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Sotheby's to hold the first-ever Auction of Contemporary Art from Russia and Eastern Europe
Dmitry Vrubel, Fraternal Kiss (triptych) (1990), £40,000-60,000. Photo: Sotheby's.

LONDON.- On 25th November 2013 Sotheby’s London will present a new addition to its Russian Art Week calendar, ‘Contemporary East’ – the first-ever sale dedicated to contemporary art from Russia and Eastern Europe staged by an international auction house.* This new initiative will bring together nearly 100 paintings, photographs and sculptures by both established and young experimental artists from across the Ukraine, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Lithuania and Russia – offering a fresh perspective on the art from the region and a chance to reconsider the shared cultural heritage and relations between the countries.

Highlights will include works by Ilya Kabakov Oleg Vassiliev, Pavel Pepperstein and the prototype of Dmitry Vrubel’s famed Berlin Wall mural Fraternal Kiss. With estimates ranging from under £1,000 to £800,000, the sale is expected to achieve in excess of £2.2 million.

A New Generation of Collectors
This inaugural sale reflects the growing number of new and young collectors from Russia and Eastern Europe entering the art market and their appetite for an ever wider range of material: in the last year, Sotheby’s has seen a 33% increase in new bidders from the region across more than 40 different collecting categories worldwide. In parallel with this, Russian buyers are becoming increasingly active in Sotheby’s Contemporary sales: so far in 2013 they have spent over 45% more in this category compared to the same period last year.

Jo Vickery, Senior Director and Head of Sotheby’s Russian Art Department said: ‘We are interested in exploring untapped markets with great potential, and bringing new names to the auction block. There is undoubtedly a huge wealth of artistic talent in Eastern Europe, Russia and the CIS – it’s a great swathe of Europe spanning dozens of nations, which is still poorly represented in the international art market. Contemporary East aims to address this, and at the same time as a longer term strategy and a no less exciting prospect, we are looking to engage with new collectors in these countries.’

Suad Garayeva, Specialist, Contemporary Art CIS said: ‘This innovative sale is aimed at re-conceptualising contemporary art from Russia and Eastern Europe, shedding new light on historic relations away from the conventional Soviet/post-Soviet split. Diverse artistic production from the region, especially from the period of great change in the 80s and 90s, is often bypassed in the international art market and we are trying to rectify this.’

The auction will be led by a highly important early work by llya Kabakov (b. Ukraine 1933), one of the most significant Russian artists of his generation. Currently the subject of exhibitions at Pace Gallery in New York and at the Multimedia Art Museum in Moscow, Kabakov was a founding member of the Moscow Conceptualist circle in the late sixties and became one of the first artists from the Soviet Union to introduce his works to Western audiences with international exhibitions in Paris and Germany during the late 1980s.

Holidays No. 6, from Kabakov’s celebrated ‘Holidays’ series, is among the artist’s best known works. Painted in true Socialist-Realist spirit, the work depicts a beautiful scene of soviet life - emulating the classic style of official paintings commissioned by the USSR - but conceals a subversive message beneath. With a surface scattered with candy wrappers - the only abundantly available consumer product in Soviet Russia – the painting represents fabricated joy masking the dull reality of daily life underneath.

When creating this work, in a conceptual twist characteristic of Kabakov’s entire practice, the artist adopted the imagined persona of an artist disillusioned with an official commission. In an attempt to reinvigorate the work the imaginary character decorates it with with the colourful sweet wrappers in a manner reminiscent of the Soviet concept of ‘cosmetic repairs’ - a superficial polishing which acts as a thin disguise for its inadequacy.

Ilya Kabakov in conversation with David Ross in 1998
“My view as an outsider to this person, to myself, was that the artist, educated in Soviet institutions, was always aware that he couldn’t escape the system. He had to do exactly as the Soviet institutions asked him… To survive, he started making illustrations and, in order to be paid, he completely followed the rules”

Dmitry Vrubel
Fraternal Kiss (triptych) (1990)

Dmitry Vrubel’s Fraternal Kiss is considered one of the most recognisable images of the twentieth century. Reproduced by the artist on the Berlin Wall immediately after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1990, it was a highlight of the celebrated East Side Gallery of murals which attracted millions of tourists from across the world.

Based on Regis Bossu’s infamous photograph of the moment Leonid Brezhnev embraced the East German President Erich Honecker during celebrations for the 30th anniversary of the German Democratic Republic in 1979, Vrubel controversially enlarged the faces of the two kissing men on the Wall inscribing beneath in both Russian and German - ‘My God, Help Me to Survive This Deadly Love’. Even though the artist claims his work was about love and not intended as a political gesture, it became a symbol of universal political change and new freedom.

Sotheby’s will auction Fraternal Kiss (triptych), Vrubel’s prototype for the mural on 25th November. Painted in 1990, this triptych is the only remaining image of Fraternal Kiss surviving from this period as the original wall painting has since been destroyed (and later reinstated by Vrubel in 2009).

Oleg Vassiliev, The Broken Tree (1990)

Oleg Vassiliev can be counted among the most important artists of the late Soviet period. Although he described as a ‘non-conformist’, he produced distinctly apolitical works inspired by Russian landscape paintings of the late 19th century. His most recognisable works incorporate geometrically arranged spectrums of radiant colour as demonstrated in The Broken Tree from 1990. A rainbow of fluorescent colours frames a small forest on the outskirts of a distant city, evoking memories of his life in Moscow which he had left behind for New York.

Tibor Csernus, Nude and Plants (1984)

Nude and Plants counts among the finest works from Hungarian artist Tibor Csernus’s ‘Caravaggio period’ in the 1980s when he drew heavily on the Italian artist’s style and content for inspiration. In this work, Csernus replicates Caravaggio’s use of strong contrasts between light and dark and mirrors his biblical imagery by replicating Christ on the cross in the body posture of the female nude. Extracting the mysticism of a biblical scene, Csernus adds a pagan contemporary twist with the inclusion of surreal elements like a garden hose.

Pavel Pepperstein, The CIS Crest (1993)

In this oil painting from 1993, Pepperstein presents his own suggestion for a crest for the newly-created CIS region (which replaced the USSR) in his characteristically witty manner. Depicting an emptied Soviet Crest which he has filled with snow, Pepperstein draws upon the ancient language of the Russian Orthodox icons in which the words for ‘snow’ and ‘CIS’ look identical.

Eduard Gorokhovsky, Red Flies (1990)

Completed in 1990 after the fall of the Soviet Union, Gorokhovsky’s Red Flies subtly touches on the political by presenting a beautiful girl meticulously painted in a pre-revolutionary style overlaid with the soviet emblems of the hammer and sickle - suggestively pestering her like insects.

Imre Bak, Breaking Out (Diptych) (1970)

Imre Bak is part of the group of young ‘self-educated’ Hungarian contemporary artists from the 1960s who departed from the drab browns and greys of the Hungarian realism and historicism of the 19th century to create their own, distinctly Hungarian form of strictly structured and colourful neo-geometrical abstract art. Strongly inspired by the vivid palette of Impressionism and the forms of Cubism in his early years, Bak became increasingly attracted to American and British geometrical, hard edge paintings and pop art, also drawing inspiration from Hungarian folk traditions.

Kristof Kintera
A Prayer for Lost Arrogance (2013)

Kintera is one of the most interesting and successful members of the younger generation of Czech Contemporary artists. Born in 1973, his oeuvre heavily features sculptures and installations that question the role of the arts, combining everyday objects in unusual or surreal ways. Here in A Prayer for Lost Arrogance, an overweight gravity defying fox, adorned with Christmas baubles stands atop a partially deflated spacehopper.

Václav Bostík
Untitled (Sunset Orb) £25,000 GBP - 35,000

Vaclav Bostik was a member of the art group Umělecká beseda whose activity was formally halted in 1972 and only revived after 1989. During the period of Communist rule in the Czech Republic Bostik exhibited solely in private, on an unofficial basis. It was also during this time, beginning in the second half of the 1950s (when the official art scene was dominated by forcefully imposed Social Realism) that Boštík switched from realism to total abstraction in his works, and sought to explore the essential issues of existence through simple geometric shapes and the play of light evoked by certain colour combinations.

In 1960 Boštík, along with Václav Bartovský, initiated the establishment of the art group UB 12 which significantly influenced the development of Czech art during the 1960s. He is now considered one of the most influential and important Contemporary Czech artist of that period.

*The Contemporary East Sale will continue Sotheby’s tradition of moving beyond the traditional framework of Russian art auctions to champion contemporary artists from Russia (and beyond). Earlier this year, the company staged the first ever selling exhibition of art from the Caucasus and Central Asia, and the first ever auction dedicated to Soviet-era photography. ‘At The Crossroads 2: Contemporary Art from Istanbul to Kabul’ is planned for March 2014.

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