From the Gavel to the Gallery: Russian Art in London

This week in London, Russian art has been centre stage: a week of activity in the auction rooms (Christie’s, Sotheby’s and MacDougall’s all had sales of Russian art, each with varying levels of success) is accompanied by a major exhibition at Saatchi of post-Soviet art, and several smaller shows including Russian artist Philip Firsov at Twenty-Two to Twenty-Six Gallery.

The breadth of style, period and politics of the works included in these events is vast: unlike 10 years ago, at the beginning of the boom in the Russian art market, there now appears to be a discerning curatorial agenda among the London galleries which is a far cry from the sales-dominated scene of the start of the century.  How has this come about?

A decade ago, the Russian art market was focussed heavily on pre-Soviet art of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  There was a time when every Russian oligarch worth his salt would adorn his walls with brooding Aivazofsky seascapes and luscious Shishkin pine forests.  But supply began to dry up and the increasingly savvy buyer started to look elsewhere for his investment collection.

2013 will see Russian art re-emerge in full-force in London.  This time, however, it will rear its head bearing warts and all with a serious curatorial influence that was almost wholly absent before.  Saatchi’s ‘Gaiety is the Most Outstanding Feature of the Soviet Union. Art From Russia’ showcases a Russia ravaged by Soviet austerity.  The glorious landscapes of Imperial Russia and the heroism depicted in Soviet art could not be further removed from the satirically cruel, almost grotesque reality presented by Boris Mikhailov, or the anger and hopelessness seen in the faces of the prison inmates photographed by Sergei Vasiliev.  This is a post-Soviet Russia where the wealth has been caught by the very people who are now the art market’s biggest players.

At first glance, therefore, it seems ironic that Saatchi is simultaneously hosting a selection of art from Moscow from the 1960s to 1980s which has been put together by London-based financier, Igor Tsukanov, and which includes some of his own collection.  However, considering much of the buying power in the art market at large remains with the Russians, and that these Russians have always had a bias towards art from their homeland, it seems as though London-based Russians are now looking beyond the safety of church- or state- regulated art and are making calculated and artistically-judged moves to support and develop contemporary Russian art, which could well have the honesty and integrity that many are saying are lacking elsewhere.  The conceptually driven YBA generation have established themselves firmly in the canon of art and (literally) in the Academies.  History dictates that now will follow a swing in the opposite direction: a narrative and truthful art that speaks to us clearly about life.

The Russian art on display at Saatchi is brutal and visually stunning where meaning is devised not from second-guessing, but from the stark reality presented to the viewer.  Could Russia be paving the way towards the new wave in contemporary art?



Boris Mikhailov, Case History 1997-1998, A set of 413 photographs

Dimensions variable
A selection illustrated
© Boris Mikhailov, 1997
Image courtesy of the Saatchi Gallery, London