On 5 October Sotheby’s will hold an online sale dedicated to Soviet-era artists. The interest in the art  which trod the fine line between ‘official’ and ‘non-official’ art from the 1950s onward is once again booming all over the world. Popular exhibitions in 2017 and 2018 in Paris, London and Moscow at the Centre Pompidou (Kollektsia!), the Tate Modern (Ilya and Emilia Kabakov: Not Everyone Will Be Taken Into the Future) and the Garage Museum of Contemporary Art (Bidding for Glasnost) are testament to the enduring resonance of this period. Sotheby’s played crucial role in facilitating the expansion of Soviet art towards the West when in 1988 they were first to organise the auction of avant-garde and contemporary art held in Moscow. The current sales is devoted to the 30th anniversary of that historic event.


Several artists emigrated to the United States and Europe, while others continued to work underground in the Soviet Union where they would hold ex tempore exhibitions in private studios and apartments. Bold, satirical, abstract, political, engaged, escapist, witty – the Russian ‘non-conformists’ were diverse in their artistic practice and shared an anti-establishment sentiment with many of their Western counterparts, though the specific political and social context in which they were operating amplifies their underlying message of dissent.

From graphic art by Erik Bulatov, Ilya Kabakov and Francisco Infante to large-scale oil paintings by Mikhail Chemiakin and the photorealist painter Oleg Vassiliev, Sotheby’s sale features works in a variety of media from $400 to $100,000, including 38 lots from the Bar-Gera collection and a strong selection of works by Russian-Jewish artists.


Jewish artists were a pivotal force within the Soviet non-conformist group and key players in the underground art scene that thrived in Russia during those years. The catalogue cover of Sotheby’s iconic 1988 auction in Moscow featured a work by Grisha Bruskin, the underground painter who most actively explored Jewish themes in his work. Thirty years later, Sotheby’s included a large number of these dissident Jewish-Russian painters and sculptors in their online sales. Read more about the artists that defined the Soviet Jewish Underground.

Works by Bruskin are also featured in the auction. Although his father spoke Yiddish, Bruskin himself get up knowing that an active Jewish life was implicitly forbidden in Soviet Russia. At 23 he began to read all types of religious literature voraciously, acquiring books on the black market. The jewish experience would come to take the prominent position in his work as he compulsively grappled with his heritage: “If I had been born not in Russia, but in Israel or America for example, i would never have landed on the Jewish theme in my work. It is a natural and logical position for an artist in Eastern Europe and Russia I think.”

OLEG VASSILIEV, BLACK LIGHT, 1980–1989. ESTIMATE $50,000–70,000

The highlights of the sales are 5 works by the visionary Russian painter Oleg Vassiliev (1931–2013), who is regarded as one of the most influential artists of the Soviet Nonconformist style. Vassiliev’s singular visual aesthetic — at once photo-realist and surreal— engages both the tenets of Soviet Realism and the daring of the Russian avant-garde to remarkable effect. Vassiliev’s unique style blends two of the strongest strands of pre-Revolutionary Russian art: late 19th-century landscape painting and the geometry of the avant-garde of the 1910s. Read more about the artist.


The sales also include the outstanding works by the Dvizhenie movement. Literally, the ‘movement’ movement, this group of young Moscow artists followed three principles: movement, synthesis, symmetry. Not confined to painting and sculpture, their work extended to kinetic constructions, performance, installations and even projects related to urban planning.

The ‘Spiral’ series (1965) by Francisco Infante, the member of Dvizhenie group, one work of which is featured in the auction, is a classic example of the artist’s interest in mobile and dynamic systems, or ‘kinetic’ art, combined with his obsession with the idea of infinity. ‘In my last years of studies’, Infante recalled in his autobiography, “I was struck by the strange anxiety, provoked by a deep personal realization, that the world is infinite. This agitation didn’t go away and was so strong, that I was seeking to express it through my works”.  With its infinite tendency, the perfectly balanced spiral was the ideal motif for exploring this dizzying concept: “the result is a line turning endlessly in space which, in its momentum, elicits associations with other cosmic oppositions such as good and evil, life and death”. Read more about how art and science intersect in the dvizhenie movement.