St Petersburg Gallery is a London gallery that was founded in October 2012 by art collectors who have an extensive experience in collecting and dealing Russian art. The gallery specializes in exhibiting and selling Russian paintings and works of art dating from 18th up until mid 20th century, Impressionist paintings and modern European art. Saint Petersburg gallery works with art objects which historical and cultural values match to the museum ones. The gallery also provides consultancy services for private clients and corporate art collections. Our Editor Theodora Clarke spoke to the founder Irina Kargina at their gallery in Cork Street, Mayfair.
Theodora Clarke: Why did you decide to found a new gallery in London focused on Russian art?
Irina Kargina: There are quite a few galleries showcasing Russian art in London but they are mostly focused on contemporary art. There is also Calvert 22, a non-profit organisation that does a lot to promote contemporary Russian art. We would like to bring something new and focuse more on classical Russian art and the twentieth century. When we plan an exhibition we try to concentrate on Russian art, which is internationally known. For example, we opened with the exhibition Chagall and his Contemporaries. Russian art was very much a part of the international art scene before the Revolution and artists were travelling and working together. They were inspired and influenced by each other and that is what we want to communicate. Russian art is not something apart; it came very much out of the European tradition.
TC: Why do you think that London has become such an important centre for Russian art in comparison to New York or Berlin for example?
IK: There are two major factors: London is now a centre of the art world, and there are a lot of Russian people living in London nowadays. Also Russian art is very well promoted now. Russian museums are bringing a lot of shows in Europe and the United States. For us it’s important to have people coming to see our exhibitions and I think London is the best place in Europe to have this kind of gallery. We also have Christie’s and Sotheby’s very close to us who hold Russian sales twice a year.
TC: Russian Art Week is coming up in June, how do you perceive the Russian art market? Do you think that prices and values will continue to increase? Goncharova, for example, is still the highest selling female artist at auction.
IK: Recently Sotheby’s sold the collection of Mark Birley, one of the lots was a piece by Goncharova which sold for £330,000. It really depends on what the major auction houses can offer. If they continue to auction important paintings and works of art by major artists then the prices will remain really high.
TC: Which artists do you find are most popular with collectors? Is it still the big twentieth century names like Kandinsky and Chagall or do you the market is starting to move its focus?
IK: It depends on a collector’s taste. People who collect Russian art know not only Chagall, Malevich and Kandinsky, they also appreciate all the major Russian artists that aren’t so well known in the West. They collect Knave of Diamonds artists like Mashkov and Konchalovsky. They collect a whole range of things…
TC: Your current exhibition is about Russian theatre and the Ballets Russes. Why did you decide to have this as the focus of your show?
IK: We try to choose themes that would be interesting not only to the Russian public but to an international audience. The Ballet Russes had, and still has, such a huge impact on ballet all over the world. That’s why we’ve decided to try and revive this atmosphere. Quite a lot of Diagelev’s productions were also shown in London, which influenced the decision to do this show. We also had a chance to bring together a number of important pieces from private collections for this exhibition.
TC: What are your long-term plans for the gallery?
IK: We are currently planning to hold three to four exhibitions a year. We have had two already and the Ballets Russes exhibition is on until the end of July. In September we are planning a new exhibition of the Russian contemporary artist who is known not only for his visual work but I won’t reveal the name yet!
TC: There have been a number of private galleries opening in London. Various people have claimed that collectors feel safer investing their money in a work of art rather than depositing it in a bank account. Do you think that is a valid comment about the art market?
IK: Absolutely. It’s not just something to put away in your bank and store but something that you can enjoy every day. It is a good investment, if we compare prices to two or three years ago we see a significant increase in prises for various art schools. Today there is a new start for top quality Russian art because people in Russia are ready to pay more than they did before the crisis.
TC: I have found that the Russian art market seems quite nationalistic with Russian art being bought by Russian buyers. Do you find that is the case with your clients and collectors in general?
IK: Yes, our clients are mostly Russians.
TC: I was struck by the number of museum quality works you have on display here, which is quite unusual for a commercial gallery. Is that going to be one of your unique selling points?
IK: I think so. We’ll do our best to bring the best quality pieces that we have in the private collections.
TC: How would you define yourself in relation to the other Russian art galleries in London?
IK: It’s a completely different field. There is no-one who specialises in 19th and twentieth century Russian art. I think contemporary Russian art is bought not only buy Russians because it has more of an international flavour to it, whereas classical Russian art is quite specific. There aren’t that many great pieces on the market and I think we’re the only gallery now in London with that level of Russian art.
TC: What was your background before you set up this gallery?
IK: I graduated from a teachers training university with a degree in French and English languages but I decided to make a shift in my education to study art. I came to London in 2006 and I studied for two years at Christie’s Education. It was very intense and very helpful.
TC: Your gallery manager used to work at Sotheby’s, is that correct?
IK: Yes. She also studied at Christie’s, which was where we met, before working for Sotheby’s Russian department. Another member of our team is Katerina Kindom, who used to work in the Hermitage Museum and has an art historical background.
TC: It’s interesting you mention the importance of having an art historical background. I’m currently organising a debate on art forgeries in the Russian market and particularly with the period that you’re working with – the Russian Avant-Garde – there are a lot of fakes. How do you go about checking the legitimacy and the provenance of your works and how important is that to your business?
IK: That is the most important issue for us. We deal only with art works which provenance is clearly traceable and documented. We know a lot of Russian art experts in Russia and we ask their advice regularly. Sometimes I think it’s obvious when the provenance has been constructed. When you look at quite a lot of art by the same artist, and if your eye is experienced and trained enough, then you can sometimes see the forgery just by looking. But the technical expertise and expert’s opinions are very important in this.
TC: You also operate as a consultancy. Do you find works for specific collections and museums?
IK: Yes we do. We deal not only in Russian art but also in modern European art. If a client is looking for something specific by a certain artist then we are happy to help him find it. We liaise with a lot of established dealers in Europe and Russia.
TC: I understand that there is a difference in laws in the UK and in Russia, for example if you buy a work in Russia you can’t sell it outside of the country but if you buy the work in Europe it can travel.
IK: It depends on the work. There are certain regulations depending on the age of the artwork. If a piece is less than 100 years old then an official licence can be applied for. Everything that is over one hundred years old can not be exported outside of Russia. It’s quite straightforward in that sense.
TC: So with twentieth century work this is not so of much of a problem than if you were dealing in works by a 19th century artist like Levitan for example?
IK: It isn’t a problem if a painting has been outside of Russia for quite a while – if for example, it was bought from a European collection. Like the portrait of Paul I by Shukin or other works that you can see here – they were all exported from Russia a long time ago just after the Revolution. If they have been in Europe or America for this long then it is not a problem.
TC: Your focus seems to be on drawings and works of art but you have some very interesting costumes by Larionov in the exhibition. What is your favourite work in the exhibition?
IK: One of the costumes is hand painted by Larionov himself and the other is for the ballet Thamar. My favourite work is the set design for Stravinsky’s Nightingale by Golovin. I think he is one of the rarest artists that you can find in a gallery or private collection. And the work is stunning. The most valuable piece in the exhibition is portrait of Stravinsky by Larionov. It’s a work of international importance. It was made in 1915 and came directly from the Stravinsky family.
TC: Why do you think that the Ballets Russes remains so popular?
IK: There are people who love to talk about that time and look at the designs. They didn’t see the Diaghilev ballets but the emotional and artistic impact of that period and Diaghilev’s ballet was so strong that it still inspires a lot of people today. It is still living in a way, a living memory. The ballets are still being performed, even if the settings and costumes are different, and the music is still there. It was a concentration of creative talents and a synthesis of so many arts. The role of Diaghilev was unique. He was able to concentrate and combine top artistic talents from different countries and backgrounds and he made them live together. That is very difficult because there are some people that are not compatible – especially artists. He was a visionary.
TC: Next year is the year of Russian Culture in the UK. How important do you think that will be in promoting Russian culture here and do you have any specific plans to celebrate it?
IK: We are working on some projects that will bring together artworks from museums and private collections in Russia. We are still at the planning stage and it is too early to give any details. It will be difficult to organise but it is possible. We hope we can present something unique and exceptional.
TC: You’re called the St Petersburg Gallery, why did you decide upon this name?
IK: We’re not from St Petersburg but it is the cultural capital of Russia. It was and still is. This name instantly evokes something noble and beautiful. If we had a different title it wouldn’t be as easily recognised as Russian gallery. In a way the gallery is equally a place to promote Russian culture and to run business.
TC: But many of the twentieth century artists that you exhibit, such as Goncharova and Larionov, were from the Moscow avant-garde rather than St Petersburg, which people associate with the Tsars and Imperial Russia.
IK: The gallery has plans to exhibit treasures of the Russian Imperial Court in the future. And we have already showed the works or Russian avant-garde artists whose activity was bound with St Petersburg, such as Kazimir Malevich, Ivan Puni, Michael Matyushin.
THE GOLDEN AGE OF RUSSIAN BALLET
AND THEATRE DESIGN
18TH APRIL 2013 – 28TH JULY 2013
Interview conducted on 9th May 2013. Copyright of Russian Art and Culture Ltd.