Is this the Jurassic Park of the art world or a protected gene-pool for the future?
Traditional figurative art still rules in many Eastern European art academies, but talent still shines through
By Simon Hewitt. Focus, Issue 254, February 2014
Published online: 12 February 2014
Nothing ever surprises me in Russia. Certainly not the knowledge that the second (and last) winner of the 2013 Plastov Awards, worth €500,000, will remain Zurab Tsereteli, that industrious purveyor of neo-Fauve paintings and mosaics, best known for giving Peter the Great the Statue of Liberty treatment in the River Moskva. He is president of the Russian Academy of Arts and, as such, oversees the country’s two most famous academies: the Repin in St Petersburg (the I. Repin St Petersburg State Academy Institute of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture) and the Surikov in Moscow (the V. Surikov Moscow State Academy Art Institute).
The St Petersburg academy, founded in 1757, occupies a grandiose, appealingly musty Neo-Classical palace by the Neva River. Its 700 full-time students follow a punishing seven-hour day, with 45 minutes for lunch. There are departments of painting, graphic art, sculpture and architecture; art history is obligatory. Painting students learn not just draughtsmanship but anatomy, perspective, composition and the “technology of painting materials.” The intensity is Ingresque.
The academy’s ebullient rector, Semyon Mikhailovsky, seldom without a cigarette in his mouth or a witticism up his sleeve, believes “we are required to pass down the skills our ancestors taught us” as “today’s generation is too concerned with concepts and means of expression”. He bemoans the situation in France, the academy’s spiritual homeland, where “everything is clever and intellectual… but art students can’t draw!”
As a former consultant to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation and organiser of an exhibition of Russian contemporary art at Art Basel Miami Beach in 2006, Mikhailovsky is one of the few art world figures to straddle the divide between academic and cutting edge. He is scathing about the travelling circus of dealers, curators, collectors, critics and artists to which he once belonged, flitting between fairs and biennials “never discussing art, just saying hello to each other and catching up with the businessmen who pay for all their fun”.
Mikhailovsky was elected rector of the academy he calls “my home” in 2010. He is also a member of Vladimir Putin’s presidential committee for culture, and extols the current regime as “the most liberal in Russian history”. As if to prove it, he brandishes the dial-less red telephone installed in the rector’s office in Soviet times, when aesthetic edicts were issued down the blower.
Not everyone in St Petersburg shares Mikhailovsky’s enthusiasm. Irina Drozd, one of the city’s brightest young artists, opted for the Stieglitz State Academy of Art and Design because she thought the Repin “would be like a prison… they even use the term ‘Picassyatina’ [an artist inspired by Picasso] as an insult!”
The Repin’s sister establishment in Moscow was only founded in 1939, and given its current name in 1948. Many of the artists sold in the city’s galleries are Surikov graduates, such as Dubossarsky & Vinogradov at Triumph, where gallery director Dmitry Khankin acknowledges that the “technique, draughtsmanship, sense of composition, use of colour and all-round skill” that artists acquire at the Surikov remain appreciated by “sophisticated clients”.
Despite Moscow’s reputation as a bastion of conceptualism, local demand is stronger for figurative art. This was in plentiful evidence at Art Moskva in September. Headlining the fair was Mikhail Blinov’s Joy of Victory, 2013—two female athletes in a lesbian embrace—along with a series of giant paintings paraded under the title “New Russian Realism”.
A swanky Institute of Russian Realist Art opened in Moscow two years ago, showing the collection of tycoon Alexey Ananyev. Another collection of Russian realism was exhibited in 2012 in St Petersburg’s Russian Museum, assembled with the help of Moscow dealer Mirjana Maricevic, who says that “the great traditions of Russian realism are still alive… some artists can stand comparison with the masters of the 19th and early 20th centuries”. Gely Korzhev’s juggernaut Lucian Freudesque nudes can attract seven-figure sums on the international market.
The academic style prevails in the Russian provinces, where the dearth of commercial art galleries means there is no contact with, or even awareness of, global trends in contemporary art. Khabarovsk, near the Chinese border, is a city of 600,000 inhabitants with no art gallery; the nearest is in Komsomolsk-on-Amur, a six-hour drive away. Vitaly Drozdov, doyen of Khabarovsk artists, is technically the finest artist I have seen, but he never sells. Or rather, he once sold a painting to a Japanese visitor and has regretted it ever since. Selling privately is against his conscience. He fondly recalls how the state set prices in Soviet times, and considers contemporary art a joke.
Further down the Trans-Siberian, in Vladivostok, artists train at the art academy and still belong to the artists’ union (Soyuz), whose city-centre premises host an airy gallery and artists’ studios and, high up on a corridor wall, a small painting of Stalin addressing a roomful of comrades, unnoticed (or perhaps revered) for decades. Although Vladivostok does have a contemporary art gallery (Arka), there is “no demand for the type of art sold in the West” reports local curator Katrin Sedykh. Instead, “tons of academic art gets sold to China”.
Thriving Chinese demand for Communist-trained figurative artists has not escaped the roving eye of Montenegran dealer Gajo Vojvodic, who will be selling works by Vojo Stanic, a student at the Belgrade Academy of Arts in the 1950s, at Poly Auction in Beijing this year. Last summer, in a savvy reverse move, Vojvodic paid for Chinese artists to visit Montenegro in return for obtaining Chinese works painted “in the new, sharp light of the Mediterranean.”
Few Eastern European dealers are as internationally minded as the Rome-based Vojvodic. Of the ten galleries in Minsk, in Belarus, nine concentrate on works by Soyuz members whose annual exhibition of young artists “feels like stepping back into the 1980s”, says Anna Chistoserdova, a director of the city’s only gallery to take part in foreign art fairs.
Some of this academic art, whatever the country, conforms to its worst cliché: kitschy, lifeless and banal. But talent will out whatever the context and, when underpinned by powerful imagination, can yield exciting results. Take the work of Viktor Sydorenko, who occupies a wonderful Constructivist studio in the grounds of Kiev’s National Ukranian Academy of Arts (of which he is vice-president); or Ievgen Petrov and Yuri Ermolenko, graduates of Ukraine’s academy and now flagship artists of Kiev’s TSEKH gallery. Owner Alexander Shchelushchenko regrets his country’s lingering devotion to academic teaching, but admits figurative art remains popular, not least among “collectors with a post-Soviet mindset, like factory bosses or local officials”.
Traditional art also continues to thrive down in the Balkans. As in Ceausescu’s day, cheerful figurative paintings smother the walls of official buildings in Romania. The country’s nouveaux riches view such art as an investment, observes Bucharest dealer Anca Potersau, and far outnumber collectors of contemporary art. Although a generation of talented artists has focused international attention on Cluj in Transylvania, the academically inclined National Arts University in Bucharest remains the country’s major hub for artistic training, counting Roman Tolici among its most talented recent alumni.
Most Bulgarian collectors also spend their money on surefire figurative artists, notes Dora Doncheva of Varna’s Bulart Gallery, and consider contemporary art “mere entertainment”. Students at the top art schools in Sofia, Varna and Veliko Tarnovo “must first learn how to use a pencil. Progressive or younger artists who don’t follow the rules do so at their own risk”. For dealers like Doncheva to thrive in such an environment requires an indomitable belief that “open-minded people curious about new trends” will morph into collectors. She takes heart from the recent creation of a digital arts department at the National Academy of Art in Sofia.
Traditional teaching remains entrenched at the Art Academy of Latvia, prompting many students to head to London, Hamburg or Belgium. Even so, admits Astrida Rinke of Riga’s Alma Gallery, some of the academy’s drawing professors—she cites Normunds Braslins, Valdis Kreslins and Dace Liela—are “powerful figurative artists”. Such art, says Rinke, remains in greatest demand because “people understand it, think it more beautiful, and appreciate its craftsmanship—it doesn’t require any intellectual background”.
The academic tradition is less forceful in Lithuania, even though the Vilnius Academy of Arts was founded back in 1793. Nonetheless, notes Jurgita Juospaityte-Bitiniene (owner of Rooster Gallery in Vilnius), figurative artists such as Zygimantas Augustinas and Algirdas Gataveckas, both graduates of the Vilnius academy, are among the most popular in Lithuania today. Figurative art duly dominates the stands at the Art Vilnius fair each summer.
“If you want to sell, do figurative,” concurs Aga Czarnecka, who used to run Czarna Gallery in Warsaw. “Collectors understand it; conceptual art is a niche—forget it!” Czarnecka is nonetheless scornful of the traditional approach of Polish art academies (bar “opened-minded” Poznan) and jokes that few artists worth their salt (she cites elegiac landscapist Magdalena Karpinska) emerge from the tedious five-year course at the Warsaw academy, where professors “are not active artists”, with their talent and enthusiasm intact.
Hungary, so often a country apart, “had the largest collector base and most vibrant art market in the former Eastern bloc,” according to Budapest gallerist Kalman Maklary. Private transactions were facilitated by a state-owned gallery chain called Kepcsarnok, which still exists, albeit now privatised and less extensive. ‰‰ Most Hungarian collectors, feels Maklary, view art as an investment and, since 2009, only trust internationally recognised Hungarian artists, led by Tibor Csernus and Etienne Sandorfi, whose example has inspired a new generation of figurative artists.
Of the former Soviet Central Asian republics, Kazakhstan boasts by far the liveliest art scene, partly, says Valeria Ibraeva (former head of the Soros Center for Contemporary Art in Almaty), because its artists are afforded more freedom by a government that craves international recognition. Despite the fleeting but dynamic impact of the Soros Center, academic teaching remains important. Ibraeva, herself a Repin graduate, acknowledges that most Kazakh buyers prefer still-lifes or landscapes with horses, yurts and steppes.
The Soviet Academic tradition reached from East Germany to North Korea, whose virulent brand of Socialist realism was given a rare foreign outing with the “Flowers for Kim Il Sung” show in Vienna in 2010. Yet the most prominent outlet for this tradition today, in terms of numbers of practitioners and collectors, is not Russia but China.
The origins of the Sino-Russian Figurative love-fest go back to February 1955, when the celebrated Socialist Realist Konstantin Maximov (1913-93), a Surikov professor, was dispatched to Beijing to run a two-year class in a field of art the very existence of which China had only just officially acknowledged—oil painting. Several of Maximov’s 20 students went on to assume key artistic positions under Mao, kickstarting a Chinese figurative boom that has blossomed ever since. Others, meanwhile, were soon chuffing along the Trans-Mongolian to the academy in what was then Leningrad, preferring it to the Surikov, claims Semyon Mikhailovsky, because of its historic building, association with the greatest Russian artist of the 19th century (Repin), and its status as the cradle of the Russian Revolution.
The Chinese are still coming, and now form the majority of the Repin Academy’s 300 foreign students. Mikhailovsky is delighted, as “they pay very good money, over twice as much as Russians,” he says with a chuckle. But he denies a mercenary approach: the academy waived fees for Japanese students after the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Its foreign intake also includes occasional Americans, such as Ilya Mirochnik and Jim Sondow, both graduates of the Bridgeview School of Fine Arts in New York (where the aims are similar to those of the New York Academy of Art, founded to “foster a resurgence in the training of figurative and representational art”). The US makes a good market for Repin teachers. Take drawings professor Nikolai Blokhin, whose Fechin-style females won him a Grand Prize from the American Society of Portrait Artists in 2002; his recent series of giant, swirling views of Chicago, evocative of Turner and Monet, are among his works sold by several American galleries.
But China is the academicians’ El Dorado. “It’s a big market for realist art,” says Mikhailovsky. “All our teachers sell there.” They include painting professor Yuri Kalyuta who has had solo shows in Shenyang, Qingdao, Hangzhou, Shanghai and Beijing. The Repin academy is even preparing to open an offshoot in Shenzhen, near the border with Hong Kong.
Meanwhile, last December, Mikhailovsky hosted an assembly of international art academies in St Petersburg. “We want to integrate the world!” he proclaims. His enthusiasm is infectious; where it will lead remains to be seen.
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