Normally my reviews, little vignettes describing Russian Art Week, are fun, brief digs at easy targets with gentle sallies into satire but this June 2021 A.D.? I simply can’t be arsed. The World has taken me into a very, very dark place where only lot 226 at Sotheby’s offers any consolation.
Wouldn’t we all just like to neck a pocketful of mind expanders and head into the forest, eat fruits and sup wine with the maidens of the woods and never wake up? Isn’t this the very Nirvana we all seek but without the heavy dose of irony heaped upon the canvas by the Morecombe and Wise, the Starsky and Hutch, the Putin and Xi of Russian Art, Dubossarsky and Vinogradov?
I reckon Doobers and Wino are onto something prophetic here because Lockdown No. 743 in the latest series, I think I have got the Geordie variant (it’s a long story), has certainly sent me doolally and this four-piece, with a date of 1994, is predicting the only available location where sanity now lurks.
Therefore, my little Futurists, roll yourself a three-skinner, settle back, and let me transport you into a Doobie/Wino world of happiness, rainbow colours, I could do without the naked children, flowers, love and peace.
The problem with Joy, Love and Levity (these are not strippers from Albuquerque) is that they are in slightly short supply in Russian Art. Savrasov could hardly be described as a walk in the park, a little gambol through the meadows? If I were one of the returning rooks in his meisterwork, I’d be reaching for the strychnine. Slush, misery, grey, black.
Likewise, Vassily Perov. ‘Troika’? Oh, do give us a break. ‘Two parents by the grave of their child raped by Cossacks’ or, best of all, the loony in religious clothes who, for reasons of irony so deep it needs a special type of mining is called, ‘Blessed’? This is wrist-slitting stuff BUT, thank all the Gods, along came Socialist Realism and drudgery became delight, gulag became gorgeous (darling), shortage became salsa and repression became rap. Break out the champers because utter crap is the new joy!
Those who are dead will envy those that are alive!
SR does the job because it is a distortion of reality – the intention of this article. I cannot believe that there is too much happiness on Planet Earth at present so I wish to create some and, thus, oh dearest and best beloved, I am going to write a Socialist Realist review. In my world, Arsenal have just won the Champions League, my daughters have stopped telling me I’m a white suprematist and Margot Robey wants to go to bed with me.
So, my dear friends, my beloved colleagues, readers, and fellow dwellers of Planet Potty, let me share with you the joyous news:
The June 2021 Russian Sales are the best yet!
In the whole, wide, beautiful world!
When I first became a dealer, though I am not entirely sure I picked the right commodity, I longed for just such a Shangri-La of top lots and here, in June 2021, you can hardly move for masterpieces by names that just trip (le verbe juste, n’est ce pas?) off the tongue.
Deemie-babes has a had a pretty bad Press over the years but can one not speak of this painter in the same breath as Malevich? Can one not describe him as an artist of courage up there with Larionov? Is he not as important for the development of Russian Art as Vrubel? What portraits! What grasp of human psychology! Why, he makes Khrushchev look like Erasmus! The delicacy of the handling of paint in his portrait of his wife can surely be compared with Ingres? The masterpiece, ‘In the Pasture, Ashtray’, at Sotheby’s is genre painting that Hammershoi would struggle to match.
At the very epicentre of the artist’s creative genius is ‘Changing Shifts’, lot 102 at Macdougalls. Woe betide those who says this is a blatant rip-off of Deineka’s ‘Defence of Petrograd’. Not on my watch! Thus, as I roll another illegal in search of inspiration, I envy my red-rimmed minces as they alight on yet another upsurge of righteous energy. What a veritable panoply of portraits by Serov, not that one, what a negligee of nudes by Dudnik and what a whopper by Yevgeny and Adolf Unpronounceable, ‘Join the Fight against Child Neglect’.
Let us examine these gems one-by-one. Serov’s portrait of a ‘Lady with a misplaced taser’ gives lie to the myth of Soviet portraiture being limpid and uninspired whilst the nude is sensuous and delicate, an Ode to female beauty………
The advantage of the above word is that it translates into Russian.
I just can’t.
We Brits do a pretty fine dish of hypocrisy, with a little sprinkling of chives at times, but this is a Bridge too Far and there stands the ghost of Boy Browning, wagging his finger, warning me, perhaps too late, of the Panzer Division of Critics in the Bushes. My lambkins, my bunny rabbits, forgive me!
The problem with Socialist Realism is that is rhymes with ‘chucking gripe’ and there is only so much the mind can take. Luckily the fight against child neglect, something my own, multitudinous offspring, accuse me of daily, brings me to a screeching halt. Pass that hemlock and mercury cocktail baby…….
This painting, which features that Friend of Humanity (cf. DKA), Feliks Dzerzhinsky, is that Bridge too Far. It’s Hammersmith Bridge in its current state, it’s a suspension (bridge) of disbelief. How in God’s name can I write a paean to a man whom, after the Red Terror, opined that, ‘we could not help ourselves’ when commenting on the gobsmacking numbers murdered.
There is a rather naughty internet site which I frequent and, whilst it contains neither the words ‘Swedish’, ‘Cossack’ nor ‘Masseuses’, it does contain the word, ‘Quora’. On this site, the brain dead ask questions of a historical nature. For example:
‘Why did the Russians defeat the Nazis so easily?’
‘Is it true that Stalin was a child-bearing surrogate mother?’
‘Was Nicholas II a good Tsar?’
Or, best of all, ‘If Russia invades the rest of the Ukraine and the Baltics, will World War III start?’
You see where I am going with this? Were I to claim that this is a good painting and Felix a jolly chap and perfect sobootylnik I would be joining the Twilight Zone that is Quora and no amount of mind-expanders are going to make me do that, Man of Principle that I am!
So back to the sales.
They’re OK, I suppose.
All the usual suspects.
Actually, I am now tangling my pinkies into the aforementioned world of hypocrisy because, yet again, in trying circumstances, all the auction houses have come up with some decent sales and, in truth, there is a sprinkling of stonkers – quite a neat collective noun.
Let’s get the good news out of the way. There are some very fine Aivasovsky works on paper at Sotheby’s and a truly superb Pokhitonov of Hunters. Clever little auctioneers that they are, Sotheby’s have inserted, a verb that should be used as infrequently as possible, two God-help-us-all works by Nicko Harley Moth in a bid to sell them. It’s the Muhammed Ali School of Auctioneering……float like a butterfly to lull buyers into a false sense of security with a few decent lots and then, almost unperceptively, sting like a bee with paintings by Mr Salon himself. Wham! Bang! Thank you Kha(r)m!
Call me a foul snob, taint me as a white suprematist but, please, reassure me that there is no-one in my La-La-Land who thinks this artist is any good? The people who buy Harley Moth must be the sort of people who put little bows on their cats, offer Emma Bridgewater bowls of goodies to urban foxes, think their teenage children genuinely love them and believe the world is flat. It’s the Socialist Realist principle before that came into vogue which is, if you think about it, a fearsomely clever analogy.
Serov, that one, enters our hit parade at Lot 36, a little hors d’oeuvres to lot 37, a truly exceptional work on paper of a winter landscape. The use of space, the light brushwork are all hallmarks of an artist who could really wield a brush. By all accounts, Serov was a Class A shit but he kind of had a point? Artists like him exude class, unlike Arsenal FC and, by God, they know it. A top piece.
No worse is Lot 39.
In fact, this is the best June-2021 era lot.
‘Flora and Laurus’ may sound like a couple of San Francisco hippies campaigning for the legalisation of you-know-what but Goncharova has brought her own, entirely unique, vision to create this 20th century icon. In making the odious comparison between artists such as Goncharova with artists such as Harley Moth, one makes me reach for the airsick bag, I wish to offer the following cautionary tale. Take, if you will, the overbearing religiosity of Russian pre-revolutionary society, its absurd superstitions and domineering effect on the national conscious and throw in, even if this was not the artist’s intention, a totally new vision, utterly at odds with Church dogma and ask yourself if that did not require courage? I have avoided the gravity of the estimate, right up there in the Twilight Zone we all seek, but there are certain things beyond price and hellishly good art is one such commodity.
Lot 87 ushers in ten lots by the Artist-formerly-known-as-God.
There’s no point in my commenting on Bogomazov, I have written so copiously and irritatingly on him over the years but, let’s just say that, in a furious burst of self-back-slapping, I was right. The laurels are his. Were it not for that irritating little epidemic currently in the headlines, 2021 would have seen a joint personal exhibition with Archipenko (yes, he’s that good) at the, may-its-name-be-praised, Kroller Muller Museum in Holland and his choice as one of the promotional artists for TEFAF Maastricht. Anyone looking to soundly invest money? Mothball your Harley, geddit, and Bag your Mazov.
Macdougall’s have also achieved wonders with their sale, including a nice, early pointillist piece by the A-F-K-A-G but their new website is almost as irritating as Christies which still, stubbornly, won’t go horizontal on an iPad. It’s like an aerobics session, something to which my apollonic frame bears witness, up-down, up-down, across and down and up…
The MacMovers and MacShakers have, as always, unearthed a number of gems, all accentuated by a new Sherlock Holmes device on their site to get you to look closer. Don’t get me wrong, I can’t stand Nesterov, after whom a new brand of soup should be named, but ‘Ballad’ is one of his better efforts. A dreamy folk maiden with flowers in her hair heading off to the same landscape mentioned in paragraph one. Russia does love extremes, doesn’t she? The belief in Shangri-la is so Russian. It’s like Snow White longing for her Prince, the Golden Cockerel looking for her Cock and Arsenal searching, until oblivion, for Champions League qualification. Ain’t gonna happen my little Slavic friends.
The Shishkin ‘Forest Road’, is a good piece with a lovely provenance and a gopping spelling mistake in the description. Get down and ouevre all night, baby!? There are also a couple of nice landscapes to take yours truly down Memory Lane by Krylov and Kupreyanov, two of the three Kukriniksy and several works by Soviet Top Dog Andrei Mylnikov who was, if memory serves, a ‘bit of a geezer.’
Macky D’s also have the best non-conformist paintings at the June sales. By 100 versts the best. Bulatov demonstrates in, ‘The Vault of Heaven’. that innate ability to combine message with medium – being an accomplished technician with a message to boot. I love these panoramic sweeps, these great clunks of message and hope that Bulatov will be viewed one day, when we remove our collective heads from our collective hindquarters, as the finest of the non-Conformists. Nice bloke too.
Christies. Ah, Christies. They lead with a Gorbatov that, back in the Land that Time forgot, i.e. 1989, graced the cover of a Sotheby’s catalogue and, rather as it did in 1982, failed to sell. It now has a whopping £350,000 price tag and, well, Bog liubit troitsy. Prior to this is a frankly superb Bakst costume design with an Olympian estimate before we settle into a familiar array of Yakunchikova’s, 27 to be precise, and a Harley Moth that has, if there is justice in the world, got about as much chance of selling as I have of bedding Margot Robey AND Isidora Duncan en meme temps.
Turgenev reckoned Kharlamov would go far. Wish he had.
Christies have another nice Serov, that one again, popping in a Lot 45, giving the June sales the first ever surfeit of Serovs, three in total, but the ‘Cossacks’ is half the work to the landscape at Sotheby’s. Another good painting is by Pavel Kotlarevsky – not normally a name associated with such a moniker but the portrait of the man reading at Christies seems to give lie to that myth.
Goncharova’s Coq d’Or Stage designs come on the back of similar designs by the same artist that pinged through three times upper estimate last summer so Christies, acting on a bizarre concept called logic, something Russian Art sales are seldom associated with, have given them a whopping 80-120,000 estimate. Then we delve in the pure pornography (no, that is not an oxymoron) of Eisenstein. To save you the ignominy of clicking on the ‘I am over 18’ button whilst your folks aren’t watching, let me elucidate. These drawings are, like, dead weird. To give you an idea, there is one of Willy Wonka trying to circumcise the Angel of the North. Be Tsar.
This is, however, mere bagatelle, when compared to Serebriakova’s ‘The Popoffs Toy Elephant, Catherine the Doll and Michel the Teddy Boy’. Wanna be freaked out at night? Frankly, I’d rather have Wonka, the Willy Warper than this daub. Aside from the fact that Serry cross the Mersey can’t paint for a toffee, this horror story makes Harley Moth look like Jan Ver-sodding-Meer which means ‘sea’ in German. How low can you go?
Luckily the sale is rescued by some hot-to-trot non-conformists, especially Grisha Bruskin and a lovely three-dimensional relief by Plavinsky.
Bonhams really hate my reviews so, rather than tell them to go and suck on a lozenge, I am offering them an olive branch, a peace offering, a bribe. This is the shock news that they actually have a good painting on offer. No, make that two. Burliuk’s Still Life may not be a world-class painting but it is an important one by an important artist and, rather neatly as it happens, leads me on to a little pet project in which I am involved, the rebuilding into a museum of the Sinyakova dacha, Krasnaya Polyana, outside Kharkov. Entitled Mecca Futurisma (Мекка Футуризма on Facebook), it is a genuine labour of love by locals to bring back to life the house where according to that shining example of fielty, Lily Brik, ‘Futurism was born’ and where resided, among others, Pasternak, Khlebnikov and, natch, Burliuk.
The other work at Bonhams that gets the thumbs-up, lot 9 definitely does not, is Nikolai Kuznetsov’s ‘Still Life with apples and an orange tree’. Now please do not, my little fake-seekers, confuse this artist with the same Nicky Kuz who painted the only known image of that noted hedonist, Pyotr Tchaikovsky and gaze, instead, on this little masterpiece, a striking slab of Bubnovy Valet glory.
Great God, that was a boring review.
Legalise dope, say I, as here comes another lockdown and, this time, it’s different! Those in hospital have, in the main, refused the vaccine because you turn into Pinocchio with Jab I and into the same puppet with a three-footer, nose that is, after Jab II.
Vaccine Conspiracy Theories are, you see, just Socialist Realism in another form.
We’re all doomed.