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Russian market for old art sees new life

Y. Kugach        1995        June Green

By David Holley, Los Angeles Times | April 29, 2007
 
MALYY GORODOK, Russia -- The painting exudes the sweet softness of idyllic village life: A mother, towel wrapped around her head, braids her daughter's hair while a young woman draws a red comb through her own tresses. A girl in a dark dress carries a samovar for tea, a little girl drinks from a white cup, and a cat makes its presence known.
 
Yuri Kugach, 90, still remembers the inspiration for one of his most famous paintings. He was visiting the home of a fisherman when he saw the women of the house making themselves up after a visit to the banya, or Russian-style steam bath.
 
"I said to myself, 'This is a painting,'" he recalled four decades later.
 
Today, his works and those of other Soviet painters who produced technically skilled art in the happy-worker style often dubbed Socialist Realism are riding a wave of popularity. In a development that bygone communist leaders might not have found amusing, wealthy Moscow capitalists are sharply bidding up prices -- as high as $200,000 -- as they scramble to acquire pieces.

"He started painting the rituals of daily life...'It was not just village life for me,' he said."
Kugach's life as one of the most well-known Soviet artists was cemented more than half a century ago when he moved into the home of a peasant family in this tiny lakeside village surrounded by birch and pine forests 250 miles northwest of Moscow.
 
He has been based here ever since, creating landscapes and some overtly political works such as paintings glorifying Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, but above all chronicling the life of peasants in a style that emphasized the satisfying aspects of their existence, such as the scene of women and girls after enjoying the banya.


The Wanderers

P. Petrovichev     1926    On the Volga River, Near Yaroslavl

Peredvizhniki, often called The Wanderers or The Itinerants in English, were a group of Russian realist artists who in protest at academic restrictions formed an artists' cooperative which evolved into the Society for Traveling Art Exhibitions in 1870.
 
The society formed in 1870 in St. Petersburg under Ivan Kramskoi, Grigoriy Myasoyedov, Nikolai Ge and Vasily Perov's initiative during a struggle of the avant-garde art forces of the country for democratic ideals, and in a counterbalance to the official center of art - the St.Petersburg Academy of Arts. The society developed the best traditions of the Artel of Artists headed by Kramskoi, who became the leader of the new association.
 
Peredvizhniki were influenced by the public and aesthetic views of Vissarion Belinsky and Nikolai Chernyshevsky.

As realist artists they showed
the many-sided characters of social life,
often with critical tendency.
From 1871 to 1923 the society arranged 48 mobile exhibitions in St.Petersburg and Moscow, after which they were shown in Kiev, Kharkov, Kazan, Orel, Riga, Odessa and other cities.
 
As realist artists they showed the many-sided characters of social life, often with critical tendency. Their art showed not only poverty but also the beauty of folk way of life; not only suffering but also fortitude, strength of characters. In the humanistic art of Peredvizhniki there was resolute condemnation of the Russian autocratic orders; the emancipation movement of Russian people was shown with empathy (The Arrest of Propagandist; Refuse from Confession; Not Expected by Ilya Yefimovich Repin). The most important meaning in their art was social-urban life, and later in historic art depicting the people (The Morning of the Execution of Streltsy by Vasily Surikov).
 
The Peredvizhniki's society, during their blossoming (1870-1890), developed an increasingly wider scope, and increasing naturalness and freedom of the images. In contrast to the traditional dark palette of the time, they chose a freer, wider manner with a lighter palette in depicting light. They aimed for naturalness in their images, and depiction of peoples relationship with their surroundings.



G. Gorelov      1930      Portrait of Dr. Pavlov

"They served their very own understanding of perfection, beauty, and truth. They did it faithfully, selflessly, and with the highest level of honesty. They were people of absolute artistic integrity. This is why their works struck the chord with the people at the time just as much as they will forever. They left a lasting legacy."
  -Alexey Steele
   Ukraine Native, Surikov Graduate Art Historian


In 1863, more than a decade before Monet, Degas and Cezanne broke from the French Academy to stage their first Impressionist exhibition in Paris, a small group of Russian painters — in a comparably significant act in art history — staged their own protest against the straitjacket of heroic neoclassicism.

That year, Ivan Kramskoy (1827-1887) and 14 other young painters left the St. Petersburg Academy of Art, founded by Catherine the Great, to form the Peredvizhniki, or Association of Traveling Art Exhibits.

Named for their determination to display their works to non-aristocrats unwelcome at academic exhibitions, these Wanderers or Itinerants, as Kramskoy and his colleagues came to be known, were united by something more profound than their desire to bring their paintings to the Russian people.

Establishing their own cooperative workshop, called the Artel, these artists sought to depict the Russian people themselves: serfs, artisans, and soldiers, in their own time and place, as they actually lived their lives.

In contrast with the Academy (whose proposed topic for its 1863 exhibit was "The Entrance of Odin into Valhalla"), the Wanderers wished to paint contemporary Russian scenes realistically.

Only in retrospect does their emergence seem inevitable, as this was a time of great questioning of many aspects of Russian life. The landed aristocracy was under attack as never before, and only two years earlier, the country's 23 million serfs were liberated.


"They breathed new life into the realist tradition, inspiring and mentoring the next generation of great Russian painters."
This was a period of great ferment in the arts as well. In literature, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky and Turgenev probed the depths of the Russian mind and soul, while composers such as Mussorgsky, Borodin and Rimsky-Korsakov celebrated the Russian experience in a bold and nationalistic idiom.

In the visual arts, the Itinerants artists cast an unflinching, yet deeply humanistic gaze at Russia itself — its seemingly endless expanses of forests and farms and the peasants who lived and worked on them. Among the greatest of these painters were Ilya Repin (1844-1930) and Vasily Surikov (1848-1916), whose names are now synonymous with the first flowering of Russian Realism.

Before the Russian Revolution, Repin and Surikov and their lesser-known contemporaries produced landscapes, genre paintings, historical works, and portraits of astonishing immediacy and verisimilitude, many infused with moral and political overtones.

Equally important, they breathed new life into the realist tradition, inspiring and mentoring the next generation of great Russian painters.

Remaining faithful to their art throughout the uncertainties of Stalinist rule, this new generation produced the greatest paintings of the Soviet era — paintings whose refined quality has only recently been recognized by the West.

It is these paintings and painters in which Lazare specializes. Over a span of 10 years, Kathy and John Wurdeman have brought more than 2,000 paintings from Russia to this country for the first time.


N. Sergeyev        1957        Untitled
That these paintings are special is now well established. The heroic perseverance of the men and women who painted them, however, is only beginning to be appreciated. From the earliest days of the Artel, the Wanderers' disdain for the official patronage of St. Petersburg's aristocracy, and their identification with the rising middle classes, engendered the hospitality of the authorities, who subjected them to police surveillance and harassment.

The Russian Realists were no mere rebels against convention, deliberately courting controversy. On the contrary, they were supremely disciplined artists whose primary interest was their work. Arguably more dedicated to technical mastery than the other artists of their times, they passed along Old World standards in a highly disciplined mentor-to-apprentice system. This system preserved the exacting standards of the Russian Realist tradition through the Soviet era to the present day.

Judging from the works of artists such as Gavril Gorelov (1880-1966), Gennady Korolev (1913-1995), Alexanderliech Fomkin (1924-1999) and Yuri Kugach (1917-present), whose paintings are displayed at Lazare Gallery, the tradition is as strong today as it was when Kramskoy, Repin and Surikov lived.

The Realists' artistic conservatism has never shielded them from political persecution, however. Through periods of political harassment and sudden swings in artistic fashion, Russian Realism's practitioners never strayed from their vision.


"To this day, Russian Realist paintings have never been more popular."
The Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 and the rise of artistic modernism, for example, was a time of great crisis for the Realists. Their subjects and their treatment of those subjects completely fell from favor. Fashionable instead were avant-garde artists who embraced a primitivist aesthetic that, inspired by folk art, reveled in the abstract and non-figurative. Artists like Marc Chagall (1887-1985) and Vasily Kandinsky (1866-1944) challenged bourgeois notions of art and culture, rejecting Realism and representational art.

The rise of the avant-garde — represented in Russia by the so-called Futurists — posed a political as well as artistic challenge to the Realists. After the Russian Revolution, the Futurists proclaimed themselves to be the true Marxist artists, dedicated to a revolt against all allegedly bourgeois values, including artistic traditionalism.

During their heyday, the Futurists seized control of museums and art schools. The Realists either fled the country or, when they remained in Russia, painted in impoverished seclusion. Their schools were dissolved by the government, and the artists themselves were denied access to paints, brushes, canvasses and other tools of their trade. Still, they persisted.

The Russian people, however, never embraced the Futurists, who soon fell from favor with the government, which found them arrogant, idiosyncratic, and unmanageable and their painting intentionally obscure. "Painting," Stalin proclaim, in one of his few pronouncements about art, "should be realistic in nature and Socialist in content."


M. Sokolov    1958    A Mill on the River Ozerkye
By the early 1930s, the Communist regime explicitly repudiated futurism, Cubism and other forms of "decadent" art, proclaiming that the highly ideological school of Socialist Realism to be the only acceptable form of artistic expression. These governmental directives ushered in not only a new era in the history of Russian art and culture, but also a period in which the West had little understanding of realities behind what would become known, after 1946, as the Iron Curtain.

Once thought to be an artistic Dark Age in the Soviet Union, the Soviet Era was in fact one of significant cultural advancement. Eager for his country to demonstrate cultural as well as technological development, Stalin, beginning in the early 1930s, recognized the need for the return of the intelligentsia, thus began subsidizing the finest art, music, and dance schools.

The education of painters was given highest priority, and the Surikov Institute in Moscow soon emerged as one of the greatest schools of traditionalist art in the world. When the Nazis invaded Russia in 1941, Stalin's government, in a move unprecedented in world history, evacuated the most revered artists and students from the Surikov, who were sent to safety in Samarkand, Uzbekistan.

The Lazare Gallery has been successful in collecting many works of the most talented of these so-called "Samarkand artists." Their work has come to be appreciated in the West in recent years. The sublime artistry of these paintings offers a rebuttal to the unfounded belief, once popular in the West, that the Soviet era produced only kitschy works of the Socialist Realism school.

Some Soviet artists produced such works, it is true, but Russian Realism survived Stalinist efforts to turn painters into propagandists. Their survival can be traced to the courage and dedication of its painters themselves. It has endured because these painters possess consummate technical expertise. In a time when the flamboyantly obscure is prized for its own sake, they have consistently produced representational art that is immediately accessible to the viewing public and also of transcendent beauty.


G. Korolev       1945       Pyendzkentskaya Street
Russian Realism has endured for another reason as well. In Russia, unlike much of Europe, the most accomplished painters deem it a great honor to participate in the continuation of the progression of past master artist's passing on their knowledge in art schools and universities. There they provide intense and uncompromising training to promising painters of the next generation.

At the greatest of these institutions — the Surikov State Academic Institute of Art in Moscow and the Repin State Academic Institute in St. Petersburg — graduates of four-year programs at elite preparatory colleges undergo six years of intense, competitive, traditional training. Since the early 1930's, there is no more exacting education for painters.

To this day, Russian Realist paintings have never been more popular with the Russian people, and the painters themselves enjoy greater prestige in their homeland than doctors, lawyers, political leader and military heroes.

The high standards, technical virtuosity and enduring appeal of Russian Realism become immediate and vividly apparent at Lazare Gallery.