It’s that time of the summer when the auction houses of London focus the Art of Russia (see Russian Art Week Summer 2021 | Russian Art + Culture (russianartandculture.com)) which is always a delicious nosegay of paintings from across Russia and Russian history. Anyone following my little Russian Art & Artists research course will, hopefully, enjoy browsing the online galleries, especially as there are pictures, even by the most celebrated artists, that are rarely seen in public (especially in Britain) because they’re in private collections.
It means too that, for the common viewer, one begins imagining which paintings to buy in the creation of a personal collection (imaginary cheque books at the ready!) – I have chosen three:
I would have to start with this glorious painting by Ivan Shishkin: “Forest Road” (1896) at MacDougall‘s. I love the way (as with many artists of the 19th century Wanderers movement) the path comes right up to the lower frame, as a viewer one feels invited in, as if already walking along, enjoying the light, the air and the colours of the forest.
Here, as in many of Shishkin’s best works, there is no pursuit of a beautiful motif or exalted tone yet, for all its apparent simplicity, Forest Road enchantingly evokes the mysterious depths of the Central Russian forest landscape so familiar to everyone, as well as the natural progression of the muted light, and the emotional and expressive quality of the artistic language.
That suggestion of ‘mysterious depths’ calls to the ancient history of Russia, the wildness of its interior lands, even evoking the traditions of story-telling, the grand legends and folk-tales.
My second ‘imaginary acquisition’ is – and this will surprise no-one! – a painting by Natalia Goncharova: The Life of the Holy Martyrs Florus and Laurus from 1913 and on sale at Sotheby‘s. For all the radical difference of Goncharova’s art from that of Shishkin, they share the same catalyst for their work: the traditions of Russia. Here, Goncharova explores the story of two Orthodox saints from the Russian Icon tradition.
Florus and Laurus are known as protectors of horses and have been important for the Russian peasantry. In both its form and subject matter, the work therefore continues Goncharova’s exploration of peasant traditions
say Sotheby‘s in their Catalogue Note. With its simplified forms, bright colours and decorative elements (the flowers top right) Goncharova connects folk art and visual culture with avant-garde modernism.
Now this might come as a surprise! Ivan Andreev’s “Pig Farm” is undated and, on sale at Sotheby‘s, sadly there are no additional notes. But surely it is from the ‘heroic’ / ‘working class impressionism’ period of 1950s Socialist Realism? Everyday life is recognised as worthy of monumental representation, the lives of the happy, healthy worker-citizens gloried in sunlight and even pig farming is an honoured part of Soviet collective productivity. Of course we can see it is ‘propaganda’: Socialist Realist artists were closely circumscribed in their art even after the demise of Stalin, both in the subject matter and style; and yet, I find there is something immensely satisfying in Andreev’s painting.
If you want to explore further, the websites are:
Sotheby’s: Russian Pictures (sothebys.com)
Christie’s: Browse Lots (christies.com)
MacDougall’s: MacDougall’s Auction | Home (macdougallauction.com)
and Bonhams: Bonhams : The Russian Sale
And if you are following the Russian Art & Artists research series here on The Common Viewer, our next ‘episode’ (to be published 12th June) will be on Russian Icons and the Art of Kandinsky.