Sotheby’s New York Spring Sale of Russian Art

Sotheby’s spring sale of Russian Art in New York will take place on April 22, 2009, and include a wide variety of modern and contemporary Russian painting and Works of Art featuring an exceptional selection of Icons and decorative items with Imperial lineage. The pre-sale exhibition will open to the public on April 17.

19th and Early 20th Century Painting
Among the fine art highlights are works by 19th and early 20th century masters such as Ivan Aivazovsky, Nicholas Roerich, Alexandre Iacovleff, Vasili Polenov and David Burliuk, among many others. Ivan Aivazovsky is represented by his Columbus Sailing from Palos (est. $1/1.5 million), one of his colossal canvases depicting the life of Christopher Columbus and his discovery of America, included among the works he brought when he journeyed to America to represent Russian artists at the World’s Fair in 1893. Sotheby’s previously sold two other works from this series in 2006 and 2008, but Aivazovsky’s stunning portrayal of Columbus’ departure from Palos, Spain, on August 2, 1492, is among the finest of such compositions to ever appear at auction. Also offered for sale is Aivazovsky’s Ship in a Stormy Sea Off the Coast (est. $650/750,000).

Boris Grigoriev painted Portrait of a Young Girl with Toys (est. $700/900,000) in 1920, at the outset of a period that was extremely productive for the artist. Above all, the beginning of the decade marked his introduction to the world outside of Russia; he spent extensive time in Germany, France, and the U.S. At once both conservative and revolutionary, his canvases reflected both German Expressionist and French post-Impressionist influences, while his reliance on contour line and elasticity has been linked to icon and Renaissance painting. This painting has been held privately since 1920 when it was acquired directly from the artist. Another notable Grigoriev, Preparing Crepes: A Pair (est. $500/700,000) was a large portrait the artist gave as a gift to Giovanni Pramaggiore, the owner of Giovanni’s, a popular Manhattan restaurant frequented by Russian émigrés. The portrait depicted Giovanni preparing Crepes Suzette, a ritual that Grigoriev often visited the restaurant to witness. He later divided the single canvas into two unique masterpieces at the subject’s request. The larger of the two compositions hung in the restaurant until its close in 1980, and arrive here fresh to the auction market from the subject’s descendents.

The sale also includes a large selection of works by Nicholas Roerich, highlighted by the cover lot, St. Mercurius of Smolensk (est. $500/700,000), picturing the courageous soldier and holy martyr of Russian Orthodox tradition who was, as prophesied, beheaded in battle while defending Smolensk from the Mongol army. Also on offer is Roerich’s Mystery, (est. $300/500,000), which has been exhibited extensively throughout the U.S., and Monhegan, Maine (Hope) from the Series Ocean, 1922 (est. $250/350,000). In 1922, Roerich traveled to Monhegan, a secluded island off the coast of Maine, which he painted in several compelling compositions. Roerich’s trip to Monhegan was momentous, for it was there that he convinced his closest American followers and patrons to establish the Nicholas Roerich Museum in New York. It was also there that he convinced them to fund his journey to Central Asia, where he spent the rest of his life and painted many of his bestknown series.

In 1894, Vasili Polenov designed the décor for the lyrical staging of Aphrodite, the imagery from which he later adapted in Classical Landscape, A Design for The Opera Prizraki Elladyi (Ghosts of Hellas) (est. $250/350,000). Polenov executed multiple variations of this composition, and it became very popular thanks to its reproduction on greeting cards and in journals.

Alexandre Iacovleff also took inspiration from the stage. He was a regular visitor to Asian theatres, where he made many drawings and paintings from life, such as Samurai (est. $85/125,000), in which he attempts “ explain the attraction of [Eastern] dramatic art and the importance which I attribute to it…”

David Burliuk was internationally proclaimed the “Father of Russian Futurism” and was highly influenced by the work of Umberto Boccioni and the other Italian Futurists. He sought to convey a sense of rhythm and continuous motion through the use of space, color and dimension. Witch Doctor (est. $150/200,000) explores the fundamentals of the Futurist manifesto—vibrant stripes of color swirl around the fiery portrait, creating a primal, almost savage effect. The artist’s Blue Rider, also included in the sale (est. $100/150,000) was a theme the artist returned to in multiple works, influenced by Wassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc’s Expressionist school Der Blaue Reiter.

Contemporary Paintings
Featured contemporary paintings include a major work by Komar + Melamid, Eros and Psyche From the Series Anarchistic Synthesism (est. $80/120,000). The series exemplifies their artistic concept of combining multiple styles from Western art history. This work is based on the Greco-Roman story of Eros and Psyche, telling of the struggle for love and trust between the two protagonists. In one of the panels in the present work, Eros is depicted hovering above Psyche, signifying the passion of love. The hand of God restrains Eros from the performance of an amorous act. The other panel depicts a ritual slaughter of an animal, symbolizing the act of making an offering to a deity as an outward manifestation of veneration. Deconstructing historical and art-historical categories, this work divides into two disconnected parts, juxtaposing an academic style in one panel with a gestural, expressionistic style in the other. According to Komar, such absurd combinations embody “anarchistic synthesis.”

Another highlight is Birth of a Hero: 15 Sculptures by Grisha Bruskin (est. $150/200,000), who received worldwide attention when his works were purchased for recordsetting prices at the first auction of Russian art organized by Sotheby’s in Moscow in 1988. Ten of the fifteen sculptures in this work are archetypes of the Soviet ideological myth, while the remaining five depict mythological creatures. The works resemble cheap and propagandistic Soviet plaster sculptures, including the images of Young Pioneers, athletes and war heroes that were found in every Soviet city and town square during the time of Bruskin’s childhood. Each of the archetypal figures represents the new type of Soviet person, and each holds some accessory, such as a Kremlin tower, portrait of Lenin, hammer and sickle, or a slogan. The inclusion of mythological figures of angels and demons is in stark counterpoint to the Soviet ideological system, in particular its rejection of all supernatural forces. Bruskin’s goal is, as he put it, “to look at socialism as if from the future and to create a fundamental lexicon of Soviet types.”

Works of Art
The afternoon session of the sale is devoted to Russian Works of Art, including Fabergé and Icons. Featured is an exciting group of enamels including two rare pieces that demonstrate the superior skills of 19th century Russian goldsmiths. A rare Russian gilded silver and shaded enamel pictorial punch bowl and ladle, by Fabergé’s regular supplier Feodor Rückert includes figures of brave warriors and lovely maidens of Old Russia, all in high relief and seemingly floating above the fearsome eagles (est. $150/200,000). A smaller, but equally exquisite Russian gilded silver and shaded enamel cake basket by Orest Kurliukov, is decorated with a detailed scene from the tale of Sadko, the hero of a popular Russian tale (est. $70/100,000). Magnificently robed, he stands on the shore of Lake Ilmen playing his gusli (stringed instrument) as two beautiful daughters of the Sea King float among the stylized waves listening to the music. The musical theme was particularly appropriate as the basket was given to the legendary conductor Arthur Nikisch, who frequently performed in Russia.

The sale will also include an important and complete Fabergé silver toilet set in its original fitted traveling case made for Princess Gorchakov (est. $300/500,000). Created by the workmaster Julius Rappoport in St. Petersburg, circa 1900, the set comprises a dressing mirror, a pair of velvet-lined boxes, a velvet-backed hand mirror, a pair of tall two-light candelabra, a pair of tall scent bottles in cut glass, a pair of smaller scent bottles in cut glass, a pair of powder boxes, a pair of small candlesticks, and a pair of trays; all items save the dressing mirror engraved with the coat of arms of the Princes Gorchakov, one of the most ancient Russian princely families. Such toilet sets were frequently wedding gifts and, based on the date of this set, it can be presumed that it was a wedding gift from Prince Alexander Gorchakov to Daria Bibikova, a lady-in-waiting to Empress Alexandra Feodorovna, on the occasion of their marriage in 1904.

Also bearing impeccable Imperial provenance is a tea set belonging to AnastasiaMikhailovna: an important Imperial Russian silver tea service, Nichols and Plinke, St. Petersburg, 1879 (est. $320/380,000). Grand Duchess Anastasia Mikhailovna, grand-daughter of Emperor Nicholas I, was an extremely charismatic figure, remembered by friends and contemporaries as “very beautiful….the perfect princess.” In 1879, the year that this impressive tea service was produced, she made an important dynastic marriage to Friedrich Franz, Hereditary Grand Duke of Mecklenburg-Schwerin, who was related to Emperor Alexander III. The offered tea service was presumably made as a wedding gift or ordered from the fashionable St. Petersburg retailers and court suppliers Nichols and Plinke for her trousseau. The set comprises a teapot, hot water pot, two-handled tray, kettle with stand and lamp, a hot milk jug, creamer, a covered sugar bowl, a tea strainer, sugar tongs, and twenty-four tea spoons, each piece engraved with the Grand Duchess Anastasia Mikhailovna’s monogram – the letters “MA” beneath the Imperial crown . The Grand Duchess’s descendents include Queen Margrethe II of Denmark, Princess Alexia of Denmark and Greece and Prince Pavlos of Denmark, Crown Prince of Greece.

The exceptional collection of Icons on offer features an important late Byzantine Icon of the Nativity of Christ, Crete, Early 15th Century (est. $140/160,000). The Mother of God reclines on a red pallet at the entrance to a cave against a rough mountain landscape; the swaddled Christ Child lies next to her in an oversized, sarcophagus-like crib, warmed by the breath of an ox and an ass, with the Three Magi approaching at left on horseback, guided by an angel who points out the star of Bethlehem. This icon may be compared to icons preserved in Venice at the Hellenic Institute.