Our International Editor Simon Hewitt looks back on four events with a Russian flavour from a busy first month of Summer

 

SET FAIR FOR VILNIUS

Vilnius, just 20 miles from the Belarus border, may seem an unlikely place for an international art fair and, when ART VILNIUS was first staged in 2009, Vilnius was European Capital of Culture and everyone thought the fair would be a one-off. But it survived and thrived and, this year, was held for an eighth time (June 8-11).

Art Vilnius owes its longevity less to runaway commercial success than to generous support from the city and state, and the dynamic leadership of Fair Director Diana Stomienė and Manager Sonata Baliuckaitė. Its relaxed mood makes a pleasant contrast to the frenetic pace of Art Basel, which invariably take place at around the same time.

The Fair takes place in three halls at the Litexpo exhibition centre just outside Vilnius –arguably Europe’s most appealing fairs venue, although this appeal is somewhat undermined by the minimalistic opening-hours of its cafeteria.

The number of visitors this year was up 7% at 22,500. Gauging sales activity is never easy but it seemed to me that business was brisker than usual; Fair organizers reported over 200 sales across the 55-stand fair – at an average price of €1,000-2,000 (which tells you something about the fair’s potential for bargains). Buyers this year came from France, Germany and Italy as well as nearby Russia, Latvia and Estonia, with Fair supremo Diana Stomienė spying a ‘new generation of young art lovers and collectors’ at the fair (which also enjoys don’t-miss status in the eyes of local ambassadors and diplomats).

Shalva Khakhanashvili of Karavan Gallery from Paris, for instance, enjoyed his ‘best ever results at Art Vilnius’ on his fourth visit, selling works by four artists – including the powerful Russian artist Katia Kameneva, who studied at the Moscow State Art Academy before moving to Paris.

Although Lithuanian attitudes towards Russia hover between indifference and trepidation, given the menacing presence of the Kaliningrad enclave on its  south-west border, Russian artists and galleries are regular and welcome participants in Art Vilnius.

The Moscow galleries, Kovcheg and Gros-Art, took part this year. Kovcheg had a spate of crunching abstraction by Vigintas Stankus from Kaunas, alongside works by Anton Kuznetsov and Maria Safronova from Russia. Gros-Art – founded in 2013 by Elena Gribonosova-Grebneva and Elena Osotina (hence the name) – showed graphic works by Russia’s Alexander Yulikov (see below) and Normunds Lacis, who hails from Riga but has been based in Moscow since 1991. Dags Viduleje, from Riga’s Happy Art Museum, also caught the eye with his large painting Globalization, whose parade of anonymous gold-ground figures had something of the Belayev-Gintovt about them. Happy Art were also offering witty video installations by Moscow’s Lidia Vitkovskaya.

The fair’s Art Consultant, swarthy-bearded Frenchman Sir Eric Schlosser, used to work in Moscow as Cultural Attaché for the European Council, before a brief stint as Artistic Director of Art Moskva. He also oversaw Art Vilnius’s extensive selection of non-commercial projects – much of it sculpture, displayed on the outside piazza or on the spacious mezzanine of triangular Hall 3, with video and conceptual projects assigned a separate hall of their own. Among sights to behold were an astonishing kinetic installation, involving a wind machine and plastic sheeting, by Lithuania’s German-based Kęstutis Svirnelis; and a giant scorched paper installation, Icarus, by Kiev’s Roman Mikhaylov.

Art Vilnius was accompanied this year by the inaugural Vilnius Naktis Galerijoje (Gallery Night), with seven participants staying open until 11pm. The evening’s finest hospitality was provided by Kristina Norvilaite, who uncorked outstanding French wines from the Languedoc and hosted an impromptu Genesis concert by Petras Geniusas, Lithuania’s top concert pianist.

The best of the shows on the gallery circuit was staged by TSEKH from Kiev, who opened a Vilnius subsidiary in a converted Soviet culture centre last year. Andrius Šarapovas’ Generative Music Kinetic Installation occupied the entire upper floor – a vast hall about 10 x 30m – with eighty wood and metal contraptions consisting of metal bar, sound activator, damper and resonator. Using a special algorithm, these contraptions were able to turn people’s online browsing into musical sounds: the number of internet connections in different regions of Lithuania affected the volume and rhythm of the notes; the amount of data transferred determined their pitch. Ingenious stuff, with a team of 70 engineers, programmers and electromechanics involved in its production! The result was surprisingly aesthetic – and melodious.

Vartal had a powerful exhibition entitled Spring, in a variety of media, by the Paris-based Lithuanian duo S & P Stanikas, while Rooster were showing works by finalists in the 2016/17 Young International Contest of Contemporary Art (hiccuppingly known as YICCA). The vast premises of Arka Gallery, founded by the Lithuanian Artists’ Association in 1990, were filled with a high-quality display of figurative and abstract paintings by artists from across Europe. The quirkiest gallery venue I saw belongs to Grafo Galerija: the brick-arched basement of the high-end Dublis restaurant. Diners are lured downstairs after their meal with the promise of a free final drink surrounded by works of art. The theory is that they will feel mellow enough to buy some of it.

COPENHAGEN’S ICONIC AUCTION

The BRUUN RASMUSSEN sale of Russian Art in Copenhagen on June 9 – previewed at the Danish Embassy during London Russian Week – totalled a premium-inclusive DKK 35.9 million (£4.27m), with 72% of its 180 lots finding takers.

The sale majored on the collection of Norwegian businessman Richard Zeiner-Henriksen (1878-1965) – auctioned off following the recent death of his son Dick, and offered in collaboration with Oslo auctioneers Blomqvist.

Zeiner-Henriksen worked in St Petersburg/Petrograd/Leningrad either side of World War I, living in the Saltykov Palace near the Hermitage during the 1920s. Any of the London firms would have given their eye teeth to get their hands on his collection – the most important Russian ensemble to come to auction this year, as these figures reveal: the 81 lots yielded DKK 25.1m (£3m), over twice what Bonhams made on June 7 from 202 lots; the collection’s 79% selling-rate was higher than any achieved by the London firms; and three of its items would have appeared in London’s Top Ten, outselling anything at Bonhams or Christie’s.

Zeiner-Henriksen was best known for his superlative collection of 16th and 17th century icons – shown at Oslo’s Nasjonalgallieret in 1930 and the Louvre in 1958. Five of these icons sold in Copenhagen for individual prices of over DKK2.5m (£300,000). All were in tempera on wood and painted in 16th century Novgorod, the great religious centre (and erstwhile Hansa town) 120 miles south of a St Petersburg that did not then exist.

Top price of DKK 6m (£712,000) – claimed as a new world record for an icon at auction – went to a large Descent from the Cross, 91 x 66cm, followed by a sizable iconostasis depicting the Archangel Michael, 128 x 55cm, at DKK 5.3m (£635,000). The two works were each presented with absurdly low estimates (£110,000-135,000), reflecting both the auctioneers’ inexperience at handling such rarefied items, and the enticing reserves made possible by estate sales (held for pressing financial reasons after a decease). Previous auction record for an icon was £454,000 at Christie’s London in 2007.

Other soaraway prices at Bruun Rasmussen for Novgorod icons were DKK 3.2m (£377,000) for an Entry into Jerusalem, 56 x 43cm; DKK 2.9m (£340,000) for a St George & Dragon, 30 x 24cm; and DKK 2.6m (£310,000) for a small  Vladimirskaya Mother of God with the infant Jesus, 21 x 16cm.

Imperial child portraits also sold well clear of estimate. One of the future Tsar Paul I, after Pietro Antonion Rotari, claimed DKK 416,000 (£49,500). Three portraits of Paul’s children by Dmitry Levitsky proved popular: Grand Duke Constantine (1779-1831) quadrupled hopes on DKK 520,000 (£62,00), while his younger sisters Grand Duchess Alexandra (1783-1801) and Grand Duchess Katerina (1788-1819) each sold for a sextuple-estimate DKK 780,000 (£93,000).

The collection, as predicted, threw up some juicy bargains – led by a pair of majestic, early 19th century armchairs in Karelian birch at a paltry DKK 19,500 (£2320).

The sale in its entirety had more sold lots – 130 – than either Bonhams or MacDougall’s. As I wrote in my survey of this June’s underwhelming London sales, consignor confidence is currently the name of the game. The Zeiner-Henriksen windfall appears to have enabled Bruun Rasmussen/Blomqvist to attract a number of other works acquired by Norwegians working in Russia during the early decades of the 20th century. Such impeccable, market-fresh provenance is like gold dust in today’s auction arena.

Alexei Savrasov’s 1852 view of Nomads Around a Fire on a Moonlit Plain, for instance, was bought by the legendary Herman ‘Loop the Stoop’ Knoop while he was representing the family cotton business in Moscow between 1909 and 1917. It zoomed to DKK 1.9m (£225,000).

Three lots hailed from the collection of Alfred Danielsen, a wily councillor at the Norwegian Embassy in Moscow from 1929 to 1935: Abram Arkhipov’s Summer Evening in a Harbour with Fishing Boats at DKK 1.04m (£124,000); Konstantin Filippov’s Summer’s Day in the Caucasus at DKK 364,000 (£43,300); and a late 17th century imperial silver kovsch, fronted by a double-headed eagle and inscribed with the names of Peter the Great and his half-brother Ivan, at DKK 975,000 (£116,000). The engraved inscription further revealed the kovsch to have been presented to Ufa customs officer Grigory Shchepetov in 1694.

Even costlier was a large, late Tsarist silver and cloisonné enamel wedding kovsh by Feodor Rückert, acquired by that master of industrial espionage, Anton ‘Fast Fingers’ Jørring, while he was employed – officially at least – by the Great Northern Telegraph Company in post-Kirovian Leningrad during the 1930s. The swanky soup-slurper soared to DKK 1.7m (£201,000).

Top price among the medals, meanwhile, was DKK 520,000 (£62,000) for a gold and diamond Order of St Alexander Nevsky presented in 1913 to Cavalry General Konstantin Maximovich (1849-1921) who, having survived an assassination attempt during his hapless six-month stint as Governor General of Warsaw in 1905, enjoyed an end-of-career sinecure as Assistant Commander at Imperial HQ during World War I. The medal was later owned by his nephew Boris, and consigned by his descendants.

A TENTATIVE RUSSIAN PRESENCE IN BASEL…

The difficulty for Russia’s contemporary art galleries to compete on the international stage was reflected by their absence from this year’s ART BASEL, the world’s premier contemporary fair (June 15-18). And just one contemporary gallery, Khankhalaev from Moscow, was to be found among the three satellite fairs held in the Swiss city at the same time.

The veteran Konstantin Khankhalaev, the Old Mr Bouncer of Russian gallerists, was at SCOPE – showing works by his flagship artist Zorikto Dorzhiev, the greatest artist ever produced by the Buddhist republic of Buryatia in Eastern Siberia. Zorikto’s colourful figures inspired by life in the Steppe, imbued with whimsical humour, were complemented on the stand by the psychedelic works of recent gallery recruits Andrei Khalipov and Bato Dugarzhapov.

Scope also hosted at the Russo-Japanese outfit G-77, which is based in Kyoto but run by the charismatic Petersburger Andrei Mikhailov. He had some exquisite Japanese works on show, none more ingenious than a sculpture by Hiroko Tsuchida made from 300 white plastic combs. At Andrei’s stand I bumped into Alex Sharov and Viktoriya Butkova, the popular duo at the head of Moscow’s vibrant 11-12 Gallery – busy pursuing their Grand Tour of Artistic Western Europe (we had met up at the Venice Biennale only a few weeks earlier).

The most atypical stand at Scope was also one of the best, with superstar Swiss curator Sixtine Crutchfield representing House of Grauer (Geneva) with a collection of museum-quality, post-war Cuban Art led by the intriguing, semi-surrealist works of José María Mijares.

Scope’s Webergasse venue is one of the nastiest in the world, resembling a concrete chicken-coop, but rival fair VOLTA enjoys one of the finest: the 1929 Art Deco Markthalle near Basel train station. Volta was also Basel’s best-looking satellite fair in terms of content. I particularly enjoyed Stano Filko at Soda (Bratislava), Polonca Lovšin at P74 (Ljubljana) and Amir Tomashov’s architectural paintings on wooden planks at Litvak (Tel Aviv) – all three galleries, coincidentally, located next to one another in a happy alignment. Across the aisle at Coates & Scarry of London, Penny Byrne’s kitschy porcelain groups included Mother Russia & Uncle Sam, both laden with bazookas. Fine, but AES+F were doing these sort of irony-laden ceramics a decade ago.

Two Warsaw galleries, Raster and Stereo, made their mark amidst the chaotic jumble of rooms at the Warteck Brewery, which has hosted LISTE (and the best sausages in town) for many years. The floor of the tiny stand assigned to Temnikova & Kasela, the Tallinn gallery who regularly show at Cosmoscow, was littered with boxes on sticks by Moscow’s Oleg Frolov, collectively entitled Anti-War Movement.

Russia’s most impressive representatives in Basel were not showing contemporary art at all. Heritage Gallery starred at Design Miami/Basel with a display of Soviet furniture and works of art from the exhibition New Art Of A New State held at their Moscow gallery in April/May. Highlights included Palekh lacquer work; a circular table in Karelian birch inlaid with the letters  CCCP; a 1943 table with marble intarsia top featuring entrances to  Moscow Metro stations; and three Gallé-style double-layered glass vases entitled Ukrainian Riot (c.1970).

… AND A LESS TENTATIVE RUSSIAN PRESENCE IN BERN

I caught up with the exhibition The Revolution Is Dead – Long Live the Revolution in BERN shortly before it closed on July 9. It was staged jointly at Bern’s two leading art museums, the Kunstmuseum and the Zentrum Paul Klee. Both venues showcased 20th century Russian artists alongside some of their Western (mainly German) counterparts.

The vast, elegant Zentrum – which occupies a bucolic setting on the city outskirts – had a solid array of Suprematist compositions by Malevich, Rodchenko, Popova and Chashnik, with El Lissitzky especially well represented. Many of the works hailed from the Costakis Collection in Salonica, but others – lent by private collections and the Sepherot Foundation in Lichtenstein – are less frequently seen in public.

There were some stimulating juxtapositions with works by Moholy-Nagy and Sophie Taeuber-Arp, and some rather more contrived comparisons with Dan Flavin, Donald Judd and a spate of semi-obscure European mid-20th century artists. It was all a bit of a pot pourri.

The second part of the show, at Bern’s city-centre Kunstmuseum, went from the sublime (a roomful of Deinekas loaned by the Tretyakov and State Russian Museum) to the ridiculous (Dubosarsky & Vinogradov at their biggest and brashest).  Although there were some fine Bulatovs, the selection of Russian pictures was achingly conventional.

Along with unleashing three large photographic ensembles by Boris Mikhailov, showing just how nasty Soviet life could be, the exhibition attempted to establish some parallels between Socialist Realism and the art of the DDR – but in such a desultory way that conclusions were impossible. The post-1990 world was represented by Norbert Bisky (born Leipzig 1970), whose style looks too like Dubosarsky & Vinogradov to be true. Frustratingly, however, the show did not attempt to explore the links or mutual influences between the artists.