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Russian painting: international auction houses are expanding their Russian departments as the country's new super-rich buy back their heritage.

Christie's and Sotheby's have been waxing positively fulsome about Russian paintings this winter. Justifiably so, because there has been so sudden an acceleration in interest and purchases that both auction houses realised totals of approximately 22 [pounds sterling] million in their recent sales of Russian paintings and works of art, with an impressive cluster of artists' world records. Bonhams, too, have established a Russian department.

The big buyers have been private Russian collectors, their zeal in acquiring pictures understandable, but unlikely to contribute to a better appreciation of Russian masters outside the motherland. Fortunately, Russian museums have been lending generously to eye-opening exhibitions, notably at Groningen but also as far afield as western Australia and Princeton; at the mammoth 'Russia!' at the Guggenheim, New York, Vladimir Putin was photographed peering attentively at Nikifor Krylov's 1827 painting Russian Winter.

At auction, wintry landscapes, and spring scenes imbued with Diaghilev's 'poetry of thawing snow' have been quite numerous, as they once were in exhibitions by the late-19th-century breakaway group the Itinerants or Wanderers. Outstanding has been the marine artist Ivan Aivazovky's large and shimmering St lsaac's on a Frosty Day, (c. 1890, Fig. 1) sold for 1.13 [pounds sterling] million at Christie's, London, in November 2004. This wonderful portrait of a cathedral known for the beauty of its candle-lit Easter services is unusual in the artist's oeuvre.

Among world-record prices was the 1.24 [pounds sterling] million paid by a Ukrainian buyer at Christie's, London, last November for Isaak Levitan's Marsh at Evening (1882, Fig. 3). Painted at an especially formative stage of the artist's career in the marshy and unprepossessing outskirts of the Sheremetevs' palatial old estate at Ostankino, this echoes both Feodor Vasiliev's Morning (c. 1872) and Alexei Savrasov's Sunset over a Marsh (1871), yet bas a new and splendid lyricism. There have also been occasional sales of landscapes by the so-called Russian symbolists, including Viktor Borisov-Musatov's poetic and ghostly moonlit Shepherds Tending their Flock at Night, 1896. This sold at mid-estimate at 128,450 [pounds sterling] (Christie's, London, November 2004), while Mikhail Nesterov's Peace on Earth, 1912, showing a simple Russian monk playing a pipe on the bank of a river winding into the distance, whose waters are perhaps symbolic of Man's journey though life, realised 500,000 [pounds sterling] at Sotheby's, London, in May 2004.

Gratifyingly, paintings by other Wanderers, who in general portrayed subjects of more social import, also surface from rime to time. Abram Arkhipov's Russian Beauty at her Embroidery, once owned by Feodor Chaliapin, sold for 120,000 [pounds sterling] at Sotheby's, London, in May 2003, while at their inaugural New York Russian sale in April 2004, Sotheby's announced with some elation the discovery of two of his portraits of smiling peasant girls, one of which realised a record for the artist at $276,800. Even more pleasing is the continued appearance of works by the great master of genre, Ilya Repin (1844-1930), even if these are usually late pictures, sketches or preparatory studies. Repin's wonderfully colourful Study for a Family Portrait, painted in the artist's apartment at the St Petersburg Academy of Arts in 1905 during his tenure as head of the School of Fine Arts, sold for just over 1 million [pounds sterling] at Christie's, London, in November 2004; his late Venetian-style self-portrait, probably the last he painted before leaving Russia for Finland in 1917, realised 232,000 [pounds sterling] at mid-estimate.

Most avidly sought after, however, by the men from the steppes, have been genre subjects and still lifes from the early twentieth century. Boris Kustodiev's nude woman lounging on her bed (Odalisque, 1919), Robert Fal'k's Woman with a Pink Fan, 1922 (Fig. 4), and Pierrot and a Lady, 1923, by Konstantin Somov, an artist who contributed to the Mir Iskusstva journal, all achieved new personal bests for the artists at Christie's, London, in November. Somov's work looks back to an era of fin-de-siecle decadence and anxiety, the period of cultural upheaval christened by Diaghilev 'a terrible time of change', while the quite rare picture by Fal'k embodies quite different concepts. A founder member of the avant-garde Moscow-based Bubnovy Valet or Jack of Diamonds movement in 1910, Fal'k uses strong rhythms and bold, solid forms; recalling the portraits and still lifes of Cezanne, his painting looks firmly forward into the new century.

The heightened colours, simplified forms and primitivist black outlines of another Jack of Diamonds artist, Ilya Mashkov's Still Life with Flowers (c. 1912) exerted a particularly strong appeal at Sotheby's, London, in December. Quite closely resembling the floral still lifes of the Blaue Reiter's Gabriele Munter, who was living with Kandinsky in Murnau at this time but exhibiting in Moscow, this went to an anonymous Russian bidder for an unprecedented 2.14 million [pounds sterling].

Paris, home to a number of Russian emigre artists in the 1920s, including Mikhail Larionov, Natalia Goncharova and Vasily Shukhaev, is now yielding up their pictures. As these are being winkled out of the remarkable Beilitz collection and other family collections, the English auction house MacDougall is also doing a brisk trade in the art of this era. Preeminent are works by Boris Grigoriev (1886-1939), for whom a world record price is no sooner achieved than it is broken. His Commissar, (c. 1921), sold at Sotheby's, London, in December for 467,200 [pounds sterling], is thought to be from his Liki Rossii or Faces of Russia series, re-created from earlier sketches in response to a sudden bout of Russomania in Paris. Sailors at a Cafe (Fig. 2), showing a group observed in a harbourside cafe at Marseilles, painted with strong, dark colours and bold, decorative shapes, made a world record of $1.584 million at Sotheby's, New York, in April 2005.

Sadly, the supply of glorious honey-coloured nudes by Zinaida Serebriakova (1884-1967) seems to have dried up. However there are occasional portraits, including one of her daughter, Katya (1934), which sold at Sotheby's, London, in December 2004 for 120,000 [pounds sterling], while her elegant full-length reclining Vera Fokina, wife of the choreographer Michel Fokine, sold at Sotheby's, New York, last April well above the estimated $200-300,000 for a record $688,000.

For those of us with slimmer wallets there are remarkable bargains: Repin's finely worked pencil and watercolour study of his fiancee Vera Shevtsova, whom he married in 1872, sold for just 6,000 [pounds sterling] at Christie's, London, in November; Filipp Maliavin's washy, colourful impressions of peasant women can be had for around 20,000 [pounds sterling]. And the spirit of Diaghilev seems still to hover persuasively over the salerooms, for delicate and stylish costume and stage designs by Goncharova, Benois, Bakst and others who worked for him, are frequently available as charming mementi of the Ballets Russes for 3-5,000 [pounds sterling].


St Isaac's on a Frosty Day by Ivan Aivazovsky (1817-1900), c. 1890. Christie's London, 30 November 2004, 1.13m [pounds sterling]--Sailors at a Cafe by Boris Grigoriev (1886-1939), c. 1923. Sotheby's New York, 21 April 2005, $1.584m--Marsh at Evening by Isaak Levitan (1860-1900), 1882. Christie's London, 30 November 2005, 1.24m [pounds sterling]--Woman with a Pink Fan by Robert Fal'k (1886-1958), 1922. Christie's London, 31 November 2005, 1.016m [pounds sterling]--Still Life with Flowers by Ivan Mashkov (1881-1944), c. 1912. Sotheby's London, 1 December 2005, 2.14m [pounds sterling]

Averil King is an independent art historian. Her book on Isaak Levitan has just been reprinted.
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Title Annotation:COLLECTORS' FOCUS
Author:King, Averil
Geographic Code:4EXRU
Date:Apr 1, 2006
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