In his bestselling book, ‘The Clown Prince of Soccer’, legendary ex-Newcastle United striker Len Shackleton (no relation of Ernie), included a chapter, ‘The Average Director’s Knowledge of Football’ which, in keeping with his cheeky-chappie image, Shackleton (still no relation) left blank.
It is, dear reader, with a similarly caustic heart, that I approach this month’s Russian Art Week for, sadly, it sure is a touch RAW, featuring all the highlights of a Tottenham Hotspur end-of-season video. What the hell to write?
Were I in philosophical mood, I might reflect how art markets mirror society and, as we face eternal oblivion egged on by the Mob, should we accept the inevitability that RAW lacks a punch, is short on Christmas goodies, is as barren as the Gobi, as blasted as Macbeth’s heath, as damned as Utd? After all, I would be loath to sell my family jewels, oo ‘er missus, in the current climate.
Thus, bereft of optimism, in Chatterton-like mood, I plough my furrow, trudge my weary way, all the while avoiding bathtubs, water, electric heaters and yet, and yet…..
Through the mists shines the odd gem, almost vaccinator-like and, writing objectively, something of which I am entirely incapable, the auction houses have performed magnificently in putting together any sales at all.
Firstly, as with every other bloody review I’ve ever written, I hereby sodding apologise to any blinking one whom I offend though, so long in the tooth and cynical am I becoming that, frankly, I don’t give a figgy Plum Fairy and thus, any accusations are welcome. I wish to particularly salute he who took away his subscription to RAC after a recent review saying that I was insulting Russian culture. To him I blow a raspberry the size of the Isle of Man and would like to offer the same advice that was offered by Robin Williams to his nemesis in the final scenes of, ‘Good Morning Vietnam’. Rhymes with ‘snow mob’, mate.
Let us begin the beguine…..and, in the Yuletide spirit, drink to absent friends.
Never before did I think I could get emotional about an absentee but William Macky-D, a gentleman of keen humour through the shrubbery, and his Tigress Wife, will be sorely missed this Christmas.
No, the critic must be objective and, after a recent spat in which I referred to one of their paintings, not without justification, as a ‘bit of hound’, I cannot let the side down. Furthermore, I recently made a not insubstantial purchase from Bonhams’ rooms and demand fealty. Take the knee!
So, let’s begin with the high points.
Wow! That was quick.
There is a nice, and collectible, study of a flag by Surikov, a rare artist and an interesting topographical piece of the Kremlin illuminated during the coronation of Nicholas II by Nikolai Matveev, an artist with whom I not familiar. The catalogue entry records the Tsar’s comments at nine o’clock that night which only caused me to mourn that in the Mezhdunarodny Moronic Monarch Stakes at the end of the 19th century ‘Nicky’ was a red-hot contender in a very well-contested field.
Nesterov’s icon of the Saviour ‘Not-made-by-hands’ is the star lot and, even as I write, I can just feel the roars of the, ‘he’s not Russian, he doesn’t understand’, brigade. It’s just not a good picture. Sorry. It’s technically weak, soupy and, just, well, weak. Christ looks like he’s just sat through the aforementioned end-of-season video but then, as He wasn’t made by hands, I suppose anything is possible.
The Nikolai Benois’ menu is wonderful. It’s a fun, throwaway piece of art with enough history behind it to make sentimental and collectible whilst lot 161, in a genre about which I know sod all, is a revelation and a star lot. Once owned by a man whose name, for fear of repercussions in the Afterlife, I care not to pronounce, this is whacking great lump of history and those frightfully nice chaps with goatee beards and a green flag might just be queueing to buy.
The Bonhams website as almost as annoying as Christies which, whilst it does not require gyrations, does require the patience of Job. If you click on lot 58 for more detail and then wish to go back to the list of lots….it sends you straight back to Lot 1. When I finally struggled through these Waters of Oblivion at least I came across an oasis in the form of an early Tselkov. A terrific work with glorious provenance and a sensible estimate.
There, that wasn’t too bad, was it?
Our mink-threatened friends are extremely nice people and are well-placed to sweep up much of the émigré works in Scandinavia, hats off. As a result, they always produce pleasant auctions with professional looking catalogues and, shock, horror, a website I can actually navigate.
Their top lot is a vast Orlovsky and a lovely still life by Dmitry Zhilinsky who is one of the greats of Soviet late 60’s-90’s Realist Art. There is, however, often a clever twist to his work, the famous self portrait of him carrying his dead dog must have been allegorical and this work contains a little hint, possibly to do with the wages of fame, with a copy of the book devoted to the artist’s work lying beside the meticulously-painted bouquet.
There are several works by Bogdanov Belsky, one of which shows children drinking tea with ubiquitous ‘pryanniki’. Maybe I have moved in the wrong social circles but the pryanik, of which there is no Western equivalent, is one of the greatest of unsolvable cross-cultural-conundrums, requiring the teeth of Richard Kiel and the tastebuds of a Liberace. Nice painting, though, should do well. As with the previous lot of schoolchildren, the works are of ‘study’ size, which makes them far more collectible than, say, the following lot, a larger work by B-B of two boys sitting on a bench. Technically, these smaller works show a finer technique, are more intimate and this is reflected in pretty healthy estimates.
I enjoy a browse through these sales. The route to Scandinavia, taken by so many Russians, previously of means, after 1917 is sad, frequently tragic and Brunn have done exceptionally well in finding so many works.
Manson (no relation to Charles, natch) and Woods (nor Tiger, for that matter).
Christie’s kick off with 37 lots devoted to Maria Yakunchikova or, Yakunchikova-Weber, as she was known in the aristocratic circles which I frequent. Clearly every one of these lots will sell. It’s from the collection of a family with vast links to the Silver Age of Russian Art and, of course, Maria’s life was cut short at 32 by tuberculosis – which still kills more worldwide than Covid but, as a wise man wrote, ‘tell that to the Marines’. My job is to analyse, microscopically, the artistic value, not to bemoan the demise of Man and, of course let us not, indeed dare we not, forget, Woman.
Yakunchikova is an icon of the Russian Art Nouveau, her book illustrations reek of it, the lithograph ‘Fear’, a version of which is in lot 6, is a superb piece of almost sub-Munch and the 37 lots here are interesting. Those lots where she is in her Moderne element are great, the child’s cot carved with art nouveau motifs, the Gorodok, lot 7 the pyrogravure (a drawing, like the Nine Great Rings, forged in fire?) – ‘Night’, the cover design for ‘Mir Isskustva’, but I just can’t get too excited about the landscapes. Seen one……etc. etc.
Lot 58 ticks my box – twelve designs from 1923 by (a different) Yakovlev full of humour and life. What a rubbish sentence, ‘full of humour and life’, banal and unimaginative just like, oh I know, Kharlamov. Honey, a job at a sweetie box cover design studio is yours but, as the failings of this artist have been covered with far more effective satire by another reviewer, I’ll keep schtum.
There are just so few good pictures. A couple of Aivasovsky’s, which sounds like a Cockney knees-up, the continued alliteration of Bogdanov Belsky, and lot 70, the Tolkien-inspired, ‘Return of the Roerich’. It’s too soon.
But…..lot 88 dispels the clouds.
In my opinion, which is far from humble, this is an important collection of drawings. Sveshnikov the oil painter is a frequent visitor to the salerooms, Sveshnikov the graphic artist is not and the 24 drawings on offer have one common denominator. They are red hot and utterly, utterly creepy. In ‘Adam and Eve’, a donkey attacks a wildebeest, this ain’t no Shrek baby, this is out-to-lunch fantasy land. Phantasmagoria. Oversized buildings, peasants fighting (“Rewarding the Prostitute”) as if lost in a modern-day Caprichos, dogs sniff one another, landscapes are full of foreboding. It’s Goya the Return. These works remind one of Sveshnikov’s series of Prison Camp Drawings but are drawn in a filigree manner, delicately and with sensitivity. These are important documents in the development of non-conformist Soviet Art.
Christie’s have always led the way in Works of Art (what’s a painting if it isn’t a work of art? Is it a Kharlamov?) and their sale is packed full of goodies about which my ignorance is legendary. Get a new reviewer RAC, this one is past his sell-by date. Buy the Sveshnikovs, get the creeps.
Roseberys, I hear you cry? Yes, my little space cadets, Roseberys. This lovely, old-fashioned auction house is in South London, an area that many of my readers have only read about in books. Situated on the fabulously-named Knight’s Hill, Rosebery’s is all bustle, charm, noise and responsible for one of my few ‘cash-in-the-attic’, moments. Offered that old canard of, ‘this has been lying under my desk since Tottenham last won a trophy’, line your scribe was presented with an open goal, gave an opinion backed by Rosebery’s impeccable research and one lucky fella is now £36,000 (minus crippling auction house charges) better off. Kerching!
I like Roseberys. They are unpretentious, they are diligent, professional and their first foray into Russian Art Week sees a nice selection of affordable lots. A late Goncharova (why not put that in with the other Russian pieces?), attractive lithographs by Kravchenko, landscapes by Luchishkin and some excellent photos by Lazarev. The prices make sense and the website is…..stress-free. Welcome to the madcap world of Russian Art Week, and please note that I use the soubriquet with all the contempt it deserves, guys.
“Now Austin, I want to get the dross out of the way first. There are two Harlamoffs, my spelling of which, if used correctly, could be a rebuke”. “Yaa Basil, I get it. Like, hey baby, why don’t you just Harlam off! Yeah, baby, yeah!!”
Of the major pieces, lot 8, a newly-discovered Levitsky of Count Nobeard is, of course, important and will doubtless be gracing The Beloved Leader’s commodious dacha soon, but it doesn’t sing to me.
Nor indeed, does Semiradsky’s ‘Parnassus’. Though impressive, it is a smaller version of the curtain he painted at the Lviv Opera House, it’s just so formulaic and, anyway, what is a semi-radsky? A relation of the semi-colon?
Following close behind are a few Aivasovskys before our eyes alight on Lot 20. Now I am not about pretend that this is a particularly good portrait but the artist Nikolai Ghe/Ge or, at a push, Gay, is one helluva geezer.
Russian Art has a number of artists of the 19th century that might be close to genius. Vrubel is well beyond that category but Vassiliev, Serov, Levitan and Good-Old-Ghe are pretty close. Unlike Nesterov (is this a Slavic version of Captain Haddock’s butler?), Ghe’s religious work is deep, at times visceral and leaning towards the genius label. ‘Golgotha’, ‘What is Truth?’, ‘The Last Supper’ are all traditional themes painted from a non-traditional standpoint. The former, especially, with the anguished Christ, the bizarre lone arm that comes into the painting from the left – is a haunting image that stays long in the memory.
There have been nine paintings by Ghe/Ge/Gay at auction in the last 25 years and thus, as such, this gets my Gold Zhiguli for most important, not necessarily best, painting at RAW.
Of course, miraculously, Sotheby’s have pulled a rabbit from the hat with the monumental Aivasovsky of Columbus’ farewell but what can I write that hasn’t already been written? Monumental? Magnificent? Oh, alright.
I cannot let pass lot 97, ‘A winter night’, by an artist with whom I am a little in love, Goncharova. The best advice I was ever given as a young man, the admonitions about WWS aside, was ‘never buy a name, always buy a picture’ because here lies a classic example. Nats was 17 when she painted this picture, and, as could only be expected of an artist of such inexperience, was not quite Champions League level at this age. The artist is great, the painting is of autobiographical interest with a stonkeroonie-sized estimate of £1.5-2m.
I enjoyed the Franken of Hunting in the Caucasus because it reminded me of a day in Rostov….pump-action shotguns, protected species, boiling the game at lunchtime and then, inevitably, a bacchanalia. Lot 27 the Krachkovsky, is a bucolic scene with which we are all familiar – again, fun. The Fine Arts Museum of Virginia are selling a small gem in the form of a Repin study and a beautiful, if slightly twee, Vinogradov. Then follows a slight flurry, lots 59-61 featuring a glorious, top-level Somov and two repeats of beloved themes by Benois.
Then follows a run of knock-out theatrical pieces, top drawer stuff with the provenance from on high. Goncharova, Chelishchev, Exter, Bakst, Roerich, Benois. Whilst one of these hung in Annabel’s, the only place on earth where I am convinced that the aforementioned deity does not exist, the vast majority, the 25 yard screamers are, ‘from the collection of Pat and Michael York’, both of whom are possessed by what is known, in the folkloric, tolkienesque terms used earlier as, having ‘an Eye’.
If it wasn’t enough being one of the best-looking and most suave gentlemen on the Planet, Yorkie and Mrs Yorkie have dealt themselves the Right Royal Flush., with virtually every work a gem – proving that life really can be a cabaret if all is for one and one is for all. In fact, I take back everything I wrote earlier because this is, by some distance, the best collection of Russian theatrical art to come onto the market since the fall of Middle-Earth. A new collector wrote to me last week asking me to find her a mid-priced Bakst. I told her, ‘Sotheby’s. Look no further’. This group of work is a real coup. Congratulations.
P.S. Mikey, my man, if have you Jenny Agutter’s number?
*** Added on 19 November 2020 ***
Owing to the early onset of amnesia, possibly one of the least-known, and insufficiently-researched aspects of the current Plague (file it under ‘mental illness’), I managed to overlook a mere six lots worthy of comment from an earlier-published piece and, having done so, I realize that much of what I have written earlier is utter dross.
The Goncharova Still Life lot 102 is fine, brassy and alive whilst lot 106 by Alexander Volkov, a favourite artist of mine, is a superb piece of avant garde trickery. Among the many friendships forged (in fire) during several stretches in the Russian hinterland was with the Volkov family – memorable were the evenings spent in their company and the loss of Valery, a truly lovely human being responsible for discovering that the Vrubel Self Portrait I once owned was, indeed, a Self Portrait by Vrubel, was keenly felt. However, personal fondness must be put aside in the search for objectivity – a manoeuvre that is staggeringly easy when faced with such quality. An Uzbek avant gardist? Oh, come on! Yeah, verily and in truth my little tibiteiki, Volkov was just that, combining the geometric designs beloved of the avant garde with the colours of Central Asia. I am not sure lot 106 is a rhythmic composition, there are three heads in the triangles, a device used frequently in the artist’s oeuvre but the piece is brave, almost alive.
Moving right along, lots 107-8 are by that artist. Hells’ teeth, I love Bogomazov and Sotheby’s are offering a drawing from an incredibly prolific period, 1914, full of dynamics, energy and force. A gem. Lot 107 is far more complex, one of only two oils painted by this mega-genius between 1917-1924 when, in that unbelievably tragic period of his life, he contracted tuberculosis, managed to stave off starvation and lost his father-in-law, a reaction to which is this visceral painting.
It is a work of vital importance in the history of this artist and, indeed, Ukraine. It is matter of great sadness that this work will almost certainly not be returned to an institution in his homeland where it should hang for history’s sake. N.B. This painting has been called Catafalque since its inception which, of course, is the whole point. The more woke title, as given by Sotheby’s, ‘Cart’ just doesn’t cut it. Never put your cart before a catafalque.
Lot 109 – love it!! Time to set a little riddle. When is a Filonov not a Filonov, aside from when it hangs in MSK, Ghent? I am not sure I know the answer but, taking into account the provenance and close inspection, it’s awfully difficult to believe that this is not the work of Filonov. Many were the Master’s pupils but none of them could draw like this – it’s just too damn good.
Last in the lots-that-went-missing-through-amnesia is a fab KPV of an African boy, painted when the artist visited Algiers and Tunis in 1907. This is the third attempt at getting the painting through the rooms since 2013, which may account for the lowish estimate but I like the spontaneity of the gesture of the sitter on the background of what looks like carpets.
There, all done now.
Keep calm and keep buying, my little snow leopards. Spring will soon be here.