By John Helmer, Moscow
For the first time in the international art auction market, paintings of the Soviet period between 1930 and 1990 have been auctioned in London, setting market benchmarks for several of the styles and genres included in the show, and a multi-million pound record for Aleksandr Deineka, a Moscow-based artist who died in 1969. According to William MacDougall, director of the eponymous auction house with offices in London, Moscow, Paris and Kiev, “the market [demand] for Soviet Art is rising, and it was a very successful sale.”
“Nothing short of a miracle”, commented James Butterwick, a London art dealer and specialist on Russian art. “Hats off to MacDougall’s for having the foresight and bravery to…sell Soviet Realist art. There are regular auctions in Moscow, though admittedly their quality is not as good, and they have never had such good results.”
“MacDougall’s could be on to something,” reported Simon Hewitt , international editor of Russian Art + Culture. “Until now, mainstream Soviet painting – broadly equating to Socialist Realism, though extending into the ‘Soviet Impressionism’ of the 1950s and ‘Severe Style’ of the 1960s – has looked a poor relation when sandwiched in auction catalogues between the Avant-Garde and the Non-Conformists. Parading it centre-stage grants it fresh coherence and respectability, underlining its nostalgic motherland appeal to Russians who cannot afford an Ayvazovsky or a Shishkin… Things needed shaking up. MacDougall’s have delivered.”
The auction was held in London on October 12. There were 175 lots in the sale, which also included posters and porcelain. Just over half the lots were sold; the total sales figure came to £3.7 million ($6 million). This was a significantly better result than MacDougall’s realized from its Russian Art Week auction in June; its results then, along with the other London auctions of Russian art, can be read here . Here is MacDougall’s catalogue  of Soviet art for last month’s sale; and here are the results . In March  of this year MacDougall’s had set a record for its auction of pre-revolutionary and Soviet-era porcelains.
Most of the sellers of the Soviet paintings were non-Russians, including Europeans and Americans. The advance announcement by the auction house identified one of the collections of works for sale as having been “assembled by a French diplomat of Russian origin… most of them were gifts to the collector from the artists themselves.” According to William MacDougall, “in most of our auctions the majority of works come from the West and the majority go to Russia or Ukraine, so we are returning the heritage. [In the Soviet auction] the majority of buyers were Soviet-born Russians, and though sometimes they buy for their homes in the West, the majority normally take their purchases back to Russia.”
The top-10 Russian painters in realized value at the auction were Deineka (£2.3 million); Konstantin Maksimov (£251,000); Nikolai Terpsichorov (£111,360); Aleksandr Labas (£99,750); Georgy Nissky (£87,320); Yuri Pimenov (£84K); Valery Koshlyakov (£56,224), Vladimir Weisberg (£46,800); Viktor Popkov (£39,000); Dmitry Krasnopevtsev (£23,400); and Boris Sveshnikov (£23,400).
The lead image (above left), “Mushrooms” by Alexei Gritsai (1950-88) was priced between £15,000 and £20,000, but did not sell. Maksimov’s “Study for a Painting of a Meeting of the Presidium of the USSR Academy of Sciences”, fetched £4,320, well above its estimated range.
Heterosexual peeping was in demand from collectors at the top end – Deineka’s “Behind the Curtain” (1933) (below, left) reached a record of £2,248,200, while Weisberg’s “Reclining Nude” (1974-79) sold at £46,800.
But the bottom-end demand was flaccid. Boris Kustodiev’s pencil and watercolour sketch depicting intercourse in the phallo-Japanese style, failed to sell in its estimated range of £35,000 to £40,000. Nikolai Gladkiy’s “Seated Nude” didn’t make £3,000. Grigory Chainikov’s painting of a naked lady wiping her feet at her banya (estimated at £15,000) also failed, though her toes were better executed than Kustodiev’s . Vladislav Mamyshev-Monroe’s drag version of the last Soviet Politburo (clothes on) managed to sell at the bottom of its estimated range (£7,150).
Deineka is much better known, according to the catalogue, as a “tireless proselytiser of his socialist homeland, which he glorified in awe-inspiring images of war, patriotism, labour, and sport. Deineka’s masterpieces, such as The Defence of Petrograd (1927), Mother (1932), Future Pilots (1937), The Defence of Sevastopol (1942) and In the South (1966) have become essential classics for generations of Russians. It would be hard to point to an artist who was more recognizable or definitive of the Soviet era.” Muscovites know him very well, if not by name, as the creator of the ceiling mosaics decorating Mayakoskaya metro station in the Moscow underground.
Deineka hasn’t been known to have painted a work like “Behind the Curtain”. “The decadent eroticism of Konstantin Somov and Boris Kustodiev was no longer tolerated,” MacDougall’s explains, “and totalitarian morality allowed no deviations. Deineka donated this unique work, presumably in 1933–1935, to his fellow artist Fedor Bogorodsky, in whose family it remained for many years (as confirmed by the inscription on the canvas, “Deineka to F. Bogorodsky”).The two artists were firm friends at the time and travelled together on painting expeditions. It is known, for example, that they visited the Crimea together. The painterly and artistic merits of this chamber work are in no doubt.”
Hewitt reports doubt about the inscription, and more besides. “That was guesswork: the inscription says no such thing. Deineka [self-portrait, right] is cut off at the k, and Bogorodsky is cut off at the d. The inscription is followed by 1933, which is missing the subsequent г. (for год, i.e. year) which Deineka routinely added when dating his works, as per Russian linguistic practice. Perhaps the missing lettering was on paintwork that has unfortunately flaked off. But other factors may be relevant. Deineka hardly ever dated his paintings with four digits – routinely using, say, 32 г. or 33 г. rather than 1932 г. or 1933 г. He usually, though not always, added the initial A before writing his surname. And he often did not sign his paintings at all – so it is mystifying why he should sign one that, if brought to light, could have had catastrophic implications for his reputation in the prurient Stalinist ’30s, especially if he were giving it to a friend as a (very) private gift.” For Hewitt’s full report, click .
A BBC Russian Service report  also commented that the painting was “unique in its frank eroticism, not only for Deineka, but for the whole of the Soviet art of the time.” In its published illustration of the painting the BBC cut off the genitals. It is the only detailed report of MacDougall’s auction to appear so far in the Russian-language media. Moscow gallery owners and market experts declined to respond to questions about the revival of Soviet art.
“It is quite an achievement when the worst work in an auction makes the highest price,” Hewitt concluded. “It is sad to see the name of one of the 20th century’s greatest artists associated with such mediocrity.”