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One of the most significant collections of non-conformist art to be offered for sale at Sotheby's London
Grisha Bruskin, Accordance no.1 oil on canvas, 95 by 90cm 25,000-35,000. Photo: Sotheby's.

LONDON.- Sotheby’s will offer over 60 works from the Bar-Gera collection of Russian Non-Conformist Art in London on 29 November 2016, presented in a dedicated catalogue. Assembled over several decades by Jacob and Kenda Bar-Gera, it is one of the most significant collections of its kind.

Five highlights will be shown in Moscow, including Vladimir Weisberg’s White Receiver on a White Background dating from 1960 (60,000-80,000), and a rare early work by Oleg Tselkov dating from 1969 (Circus, 50,000-70,000).

Dating from the early 1960s to the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991, the aesthetic value of Jacob and Kenda Bar-Gera’s collection speaks for itself, yet what is remarkable here is how these works collectively shine a light on a whole generation of Russian artists. Even after perestroika the couple continued to acquire works, but as a rule only those which fitted the chronology of the collection, so at pains they were to preserve its historical integrity.

Spanning three decades, early acquisitions made in the 1960s were done in the most unusual circumstances with foreign diplomats or students bringing works from the Soviet Union to their house in Cologne which the BarGeras had no chance to see and select before buying. Jacob started to travel to Russia only in 1988, and later the couple became close friends with many of the artists, such as Vladimir Nemukhin and Mikhail Grobman, several of whom had eventually emigrated to the West.

Works by over thirty artists including Ilya Kabakov, Erik Bulatov, Grisha Bruskin, Vladimir Nemukhin and masterpieces by Oleg Tselkov and Vladimir Weisberg together narrate a chapter of Russian art which until perestroika had no official written history.

Kenda reported that they kept the works ‘in, above and under cupboards at home’ and it was not until they were first assembled together as a whole for exhibition in Russia in 1996 that either were quite aware themselves of the significance of the collection. They lived in a modest apartment in Cologne, crammed with paintings, sculptures and drawings. Their children recalled: “If we wanted to play we had to take all the canvases and piles of paintings into the hall and put them back before bedtime. There was never enough space for the art and when new works arrived it was difficult to know where to put them.”

Jacob said that they never really felt like collectors, that they were themselves in the underground with the artists. Searching through the memories of their own harrowing past as Jewish children of the war and the holocaust, evidently something personally resonated in the task of gathering works which were painted by artists who were outsiders and whose work was repressed in their homeland The children of Jacob and Kenda Bar-Gera said: “Our mother, Kenda, told us many times that her liberation from Auschwitz by the Red Army in 1945 gave her a deep love and appreciation for Russia and its people. Russia was always of special interest for her, initially the avant-garde artists of the early 20th century and later the period of Khrushchev and Brezhnev until perestroika. For our parents it was a moral obligation to help and support the oppressed artists in Russia in the late 1960s and the 1970s. Our father Jacob – or Yasha as he was called – was of Russian cultural origin and he immediately felt a connection with Russian artists.”

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