A year ago, an auctioneer’s pounding gavel in a crowded Moscow convention hall drove home the point that the Soviet art world had undergone a radical change. On July 7, 1988, Sotheby’s, the London-based auction house, staged the first art auction ever held in the Soviet Union. The sale of 20th-century Soviet art included many contemporary works by artists who had previously been forbidden to exhibit their works in public. In the pre-glasnost era, even state-sanctioned “official” artists could only sell their works to the government. But under Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms, artists are enjoying unprecedented access to markets at home and abroad—and some are earning large sums of money. The Sotheby’s auction, arranged through the Soviet ministry of culture and with 2,000 foreign bidders and Soviet onlookers present, was a resounding success. Its sales total of $4 million—for 144 paintings—was three times greater than organizers had predicted. Moscow paintef Natalia Nesterova, for one, sold three works in that auction for a total of $38,600. Said Nesterova, a member of the Union of Soviet Artists: “Glasnost has not
changed what I paint—the difference is that now I can sell it.”
Last year’s Moscow auction was just the beginning of a boom that is becoming a bonanza for long-suppressed and deprived Soviet artists. Soviet art is selling strongly in private galleries everywhere from Switzerland to Japan. Last month, the Moscow Art Gallery, the first Canadian gallery devoted to the sale of Russian works, opened in Toronto. And groundbreaking international exhibitions, including a show pairing the works of young artists from the Soviet Union and the United States and a retrospective of the influential Soviet avant-garde period of 1910-1930, are either already under way or in the advanced planning stages. Indeed, noveltycraving collectors in the West have developed a voracious appetite for Soviet art. Said Hal Bromm, owner of a New York City gallery that bears his name and which mounted Nestero-
va’s first one-woman show in New York last fall: “People are challenged by the unknown—it is a magic ingredient—and Soviet art is now the unknown.”
Moscow painter Grisha Bruskin is just one artist who is benefiting from the latest fashion. He became an instant celebrity at the Sotheby’s auction, where his Fundamental Lexicon, a composite work of figures reminiscent of Stalinera statuary, sold for $415,000—about 10 times its pre-auction estimate. Bruskin is now in New York on an extended visa, f preparing works for his first 2 one-man show in the West at 5 the city’s Marlborough Gallery. The gallery has already sold several paintings and sculptures for as much as $120,000.
In Toronto, Russian conviviality prevailed at the opening of the Moscow Art Gallery. Hundreds of invited guests squeezed into the second-floor gallery, which is located in the distinctly capitalist shopping quarter of Yorkville. Sampling caviar and vodka, they perused recent paintings of Red Square and traditional villages, while an amplified musicians’ combo played Russian folksongs and Lara’s Theme horn the movie Dr. Zhivago. The gallery is the result of a joint venture that Moscow-born dealer Marina Abony, who migrated to Toronto in 1973, forged with the ministry of culture of the Russian republic of the Soviet Union. In attendance at the opening was Alexei Rodionov, the Soviet ambassador to Canada, who noted that such enterprises as the new gallery were possible “only in the situation of glasnost and perestroika.” In a Maclean’s interview after the ceremonies, the ambassador added, “This cultural exchange is more than an opportunity to show contemporary Russian art: it is also very good business.”
For her part, Abony says that public interest in her gallery has surpassed all expectations. Prices for works in her first show range from $5,000 to $15,000, and in the first four weeks 25 of the 33 paintings had already been § sold. Abony has a special ar| rangement with the ministry: z the Soviet government proI poses some of the works for her to sell, and she has a free hand in choosing the rest. The ministry of culture sets the price for each work, keeping 17 per cent and passing on most of the rest to the artist. Ten per cent of what the artist receives is in what is known as golden rubles—a system of payment that can be used to buy imported
goods or for international travel—and the rest is in regular, nonconvertible rubles.
While the Moscow Gallery sells the work of artists’ union members and nonmembers, its first show steers clear of controversy, favoring such neutral subjects as posed figures, landscapes and vases of flowers. Said Abony: “I don’t mix politics and art.” Still, her second show, which will open in September, will feature works by some of the artists who participated in the open-air Sokolniki exhibition on the outskirts of Moscow in 1974—the display of unofficial art that was bulldozed on orders from Leonid Brezhnev’s government.
Now, 15 years after that brutal display of intolerance, the Soviet Union is openly showcasing the work of some of its most daring artists—and participating in unprecedented exchange programs with the West. One of the most intriguing shows is 10 + 10: Contemporary Soviet and American Painters. Organized by the Soviet ministry of culture and the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Tex., the exhibition features such provocative Soviet artists as Vladimir Mironenko and Konstantin Zvezdochetov, and prominent U.S. artists including David Salle and April Gornik. Currently on display in Fort Worth, the 57-piece show will travel to San Francisco, Buffalo, N.Y., Milwaukee, Wis., and Washington, D.C. In 1990, it will move to the Soviet Union, with stops in Moscow, Leningrad, and Tbilisi in Soviet Georgia. A much larger, 600-piece collaboration by the United States, West Germany and the Soviet Union, titled Russian and Soviet Art of the Avant-Garde 19101930, will open in New York in 1991. And there will be further activity on the auction front. Sotheby’s plans to include some works by Soviet artists in its November sale of contemporary art in New York. The firm also expects to hold a major sale of contemporary Soviet art in London during 1990.
The history of Soviet art, like a classic Russian novel, is steeped in brilliance and tragedy. In the years just before and immediately after the 1917 Revolution, Russian artists were at the forefront of many of the most experimental—and, ultimately, influential— art movements. Kasimir Malevich and Aleksandr Rodchenko became trailblazers in abstract art, paring compositions down to the simplest geometric forms. Other Russians allied themselves with the convention-shattering Cubist and Futurist movements. But, in 1934, Josef Stalin decreed that the only acceptable art was figurative, propaganda art: so-called Socialist Realism. The state demanded depictions of workers uniting in the cause of commu-
nism—and suppressed nearly everything else.
After a brief thaw in the late 1950s and early 1960s under Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet art world experienced renewed repression. Many artists worked at menial jobs or official art by day and created dissident works in their free time. According to artists’ union director Pavel Khoroshilov, that free-time work could only be shown secretly. Said Khoroshilov, in a Moscow interview: “Those were terrible times for our culture. I had a feeling there was no way out.”
Soviet artistic works are now so varied that it is impossible to define a single predominant style. It is easier to distinguish between generations of artists. In the 1960s and 1970s, Socialist Realism was so pervasive that even the underground artists tended to work in
figurative styles. Nesterova, 45, says that younger artists are quick to dismiss her generation as “artists of stagnation.” The younger generation never experienced similar repression and are more likely to reflect such recent Western movements as neo-Expressionism, a cryptic, angst-ridden style often carried out on a massive scale. Soviet works in the 10 + 10 show range from Yurii Petruk’s The Legend of Laika series—a whimsical deification of the Soviet dog that preceded cosmonauts into space—to Sergei Shutov’s hauntingly ambiguous Identity Card, with its dehumanizing bar code and a dark-grey square superimposed over the face of its bearer. Curator Marla Price said the show’s paintings “share a preoccupation with information—often information that is secret or transmuted.”
Meanwhile, artists living in the Soviet Union are still adjusting to the extraordinary changes of the past few years—and still plagued by
some of the same grinding problems that they have faced for decades. In January, in Moscow, a major Malevich retrospective attracted huge crowds. It was the first Soviet exhibition of the once-banned artist’s works in more than 50 years. For artists, freer travel means that many of them are now seeing Western art at first hand. They are also learning how to look out for themselves in a free-enterprise economy. Last month, New York City’s Grand Central Art Galleries Educational Association presented a three-day conference on that subject at Moscow’s Tretyakov Art Gallery, attracting 150 artists’ union members who got advice on such points as how to publicize their work and how to find the right gallery.
The West’s free-spending enthusiasm for Soviet art is undoubtedly good news for its creators, but it does not solve—and could, arguably, worsen— the problems of the Soviet Union’s internal art market. Although artists can now sell directly to the public, few Soviets can afford to match the princely sums paid by Western collectors. As a result, much of the best art is leaving the country. Lev Tabenkin, a 37-year-old Moscow painter whose works have been sold at the 1988 Sotheby’s auction in Moscow and at another in Hamburg, West Germany, acknowledges that the situation is serious. Said Tabenkin: “[Soviet] museums buy our works, but the artistic process depends on people who really do love art. Unfortunately, here in our country, people cannot afford to buy experts’ paintings although they may love them.”
Other familiar obstacles remain: art supplies and studio space are still desperately hard to come by. And the Soviet bureaucracy often moves at an agonizingly slow pace. The ministry of culture was four months late in paying artists who participated in the 1988 Sotheby’s auction. And when they did receive payment, artists found that a tax had consumed as much as 70 per cent of their earnings. Despite such frustrations, artists’ union director Khoroshilov speculates that the Soviet Union could be on the brink of another golden age of creativity in the visual arts. Said Khoroshilov: “The explosion in avant-garde art in Russia in the 1920s happened against a backdrop of global changes affecting our country—very much like today. Perhaps the same result can happen twice.” Indeed, judging from the revolutionary changes of the past few years, the end of the century could prove to be a brave new era for Soviet art.
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