Sotheby’s Moscow Sale an Opening to Soviet Art

Times Art Writer

Sotheby’s ground-breaking auction of Russian Avant-Garde and Soviet contemporary art, to be held July 7 in Moscow, will contain no bronze busts of Lenin, no paintings of blissful workers, no visual narratives on the joys of socialism. But those are about the only themes missing in the recently published catalogue for the auction.

The sale roster offers an eclectic assortment of Western-influenced styles as well as folk-flavored paintings firmly rooted in Russian tradition, but the selection is not the result of a conscious attempt to offer a varied menu. “The lack of a stylistic common denominator simply reflects the situation (in the Soviet Union),” said Simon de Pury, the firm’s European managing director and sale organizer.

Another “reflection” of the Soviet contemporary art scene is that 26 of the 119 works offered for sale were made by women, a surprisingly high proportion by Western standards. In Sotheby’s May 2 auction of American and European contemporary art in New York, only three of the 53 lots were women’s work. A sale of 63 contemporary pieces the following day at Christie’s included two by women.


“The presence of women is an interesting factor in this sale, but women have played a very large role in modern and contemporary art in Russia, much more so than in the West. Some of greatest Avant-Garde artists were women,” De Pury said in a telephone interview in his Geneva office.

One of them, Varvara Stepanova, is represented by a 1927 abstraction, two fabric designs worked out on paper (circa 1924) and a 1940 landscape.

Alexander Rodchenko, Stepanova’s husband, dominates the Avant-Garde portion of the sale with three paintings, a poster and three photographs. His 1916 oil, called “Composition,” is expected to bring the auction’s top price. Measuring only about 11x8 inches but displaying a highly sophisticated sense of visual organization, the tightly packed abstraction is estimated to fetch between $110,000 and $150,000.

Another married couple, Igor Kopystiansky and Svetlana Kopystianskaya, are represented in the contemporary part of the sale. His works include “Restored Paintings” (with a cracked, old-fashioned portrait or landscape in the center of a larger canvas) and complex arrangements of several stretched or draped canvases. Hers are landscapes and crumpled cloth works, both incorporating handwritten text.

The Avant-Garde material consists of 18 small paintings, watercolors, photographs and works on paper by five artists, including Alexander Drevin, Maria Ender and Nadezhda Udaltsova. Estimated prices run all the way from about $2,800 to $150,000. Though relatively few in number and often minor examples , these extremely rare pieces--mostly commissioned by the artists’ descendants--provide a prestigious historical context for the more plentiful contemporary pieces.

Of those, there are are 101 by 29 artists. Most live in Moscow--several within 500 meters of each other, according to De Pury--but a scattered few reside in Leningrad, Tbilisi and Lvov.


De Pury, who chose their work, said he based his selections on Western taste, as evidenced in the market, and on quality.

“I focused on artists who already have a market in the West. Some are in collections in Europe, America and Japan. Others have shown their work in galleries or in international art fairs in Paris and Chicago,” he said.

De Pury prepared a list of artists he wanted to include, then chose works either in their studios or at a church in Moscow that customarily serves as a collection point for exports. Instead of offering a vast slate of unfamiliar names, his idea was to present groups of work by a manageable number of artists.

“On the whole, the artists’ response was very positive,” De Pury said. “They see this as a major opportunity to sell their work and gain recognition. They are terribly excited to be in the sale because of the exposure.”

Among the participants are figurative artists who portray human beings in a troubling light and often echo the mood of Western Neo-Expressionism. Grisha Bruskin paints glassy-eyed automatons who display symbols in a gridded lexicon or appear as sculptures in surreal settings. The colorless people in one of Natalia Nesterova’s paintings gather around a house of cards that serves as the scene of furtive activity carried out by miniature black-suited men.

In a work by Vadim Zakharov, a frenzied man with an elephant nose jumps out of a box yelling (among other things), “You, one-eyed creature! You, ugly brute! I curse your vulgar hypocrisy.”

More restrained works include Ivan Chuikov’s gridded canvases combining squares that appear to be borrowed from other paintings. Serguei Volkov focuses on emblems of peace, knowledge and medicine, while Dimitri Plavinsky’s long, vertical panel, “Son et Lumiere,” appears to have been inspired by Chinese landscape painting.

Among traditional pieces are sweet, naively styled works based on ordinary domestic scenes, dreams or fantasies.

Estimates for the contemporary works range from around $3,500 to $28,000. Establishing prices “was not that easy,” De Pury said. “None of the works have precedents in the open market. There have been no auctions of contemporary Soviet art.

“On other hand, we knew prices of works by some of these artists that had been shown in galleries in the West. We based the estimates on that knowledge and on our reading of the quality.”

The auction will be conducted in pounds Stirling, eliminating most Soviets because they have little access to foreign currency. The Soviet government will collect 20% of the hammer price, and the artists will get the remaining 80%. Sotheby’s will follow its usual practice of charging buyers a 20% premium on the hammer price.

It’s hard to say who will attend the auction, but samplings of the work shown in New York and London have “already attracted a lot of interest,” according to De Pury.

The auction and prior exhibition of the art will be held at Moscow’s Sovincentr, a modern hall built for the 1980 Olympics. The sale room will hold about 1,000 people, but Sotheby’s expects that an overflow crowd will require an advance ticket arrangement and provisions for video viewing in adjacent rooms.

De Pury will serve as auctioneer, conducting the sale in English. But just to be safe, “I’m trying desperately to learn to count in Russian,” he said.

To encourage enlightened participation, Vals Osborne, Sotheby’s New York director of Educational Studies, has designed a weeklong seminar in Moscow. “Not a tour, but a very special study program,” it concentrates on the Soviet Union’s artistic heritage and offers opportunities to meet with artists and collectors, Osborne said.

Scholars such as John Bowlt, Kathleen Berton-Murrell and John Stuart will give lectures and conduct special tours to collections not open to the public.

“We worked very closely with the ministry of culture, and that opened all kinds of doors,” she said.

According to Osborne, Soviet officials were so impressed with the educational program that they asked her to design one for Russians--on auctions and collecting.