As the time for jollity is now at an end, we at Russian Art Week (RAW) feel that there should be a greater focus on content viewed from an art historical perspective. Reviews of the auctions will now come with less trash and more circumspection. Times are, after all, undeniably hard and a change of direction, with frivolity in the background, will now prevail. Serious criticism of the content of the auctions will now be the RAW watchword.
The problem is that I just can’t.
I just can’t betray my millions of readers with some funereal dirge about the social background to the Wanderers, the freeing of the yoke of Tsarism in exchange for the far worse yoke of Communism and the tragedy of the 21st century and thus, before we all fall into the Slough of Despond where the howls and the gnashing of teeth are eternal, this review will reminisce, be positive and spread joy.
Thus, we turn to art, or Art, Russian in its origin. It is a matter of some wonder that four auction houses have managed to put together sales at all. There is no star lot among them, but Macdougall’s come close with Somov’s ‘Young Lady and Student’, there is a stellar Aivasovsky at Sotheby’s and Vera Rocklin’s ‘Tiflis’ at Christies impress but there is no KPV, no Kliun and, in a sense, one should expect nothing else. There is no sale at Bonhams.
Macdougall’s are holding a live auction on 30th May at 10.30 whereas Sotheby’s are going for the longer online approach where, in my experience, nothing happens until the last two hours at which point the whole shebang goes tonto. Christies’ sale is not until July so little information is available but Brunn Rasmussen have again filled the breach with a very nice sale of well-sourced material.
It is interesting to see how lockdown has greatly expanded the way that art will be sold in future. One development from Sotheby’s is the eminently sensible ruse to pose a member of staff next to the items on offer to give an idea of scale and how the painting will look in a domestic interior. It’s in the ‘why-on-earth-didn’t-they-think-of-it-earlier’ category. This is, in my opinion, particularly important with landscapes. Alexander Kisilev’s ‘Mountains of the South Caucasus’, for example, looks great in such an interior, less so close up but then we are awash with landscapes for June Russian Art Week.
Firstly, Sotheby’s. God forgive me my big mouth, but the departure of Jo Vickery, someone of whom I am enormously fond, seems to me a mistake right up there with Gus Caesar when he attempted a Cruyff turn in his own penalty area during the 1987 Milk Cup Final. Augustus trod on the ball, committed what is known in the trade as a pratfall and, next thing we knew, Luton Town had won the trophy. On the plus side, the Mighty Mark remains (he has recently had just cause to want me dead) as does the sainted Retto and the divine Alina.
That’s the line-up changes out of the way.
The transfer window thus having slammed shut, let us (a) pray and (b) have a look at the forthcoming auctions which, to the surprise of many, ain’t half bad. Also, I am making yet another public confession. Too often, justifiably, pilloried for ignorance, I am no longer going to review the Works of Art. I am too ignorant and too old to learn a new skill. I am sure that Applied Art, especially one with such a rich tradition as Russian, is superb, of unsurpassed quality and right up there with Grace Kelly in the beauty stakes, but I am an ignoraymus in this field.
We are thus faced with a Russian Art Week in its most ethereal form and, before I start putting on a hair shirt and listening to Joy Division records on a loop, I have to utter the banality that the absence of this bi-annual bunfest is a crying shame. I love the craic of RAW, the drinks parties, the need to wear your finery, the utter absence of self-deprecation but, above all, I miss my dealer buddies popping in for a chinwag, catching up on events in Moscow and chatting about that which no Western dealer, a very, very few notable exceptions aside, can chat. Russian Art.
And now to the theme of this piece, the meat in this stroganov, the cabbage in this piroshki, the salmon in this koulebiyaka. The Russian landscape which, in these auctions, is a theme that almost overpowers the viewer with its numbers. Aside from wondering what is the collective noun for an over-abundance of landscapes (an Armageddon? A Sodom? A Sahara?), this weeks’ RAW takes me back to a time…..such happy summers at our country house. There was Old Nakhamkin and Young Nakhamkin. Old Nakhamkin was younger than Young Nakhamkin, no-one had figured that out…
In my more youthful days, I spent many hours with possibly the most beautiful woman on Planet Earth trolling the Russian countryside in search of, when I could take my greedy eyes off her, the ‘true’ Russia. In these travels myself and PMBWPE found little hamlets with only a handful of inhabitants, monasteries overtaken by neglect and Nature – even one, Ostashkovo, on an island but what struck one, and strikes one to this day, was the sense of peace of these places. There is a landscape by Levitan which, loosely, is translated as ‘Above Eternal Peace’, for goodness sake, and the quiet in some of these places was, forgive the absurd metaphor, deafening. God help me that landscape does go on forever and, whether one likes it or not, has some imprint on the Rooskie Psyche. We Europeans, except those who live in North Norfolk, perhaps lack a comprehension of the sheer vastness of Russia, its endless wastes and open spaces, being perhaps more insular? This sheer expanse, the sheer distance to the horizon does lend the cerebellum into the deep thought process one associates with Russians and Sotheby’s and Macdougall’s auctions are dzhem-pecked with peyzazhes. In fact, as we now spend our days looking at statistics, the figure is 38 out of the first 52 lots at Sotbeez and 36 out of the first 75 (I have conveniently excluded the Annenkov theatrical pieces) at Meckdugall.
The landscapes at Sotheby’s are, inevitably, of varied quality. From the sublime, Pokhitonov, a 1922 fauvist Konchalovsky, a pretty Klodt with an attractive estimate to the pretty timid, a category in which Bekhteev and Stozharov spring to mind. I can never quite get my head around Pokhitonov. There is a quite superlative portrait of Shchukin in, I think, the Russian Museum, of the great collector walking along an embankment painted in that filigree technique of which Pokhitonov was the unquestioned master but he seems to be more a painter of technique rather than of mood. He’s just so good at knocking these things out, one of those artists who can, unlike the aforementioned Caesar, turn on a sixpence and rattle them in at a whim, a master of his art but not a thinker – the Al Shearer of art, with output immense but lasting memories few? Estimates here remain pre-lockdown so it will be interesting to see how, or if, these works sell.
One of Sotheby’s top works is Savrasov’s “View of Moscow”, with a £300-500,000 estimate – a £1m gem pre-lockdown. Those of you who actually bother to read these reviews (those of you who don’t aren’t missing much) will recognise my theme – the eternal search and thirst for honesty in the texts and therefore I cannot, hand on heart, and despite my warm feelings of friendship to those at 34 Bond Street, be anything other than objective here. The bombshell I am going to throw into the debate is that Savrasov has always struck me as a very, very, very (Bog liubit, etc., etc…) second-rate artist, overrated because of his, a term I loathe, ‘russkaya dusha’. In this painting are laid bare his problems as a technician. The structure is so clumsy and, in reality, the canvas is simply not very well painted. The tree on the right-hand side, used as an aid for perspective, looks as it has been stuck there for just that purpose, lacking the subtlety required of a great landscape. The izbas in the foreground actually serve the purpose of blocking out the more interesting part of the painting, the gleaming spires of Moscow in the distance and this painting is more ‘conversation piece’ than competent work of art. They say Savrasov drank.
It is a matter of some irony therefore, at completely the other end of the price spectrum, and yet superior in both quality and structure are two works by Alexandra Makovskaya at Macdougall’s. I hesitate to use hyperbole here because Macdougall’s really do need to install a similar viewing room to Sotheby’s, but these two paintings strike me as little gems. Known to her friends as Sasha, young Makovskaya was a scion of the family that included Vladimir, Konstantin, Nikolai and was previously unknown to me. Clearly, she is no slouch in the technique department and I like these works more than any others.
The same applies to the Kisilev ‘Hamlet’, sold in the same rooms. This is how to paint landscape. Subtle, lyrical. Let the scene speak for itself.
The star Aivasovsky at Sotheby’s of a, quelle surprise, sunset looks fabulous in the ‘viewing room’, a huge blast of light literally submerging the viewer and has some form. Sold at Koller’s in Zurich in 2008, it fetched £1,100,000 hammer. The estimate today is sensible – £800,000 start. What will happen with the Russian economy down in the cellar with no takers and buyers reticent? God knows.
Macdougall’s have, yet again, a remarkable number of lots, a whopping 250, of which ‘Autumnal Landscape’ (not another, Ed.) by Comrade Brodsky is a fine example. Brodsky, a figure slightly tainted, IMHO by his Bolshevik leanings was, nonetheless, a fine painter and this lyrical piece is pure ‘World of Art’. Painted in 1907 he uses the device of placing the trees in the foreground, foreshortening them and this provides the successful framing device for the dacha in the background.
As always, there is something for everyone at Macdougall’s. Led by a very competitively-priced and decorative 18-strong collection of theatrical pieces by Annenkov and a decent collection of non-Conformists – though I would be tempted to describe the collection is more Sots-Art than classical 60’s-80’s. Among them is a lovely piece by Gor Chakhal, an artist whose work adorns my walls and an intriguing and perhaps amusing, in my opinion (that should keep the nationalists at bay?), work by Nikolai Kozlov, ‘The Fascist is cowardly’. I say ‘perhaps’ because rational debate about the war, and all this on the 75th anniversary of victory, has become nigh on impossible.
Brunn Rasmussen also are showing a landscape or two for their June 10th jamboree. A Vladimir Orlovsky of size substantial 87 x 139 cm, of estimate eminently sensible (£12-£15,000), as well as a large Schilder canvas. One of the more talented of Shishkin’s pupils, Schilder is often overlooked by buyers and a 100 x 130 cm view of Finland is also good value.
I am also going to break my word. Brunn Rasmussen are selling a quite exquisite Art Deco diamond necklace with an absurdly low estimate leading me to question why anyone would ever buy contemporary ‘brand’ jewellery.
To conclude, I wish to share a word of advice. Since time is now on our side – some of the greatest films ever made are now at our fingertips and works of art that we had previously missed are now watched and enjoyed in equal measure. Laughter is, as the Awful Reckoning approaches, vital to our survival and it is therefore my singular privilege to point anyone who has actually read this superb review thus far in the direction of Woody Allen’s seminal, 1973 film ‘Love and Death’. In my opinion, it’s the ultimate cross-cultural test – to laugh or not to laugh? The film also comes with a warning – not all Russians find it funny. PMBWPE, for example, thinks it trivial and absurd. Me? Easily the funniest film ever made. ‘Boris! I can’t believe you’re saying this! You’re talking about Mother Russia!’
Be happy, my fellow citizens and may your landscapes always be endless.