This year marks the centenary of the Russian Revolution, and as well as the numerous art exhibitions marking the event, including Tate Modern’s Red Star Over Russia, the major auction houses are also getting in on the act. Christie’s and Bonhams are both featuring Soviet art – namely work dating between 1917 and 1991 – in their Russian sales, while Sotheby’s is going one step further and holding its first ever sale dedicated to Soviet art, on November 28.
“While we regularly offer Soviet art in our Russian sales, this is the first time we are holding a dedicated sale,” says Reto Barmettler, Sotheby’s Russian pictures specialist. “This gives us the opportunity to showcase the breadth and diversity of art in the Soviet Union – from the avant-garde to socialist realism and unofficial art from the postwar era, from oils and works on paper to photographs and posters – by some of the greatest names in Soviet art, such as Alexander Deineka, and by others less well known and never offered at auction before.”
One early piece is The Coal Miner by Deineka: dating from 1925 and estimated at £3.5m-£4.5m, the dark and sombre tones create a heavy atmosphere for a worker exhausted by the struggle. In colourful contrast, A Factory Party Meeting by Georgi Iosifovich Rublev, dating from 1933 and estimated at £400,000-£600,000, has a bright grouping around a red table. Farewell Lenin, dated 1991, is by Erik Bulatov: estimated at £200,000-£300,000, it shows a woman in a bleak landscape making her way past a picture of Lenin. That year, of course, was also farewell to the USSR.
The next day, November 29, Bonhams holds its Russian art sale, which includes some beautiful and unusual porcelain from the Soviet period. Of particular interest is an early Soviet tea service decorated with industrial motifs. It was made in the Lomonosov Porcelain Factory in Leningrad in 1931, with forms designed by Sergei Chekhonin and ornamentation by LV Protopopova. “This extremely rare and fine tea set perfectly combines classical forms with avant-garde influences,” says Daria Chernenko, Bonhams head of Russian art. “The numerous tiny, subtle details create a mechanical rhythm entirely typical of the preoccupation with modernity that developed in Russia during the 1920 and ’30s.” It is estimated at £40,000-£60,000.
Christie’s sale of Important Russian Art on November 27 contains some Soviet pieces, including “a carefully selected group of porcelain figures and plates, such as a rare animated satirical figure of a bureaucrat from 1933, designed by Natalia Danko,” says Helen Culver-Smith, Christie’s head of Russian works of art and Fabergé. “Christie’s is a market leader in the dynamic field of Soviet porcelain, setting the world auction record in the field when it sold a rare large vase for £422,500 in November 2013.”
The bureaucrat figure, wearing a purple coat, blue hat and gilt glasses, holds a leather bag and documents inscribed with “A Plan”, in Russian. He is in three moving parts and is estimated at £15,000-£25,000. Other porcelain figures include a woman with a wheatsheaf (£4,000-£6,000) from 1927, made by the State Porcelain Factory in Leningrad, and a dancing peasant woman from the State Porcelain Factory in Petrograd dating from 1919 (£4,000-£6,000.) The Soviet Union may be gone – but the art lives on.