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Collectors' Focus Constructivism.

The art of revolutionary Russia saw a severing with tradition as the old aristocracy of painting was pronounced dead. Prices have risen sharply in recent years but provenance remains critical--this is a market plagued by fakes

One hundred years on from the tumultuous events that tore apart the Imperial State, the art of revolutionary Russia has been in the spotlight in exhibitions from New York to St Petersburg. Among the many movements that vied to express the spirit of the new nation, Constructivism represented the most radical break with the art that had come before. It was born in the ferment of ideas that preceded the First World War, alongside the Suprematism of Kazimir Malevich. Both abandoned representation --'I have destroyed the ring of the horizon and escaped from the circle of things,' Malevich announced in 1915--in favour of an art that was linear and geometric, and characterised by simple shapes floating in space. But where Malevich championed a mystical art of pure feeling, Vladimir Tatlin, the theoretician behind Constructivism, advocated that work should be dedicated to the utilitarian requirements of Communism. Objects were to be created not to express beauty, but in response to the materials from which they were constructed, in an experimental spirit, with the intention that they might lead to functional design. His model for the Monument to the Third International (1919-1920) --a futuristic helix of steel and glass intended to house the association of national Communist parties--is the seminal work of the movement, though the tower was never built.

At first, artists such as Aleksandr Rodchenko, Liubov Popova, Varvara Stepanova, Aleksandr Vesnin and Alexandra Exter explored their ideas using paint and in print, alongside collage and three-dimensional structures. They eventually concluded that Constructivism was incompatible with twodimensional media and, in September 1921, the exhibition '5x5 = 25' bade farewell to painting. Rodchenko later commented: 'I reduced painting to its logical conclusion and exhibited three canvases: red, blue and yellow. I affirmed: it's over.' From then on, Constructivists including El Lissitzky, llya Chashnik, Valentina Kulagina, and Gustav Klutsis--directed their talents to design--everything from stage costumes, ceramics and architecture to domestic goods, graphic art, film and photography. Together they created the visual culture of Soviet Russia: angular, sophisticated, analytical, radically modern. All this was to collapse in the 1930s under the triumph of Soviet Realism. A handful of exiles--among them Naum Gabo and El Lissitzky--influenced such figures as Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Kurt Schwitters, and Joaquin Torres-Garcia, ensuring the lasting impact of the movement, but within Russia it was crushed.

As a consequence, few of the three-dimensional structures survive. The few that do are in museums. Many works on paper have been lost. Chashnik's small but significant oeuvre was dramatically reduced by the destruction of his archives in Vitebsk during the Second World War. And because these artists were frowned upon by the Bolshevik elite, there are few contemporary records or catalogues of Constructivist works. Well-documented paintings are, in the words of the London-based dealer James Butterwick, 'incredibly difficult to find'. Reto Barmettler, Sotheby's London's head of Russian pictures, concurs. 'These are the works best known and best researched outside Russia but this is not where the art market is,' he says.

A major factor is that the market has been bedevilled by fakes since the early 1990s. According to Barmettler, the trickle of forged works began to emerge from Russia in the 1960s, at a time when few beyond such farsighted collectors as George Costakis were buying this forbidden material. Since 1991 the market has soared in the West, but far from the problem of forgeries easing, the art historian Aleksandra Shatskikh has claimed that in recent years new Russian buyers have 'provoked a wave of fakes'.

The figurative work of pioneers such as Natalia Goncharova has been a particular target for copiers, but problems are rife also in the field of Suprematist and Constructivist art. Just last summer the French auction house Tajan removed Suprematist Cross, supposedly by Chashnik, from its June sale. This followed controversy over the authenticity of works by both Chashnik and El Lissitzky in an earlier Tajan sale in March. The painting had been estimated at 14,000 [euro]-18,000 [euro], which was astonishingly low given that Butterwick sold a Chashnik work on paper for 200,000 [euro] to a Swiss collector at the end of 2016.

'If a work is not acceptable for sale by Sotheby's or Christie's or for purchase by any leading museum, or any major dealer, then it is not acceptable,' Butterwick says. 'You just don't get sleepers in the Russian Constructivist market.' He will mount an exhibition of nonobjective works by the related artist, Boris Kosarev, at TEFAF Maastricht next spring, including Suprematist Still Life of 1921 (60,000 [pounds sterling]; Fig. 4). Butterwick adds that despite the financial crisis in Russia, 'demand for these things is very high', largely among Russian, North American and European collectors.

Sotheby's London's Russian Pictures sale last November provides the evidence. A collection of well-documented avant-garde works, including Chashnik's The Seventh Dimension from the early 1920s, soared over estimate. This geometric relief, part painting, part architectural model, was chased from expectations of 100,000 [pounds sterling]-150,000 [pounds sterling] to a record 2.4m [pounds sterling]. The sale also included the most important painting by Rodchenko to be offered at auction since 1988. Construction No.95 of 1919 (Fig. 1), an orange rectangle with dynamically arranged black lines and a yellow grid, attracted three bidders above its 2.5m [pounds sterling] low estimate before selling for a record 3.6m [pounds sterling]. Rodchenko's previous record was for the colourful work on paper, Circle and Line Composition, which sold in 2015 at the Taubman sale, Sotheby's New York, for $646,000 (Fig. 3).

When it comes to vintage photographs (i.e. prints made within seven years of the image being taken), prices are also high. Rodchenko's Sokolniki Park, Winter, Hockey (1929), sold through Phillips de Pury & Co. in New York in 2007, reached the record price of $312,000. In 2012 at Sotheby's New York, El Lissitzky's celebrated self-portrait The Constructor (1924) sold for $506,500, just over the top estimate. Galerie Gmurzynska, based in Switzerland, has been working with these artists since 1965, handling especially the work of Rodchenko, El Lissitzky, Gabo, Moholy-Nagy, and Klutsis. It currently has available works by Rodchenko and El Lissitzky, as well as a collaged poster from the late 1920s by Klutsis ($100,000; Fig. 2).

Caption: 1. Construction No.95, 1919, Aleksandr Rodchenko (1891-1956), oil on canvas, 65x40cm. Sotheby's London, 3.6m [pounds sterling]

Caption: 2. Cover design, 'Soviets as a tactical problem of the revolution', late 1920s, Gustav Klutsis (1895-1938), collage, 23 x 32.5cm. Galerie Gmurzynska, $100,000

Caption: 3. Circle and Line Composition, 1917, Aleksandr Rodchenko, watercolour and gouache over pencil and ink on paper, 26.6 x 20.3cm. Sotheby's New York, $646,000

Caption: 4. Suprematist Still Life, 1921, Boris Kosarev (1897-1994), gouache on paper, 28x22cm. James Butterwick, 60,000 [pounds sterling]
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Author:Crichton-Miller, Emma
Geographic Code:4EXRU
Date:Oct 1, 2017
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