Soviet Art wasn’t just Socialist Realism
Interview by John Harrison
Leonid Shishkin and his gallery are well known to many foreigners in Moscow who are interested in Soviet art. At the end of April, he opened a new gallery space in the atrium of the salubriously redecorated Ukraine Hotel. Paintings by Zinaida Serebryakova, Pyotr Konchalovsky, Yuri Pimenov and Alexandre Deineka’s adorn the walls. It is slightly shocking to see many works by these masters that I had previously seen only in art text-books hanging right in front of my eyes. But the everyman approach is misleading, some of these works have five or six figure (in dollars) price tags. John Harrison talked to Leonid about his life’s work.
Why did you move to this hotel?
I would never move to any other hotel. This is the only hotel I could move to because it is quintessentially Soviet, one of Stalin’s ‘wedding cakes’. Also, the new owners of the hotel have made a special point of presenting all 1,400 pieces of their collection of Soviet paintings and sculptures, which were mostly created in the 1950s, when the hotel was constructed, thus raising the etiquette and awareness of this period of culture in Moscow.
Why do you specialise in Soviet Art?
I used to be a journalist and worked for the magazine, Soviet Union. The magazine covered a lot of cultural themes, but it was all the official side, and I hated it. All my friends were underground painters, such as Nikolay Smirnov, and they suggested that I stage an exhibition highlighting the underground art of the time.
I organised my first exhibition in 1987 in Prague, and I exhibited the work of all my non-conformist artist friends. It was successful. At about the same time I travelled around Russia, and returned to my home city Ekaterinburg. When I was living there I brought a few European landscapes, from one of the most famous artists of those days, just because I liked them. I came to understand that there was a huge difference between the artists of the older generation, who were taught by people who received their education before the revolution, and the new generation of artists. I began to understand that their work was of very good quality, and they were conscientious.
As for my friends, I know most of them were inspired by Polish art magazines, where they saw contemporary art that was not really so difficult to produce. I started to buy and collect Soviet Art. Just at that time, during Perestroika, an Italian antique dealer, Marco Datrino came to Russia with the idea of exporting Russian antiques. It was only when he got here did he find out that it was impossible to take antiques out of the country, and he wasn’t exactly bowled over by contemporary art. I showed him some Soviet art of the 1950s. He said: “Oh, I like this.” I sourced some paintings for his first big exhibition of this kind of art in 1990 in his gallery in Turin. We organised exhibitions in Turin together for three years. The first year was successful, the second was half as successful, and the third year, not successful.
About this time, I made the acquaintance of Dmitry Nalbandyan. He was a very famous artist in Soviet times, but the intelligentsia and the artists didn’t like him because he was the only artist whom Stalin posed for. He also painted Khrushchev and Brezhnev, so he was a high-class court painter.
During Perestroika, I saw an article in Ogonyok magazine about him, which associated him with Soviet times and was pretty negative. I decided to go and see him, something that I could never have done before, as he was way too high for me. He son and wife had died, and he was a lonely old man. We had a long talk. He was a brilliant guy. Nobody liked him because they accused him of being a conformist during the Soviet Union. He actually was a foreigner, from Georgia. His attitude was that he simply wanted to be successful. He wasn’t too concerned about who was in power.
I started to buy his paintings, which he sold very cheaply. That is how I got into dealing Soviet art.
Please tell me more about Soviet Art
It is a strange that the Soviet period is only known for one school of painting: Socialist Realism. In fact there were at least four different styles. Before the Soviet period, up to about 1920, the major schools in Russia were classicism as in the peredvizhniki school, and the Moscow impressionist school. Soviet art absorbed these and turned impressionism into Soviet impressionism, and the peredvizhniki into socialist realism. There was also the avant-garde movement as personified by Pyotr Konchalovsky, Aristarkh Lentulov, Alexandre Kuprin and the ‘Jack of Diamonds School’. This was a mixture of post-impressionism and Cezannism. Then there was constructivism, with artists like Yuri Pimenov and Alexandre Deineka, who were young in the twenties, and who were influenced by German expressionism and Art Deco.
All of these four trends were mixed up, and collectively, it became known as Soviet Art. All the key players were full members of the Academy of Art, as were traditional artists like Arcady Plastov and Sergey Gerasimov. So the style of the art was individual. The only thing that united these artists was that paintings were commissioned officially. There were five or six established subjects: people struggling for their rights, chiefs with the people and with banners, people very happily working hard, some still lifes and landscapes, and some genre painting with very happy Soviet people. All the paintings in this hotel, for example, belong to the still life and landscape categories. That’s why it’s rather boring.
During the Soviet Union, I hated Socialist Realism. But during Perestroika, when I saw the new Russian contemporary painting as a protest against all that, I reappraised Soviet art.
Who buys Soviet Art?
Before 2000, only foreigners bought Soviet art, but starting in 2000, Russian buyers began to appear. However the market for Russian clients is not Soviet art, if they do buy Soviet art, it will only be the big names they are interested in, for example that theatre sketch by Yuri Pimenov [Leonid points to a painting on a wall on sale for $250,000] or Zinaida Serebryakova, Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin, artists who are selling at the big international auctions in London and elsewhere. One of my ideas is to hold auctions in this hotel.
Are you able to keep on selling through this crisis?
The major downturn was from September 2008 until November 2009, but already in December 2009, the market was picking up again, and we have already held successful auctions this year. The market is constantly changing. Because of the internet, Russians from the provinces have started to bid, and buy. The Russian market is bigger for us than the foreign market. But I still need foreigners to fill the auction house in Moscow. Most of the auctions are on a Saturday, and most Russians are at their dachas, so they bid over the telephone. But it is not possible to have an auction if nothing is happening here.
What period would you recommend to foreigners who are here for a short time and who are starting out as collectors?
A lot depends on whether you are buying for pleasure or for investment. In Russia, the problem is that foreigners don’t know that there is a huge amount of Soviet Art. Marco Datrino thought, “I will buy 1,000 paintings and then I will have them all, everyone will come to me and buy my paintings.” But he didn’t know that there are not only 1,000 Soviet paintings in this country, even not only one million! In no period of history in any one country was such a huge amount of money invested in artists. We had about 20 art institutes which produced each year at least 20 – 30 artists. In the 19th century there were about 2,000 members of the Guild of Artists. In the Soviet Union, there were about 6,000 members of the Union of Artists. Artists received a modest salary, a studio, free materials, and had to present one painting a year in an official exhibition, and they could sell in exhibitions as well.
So how do you make the decision who to buy?
It is difficult, because the most well known names are already out of the market, and they are very expensive. There are a lot of artists who people do not yet know, take for example Nikolay Timkov, a painter from St. Petersburg, good quality work but not famous. His paintings sell for up to $5,000 but no more. The secret is to find out who is going to be promoted and buy that artist’s paintings.
How do you find out who is going to be promoted?
It is down to market knowledge and advice. It is a good idea to talk to somebody who is already investing money, to learn from him or her. It is difficult to make it alone.
Buying art is infectious. I always tell people who start buying: be careful, you will want to buy more and more. What is happening is that most of the revolutionary art has been sold out of the country, now we are busy buying it back from the West. Non-conformist Soviet art, for example, is all in the West, not here. There are more and more people who want to own such art, I think that this process will carry on for ever. In decades to come, people will start to wake up and want to buy back Soviet Art.