Another year, another review, only the names have been changed to protect the guilty.
Christies kick us off on June 3rd with Sergei Chekhonin, at least in terms of quality, a leading light. A Neon still life, a concept one might struggle with, rubs shoulders with two exceptional works on paper, a design for the cover of what one assumes to be a fairy story, or an oblique reference Parliaments’ front benchers, 50 piglets, and a more filigree design for the cover of Russian Art.
The latter two show the mastery and range of Chekhonin as a graphic artist and are well priced. Expect the pigs to fly……Further to these jewels is an almost ubiquitous landscape of Siverskaya by Shishkin, chiming in with an attractive £200,000 starting price, a Salon-style reclining nude by Konstantin Makovsky and a late Deineka still life of phlox, a word with which mankind is well acquainted.
Christies Russian Department this year celebrates 50 years, which is almost as long as now-fashionable-again-communism so congratulations are in order. To recognise the fact, Christies have commissioned a photograph of the entire department posing as 60’s pop stars, the New Seekers on an album cover with only lead singer, Alexis de Tiesenhausen getting the joke. Christies Rock!
Slightly lower down the scale, perhaps one octave, Bonhams are showing a series of seemingly attractive Faberge animals in poses various. I write ‘seemingly’ merely to cover for my own inadequacies – my knowledge of applied arts is right up there with the state of the Venezuelan economy. To the untrained eye, the eleven hippos, pachyderms, cats, mice and rabbits almost in flagrante look professional and well-finished and represent an interesting group, especially when set against the paintings, which are lead by a vast Maliavin of a Young Lady who appears to have swallowed a lemon. Whole. Clearly no strangers to fiction, Bonhams have slapped a prohibitive £300-500,000 estimate on it.
Brunn Rasmussen are relative newcomers to the cultural calashnikov (sic.) that is the Russian Art world but have always impressed with their high-quality auctions and personable staff. Their June 2019 contribution is short on paintings and long on applied with a sumptuous glass vase leading the charge. Made for the last Tsar and acquired in Soviet Russia in the 1920’s, the 4,000 euro estimate makes it the bargain of the Week.
Further to that, a Silver-gilt and cloisonné enamel punch set made by Ivan Saltykov impresses. Finished to a high standard, such pieces have frequently sold well and the estimate of 27,500 euros, whilst high, should not put buyers off.
Also new to the Russian Art scene are Maxime Charron and Paris-based Pierre Berge Associates who are selling a slightly atypical Tchelishchev on June 12th. The face is familiar, though haunting, surrounded by a nimbus of fear. The setting, a misty, slightly disturbing landscape fronted by bare trees, less so.
Sotheby’s sale is dominated by six portraits of considerable historical interest with five of the sitters being the children of Nikolai Karamzin. Even as a hippy student, ‘Bednaya Liza’ was de rigeur for all us Russian devotes, the tragic tale of the peasant girl deceived, 100 years before Tess of the d’Ubervilles, mind. However sentimental the tale, it was the work that, to all intents and purposes, founded the Russian School. The provenance, stretching back to the family itself is a thing of wonder and it is extremely rare for such portraiture of such historical import to appear at auction, let alone on the Russian market.
Two high quality seascapes depicting the French coast are by Bogoliubov and Aivasovsky. Both substantial in size and estimate, I would imagine the exquisite sunset off Cap Martin by the latter to be enthusiastically sought-after. It is already common knowledge that the ‘sunset option’ always sells better with Russia-based buyers, who still represent the majority of interested in this artist whose quality, after a recent visit to his personal exhibition, of which I remain to be convinced. The Bogoluibov has the advantage of a provenance that so many Russian paintings can only dream of. Exhibited at the 14th Wanderers exhibition in 1886, the painting was referred to in almost every review of the exhibition for its ‘tasteful rendition, masterful painting, the sheer magic of the water’.
Such adjectives could hardly be applied to another of Sotheby’s star lots, a Still Life by Larionov which appears, at least to my untrained eye, to have been painted at different times. The still life on the left against the background of the figure with the pipe which seems to be from a later period. The provenance suggests otherwise, having been with Nikolai Vingradov and, ultimately, Leonard Hutton Galleries, which bears with it a very sad note as Ingrid Hutton, the scion of the Russian Avant Garde and a thoroughly lovely human being, died late last year. Her legacy will be long remembered and I thought of her as a great friend.
Macdougall’s have again surpassed themselves with a very rare portrait by Rokotov with unimpeachable provenance and a tremendous view of Bakhchisaray at evening by Kustodiev. When previously on offer at Sotheby’s in November 2014, the painting fetched £1,050,000 meaning that Macdougalls’ estimate of £1,200,000-£1,800,000 may be on the punchy side. Nonetheless, the painting, previously shown at the World of Art in 1918 is, together with Konchalovsky’s lyrical Santi Apostoli Bridge in Venice, one of the stand-out pieces of the entire Russian Art week.
Roerich’s St Mercurius of Smolensk, originally sold in 1993 through Sotheby’s for $16,000 makes a re-appearance for the second time at Macdougalls. Failing to sell on a £350,000 starting price in 2016, the work looks good value at £200,000. The standout work on paper for the Week is unquestionably Annenkov’s portrait of the artist Alexander Bozheryanov drawn just before his emigration in 1922. Typical of the artist for the period, the portrait mixes the filigree, the grotesque and the naive, all on a background of post-Revolutionary collapse of pissing sailors and children smoking. Staggering prices have been set for works on paper by Annenkov, £900,000 in 2012, for example, but these have been of famous figures, Meyerhold, Akhmatova. The last example, a portrait of Pasternak was sold at Sotheby’s last November for £170,000 and, whilst the portrait of Bozheryanov is among the finest of his works to appear on the market though, with an estimate of £250-400,000, it may fall at the first.