St Petersburg Gallery belongs to a tacit network of recently formed Russian art hubs in London, the past few years having seen the launch of now renowned institutions like Calvert 22, GRAD, Erarta and, indeed, St Petersburg itself. The latter, evoking the most explicit connotations of the Russian world, combines the expertise both of art dealing and exhibiting, much to the pleasure of Russian art lovers in the capital.
This autumn a spectacular collection of Russian 18th-20th century portraiture is gathered here. Located behind the Royal Academy of Arts, within the historic Mayfair art district, St Petersburg gallery fills a long awaited niche in the area in the representation of Russian art. The current collection is both a contribution to the London art market and an exhibit in its own right, with artefacts conveying three centuries worth of Russian culture, history and artistic tradition in an elegant miniature display.
The collection ranges from the traditional art of the Imperial Russian Court and the Realist 19th Century to the eclectic Russian avant-garde and the Soviet period. To cover three centuries of Russian portraiture within a rather limited space is ambitious, but an enterprise the curators handle with elegance. Although over a hundred items are claimed to be on show here, it is undoubtedly the quality rather than quantity of these valuable artworks that tells the complex story of artistic trends and movements. The cataclysmic changes in portraiture not only reflect the ruptures of the 1917 Russian Revolution, but also speak for the period’s increasing experimentation in art worldwide
Founded in October 2012, St Petersburg Gallery, unlike many institutions purveying Russian culture abroad, does not seem to pursue the image of an unknown Russia or a self-contained cultural phenomenon developing apart from the European cultural milieu. On the contrary, the presence of such established masters as the realists Aleksandr Brullov, Ilya Repin and Valentin Serov as well as the modernists Vladimir Baranov-Rossine, Aristarkh Lentulov and Natalia Goncharova convey a different kind of message, exploring the exchange that took place between Russia and Europe. It is the embeddedness of Russian artists within the European tradition and perhaps the chance for these famous painters to be recognised that is addressed here.
Nevertheless ‘Russian Portraits’ is not all about the celebrated giants in the field. My personal favourite was the quirky self-portrait by Vladimir Mayakovsky, a frontman of Russian Futurist poetry and early Soviet culture-building. Mayakovsky’s sketchy profile, outlined crudely in thick violet ink, boldly overlaps a random sheet of poetry, a seemingly accidental backdrop sporting two poems by the Soviet writers Postupalsky and Kornilov, promoting literacy and the new proletarian culture. There is little conventional artistic skill here, but Mayakovsky’s mischievous sketch over these poems is undoubtedly a unique find – valuable as a happy accident, even if never intended for an international audience.
The much awaited 2014 UK-Russia year of culture might have passed largely unremarked in popular media, as a result of the cooling of relations between the two countries this year. However here at St Petersburg art continued bringing cultures together, as the dynamic conversations I heard around me in French, English and Russian seemed to testify.