The Oriel Gallery (Dublin) in association with Sokol Fine Art (London)
New Russian Painting
1 – 24 November 2005
17 Clare Street, Dublin 2, Ireland
LESS THAN a decade ago Russian painters were something of an artistic underclass in the world of mainstream western art. Two first-hand anecdotes to illustrate:
First, a distinguished Russian academic sold two or three canvases, for modest sums, through a London gallery. Encouraged, he sent more, but these did not move. The relationship petered out in that embarrassing series of disappointments and fudged phone calls that invariably characterise such changes of artistic fortune.
The second involves a conversation I had with a specialist in the Modern Painting department of a leading London auction house. We were discussing what was fashionable, what was selling, and what was not. She offered one hard-and-fast rule: "Almost anything good will sell - provided, of course, that it's not Russian."
All that was back in 1999.
Now, the demand for Russian art in all categories - medieval icons, modern masters, contemporary painting - is so great as to exceed supply. Prices are up. Art fairs sell out their stock of contemporary Russian paintings on opening night. Specialists in the larger auction houses dedicate themselves to Russian art, overseeing not one but several authorities to cope with the demand for expertise in a variety of different genres and periods.
In one way, this development is the result of events outside the art world: the rise of a Russian moneyed class, and that general improvement in communications that has allowed local trends to become international. But if we are to give proper credit to the importance of this new artistic school (for that is what it is), we must recognise that it emerged years, if not decades, before collectors and curators acknowledged its existence, never mind its importance.
Few of us were innocent of this western-art chauvinism. While I might have been startled at the London specialist's directness, I shared her difficulty in putting Russian art into any kind of context, or appreciating its importance. What, after all, did any of us know of Russian twentieth century art, apart perhaps from that old joke about the tired imagery of Socialist Realism? The standard version, told apparently by a state-employed muralist, goes something like this: "With Impressionism you paint what you see; with Expressionism you paint what you feel; with Socialism Realism you paint what you hear."
The joke may sum up the official art of the Soviet Union, certainly during its communist heyday. But what of the period after the fall of East Berlin in 1989? And what of the great era before the Stalinist purge of the 1930s?
The School of Paris was hardly French. It may well have been Spanish, or German, or Dutch, or Scandinavian, or Italian. It was certainly, amongst other things, Russian.
The penniless Pablo Picasso, stumbling across the chaotic artistic ferment of Paris in 1900, was soon to exchange influences with painters of all the above nationalities. But it was the giants of Russian and eastern European art - Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Naum Gabo, El Lissitzky, and above all the towering figures of Wassily Kandinsky and Kasimir Malevich - who returned the punch of Paris modernism (and specifically Picasso's Cubism) with as good as they got, and better.
In this short aide memoire there is not the space to outline the history, nor the extraordinary extent, of the Russian influence on modernism. But it was essential, and it never went away. Indeed, the rise of Josef Stalin does not conveniently divide that influence into Good and Bad. The 1930s purges may have made life miserable for many; but it was Stalin's own revolutionary fervour that inspired the first authentic twentieth-century Russian school, the Constructivists; and which inspired its pioneers - Tatlin, Gabo, Pevsner - to take Picasso's junkyard playfulness and bend it to a serious study of applied aesthetics in the machine age. The Constructivists even imagined that artists could use a Cubist vocabulary, and industrial methods, to create a more pleasant environment, a better, more equal society. Their ideas may now seem naive yet, as refined and propagated by the Bauhaus (who employed many post-Stalin Constructivist exiles), they survive in art, industrial design and mass culture to the present day.
Similarly, Soviet Realism may have produced a vast acreage of officially approved canvases reflecting a fantasy life of happy workers and prosperous peasants, but at least it kept the craft of painting alive. One glance at the work of Dmitry Lisichenko reveals that part of that tradition - the rigour, the respect for paint, the formal mastery - is as useful to an expressive and disturbing genre painter like Lisichenko as it is to a state propagandist.
It is above all the austere figure of Kasimir Malevich who provides definitive proof of what western art owes to the Russians. In Cubism and Abstract Art, Alfred H. Barr settles the matter in no uncertain terms:
In the history of abstract art Malevich is a figure of fundamental importance. As a pioneer, a theorist and an artist he influenced not only a large following in Russia but also, through Lissitzky and Moholy-Nagy, the course of abstract art in Central Europe. He stands at the heart of that movement which swept westward from Russia after the war and, mingling with the Dutch De Stijl group, transformed the architecture, furniture, typography and commercial art of Germany and much of Western Europe.
The paradox is, of course, that with the thorough reductionism of Malevich, the world of modernism was given a foreshadowing - as early as 1918, with his white-on-white squares - of the dead end that hard-edged abstraction would reach in the 1950s. In a sense that makes the Russian legacy even more important: their tradition of artistic and intellectual rigour, their native toughness, their unwillingness to compromise, settled the problems of modernism nearly a hundred years before the rest of us — settled it, that is, by cannily predicting the fact (and even the manner) of its eventual demise.
From all of this I draw a heretical conclusion: that in the 1930s, the Russian political and cultural establishment destroyed freedom but preserved craft and that, of the two, craft has turned out to be the more important, at least insofar as art history is concerned.
In Stalin's Russia, massive resources were placed at the disposal of those whose job was to continue the great western pictorial tradition dating back to the Renaissance. Few outside that country even bothered to notice that this tradition was in danger of being lost, or rather destroyed. Only a few weeks before this Oriel Gallery exhibition was due to open, David Hockney (in a newspaper interview) recollected the official distaste for drawing in his early days in the Royal College of Art, and his own futile protests at the time. Some thirty years later, Andy Warhol, reaching much the same conclusions as Hockney, founded and backed a small academy in New York, staffed by seasoned academics, to teach the art of drawing.
Elsewhere in the world, during the Hockney/Warhol era, some had never lost what a few eccentric westerners were trying so belatedly to restore: look around at the work of Semion Kojin, Maria Stcherbinina, Amir Timergaleev, and Dmitry Lisichenko. These people can paint — but their art is hard-won, born of years studying a craft that is itself a product of centuries. They, like their predecessors, were born into a world of modern art forged in the crucible of Cezanne and Picasso. At the same time, they are thoroughly modern in a way that often has little to do with post-Cubist, machine-age faceting and simplifying.
"What matters about Cezanne," according to Picasso, "is his anxiety."
These Russian painters conjure up an age of anxiety in a pictorial language influenced by the turbulent twentieth century but rooted, uniquely, in the past.