Russian art is undergoing something of resurgence at the moment. You may have also noticed the sharp increase, especially in London, of exhibitions and galleries devoted entirely to Russian art. This is in part due to the increasing number of Russians visiting and residing in Britain which has inevitably influenced the success of the Russian art market here. As a result Russian Art Week, London's bi-annual sales devoted purely to Russian art, has now become a major event in the busy international art world calendar. In June a staggering £50million was exchanged in the salesrooms of Bonhams, Christie's, Sotheby's and MacDougall's. The next Russian Art Week in November (22-29th) looks set to continue the trend. London is now clearly a major centre for Russian art.
To coincide with Russian Art Week a special pop-up exhibition of works by Russian contemporary artist Boris Chetkov will be displayed at the Westbury Hotel on Bond Street. As a curator of Russian art I have had the privilege of working on this unique show which unveils the career of this talented painter. Never exhibited before in the UK, this show has given me the chance to introduce an exceptional contemporary artist to British audiences and reintroduce him on an international scale.
Kenneth Pushkin is the driving force behind the Chetkov exhibition and he is a major collector of the artist's work. I spoke with him at his art gallery in Santa Fe, New Mexico, to find out more about the artist's life and why he is so drawn to his paintings. 'Chetkov is an artist like Paul Klee; you can't really pigeon hole him into one group or genre' he explains. 'He's not like any other artist of his time or before him. But he reflects different elements of different masters and aggregates them all into his own unique vision, which was very passionate, very colourful and very emotive.'
Born during the most oppressive years of the Soviet Union, Chetkov had a bleak upbringing punctuated by a brief incarceration in the infamous Gulag Archipelago. At a time when art was such a contentious and regulated activity, and art schools were under scrutiny from the State, Chetkov nevertheless managed to develop a distinctive personal style at odds not just with the authorities but also many of his contemporaries. I ask Kenneth how well known Chetkov was as a young artist experimenting in the 60s and 70s. 'Chetkov rubbed against the establishment' Kenneth explains. 'He struggled to be accepted because he worked outside of the established norms of Socialist Realism and he was quite introverted. Whereas others had a community, like the Non-Conformists, he worked very much alone.' The Non-Conformist artists of the Soviet Union were often occupied with conceptual ideas which they used in order to make politically motivated art that challenged, questioned and undermined the powers of the state and the hypocrisy of society. Chetkov on the other hand took a very different stance, creating his own alternative vision or Russia and this is what the exhibition in November will explore.
Re-imagining Russia: The Landscapes and Genre Paintings of Boris Chetkov will look at the artist's vibrant and emotive depictions of his homeland and the people within it. Kenneth has picked out a number of Chetkov's greatest compositions especially for the exhibiton. 'There are works that I like more than others of course but the lead image, Bazaar in Samarkand, I think is a fabulous piece which captures so much technical skill. Having lived with his work and studied it for so long, to me every work is like a painted emotional expression. Each piece is like a puzzle to be viewed for its own merits and attributes.' Although not as overtly political as his peers, Chetkov clearly responded to the conditions of society around him. 'In 1990, which was a very dramatic and tumultuous year in the history of Russia, was the year that Chetkov produced 200 hundred large abstract expressionist paintings'. What we see in Chetkov's work is not art as political statement or message but rather a personal emotional reaction; a private document. Chetkov's oeuvre tells a very personal, distinct story of life in Soviet and post-Soviet Russia.
So why hold an exhibition of his work now? Clearly there has been no better time explore the work of Russian artists. Kenneth continues, 'Russia was behind the Iron Curtain and its history and art were cut off from the West to a large extent. The ones that became household names like Kandinsky and Chagall- those artists left Russia. It was only going to be a matter of time before the West started catching up with the likes of Ilya Repin, the Wanderers and others. There is such depth and soul in Russian art and the artists like Chetkov are really unique in the world and I truly believe history will bear that out. Art collectors are waking up to that now.'
Re-imagining Russia: The Landscapes and Genre Paintings of Boris Chetkov is part of Russian Art Week and runs from 22-24 November at the Westbury Hotel, Mayfair.