The market for post-Second World War and contemporary Russian art, which exploded between 2006 and 2008, has been in retreat since a disastrous sale at Sotheby's last June, when half the lots went unsold. However, London is currently witnessing a revival of activity in this market with a wave of exhibitions and auctions this week and next.
The focus is on the phenomenon known as "non-conformist" art – a broad description for art that did not adhere to the required orthodoxies of Soviet socialist realism and was produced in Russia during the Cold War from the 1950s until the cultural thaw of the 1980s.
Non-conformist art comes in many guises. Opening today at MacDougall's auctioneers in central London is an exhibition of 120 works from the collection of Lili and Michel Brochetain, a Polish couple who lived in Russia during the Second World War and settled in Paris in 1946. The Brochetains began collecting to help émigré artists who left Russia after the infamous "Bulldozer" exhibition in Moscow in 1974 when police used bulldozers and water cannon to break up an exhibition of unapproved art. Living near the Gare du Nord, their apartment became the first port of call for poor artists who arrived with just a handful of paintings to sell.
By the time of the break-up of the Soviet Union, they had assembled more than 1,000 works. Lili died in 1995, and Michel last year. Although known to aficionados, the collection was never exhibited in public. Of inevitably mixed quality – a lot of the work is priced at under £10,000 – it includes numerous masterpieces, including paintings by Oscar Rabin, one of the instigators of the Bulldozer exhibition. MacDougall's has valued the 120 works at £500,000 and plans to start auctioning the material in June.
Stylistically, the works bear the influences of Cubism, Expressionism and abstraction – influences that were present in earlier-20th-century Russian art but which were abhorred by the Soviet state. The more conceptual, politically charged work that emerged during the 1980s in Russia under Gorbachev is the territory covered by Glasnost, a museum-style survey exhibition of more than 100 works which has just opened at the Haunch of Venison gallery in London in association with Berlin dealer Volker Diehl.
Diehl began buying contemporary Russian art in the 1980s and assembled a substantial collection of works by artists, some of whom went on to achieve international recognition. Sotheby's groundbreaking sale in Moscow in 1988 triggered a craze for Russian art, a craze that sank with the global recession of 1991 and the political and economic chaos that followed the resignation of Gorbachev, according to Diehl.
Although artists such as Ilya Kabakov and Erik Bulatov survived the setback, and examples of their work are priced at around £1 million each at the Glasnost show, half of the artists in the exhibition are barely known outside Russia. Igor Chatskin, for instance, was an active member of the unofficial art scene, but could not survive as an artist in the 1990s. "Many artists just sat around and got drunk," says Diehl. Period pieces by the lesser-known artists can be bought for under £10,000 each.
Currently on view at the Saatchi Gallery is Phillips de Pury & Co's BRIC sale, offering contemporary art from the emerging markets of Brazil, Russia, India and China. Here can be found many artists featured in the Glasnost exhibition as well as three plaster sculptures from the late 1980s by Grisha Bruskin. Bruskin was the star of Sotheby's Moscow sale in 1988 when his painting Fundamental Lexicon, estimated at £18,000, sold for £220,000. He was immediately snapped up by the Marlborough Gallery in New York. The sculptures at Phillips, from a larger series called Birth of the Hero, are estimated as a group at £150,000 to £200,000.
Other relevant exhibitions in London are at the new Aktis gallery in St James's which exhibits works by Vladimir Yankilevsky, an artist in both the Glasnost exhibition and the BRIC sale; Orel Art, in Victoria, which shows recent work by the Moscow conceptualists, Irina Nakhova and Pavel Pepperstein; and the new Regina Gallery, which opens in Fitzrovia next week with an exhibition of recent work by the realist painter Semyon Faibisovich. Faibisovich stopped painting in 1995 because he was so disillusioned with the reception to his art. Examples of his early work at Haunch of Venison are priced at around €200,000 each. His new work, which heralds his return to painting since 2008, is priced more reasonably at between €35,000 and €60,000.
Having arrived in London in force, the big question now is just how good were the non-conformists, and is the market there to absorb such a plentiful supply of their work?