It has been more than twenty five years since the Soviet Union collapsed, but the artistic and cultural heritage of that era still has many names and styles to discover and explore. The painters represented in the private collection of Irina Stolyarova embody an alternative abstract tradition developed in the Soviet Union, documenting diversity and versatility of the styles and themes. Our Editor Theodora Clarke met with Irina in London for a tour around her collection and talked about the driving force behind her collecting activity, her favourite artists and unknown treasures by Russian painters from the second half of the twentieth century.
Theodora Clarke: Irina, what made you decide to become an art collector?
Irina Stolyarova: I started very young as my mother was a collector. I have been collecting for twenty years already. I was initially keen on the so-called ‘Little Dutch’ school: Russian paintings seemed to me derivative. But then, gradually, I began to discover the names of Sudeykin, Mashkov, Kustodiev, Benois.
TC: What do you mainly collect? It seems to me you have a tendency to acquire more abstract than figurative works.
IS: Yes, I collect mainly abstract painting. It has started with my visit to a collection of a Moscow collector, where I saw a work by Malevich. It was the only abstract painting surrounded by the old masters, but it overshadowed everything else, even though the collection had some serious names. And I suddenly realised that my personal feeling for figurative painting had suddenly been interrupted. Those pictures I had been collecting no longer coincided with my emotions and life experience. Indeed it was Lanskoy and Charcoune, that initiated my new collection. I have understood that only through abstract painting I could express myself as a collector.
For example, I own a very good early work by Lidia Masterkova. I think she is one of the greatest Russian female painters. She did these collages when she left Vladimir Nemukhin. She was madly in love with him and started creating works similar to this one.
TC: I personally love abstract art, but some people find it more difficult to understand. What attracts you to this type of painting?
IS: For me my collection is my dialogue with art, where painting, philosophy, poetry, and dance are intertwined in a single whole. Abstract art for me is at once a language, a way of thinking and meaningful opportunities. I also think I am attracted to the colours and spaces in these paintings. When you see, for example, a figurative painting, it is an illusion, because it is not how you see, not how I see; it is only how a painter saw it, only one view of the reality. It is an interpretation, rather than the reflection of the world. I had some figurative paintings, but I have sold them. This one, for example, by Semyon Faibisovich, very unusual. It is a painting of a photograph.
TC: Yes, this work is very interesting. You can this pixellated effect and up close how colour has been used to build up the composition. How do you go about selecting the artists you would like to include in your collection?
IS: I only follow my feelings in this process. I think about them as of individual paintings, not as a work, which should be included in the collection as a representation of a certain artist’s oeuvre. I am also not interested in collecting from the investment point of view.
I do not have any experts or consultants; I am doing it all by myself. I do not need a mandatory set of names to give the collection the stamp of ‘good taste’. Choosing based only on my personal feelings gives me an opportunity to put my mark on the collection, because I talk to the works I have and share emotions with them.
TC: Who is your favourite artist?
IS: I think it is Viktor Pivovarov, because I believe that he is very important. Even more important than Ilya Kabakov. He became a very fashionable artist, but Pivovarov is the most important one. This enamel work, for example, dates back to 1964, when conceptualism movement started growing in the Soviet Union. Viktor himself confirmed that this is one the best paintings from the period. I also frequently send works to exhibitions, and one of collages by Nemukhin from my collection has just returned from Moscow Museum of Modern Art, where it was shown as a part of the exhibition organised by Igor Tsukanov.
I also appreciate works by Pierre Dmitrienko. He does not belong to the ranks of conventionally recognised artists, but he is outstanding master with his personal poetics.
TC: What is it about Dmitrienko that inspires you to buy his work?
IS: I feel he is religious, deeper. I do not really know, I have my feelings, which I cannot describe. It is an emotional response to his works. For instance, this painting, The Garden of Gethsemane, abstraction acquires association with the natural world. When I look at this work it reminds me of the eponymous poem by Pasternak:
The meadow suddenly stopped half way.
The Milky Way went on from there.
The grey and silver olive trees
When trying to march into think air.
In Dmitrienko I find everything I seek in abstraction. I read a lot about him and studied his work. Like Malevich his work originates in the Russian icons. His attitude to painting is very close to my own: “I am looking for a kind of painting that could convey the essence of a human being. I am looking for signs that can be understood outside the language that each and every one of us speaks. A kind of painting that, with a help of very few signs, could express the quintessence of life.” One of my favourite works by him is La Route. It reminds me of Ravel’s Bolero, choreographed by Béjart. In this picture there is the same rhythm and composition, which reminds one of the staging and set design of the Béjart ballet.
TC: I read that you are very interested in poetry, and just now I saw a volume of Anna Akhmatova on your desk and then you have cited Pasternak. Do you find there is a similar spiritual element to Russian poetry and painting?
IS: Yes, exactly. When I buy an artwork, I value it according to how close it is to my spiritual disposition, exactly the same thing happens when I read poetry. I always find works that are close to me. Sometimes when I look at a picture I begin to understand what poetic image it corresponds to.
TC: Yes, I think it is the best way to collect: to focus on what you love, not on what you think you should buy.
IS: Yes, because then otherwise it becomes a more commercial activity. This is a very good work by Yury Kuper, Frozen Flowers No 3. It has been published in Joanne Vickery’s book Frozen Dreams. This one is a very important painting by Eduard Steinberg and it participated in fifty exhibitions. Previously it belong to a very famous collector, Alexander Glezer, who thought that this work is an ‘icon’. Therefore, he showcased it in so many exhibitions. It is also published in many books on Russian and Soviet art.
Have a look at the Vechitomov painting here. It is a very powerful painting; I think it is one of the best Vechitomov works. It is a work of museum quality and comes from the Glezer collection too.
TC: Most of your collection seems to be of late twentieth century and contemporary artists. Do you mainly collect art from a particular period, I have seen several works from the 1950s-60s?
IS: Yes, I am interested in works created by Russian artists of several generations living both in the home country and in the West, and on the first émigrés generation associated with the School of Paris. The collection includes those who worked in the early post-war decades, when many of them were expressing their individuality in an entirely different way. At the same time, I am so interested in the Conceptualists and Sots artists, those artists focused on the material, painterly, or plastic expression.
TC: If you look at the Russian Art Week sales, then traditionally 19th century and avant-garde pictures, by artists such as Shishkin, Kandinsky, Chagall or Goncharova, tend to be the most popular to buy at auction. What made you decide to collect this later period of Soviet art which is maybe less well known in the UK?
IS: These works represent the second avant-garde of Russian painting. First off all, it is very difficult today to find work by Malevich, for example, and there are a lot of fakes on the market. They have been bought by Nikolai Khardzhiev, who was a collector and an art historian of avant-garde and exhibited his collection at the Ludwig Museum, and Dmitri Sarabianov, an art historian working on that period, has confirmed only two paintings as being created by Malevich. There are a lot of problems on the market with fakes of works by Malevich, Goncharova or Larionov. For example, I have one work by Lubov Popova, but I have concerns about its attribution.
This is a work by Plavinsky, a music collage. You can see the text in the painting. He did it in America, stacking pieces of music scores to the painting surface.
TC: Are you interested in the political background of the artists? A number of these works are by painters who were opposed to Socialist Realism. You could say that your collection shows a bias towards dissident, underground artists who working in the Soviet Union.
IS: Yes, I do not really like Socialist Realism. It is very political and I do not want to be involved in these issues. I think Socialist Realism is very popular today, everybody would like to have some works in this style. But I think it is a temperamental thing, because I do not really understand how to live with Gely Korzhev’s paintings on your wall. For me these works are quite depressing.
TC: Where do you acquire most of your works from?
IS: They are from everywhere. It took me three or four years to start building the collection. Some I have bought from private collections and a few at auction sales. I only collect paintings as I like this medium very much.
TC: What was the very first piece you have ever bought as a collector?
IS: I think it was Zak’s painting, because I really felt his colours and the movement in the painting. For example, here you may see some early works by Léon Zak. He is yet another great artist and there are six paintings by him at Tate Modern collection, but people do not know about him. I think it is important to look at the works by Zak, Lanskoy or Charchoune, because they reconnect the younger artists with distant artistic legacy that, in Soviet Union of the 1960s and 1970s, was hardly known.
I also want to show you another great work here; it is by Zlotnikov, a dedication to Chagall, oil on canvas. It is very difficult to find him on the market, because he does not sell his paintings. Here is Maxim Kantor, his early work.
TC: Why do you think it is that Russian buyers dominate the market in Russian Art Week? It seems to me that Russian collectors often have a strong sense of patriotism and nationalism and they want to acquire objects which are part of their cultural history.
IS: May be because we understand it better. However, I would like to note that for me the political aspects of the artist’s residence are completely irrelevant. An artist is ‘Russian’ in the broadest sense – to be viewed within a European cultural context. These works also have Russian soul, have strong spiritual and metaphysical qualities. I like this emotional depth in the painting.
TC: What do you think about Russian contemporary artists working today? Would you consider collecting their works?
IS: If I would find right paintings, I would buy something by Eric Bulatov. I also like very much Oleg Vasilliev, I would like to add him to my collection.
Interview copyright of Russian Art and Culture Ltd.