Fake Art and Patriotism in Russia

MOSCOW—Russian art-world headlines often boil down to corruption and conflicts between state and individual interests, and the stories occupying insiders right now are no exception. ARTINFO’s Moscow correspondent reports on the opening of the first foreigner-owned gallery in the country, a national museum owning up to its past transgressions, private citizens taking matters into their own hands, and a group of patriots sinking their claws into an artist.
First foreigner-owned gallery opens in Moscow
On April 17, Berlin gallerist Volker Diehl opened Russia’s first foreigner-owned exhibition space, Diehl + Gallery One, located in the first floor of a lavish Stalin-era mansion facing the Moscow river and near the Russian White House. Diehl has long-standing connections with Russia’s art community: He’s a member of the selection committee of Russia’s biggest art fair, Art Moscow, and frequently exhibits there, and his Berlin gallery represents two Russian artists — Blue Noses and Alexey Kallima.

Diehl + Gallery One inaugurated the space with a solo show by Jenny Holzer, put on in cooperation with Monica Spruth Philomene Magers gallery of Cologne, Munich, and London. The exhibition features two large installations, Monument (2008) and Curves (2007), and a half-dozen semi-abstract prints based on declassified documents from the American government. At the opening, the artist shocked some members of Moscow’s glamorous art crowd by wearing sneakers.

While Diehl is the first foreign dealer to open a gallery in Russia, he is not the first to consider such an option. During separate visits to the country last year, gallerists Larry Gagosian and Jeffrey Deitch both expressed interest in entering the Russian art market.

Tretyakov Gallery pleads guilty
Despite this international boost, the Russian art world is still dealing with a bit of scandal. In the last week of March, Lydia Iovleva, deputy director of the State Tretyakov Gallery, finally addressed an issue that has been tarnishing the museum’s reputation for several years.

Three years ago, two art and antiquities dealers from Moscow, Igor and Tatiana Preobrazhensky, were caught selling ten artworks that they claimed were by Russian Realist painters from the 19th century. Prosecutors argued that the dealers were connected to a group of forgers of Russian descent who bought 19th-century works made in Sweden, Norway, and England, which can be very close to their Russian counterparts in style and subject matter, then added decidedly Russian details — a village here, a church there. The forger’s technique was good enough to fool experts who conducted scientific analyses on the paints and canvases in question. Court hearings for the Preobrazhenskys started this January, with both dealers declaring their innocence and claiming they are also victims of the situation.

It is believed that there are about 300 such forged artworks in circulation, a number of them bearing certificates of authenticity issued by experts at the Tretyakov, the largest institution in the country to exhibit and research Russian art. The Tretyakov isn’t the only state organization to authenticate works: the paintings in the Preobrazhensky case came with certificates from Grabar Institute for Restoration and Expertise. When the scope of the scam was discovered, attention turned to the Tretyakov experts, as everyone hoped that they would assure the market that they hadn’t authenticated any artworks involved in the massive forgery. Instead, the gallery remained silent.

As a result of the scandal, in 2006 Russia’s Culture and Cinema Agency forced all state museums and organizations to shut their authentication services, including the Tretyakov’s, a big moneymaker that brought in up to $10,000 per piece. It was only after this decision, and persistent prodding from both dealers and the government, that the gallery started an internal investigation.

The long awaited results were finally released at the end of March, with the gallery admitting to 96 wrongly assigned certificates. Unfortunately, this announcement is unlikely to put the question to rest. Many observers believe that there are more fakes circulating with the Tretyakov’s certificate, with rumors floating that blank documents with experts’ signatures were sold in large quantities illegally before 2006.

Antique dealers vs. government structures
With forgeries high on dealers’ list of worries, the Antiques Salon, Moscow’s oldest antiques fair, has chosen to address the matter at this year’s edition, which runs April 12 to 20 in the Central House of Artists.

At a special press conference on Saturday, April 19, the International Confederation of Antique and Art Dealers (ICAAD) — a network of dealers spanning the territory of the former USSR — will present a new initiative, announcing 12 experts anonymously selected by the confederation’s members to serve as an alternative to the state-approved body of 400 specialists currently licensed to issue certificates of authenticity. The experts will be able to issue certificates backed by ICAAD. It is not known whether the number of experts will differ in the years to come.

Rosokhrankultura (the Commission for Preserving Russian Culture) responded to the initiative last week at a press conference by announcing a fourth volume of the already extensive catalog of forged Russian artworks. Rosokhrancultura’s deputy director Anatoly Vilkov said of ICAAD’s initiative: “Our approved experts and ICAAD’s experts are like pupils in state and private schools.” Vilkov’s viewpoint is clear, but given the state of public education in Russia — schools are widely burdened with quality and personnel problems — the analogy can be read to favor ICAAD.

Russian nationalists take on an artist
Meanwhile, another conflict between public and private spheres erupted last Friday, when a group of Russian nationalists took an artist to court for two paintings they believe to be inciting “racial or national animosity.”

Notably, the dispute unfolded not within a gallery or museum but in the growing forum of the Internet. The plaintiffs had seen the “offending” works, two paintings by Lena Hades, who is relatively well known in Moscow but does not have gallery representation, only in the form of jpgs on her blog on Livejournal.com. One, Welcome to Russia (1999), hangs in Igor Markin’s private museum Art4.ru; the other, Chimera of the Mysterious Russian Soul (1996) was exhibited only once, at a group exhibition in Solyanka gallery in 2005.

The nationalists were offended by the artist’s depiction of the Russian soul as a cartoonish creature with clichéd attributes of Russian everyday life — a bottle of vodka, a model of Sputnik — and by the crudely painted text in Welcome that indicts the Russian character as simultaneously overaggressive and alarmingly God-fearing.

The works have also found few fans among the arts community — many view them as kitschy and formulaic — but the nationalists’ criticism goes well beyond aesthetics. After trying to get Hades to remove the works from her personal blog and using increasingly obscene language, her critics — including members of the DPNI (Movement Against Illegal Immigration) — started legal action based on article 282 of the Russian criminal code, which prohibits “excitation of racial or national animosity.”

The larger issue in this conflict is Russians’ struggle to have their voices heard within an increasingly authoritarian state, which tends to cut various political groups off the political radar screen. Because the nationalists, like the members of Garry Kasparov’s ultra-liberal “Other Russia” party, are banned from the decision-making process, their only chance to be heard is on blogs. They are keen to show up in the news but afraid to tackle large subjects. Lena Hades is an easy target. If indicted, she could face up to five years in prison.