This documentary examines the direct correlation between an influx of wealthy Russians moving into London and the revitalization of the contemporary art scene. These wealthy art patrons set off an unprecedented art boom in the auction business. Writer Marcel Theroux infiltrates the high-profile, socializing oligarchs who rose to be the toast of London's cultural scene and created a change in the dynamics of the sale of contemporary art.
Saturday 27 September 2008
The Oligarts: How Russia's very rich are buying up the World's very best art
Russia's super rich are spending fortunes buying up some of the world's greatest works of art – just as Catherine the Great did in her imperialist day, says Marcel Theroux
In an art storage depot in south London, James Butterwick, an old Etonian art dealer in motorcycle leathers, is showing me the first piece of Russian art he ever bought. It is a pencil drawing by Léon Bakst, a painter and graphic artist who designed for Diaghilev's Ballets Russes.
James acquired the taste for Russian art while studying in the Soviet Union and bought the picture in 1987, when Russian art was going for a song. James was able to snap up pictures by important Russian artists for relatively modest sums of money. Most of the pictures in the storage were painted between about 1910 and 1930, the period of the Russian avant-garde that includes Malevich, Kandinsky and Chagall.
It seems to be Russia's fate to be a latecomer to global trends and then make up for it its tardiness with sheer intensity. Russia left it until the 19th century to produce any writers of global stature, and then Pushkin, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Gogol, Dostoyevsky, and Turgenev all appeared. In politics, Russia had a frankly medieval set-up until 1861, with a tsar and legal serfdom; just over half a century later, it was leading the vanguard of world socialist revolution. The hordes of Russian shoppers on New Bond Street may have a different political ethos, but their single-minded pursuit of luxury has a similarly frenzied air of making up for lost time.
With Russian art, it's the same story. For centuries, Russia was epitomised by icons and onion domes, but by 1917, the country was a hothouse of artistic creativity. In painting, design and architecture, Russian artists were innovating, experimenting and open to new influences.
James tears the bubble wrap off a picture and stands it against the wall for me to admire. It's an oil painting by Natalia Goncharova. Goncharova and her husband Mikhail Larionov were part of this golden generation of Russian artists who came of age around the time of the Russian Revolution.
This summer, at Christie's Impressionist sale in London, a painting by Goncharova sold for $10.8m and became the most expensive work by a female artist sold at auction; not bad for a woman whose paintings failed to reach modest reserves as recently as 20 years ago.
When Stalin got his grip on the Soviet Union in the 1930s, the artistic flowering ended. In 1932 Socialist Realism was declared to be the only legitimate form of painting. Any artist who hoped to make a living painted happy peasants, blast furnaces, and pictures of Lenin. The art of the Russian avant-garde was relegated to store rooms. Outside Russia, a few émigrés and connoisseurs collected it. Inside Russia, there was a small circle of enthusiasts who exchanged pictures or bought them for tiny sums.
I meet one of these enthusiasts in his house in west London. Alexander Shlepyanov amassed a collection of avant-garde art in the Soviet Union, buying from other collectors inside the country, and from the families of the artists themselves. He tells me he felt that he needed to save the paintings from the communists. "It was a kind of Atlantis," he says. For collectors like him, the avant-garde was the evidence of a flourishing civilisation that had been wiped out by the commissars.
But when I ask him if he still collects, Mr. Shlepyanov looks a little sad. He says collectors like him have been priced out of the market.
James Butterwick tells me that in the past three years the prices of Russian art have gone up by as much as 400 per cent. It's not hard to figure out the reason. A new generation of super-rich collectors started buying up the works of the Russian avant-garde with the same devotion that the earlier generation painted them.
Rumour has it that Roman Abramovich, the owner of Chelsea Football Club, was the buyer of the Goncharova at Christie's. Mr Abramovich, who before 2008 had shown no interest in painting or sculpture, this summer acquired a Bacon triptych, a Lucian Freud, and a Giacometti. He also underwrote his girlfriend Darya Zhukhova's foray into the art world. Ms Zhukhova opened a modern art gallery in Moscow two weeks ago.
Of course, the former Soviet Union's new rich don't simply collect the Russian avant-garde. They buy Impressionist paintings, icons and 19th-century Russian painters such as Ivan Aivazovsky. At Sotheby's Russian Evening Sale in June, I watched as a tiny Aivazovsky snowscape sold for five times its estimate. As surprising as the sums was the manner of the bidding. As the auctioneer led the bids up towards £100,000, a gruff accented voice announced: "Two hundred thousand!"
Aivazovsky's detractors say his works are chocolate-boxy and kitsch, that his land and seascapes are an easy entry point into Russian art for new collectors with more money than taste. At the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, one of its curators, Alexis Leporc, tells me that some of the new money is indeed spent indiscriminately, buying up job lots of art. But there's precedent for it. Catherine the Great put together the massive collection that's at the heart of the Hermitage in much the same way, as part of a scheme to make Russia an imperial power.
What's perhaps strangest of all is the way the once unfavoured artists have attracted the attentions of Russia's top brass. The billionaire part-owner of Arsenal, Alisher Usmanov, Hoovered up the collection of the late Mstislav Rostropovich, the cellist and Soviet dissident. Mr Usmanov bought the entire collection of 450 paintings and works of art and returned them to Russia where they fill room after room in St Petersbur's Konstantinovsky Palace, an official residence of the Russian President. It's an imperial display that Catherine the Great would understand.
Five oligarchs who are redrawing the art world
Roman Abramovich: Billionaire owner of Chelsea Football Club, he emerged this year as the buyer of at least $120m worth of paintings. Chelsea supporters might be forgiven for wishing he'd spent the money on a couple of specialist penalty-takers. His girlfriend, Darya Zhukhova, has just opened the Centre for Contemporary Art Moscow in a converted bus garage.
Alisher Usmanov: Uzbek-born Usmanov owns 20 per cent of Arsenal football club. Last year he paid upwards of £20m to repatriate Mstislav Rostropovich's collection of Russian art.
Viktor Pinchuk: The Ukrainian oligarch Pinchuk made his fortune in the steel industry and has invested heavily in contemporary art.
Viktor Vekselberg: The Ukrainian oil and metals magnate paid an estimated £50m in 2004 for the world's second largest collection of Fabergé eggs. He also funded the repatriation of some historic Russian bells to the Danilov Monastery in Moscow. He's embroiled in a battle with BP for control of a Russian oil venture.
Pyotr Aven: Urbane and fluent English speaking, banking billionaire Aven is considered to have one of the finest collections of Russian art that is held in private hands.
Catherine the Great: Arguably set the pattern for today's oligarchs. Not Russian at all but German, she married into the Russian royal family. As empress, she collected the art that forms the centrepiece of the Hermitage, intended to emphasise Russia's new Great Power status.
Who Was Natalia Goncharova?
By KATE TAYLOR | June 26, 2007
The most expensive woman artist is one you may not have heard of until last week: the Russian avant-garde painter Natalia Goncharova. Her painting "Picking Apples" (1909) sold at Christie's Modern and Impressionist sale in London for 4.9 million pounds, or $9.8 million, besting the auction records for more famous artists like Georgia O'Keeffe and Mary Cassatt.
With one sale, a relatively obscure Russian painter has claimed the attention of the international art world, Kate Taylor writes. Above, 'Pillars of Salt,' (1908).
To a degree, the sale price, which was close to three times the high estimate, reflects peculiarities of the current art market, in which the presence of extremely wealthy Russian collectors has enhanced the value of Russian and Eastern European artists in general. (Christie's would not identify the buyer except as a private European collector.) But some scholars expressed hope last week that the record, however achieved, would attract new attention to Goncharova. She has never had a retrospective in the West, although her work has been included in group shows such as "Amazons of the Avant-Garde," at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in 2000, and the Pompidou Center in Paris in 1995 did a dual show of Goncharova and her husband, the painter Mikhail Larionov.
There are several possible reasons Goncharova is not better known in the West: Her art encompassed many styles — Cubism, Futurism, Neo-Primitivism, Rayism — and she worked in many forms, from oil painting to textile design. From the teens on, some of her major work was for the theater, designing sets and costumes for Diaghilev's Ballets Russes. And then there is the fact that "Goncharova's always spoken of together with Larionov" rather than on her own, a professor emerita at New York University, Charlotte Douglas, said. "But it seems to me that she was the better artist."
Goncharova and Larionov were prominent figures in the pre-Revolutionary Moscow avant-garde, a circle in which women commanded an unusual degree of freedom and respect. Goncharova was a radical both in art and life. She and Larionov lived together for decades as an unmarried couple. (They finally married in 1955 to ensure that whoever survived the other could inherit his or her paintings.) Larionov was very interested in tattooing. He and Goncharova would paint on their own and their friends' bodies — images, or offensive words or phrases — and then parade through the wealthiest parts of the city, or sit in cafés. They were very interested in Russia's connection to Byzantine and Asian culture and were active collectors of Japanese and Chinese prints.
While Goncharova enjoyed a great reputation as an artist, she also had several brushes with the law. She was tried for pornography after a show of nude paintings in 1910. Her religious paintings were forcibly removed from several exhibitions and for a time were banned by the Holy Synod.
Goncharova was keenly aware of artistic developments in Western Europe, but she blended them with native Russian influences, producing a unique style. "One thing she discovered was Russian color, which came from her exploration of peasant art — that is, embroideries and woodcarving and wood painting and ceramic design — and of course Russian icons," a professor at the University of Southern California and one of the curators of "Amazons of the Avant-Garde," John Bowlt, said.
"Picking Apples" is a perfect example of her cocktail of influences. It has elements of Cubism and of Gauguin, but it depicts a very Russian subject: rural gentry — a group of women, significantly — enjoying nature on their estate.
In 1914, Goncharova and Larionov went to Paris, where Goncharova designed the sets for the Ballets Russes production of "Le Coq d'Or," choreographed by Michel Fokine. When the war broke out, they went back to Russia for Larionov to do his military service, but they returned to Paris in 1917. There, they continued to support themselves by working for Diaghilev, and Goncharova gave painting lessons. Among her students were Gerald and Sara Murphy, whom she introduced to Diaghilev and Stravinsky. (A half dozen works on paper by Goncharova will be in an upcoming show at the Williams College Museum of Art, "Making It New: The Art and Style of Gerald and Sara Murphy.")
Goncharova and Larionov lived in Paris until she died in 1962. After 1929, when Diaghilev died and the Ballets Russes broke up, they struggled financially, an associate professor at Rutgers and the author of "Russian Modernism between East and West: Natalia Goncharova and the Moscow Avant-Garde," Jane A. Sharp, said. "They experienced terrible hardship for decades," Ms. Sharp said. "They were appealing to the Soviet Embassy for support and trying to get their work back" from Russia, where they had left it in their studio when they emigrated.
Goncharova was momentarily rediscovered in 1954, when the ballet critic Richard Buckle organized an exhibition on Diaghilev, and her work attracted increasing attention from scholars and curators in the 1960s and 1970s. Her legacy was complicated, however, by Larionov's second wife, Alexandra Tomalina, whom he married after Goncharova died. Tomalina had inherited both of their artwork and left all of it, on her death, to the Soviet government. After a legal battle, some works were eventually returned to France. Today, the large majority of her works from the pre-World War I period — the period of "Picking Apples" — are at the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow.
"Her good works like this are extremely rare," the head of Christie's Impressionist and Modern art department in London, Olivier Camu, said in explaining why the painting sold for so far above its estimate. "We haven't seen any on the market for a very long time." "Picking Apples" had been with the sellers, who are American collectors, since 1962.
The interest in a well-documented work like "Picking Apples" is even greater because, as Mr. Bowlt said, "the whole Avant-Garde is besieged" by fakes. Several decades of rising prices for works by the avant-garde have tempted counterfeiters, and before the fall of the Soviet Union, it was easy to concoct a false provenance for a painting.
"There's a demand for works that simply don't exist in reality in private hands, and where there is that hot, hot demand, there is going to be a supply for it," Ms. Sharp said. "There is a crisis right now in the effect the fake market is producing on scholarship," she added. "A lot of books are full of fake works, so we don't have a true sense of what the avant-garde produced. I think that's tragic."
One thing that's clear is that early 20th-century Moscow, ostensibly a conservative and authoritarian society, produced more prominent women artists — Goncharova, Alexandra Exter, Liubov Popova, Olga Rozanova, Varvara Stepanova, and Nadezhda Udaltsova — than early 20th-century Paris or London. It's "an eternal question among art historians: Why, when women in the West were so discriminated against, the women in Russia amongst the avant-garde were not, both before and after the Revolution," Ms. Douglas said.
Mr. Bowlt pointed to a strong matriarchal tradition and the legacy of Catherine the Great, as well as important institutional factors: The Imperial Academy of Arts in St. Petersburg began to admit women in 1871, and the Moscow Institute of Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture followed soon after. And the men among the avantgarde may have been particularly egalitarian in their attitudes.
"It was a combination of many circumstances, plus force of will," Mr. Bowlt said. The avant-garde "belonged to a kind of new middle class, a class that realized it was on the edge, that put stress on education, on travel. All these things come together very nicely in 1910 for these women."