Sotheby’s Picture Sale (on-line thru December 1) is overflowing with Aivazovskys, led by Lot 28: a Shipwreck off the Black Sea Coast (1887). This pulsating look at the tempestuous elements and Nature’s mischief is on a grand scale (137 x 234 cm) and comes with a £1,200,000-1,800,000 estimate.
The sale’s second big Aivazovsky, Lot 21 (105 x 176 cm), shows Columbus’ Farewell before sailing from Palos de la Frontera towards undiscovered America. It was painted in 1892, marking the 400th anniversary of that epic voyage, and is expected to bring £1,000,000-1,500,000. I do not care much for either one – both loosely painted, one may be perfect for an American history museum.
Aivazovsky’s Ship by Moonlight is very attractive and beautifully painted, but very small – 24 x 19 cm (lot 18, est. £60-80,000). I also like his Carriage in a Storm (lot 5, est. £80,000-120,000). I’m less sold on his 1890 View of Sevastopol from the Northern Bank (lot 1 est. £60,000-80,000) – a small painting that was originally part of the frame for his Fleet of Sevastopol now in Tyumen Art Museum.
Another big name starring at Sotheby’s is the cosmopolitan Henryk Siemiradzki (1843-1902) – a Polish artist with a Russian Officer father who painted mainly in Rome.
Siemiradzki’s Parnassus (1900), measuring 91 x 147 cm, is a spectacular painting and Sotheby’s have done amazingly well to bring it to auction with a modest reserve of £400,000 – ten years ago it would have fetched well over a million. The picture has been in the same family for over a century, and never shown in public – although the image is familiar to music buffs, as it is a reduced version of the stage curtain that Siemiradzki designed for the new Lvov Opera House in 1900, shortly before the visit of legendary conductor Gustav Mahler (lot 14, est. £400,000-600,000).
Karl Brullov (1799-1852) is another Academic artist usually in high demand, but a motley array of 52 of his drawings and sketches (lot 10, est. £25,000-35,000) is more likely to appeal to scholars or a museum than to private collectors. Who the hell needs these things? Where do you put them, how do you display them? Stick’em in an album, like collecting stamps?
Talking of which, a routine Pokhitonov city view, of Quai de la Tournelle in Paris (1909), is another postage-stamp size oil (23 x 19 cm). There used to be a couple of ardent Russian collectors fighting over Pokhitonovs and sending prices to crazy heights, but their zeal together with a slump in Russian economy or maybe common sense appears to have waned and estimates have plummeted to a more manageable plateau. This one comes with an estimate of still rather steep £80,000-120,000 (lot 42). On the per square inch basis Pokhitonov gotta be the most expensive Russian painter. As for me I could never understand infatuation with this guy, is he really that great? If these two collectors decide to switch to another artist or subject, prices will most likely settle to times predating this frenzied competition.
I much prefer Lot 49, a Snowy Sunset (1923) by Choultsé, even it comes with the same estimate. This fiercely coloured and dramatic, square-format work (80 x 80 cm) really packs some punch – careful how you frame it – and must be one of the best works this generally average artist ever produced. I hope in reality it looks as good as on-line. Somov’s Sleeping Lady in 18th Century Dress (1919) is beautifully painted, with a wealth of detail that belies its modest size (29 x 43 cm), but I’m not sure about the £300,000-500,000 estimate (lot 59).
Perhaps the auction’s most powerful image, albeit hardly suited for every study, library or a living room, is a Repin portrait of a ball-slashing Black Sea Cossack with a macho Putinesque torso and defiant ‘fuck off’ arrogance (lot 25, est. £400,000-600,000). This piece has been exhibited – firstly in Stockholm in 1919, just after its completion, most recently in the Tretyakov’s Ilya Repin show last year. It’s a good-sized study (96 x 69 cm) for a figure in Repin’s late large-scale canvas Black Sea Pirates. It was offered in Sotheby’s over 10 years ago predating events in Crimea, Ukraine, Belarus and Khabarovsk. Back in 2009 times were still fairly rosy for Russian art but even then the picture flopped to sell against an estimate of £600,000-800,000, reserve was probably even lower. Not everybody’s cup of tea, that’s for sure.
Sotheby’s have well deserved expectations for two 18th century portraits, both by arguably most important Russian painters whose works hardly ever appear on the market: Count Ilya Bezborodko (c.1799) by Dmitry Levitsky (lot 8 est. £350,000-500,000), and the much smaller Tsar Peter III (1762) by Feodor Rokotov (lot 7, est. £80,000-120,000).
Pimen Orlov is not such a big name, and his Portrait of Feodor Chernyshev (1845) is not expected to do so well (lot 9, est. £20,000-30,000). We don’t find many paintings by Nikolai Ge in the saleroom, but his Portrait of the Artist’s Son (1882) is not something you’d hang over your fireplace – it would look more at home in some Russian museum (lot 20 est. £50,000-70,000).
Another atypical work is Petrov-Vodkin’s small (48 x 37 cm), early Portrait of an African Boy, painted during his trip to Algeria in 1907 is expected to bring a huge pile of money (lot 159, est. £250,000-350,000). Aspiring estimate for the work that doesn’t remotely look like Petrov-Vodkin is hard to swallow.
Goncharova’s Nuit d’Hiver (lot 97) is also tentatively dated to 1907, which would make it among her earliest works in oils. It’s a nondescript youthful effort – but according to Sotheby’s it shows the artist ‘on the cusp of Neo-Primitivism’ and represents a ‘pivotal moment in Goncharova’s stylistic development’. Why this Russian snow-scene has a French title is not explained but, being a Goncharova, it has a stiff estimate of £1,500,000-2,000,000.
An undated but similarly early Larionov Street Scene in Winter, of no great merit or beauty, follows (lot 98, est. £400,000-600,000).
The sale features a whole bunch of commercial stuff for dealers, designers and budding collectors – typified by Stozharov’s Spring Flood, a routine landscape painted at Glukhovki north of Yaroslavl in 1958 (lot 178, est. £15,000-20,000). There are a couple of the inevitable, orphaned-looking girls by Harlamoff, one of them (lot 15) interestingly lit from the side. Its £40,000-60,000 estimate looks reasonable. The other, Girl Crocheting, is slightly larger (82 x 60 cm). Its £150,000-200,000 dejavu estimate reminds me of the good old times when money spent by Russians on Russian Art had a different dimension. An old joke about yesteryears: two wealthy Russians meet on Bond Street, one brandishes a new fancy designer tie purchased for £2,000., the other waves and says – you fool, you can pick up the same for £3,000. just round the corner. The same approach reigned over the Russian market, money meant little, squandering was in fashion. Alas, it did not last long enough!
That other painter of nubile females, Serebriakova, is represented by a late picture of a Moroccan young woman with some clothes on for a change (lot 158). Measly £60,000-80,000 estimate would have been a helluva lot higher if she’d taken them off. Remember, Christie’s are flogging their sleeping Nude by Serebriakova for £400,000!