will be showing are actually quite different.
TC: You hosted an academic conference at your opening in June which was quite unusual for a gallery. You seem to have more of an interest in the intellectual underpinnings of art rather than purely a commercial focus.
ES: Yes, we want to bring Russian and British curators together and we also want to bring Russian museums here. We are already thinking of how to set up shows that will include works from provincial Russian museums that haven’t actually been shown in Moscow or St Petersburg very often. Collaborating with all kinds of cultural institutions in Russia is one of our strongest points.
TC: I understand that your long-term ambition is to set up a Russian art museum in London.
ES: Yes, that’s right. But in order to do that, one obviously has to have a collection! So we will be working towards that.
TC: So you will be buying and acquiring works?
ES: We’ll see how it goes. That is something to think about in the long run. Right now we want to establish ourselves here and see whether it will attract public interest. There is a big Russian audience that exists in London, but it’s actually the British public that we want coming in as well. We want to hear their views and learn about how they look at all this.
TC: I see that you produced a scholarly catalogue when you held the conference in June – do you have plans to have further academic events throughout the year?
ES: Yes, we do. We’re planning one that will be coming up in September, and almost every exhibition will be accompanied by academic seminars and talks.
TC: Your current exhibition is called SEE USSR. Can you tell us a little bit about this exhibition and why you chose the topic?
ES: We thought it was a great exhibition to open with, because the posters and ephemera we have on show here were intended for the West. They were made in the USSR, but were never shown there. Before we put the show together there was not a distinct group of ‘Intourist artists’ – their posters and designs were totally unknown and this is the first exhibition of them to be shown both inside and outside of Russia. I was initially introduced to these posters in the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, where they are held in the archives, by the head of the department of 19th– and 20th– century European and American art, Irina Nikiforovna. But we really didn’t know much about them – not who the authors were or how they all came together. So I went to the Lenin State Library where there is a vast collection of Intourist posters and to the British Library which holds Intourist magazines called ‘Soviet Land and Soviet Travel’.
These magazines were essential to our understanding of how this all worked. We discovered that when Intourist was established, they had no idea of how to actually attract a Western audience. At first they tried to use avant-garde experiments – particularly those of Malevich and Lissitzky, who were widely known in Europe, and a Rodchenko constructivist language. But it didn’t work for some reason. They advertised a competition for students in newspapers such as Pravda and Izvestia and then set up a committee headed by the distinguished Soviet artist, Alexei Kravchenko, to select the winning entries. I was very curious about why Intourist didn’t just go straight to Lissitzky or Rodchenko, who had so much experience with working in the West. But it was because they charged so much money for such work – they were very expensive designers!
TC: Where would these posters have been shown?
ES: They were shown in the offices of Thomas Cook and Intourist and other travel agencies, but never inside the Soviet Union. The works we have on show here were found in private collections in London.
TC: What would you say are the highlights of the exhibition?
ES: I would say this poster of SEE USSR which was reconstructed based on an archival image that we found in the family collection of one of the Intourist artists. It was very exciting to reconstruct: we worked out the colours from a black-and-white image and are now selling the work as a limited edition print. It’s different in size from the other posters, and it’s so strikingly avant-garde – you see the black square and Lissitzky’s distinctive constructivist typeface.
When the artist Henry Milner got around to actually reconstructing it, he found out that these figures were cut and pasted from Western magazines like Harper’s Bazaar. Obviously in the Soviet Union at that time you wouldn’t find a bird-watcher or such costumes as you see in the poster. So they tried to address a European audience with this very Western kind of language to promote the image of the USSR.
The visual language inside the Soviet Union was quite different from what was exported. These textiles we have on display really prove a point: they show how militarised the country was, and with these portraits of Lenin and Stalin. Of course, neither of these visual projections in Russia or abroad reflected the reality of what was going on in the Soviet Union. What’s interesting is that these textile designs were never popular with the people; they rejected them and refused to wear Stalin on their headscarves!
TC: What kind of image of the Soviet Union was Intourist trying to promote?
ES: Intourist were very smart because they figured out that if they built on this classical intellectual tradition of Russian literature, Russian theatre, Russian ballet and turned it into Soviet literature, Soviet theatre, Soviet ballet they would only benefit from it, and they did. They projected this image of a very cultural country where everyone was highly educated, and they promoted these cultural events through their magazines. The magazines actually make a fantastic read: you get translated novels some of the most distinguished Soviet writers of those times but were soon to be erased from Soviet history.
Statistics show that once they launched these cultural events, the number of tourists increased in tenths. For example, they had 5,000 Americans visiting before 1934, while between 1934 and 1936 there were approximately 50,000 Americans arriving in the USSR. But these figures are based on American archival documents –it is very difficult to find statistics because the Intourist archives do not seem to exist, nobody knows where they are.
TC: You involved Irina Nikoforova from The State Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow with the exhibition and she flew over to London for your opening. Do you think there will be a chance to exhibit something along the lines of SEE USSR in Russia today, now that you’ve had this exhibition in London?
ES: Yes, we did actually talk to her about whether we should have this show in the Pushkin Museum. They’re thinking about it.
TC: Which is your favourite work in the exhibition?
ES: Probably the ones showing life in the Soviet Union to be glamorous. I really like the idea of these ladies just relaxing, sunbathing and so on…. In Soviet times you were supposed to milk a cow, drive a tractor, fly an aeroplane – that was all part of a lady’s work. We set up this exhibition to show how devoid these posters were of all the standard imagery of Soviet propaganda. Looking at them you might think you’re in Italy or America.
TC: SEE USSR continues until the end of August. What is the plan for the rest of the year in terms of exhibitions?
ES: We want to have multiple shows throughout the year, and in the next one we’ll be taking a look at unrealised avant-garde objects and structures, such as Lissitzky’s Prouns or some of Rodchenko’s objects. In November we are showing the works of two contemporary artists who have just recently died, and I’d like to have a show on Russian toys going back to the 18th century. So we have started with 20th-century themes, but really we’re aiming to do very different things.
This interview was conducted on 24th June 2013. All content copright of Russian Art and Culture Ltd.
7 June 2013 – 31 August 2013