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By John Helmer, Moscow

The Russian intelligentsia, their hangers-on, oligarchs, and Navalnyites have always suffered from a cultural cringe. The grass is greener on the other side of the Russian border, they think, and for obvious reasons – though they aren’t the same for each of the cringing elites.  

So when the political tide goes out and leaves Russia stranded and isolated – as happened after the Revolution of 1917, the German invasion of 1941, and the NATO sanctions war since 2014 – the market in cultural nostalgia revives. For those trapped by history or money outside, the demand is for interior decoration with paintings of Russia as they like to imagine it. For those inside, they demand views of France – particularly the streets of Paris, the watering holes of Provence, and French ladies en déshabillé.

And so it came about that at the start of this month, MacDougall’s, the leading international auction house for Russian paintings, held its first-ever auction of Franco-Russian nostalgia entitled “École de Paris and Russian Artists in France”. MacDougall’s was the first house to organise a dedicated sale of works by Russian émigré artists in London; that was in 2004, just after the Russian Finance Ministry lifted the 30% tax on art imported to Russia; well before the US started the war in Ukraine in 2014.

On this new occasion, the paintings to be sold – 206 lots in all — had been part of the collection of a single European collector living in Monaco. Russian Art+Culture,  reports that  “over several decades, the collector managed to acquire almost a complete anthology of the Ecole de Paris.”

The outcome of the October 6 sale was total proceeds of £524,512, and the sale of 87 of the works on offer – 42%.

This clearance rate is well behind the 54% MacDougall’s managed at its midsummer Russian art auction.  The clearance rate for nudes, always a sensitive measure of Russian taste, was much lower. A total of 34 full-frontals were auctioned; all but one of them female; one canvas in six on the block. But just 7 were bought – 21%. In the midsummer Russian art week in London, the nude stocks cleared with less inhibition.

However, “Reclining nude” by Boris Chaliapin (lead image*) set close to the show record for beating the house estimate. MacDougall’s had marked the painting down for a maximum of £9,000, but it sold for £21,250 – more than double.

Click to view the full catalogue,  and the sale  results.   

The bestseller in show was a semi-abstract painted in 1913 by Serge Charchoune; it went for £38,700; that was almost double the house estimate. Next came Jean Pougny’s “Parisian Street” (1928-30) at £33,540, 10% above estimate. Nadia Khodasevich-Léger’s “Still Life with Doll” (1957),  sold for the third top price, £22,500, but that beat MacDougall’s estimate by almost four times.

Left: Jean Pougny, “Parisian Street”; right, Nadia Khodasevich-Léger, “Still Life with Doll”.  

For a history of the Russian cultural cringe towards France in the post-war Soviet period, written by a cultural cringer who had emigrated to the US, click to read.   

William MacDougall, co-director of the eponymous house, explained the result of his auction: “Mid-season sales always have lower totals than the main auctions in the two Russian Weeks, and this was a sale of Artists of Ecole de Paris, and Russian artists in France, who are not well known in Russia.  Due to coronavirus restrictions, Russian buyers still find travel to England difficult; as you know the Sputnik vaccine is not recognised by Britain.  Also, we were experimenting with an auction in London of works stored in the South of France, with no public exhibition.  Considering all that, we believe it was a good result.”

[*]No date is indicated for this painting. Chaliapin was the son of Feodor Chaliapin, the opera singer. He moved to Paris in 1925, and then to the US where he was a cover artist for Time newsmagazine.  

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