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Sotheby's to hold dedicated sale of Soviet art to mark the centenary of the Russian Revolution
Viktor Popkov, Study for Builders of Bratsk. Oil on board, 49.5 by 69.5cm. Estimate:£8,000-12,000 / US$10,600-15,900. Courtesy Sotheby’s.

LONDON.- In a few weeks’ time, Sotheby’s will hold its first dedicated auction of Soviet Art to coincide with the centenary of the 1917 Russian Revolution, one of the defining moments of the 20th century. Still too little understood outside the region itself, the artistic legacy of the world’s first Socialist Republic is slowly gaining wider international recognition thanks to a number of ambitious exhibitions this year.

Recent years have seen promising results for Soviet artists at all price levels in Sotheby’s Russian Pictures auctions, most importantly for Georgy Nissky’s Over the Snowy Fields which established a new record for any work of Soviet Art when it sold for £1.76 million ($2.95 million) in 2014. This sale of over 120 lots includes examples by 80 different artists from the earliest years of the Soviet Union to 1991. Estimates range from £1,000 to £3.5 million.

Covering the avant-garde, state-sponsored Socialist Realism and unofficial art of the post-war period, the sale will demonstrate the surprising diversity of the USSR’s artistic output. The early 1930s is often seen as the end of experimentation, however, as the sale shows, the artistic reactions to these seismic events were diverse, and art continued to evolve. Some of the artists will be familiar to audiences – notably Alexander Rodchenko and Alexander Deineka – but many others have never before been offered at auction nor exhibited widely.

The sale is highlighted by three important works from the American collector Raymond Johnson who has been visiting artists and their families in Russia since the mid-1980s. Critics had long-since recognised that the USSR was home to world-class ballet dancers, writers, poets and musicians, but with the advent of Perestroika and Gorbachev’s transition toward a more open society, many now began to wonder whether the country’s artists were equally motivated to greatness. Johnson’s thirty year adventure in collecting has culminated in one of the greatest privately-owned collections of Soviet-era art – three works from which will be included in the sale with a combined estimate of £4.15-5.45 million (lots 240-242).

An additional six works will be offered from Gekkoso Gallery, Tokyo. Gallerist Yoko Nakamura discovered the art of the Soviet Union in 1969 and became a passionate advocate of Soviet Art, organising travelling exhibitions of Soviet Art in Japan for many years (more information below, lots 297-302).

The ‘Art of the Soviet Union’ sale will be held in London alongside Sotheby’s biannual sales of ‘Russian Pictures’, and ‘Russian Works of Art, Fabergé and Icons’ on 28 November.

The Story of the Art of the Soviet Union, Told Through 10 Works
The Early Years, 1917-1932: The artistic reaction to the Revolution was disparate, and the years following 1917 were defined by intense debates as to what form and subjects were appropriate for the new society. Alexander Rodchenko and the Constructivists rejected the idea of pure art and advocated that art should be a means of production. After experimenting with abstraction, Rodchenko abandoned easel painting and ventured into industrial design and graphic design. The state replaced the Imperial Court and private collectors as the main patron and many artists turned to propaganda material to serve this new patron.

By contrast, other artists such as Yuri Pimenov and Alexander Deineka, looked to redefine the role of easel painting in a Socialist society, and for new forms within figurative art to depict new themes such as industrialisation. Dating from this time, The Coal Miner is the only surviving part of the now lost larger painting, At the Pit (In the Mine) executed in 1925 following a trip to the Donbass mines. It is not known why the artist decided to cut up the original canvas after it was well-received at the first Society of Easel Painters (OST) exhibition in Moscow. The Coal Miner remained with Deineka in his studio until his death in 1969. The artist’s name is closely associated with the ideology of a ‘new epoch’ of art in the 1920s and of the notion of ‘a new life for a new people’.

Another example is Serafima Ryangina’s Student Excursion to the Baltic Shipyard from 1930, its extreme perspective reminiscent of Rodchenko’s photographs, in which the artist addresses the role of women in building the new society. First exhibited at the XVIII Venice Biennale in 1932, the work responded to the Soviet agenda of promoting the economic, industrial and moral strength of socialism. While the subject was welcomed by the authorities, the work would soon be criticised for its style. This is the first major work by the artist ever to come to auction.

Georgy Rublev’s, A Factory Party Meeting from 1933 belongs to the artist’s most interesting period before he retreated to the relative safety of painting still-lifes, interiors and landscapes after being accused of formalism in the late 1930s. It is a world apart from what was soon to be churned out by artists working in the officially sanctioned Socialist Realist style. Despite the self-consciously primitive stylistic approach, in terms of content the work overtly celebrates the concept of ‘Partiinost’, or ‘Party Spirit’.

The advent of Socialist Realism: In 1932, the Central Committee of the Communist Party declared that all existing literary and artistic organisations should be disbanded and replaced with single unions for each artistic profession. Stalin had just completed his first Five Year Plan, one year ahead of schedule, and art was harnessed to serve Stalin’s cult of personality. One of the most famous examples is Alexander Gerasimov’s Stalin and Voroshilov at the Kremlin from 1938, now at the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow. A ‘standard-bearer of the Stalin cult’, Alexander Gerasimov was known as ‘Stalin’s Velazquez’ for his idealistic and canonical representations of the leader.

After Stalin’s death in 1953 and the subsequent process of de-Stalinisation however, even Gerasimov turned away from the visual panegyrics to the former leader to explore new themes. This canvas reveals that in the 1950s, the artist painted over an earlier image of Stalin and Voroshilov, to replace it with a view of a collective farm. Restoration work to the top half of the canvas in 2013 revealed the original painting underneath.

In the 1960s, in the more liberal climate of Khrushchev’s Thaw, artists abandoned glorified images and the polished style of the Stalinist era and produced raw pictures of workers, depicting the harsh reality of working on the country’s vast construction projects. This became known as The Severe Style in Soviet art, of which Viktor Popkov’s Builders of Bratsk, now in the collection of the State Tretyakov Gallery, is one of the best-known examples. A study for the work is included in the sale.

In the 1970s Soviet Contemporary Art began to be appreciated abroad, notably in Japan thanks to the work of the Tokyo-based, Gekkoso Gallery. Yoko Nakamura, the director of Gekkoso Gallery, first visited the Soviet Union in 1969 convinced that the country’s art must be worth exploring. A year later the gallery held the first selling exhibition of Soviet art in Japan. These continued annually for over ten years and visited Tokyo, Osaka and Sapporo. Nakamura was involved in numerous enterprises to promote the Soviet Union in Japan and organised a huge retrospective of Soviet and Russian Painting which included over 600 works from the State Tretyakov Gallery. One of the painters she showcased was the Azerbaijani painter Tair Salakhov, whose Granada was included in his Japanese solo exhibition in 1979.

Non-Conformism: In the 1970s and 1980s, unofficial artists such as Vitaly Komar and Erik Bulatov appropriated Soviet symbols and icon in their work, exposing the disconnect between propaganda and reality. Niche Surrounding a Drunken Man is a haunting depiction of the claustrophobia of a regime which drove so many to excessive drinking and early graves. ‘The white figure in this painting is the soul’, explained the artist, ‘crying out’ against the oppressive environment of the Soviet Union represented here by the ubiquitous scarlet colour. ‘Alcoholic protest was a form of non-conformism’ and this painting is a tribute to the large number of artists and musicians from his immediate circle who did not survive.

The final lot in the sale, Erik Bulatov’s Farewell Lenin from 1991, captures a moment when Russia was once again at the crossroads after the unexpected collapse of the Soviet Union. An influential leader of the unofficial art movement, he explored the conflict between Soviet reality and ideology, truth and falsehood, freedom and fear. Bulatov lamented: ‘I think that the worst thing that Soviet propaganda has done…is to have persisted in brainwashing us into believing that the social world we inhabit is the only reality…For years they inculcated in us the idea that there is no alternative, that the whole world is a prison, that there is no possibility of escape.. Therefore art became a necessity for me, as it offered a possible way out.’

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