London galleries bank on rush for Russian art

LONDON (Reuters) - London’s auction houses have long been attuned to billionaire tycoons from the former Soviet bloc snapping up art and spurring a boom in prices, at least until the credit crunch struck.

Recent moves into Russian art by galleries in the city are more permanent and public, however, with two major exhibitions planned over the spring and a new gallery dedicated to modern and contemporary Russian works opening soon after.

At least part of the point is to tap wealthy Russians who have taken up residence in Britain and may want to acquire a piece of their heritage. There is already a specialist Russian art auction house, MacDougall’s, catering to that clientele.

But, say those behind the Aktis gallery, it is not only about the money.

“We see it partly as an educational place for Russians who previously couldn’t see the work of artists living abroad,” said Anna Chalova, managing director of the new showroom which opens in the upmarket St. James area of central London this spring.

Aktis will concentrate on 20th century Russian artists who lived and worked abroad, and the owners already have a collection of paintings ready to go on sale.

Chalova said funding came from a range of private sources, but that there was no dominant backer.

“It was very important for us as Russians living abroad,” she added in an interview. “We believe that through studying the history of our own art we can understand our own world better and maybe that will be important to other Russians.”


Every year Aktis also plans a retrospective dedicated to a living Russian artist who works abroad, and on February 23 they will launch the new gallery with a two-week show of works by Vladimir Yankilevsky staged in a temporary space.

In April, the Haunch of Venison contemporary gallery, owned by the world’s leading auctioneer Christie’s, presents “Glasnost: Soviet Non-Conformist Art from the 1980s.”

“This exhibition will be the first major survey of Soviet non-conformist art ever to be shown in Britain,” said curator Nina Miall.

“Our intention is to communicate the ... stylistic diversity and vital underground spirit that pervaded the unofficial art being made at this transformative moment in Russia’s history.”

Yankilevsky, 72, was one of a group of early Soviet non-conformist, “underground” artists who worked outside the official Socialist realism genre and often suffered as a result.

His art, along with that of his peers, was dismissed as “degenerate” by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev when it went on display at the 1962 “Manege” exhibition in Moscow, but Yankilevsky said he was never a political artist.

“It (Soviet attitude to unofficial art) did not influence my work at all except in terms of materials,” he told Reuters in a recent interview.

“I was very introverted and just got on and lived my life. Even if I was in some way involved, I always had the impression I was looking in on the political scene as if from outside.”

Yankilevsky describes his art as “universal” rather than Soviet, dealing with the human condition through a combination of the figurative and abstract, sculpture and painting.

Among his most recognisable works are triptychs, with a female form on the left, a male form on the right and a long, abstract space, or “dialogue” between them.

Asked what he thought of modern and contemporary art works selling for seven- and even eight-figure sums at auction, Yankilevsky replied with a shrug that the proof was in time.

In a hundred years, most of today’s most valuable artists will have vanished into obscurity, he added.

Editing by Paul Casciato