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Established in 1996, James Yarosh Associates Fine Art Gallery
is located in the second floor loft space of the former 1917 firehouse
at 45 E. Main Street (Rt.520) in Historic Holmdel Village, NJ 07733
Entrance on the inside corner of building & additional parking lots in the rear.

Open Saturday 12-4pm. Weekday & evenings hours scheduled by appointment
732 993 5278 or 732 993 5ART

james yarosh
Why is Russian Art Hot?
Our Publisher travels to Russia to find out
by Eric Rhoads- 02/06 Fine Art Connoisseur magazine.
Ask anyone in the art world, and you’ll hear that Russian art is very hot. Auction houses report record sale prices, and galleries selling Russian art can’t seem to keep it in stock. According to Financial Times writer Jackie Wullschlager, “Russian art is everywhere this season. Brussels is showing 20th-century masterpieces; Russian Impressionism tours Spain; works from Byzantine triptychs to Malevich line the New York Guggenheim’s spiral ramp in the overview Russia! This is unprecedented in the modern age: not since Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in pre-war Paris have the splendor and triumphant difference of Russian art hit the West so exuberantly. It has come to conquer, to announce a new cultural confidence that is now developing in Moscow and St. Petersburg…..”

When I inquired why Russian art is so much in demand, Lazare Gallery owner John Wurdeman, who specializes in selling Moscow School Russian artists, invited me to find out firsthand by accompanying him on a 10-day art-buying trip to Russia. I took him up on his offer, and by the time I returned from Moscow, I had a new appreciation for Russian art, Russian artists, and all those who make it possible for us to see this art today.

Right away, Wurdeman emphasized how difficult it is to buy art in Russia, but how difficult could it be? I learned that in Russia, the top artists hold celebrity status and are therefore hard to each. Without trusted introductions and references, these “national treasures” wouldn’t give you the time of day, even if you are a wealthy, established dealer. Few have been able to penetrate this highly protected system, but Wurdeman has a special “in.” His son Jonathan graduated from the famed Surikov Art Institute in Moscow, and maintains ties with many notable artists and instructors.

Even though the Wurdemans have established trusted bonds with many Russian artists, they must still deal with the challenge of getting the art they buy out of the country. Recognizing the need to keep at least some great works of art in national collections, Russia’s Ministry of Culture requires all paintings, new or old, to be documented and approved for removal before they can leave the country. This bureaucratic red tape can take months, even years, to traverse, which discourages trade with the outside world. Accustomed to the process, however, the Wurdemans built in extra time at the end of our journey for documenting the 287 pieces they purchased.

Despite some resistance, Jonathan’s connections opened many doors for us in and around Moscow. We charted several days of meetings with artists and their families that often began at 5a.m. and didn’t end until 2a.m. In order to get acquainted, Russians expect guests to dine with them and sit up late talking. It was a grueling schedule, but well worth the exhaustion.

On our first rainy morning, I met up with the two Wurdemans, Russian artist Ilya Yatsenko, and Surikov Institute mast Nikolai Dubavik for a five-hour road trip through the countryside. The Wurdemans were taking us to meet one of Russia’s oldest living master artists, Yuri Kugach. He is one of the greats whose work hangs in all of the major museums and is represented in most books on Russian Impressionism. Kugach’s family is to Russian art what the Wyeths are to American art. His late wife Olga Svetlechnaya (1915-1997), son Mikhail Kugach, and grandson Ivan Kugach are all world-renowned artists. When we finally reached our destination, it took several hours of bonding with Mikhail before he would allow us to meet with his 90-year-old father. Finally, we were invited into the master’s studio, a humble (and chilly!) dacha in the midst of an apple orchard. Here, Yuri paints on location almost every day, even during the harsh winters.

I expected a frail old man, but Yuri Kugach is strong and vibrant. We chatted about art and about some of the shows Wurdeman had arranged featuring his works in America. He then allowed us to look through hundreds of paintings and sketches that he had never shown anyone other than his family, some of which he had decided to sell to Wurdeman dude to their close relationship. Some were recent, while others dated as far back as the 1930s. In every case, he was able to cite the painting’s location and year, describe the day, and recall what was on his mind when he painted it. Referring to one painting, he said, “I’ve been working on this painting on and off for more than 70 years. I finally got it right.” After a few memorable hours, we said our goodbyes and moved on.
During the next few days, we were treated to an insider’s look at the artists’ life, past and present. First, we visited the academic dacha, a place where Surikov Institute graduates live and paint in the summer months. Originally a country house used by Catherine the Great, this revered and breathtaking lakeside home has been a painting site for virtually every important Russian artist in the past 250 years. After viewing the dacha, grounds, and private museum, we spent the night in student housing and departed the following morning.

The balance of our trip was spent in Moscow, visiting the widows and families of some of Russia’s late master—Alexander Fomkin, Nikolai Sergeyev, Vyacheslav Zabelin, Alexander Danilichev, Nikita Fedosov, and Poiter Maltsev—as well as several of Moscow’s top living painters. These included Nikolai Dubavik, Alexy Sukhovetskaya, Nikolai Kozlov, Yuri Greshenko, Igor Raevich, Andre Smirnov, Alexander Kosnichev, Ilya Yatsenko, Ivan Zolotuhin, Alexey Nikolaivich, Olga Belakovskaya, Stanislav Brusilov, Tsvetlana Smirnova, and Gennedy Pasko.

With the exception of two of the artists we visited, each of these prominent artists has been awarded a large studio space in one of the 11 multi-story buildings owned by the Union of Russian Artists. The union was founded in the early 20th-century to aid the development of great artists. Member-artists contribute a number of works that are then sold, and the proceeds are used collectively to provide services. Some of the studios are nicer than others, so through a natural pecking order, the located studios are given to the most revered artists, like Kugach.

My interviews with the top artists in Moscow pointed to one undeniable conclusion: Russian art is so hot because today’s collectors have rediscovered Realism, and Russian artists have had access to the very finest realistic training since the 18th century. Since the day of Catherine the Great, Russian artists have been taught precise skills, resulting in painting excellence. These skills, and the best methods for teaching them, were adopted from even earlier academic practices established in Italy and France. Somehow, despite more than two centuries of internal and external turmoil, the country’ academic system has survived intact.
Two schools exist in the Russian academic system: The Repin State Academic Institute of Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture in St. Petersburg, which leans toward tight, realistic painting disciplines, and the Surikov Moscow State Academic Institute of Art, which leans toward representational impressionism. The vast majority of Russian art currently on the market has been created by graduates of these two schools.

Artistic training can begin at a very young age in Russia. Students showing a strong aptitude for art are admitted into a full-time preparatory program as early as age 7. While visiting the preparatory school, I stumbled into a class of 7-year-olds painting still lifes. When they reach the fourth grade, these students will begin drawing nudes from life, and by the 12th grade they will be able to execute drawings with perfect draftsmanship and likeness. By the time students graduate the preparatory school at age 19, they are prepared to enter the world as fine artists, with skills rivaling most professionals elsewhere. However, to be part of the true Russian heritage, studies must continue at on of the two academies.

Once they pass the intensive entrance exam and are approved by master instructors, academy students choose a special are of emphasis to study: sculpture, painting, architecture, or monumental work (mosaic and fresco). Students spend the first three years studying anatomy (and other disciplines), with the first full year concentrated on drawing the head. Drawing instruction begins with copying other drawings, then drawing from plaster casts, and finally drawing from live models. The curriculum continues with on-location copies at museums, and significant amounts of work done from life. In the sixth and final year, students create one giant painting or sculpture as their final exam. To graduate, students must defend their works before a board of masters. If a piece does not pass, the student must repeat the year.

Art, artists, and the academic system have received financial support from the Russian government for nearly 250 years, but things have changed dramatically since the end of communism in 1991. Russia’s current government can’t provide the funding it once did, and both the economy and the bureaucracy surrounding the sale of artwork make it difficult for artists to earn a living. Compounding the problem is the current Minister of Culture Mikhail Shvydkoy’s promotion of Modernism, and the state museum’s favoritism of more contemporary styles. Many believe that Russia’s classical, academic standards of Realism are in jeopardy.
As one who has found a passion for collecting Russian art, I ended this trip with an even greater appreciation for the artists who are carrying on these fine traditions. I feel as though the purchase of their paintings is a noble cause because the money they receive will help carry the torch for solid academic training and high standards, allowing these traditions to pass on to future generations. I also have a deeper admiration for the few dealers that carry Russian art. Deep connections, intense work, and a willingness to navigate convoluted government bureaucracy are all required to bring these works to foreign soil. There are lessons to be learned from the Russian academic system and the artists’ union – and from the current popularity of this type of art among collectors. Perhaps the international art world will soon return to valuing these disciplines.

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