Preface to Sotheby’s Russian Avant-Garde and Soviet Contemporary Art auction catalogue

Preface to Sotheby’s Russian Avant-Garde and Soviet Contemporary Art auction catalogue for the sale held at Moscow’s Sovincenter in 1988 written by Lord Gowrie, the-then Chairman of Sotheby's. You can find the printed copy of the catalogue at Bidding for Glasnost: Sotheby’s 1988 Auction in Moscow.'s.

As we approach the millennial year 2000, we may be confident that for all its turmoil and tragedy the twentieth century is a great century in the history of painting. Russia, in the years immediately before and after the political Revolution, was a revolutionary country for artists as well. New ways of rendering the external world of emotion, led many to believe that Russia might soon rival in terms of the visual arts her long eminence in literature. The painters of the revolutionary period represented at this auction are among the greatest of their time. One of them, Rodchenko, was also a designer and photographer of genius.

Pre-auction exhibition of Sotheby’s Russian Avant-Garde and Soviet Contemporary Art at Sovincentr, Moscow, July 2–7, 1988
Photo: Alexander Lavrentiev
© Alexander Lavrentiev

Fierce growing pains of the post-revolutionary years, to which were added the horror and heroism of world war, changed the course of painting in the Soviet Union to a considerable degree. A few artists whose talents were of the quiet, private kind (Ilya Tabenkin is a superb example) cultivated their own gardens but in general there was pressure to produce patriotic and official art. As well as the ordinary difficulties of communication, this divorced painters from developments in the West where modern art has in the main flourished as a kind of opposition to the norms and values of modern societies. In recent years, however, scholars and collectors both inside and outside the Soviet Union, have recognized the stirrings of a remarkable new period in Soviet art. Too diffuse to constitute a movement, the painters represented here have some qualities in common. They are mostly young. They are sophisticated, in that they are well aware of what is going on in painting in the West.  They are Soviet, in the sense that they reject both imitation and the asocial content of the most contemporary Western art. They are strikingly immune, for instance, to the Western weakness for decorative introspection. There is also a special Russian wit, a satirical bite even, in the best of their paintings. They are, as painters should be, eye-openers. They say a great deal about this exciting period of Soviet history.

Sotheby’s is proud to conduct the first international art auction in the Soviet Union. We are confident that it will not be the last, because nothing could be better for the improvement of cultural relations than a free exchange of ideas and works of art, between young artists, collectors and students of art everywhere.  We are profoundly grateful to the Soviet authorities, in particular to the Minister of Culture, Mr. Vassily Zakharov and his officials, for the tolerant and courteous way in which they have cooperated with a very different system for exchanging ideas and works of art. Above all, we are grateful to the artist themselves for submitting their property to open competition. We are confident that their originality and verve will find many who share our own enthusiasm.

The Rt. Hon. The Earl of Gowrie, P C
Chairman, Sotheby’s London