By John Dorfman
Technically masterful and emotionally rich, late 19th-century Russian painting drew on tradition while foreshadowing the avant garde.
When Americans and Western Europeans think of Russian art, they are likely to picture the pioneering abstractions of Kandinsky or the Suprematist canvases of Malevich. If not that, then it must be Orthodox icons. But between the medieval period and the avant garde, there are centuries’ worth of Russian art that has been largely unknown to the general public outside Russia.
In the U.S., that situation is now changing, due in part to major museum shows such as the Guggenheim’s landmark “Russia!” in 2005, which painted on a very large canvas, using an impressive number of loaned works to bring the whole sweep of Russian art history to New York and a wider audience, who turned out to appreciate it greatly. (“Russia!” is said to have been the Guggenheim’s best-attended exhibition to date.) Increasing contact between Russians and Americans post-1989 has also been a factor. The market for classic Russian art, while still centered in London, has been growing in the U.S., with recent sales at Christie’s and Sotheby’s in New York very strong and some top-quality works on offer this month at those auction houses.
Despite its relative unfamiliarity, pre-Revolutionary Russian art—that of the later 19th century in particular—is, in fact, very accessible, polished in technique and romantic in sensibility, combining history and drama with sensitive portraiture in much the same ways as Western European and American art of the period. Of course, it adds a characteristically Russian romanticism that is equal parts backward-looking, taking inspiration from Russian history, peasant culture and religion, and forward-looking, charged with progressive sentiment and actually anticipating the avant garde movements that would sweep the art world around the same time that revolutionary outrage would sweep away the tsarist regime that had patronized the painters.
Nineteenth-century Russian art was the culmination of a process of cultural modernization and Europeanization that begin in the reign of Peter the Great (ruled 1682–1725), who dragged Russia out of the Middle Ages and turned it into a world power. Peter was an enthusiastic art patron who bought European works and invited foreign artists to come to Russia to work and teach. One of the interesting things about Russian art is that because it leaped from medievalism to classicism so quickly, the 18th and 19th centuries recapitulate a variety of Renaissance and Baroque styles in a sort of telescoped way. It was in the age of Tsar Nicholas I (ruled 1825–1855), that Russian art truly came into its own. As great writers like Pushkin and Lermontov were creating a new poetry and fiction, artists like Karl Briullov and Alexander Ivanov were bringing Romanticism to Russia.
Cultural critic Solomon Volkov’s just-published book, Romanov Riches: Russian Writers and Artists Under the Tsars (Knopf, $30), points out how influential the tsars were in befriending and encouraging (and occasionally quarrelling with and censoring) Russian artists. He also tells entertaining stories—some based on personal recollections passed down orally to the author in Russia—of the artists’ “romantic” tendencies toward temperamental behavior and excesses. Briullov, famous for his psychologically revealing portraiture and for his epic 1833 canvas The Last Day of Pompeii, was a drunken wild-man who had no problem telling off the tsar and petulantly refusing to paint portraits of the royal family. But he kept in Nicholas’ good graces nonetheless, painting secret erotic works for him that were kept in lockable frames. The better-behaved Ivanov, who studied and lived mainly in Italy, also served the court and specialized in landscapes and historico-religious painting, of which the best-known example is The Appearance of Christ to the People, painted over a 20-year period starting in 1837.
It is the next generation of artists, principally the group known as the Wanderers, that are the most important art historically and the most attractive to collectors today. The Wanderers, led by Ivan Kramskoy, were a cooperative formed to protest against academicism and state control of artists. They worked and lived together in a large apartment complex in St. Petersburg, sharing basic ideas about the importance of Slavic cultural identity, the worth of the peasantry, and the necessity for realism in painting. Among the most important Wanderers were Ilya Repin, Ivan Shishkin, Nikolai Ge, Vasily Surikov, and Isaac Levitan. Izabela Grocholski, Christie’s head of Russian art in New York, compares the Wanderers’ warts-and-all realism to that of Courbet. “The Wanderers were one of the most important groups of artists in Russian art history and paved the way for all future movements,” she says. In its April 13 sale, Christie’s is offering Peasant Girls in the Forest, 1877, by Wanderer Alexei Korzukhin (est. $80,000–100,000).
Despite their courting of controversy, the Wanderers were patronized by Tsar Alexander III, and members of the nobility bought their work, as well. The great bourgeois collector Pavel Tretyakov bought out so many Wanderer exhibitions that the tsar eventually had to ask for the right of first refusal. (In 1892, Tretyakov bequeathed his collection to the state, and it became Moscow’s great Tretyakov Gallery.) Still, some of the Wanderers’ work had the power to outrage. Repin’s Barge Haulers on the Volga was commissioned by Grand Duke Vladimir, but government officials angrily complained that its realistic depiction of poor, suffering workers showed Russian society in a bad light when the Duke sent the painting on a grand tour of Europe. Ge’s religious paintings, while full of devout sentiment, were harshly criticized by conservatives in the church for, as Volkov puts it, “their excessive naturalism and contemporary allusions.”
While not a member of the Wanderers, Vasily Vereshchagin was another artist who shocked his countrymen. He started out as an official painter of battles who followed the army on its campaigns, but his experiences transformed him into a pacifist whose unblinking depictions of the cost of war can be hard to look at even today. His monumental painting Defeated: Service for the Dead, from 1878–79 (in the Tretyakov), shows an officer with a priest swinging a censer over a golden-hued field bathed in soft sunlight that radiates through a dark, cloudy sky. Only after studying it for a moment does one begin to notice that the field is made up of thousands of corpses that seem to melt into the earth. Grocholski calls Vereshchagin “a Robert Capa of the 19th century.”
Interestingly, the auction record for Russian art belongs not to a Wanderer but to a more conservative and academic 19th-century painter, Ivan Konstantinovich Aivazovsky. A master of painterly technique, he specialized in marine scenes. His American Shipping Off the Rock of Gibraltar, an exciting 1873 canvas showing schooners and a rowboat tossed on a stormy sea at sunset, brought £2.7 million at Christie’s London in 2007, the highest price paid for any Russian painting. On April 12, Sotheby’s is offering an Aivazovsky landscape with a calm sea, The Road to Gurzuf, estimated at $300,000–400,000.
As the 20th century got under way, Russian art experienced dramatic changes including the transition to abstraction, which flourished in the early Soviet period before Stalin denounced it as decadent bourgeois aesthetics. Still, the Russian painting tradition did not die out. It was brought to the West—and especially to America—by émigré artists, some of whom, like Nikolai Fechin, painted in an Impressionist style, and others of whom, like Nicholas Roerich, Pavel Tchelitchew and Boris Grigoriev, painted in various figurative modernist styles. Christie’s Grocholski is excited about a Grigoriev painting, Les Enfants, a double portrait in an “almost Cubist style” of Katherine and Mary Kane done in New York in 1923 (est. $600,000–800,000).
Grocholski stresses that American interest in Russian art, at least among serious collectors, dates back to this period, when Russian émigrés penetrated into the New York art world. Grigoriev, she says, “had strong social and cultural ties in New York, and was friends with John Marin, Marsden Hartley and Alfred Stieglitz.” In fact, she points out, the American discovery of Russian art can be pushed back a little earlier, to the period around the Russo-Japanese War (1904–05), the conclusion of which was brokered by the U.S. For example, she says, the Korzukhin painting in the upcoming sale was consigned by the descendants of Admiral Newton McCully, a diplomat who was influential in Russian-American relations at that time. As Sonya Bekkerman, Sotheby’s head of Russian painting in New York, puts it, “Americans have traditionally been interested in Russian painting and in fact have driven the market from the beginning.”
Another factor that is worth considering is that there are certain elements in common between Russian and American art. In his catalogue entry for the “Russia!” show, Robert Rosenblum points to similarities between Ge and the American artists Thomas Eakins and Henry Ossawa Tanner. Undoubtedly, art in both the U.S. and Russia started out relatively isolated from current developments in European art and then progressed very quickly, in the span of about two centuries, and both nations have strong traditions of imbuing their landscapes with deep emotional and cultural significance.
More recently, American collectors have become interested in one particular type of realism that flourished under the Soviet regime. The state-approved schools of painting during the mid-century perpetuated 19th-century working methods and, to some extent, aesthetics, even as the so-called Nonconformists went underground to pursue abstractionism and postmodernism. The Oklahoma–based collector Norton Dodge famously put together a massive collection of Nonconformist art (chronicled in John McPhee’s 1994 book The Ransom of Russian Art), but for the past 20 years, Milwaukee collector Raymond Johnson has been amassing the biggest trove of Soviet Realist art outside Russia. Ten years ago, Johnson’s 10,000-piece collection became the foundation of The Museum of Russian Art (TMORA), in Milwaukee.
Johnson calls Soviet Realism (as distinct from Socialist Realism, meaning propaganda art) “the least understood” of all varieties of Soviet art, and observes that while there was “limited interest in it in the past, now it’s heating up because Russians are realizing that alot of the art of this period is gone. Now it’s very difficult to find a good painting and very difficult to afford it if you do find one.” Standout artists in this style include Vasili Nechitailo, Alexei Gritsai and Yuri Pimanov. Last year, A Pimanov consigned by TMORA brought $1.5 million at Sotheby’s New York.
Despite the rise of the New York market, two thirds of Russian art worldwide is still sold in London, and 90 percent of the buyers there are Russians. With the collapse of Communism and the rise of the oligarchs, prices were driven up tremendously as Russian collectors sought to repatriate their cultural treasures. “The strongest area for the last 20 years has been classic 19th- and early 20th-century Russian art,” says William MacDougall, the Canadian-born founder of an eponymous London auction house dedicated to Russian art that last December outdid both Christie’s and Sotheby’s in terms of sales. “Before the fall of Communism, most buyers of Russian art were Western bargain hunters. When Russians began to be wealthy again, they started to collect, and the first thing they bought was the art they had studied in school.” MacDougall adds that because secular art in Russia has only a 250-year history, supply is relatively small compared to the art of other European countries.
Obviously the worldwide economic crash of 2008 and the ensuing art-market slump affected Russian art. MacDougall says it has been “in recovery since April 2009 and continues to grow.” His next round of auctions is scheduled for June. Bekkerman, of Sotheby’s, is a bit more cautious about the New York auction market for Russian art, as opposed to London’s. “It’s still relatively new,” she says, “and it grew incredibly quickly, so there’s still a certain amount of correction to be done. Our collectors are looking for the highest quality, and in every category the rare things are rare for a reason.” Still, she is hopeful about market supply: “There’s a lot left to be discovered in U.S. private collections.”
Discoveries waiting to be made are sure to excite any auction professional, but for Bekkerman, there is something uniquely thrilling about Russian art in itself, especially that from the late 19th-century period. “The fierce pace at which the Russian painters absorbed and experimented bewilders me and fascinates me,” she says. “The experimentation, the rebelliousness, the spirit of bringing art to the people—Malevich took it to a whole different level, but it’s the same principle.”