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Row over ownership of 'lost' Soviet-era art

Artists from 1980s underground group take legal action after finding their works in a major exhibition

Oleg Maslov‘s The researcher of hammering, 1987, was included in the Assa show

Nearly a quarter of a century after the collapse of the Soviet Union, a group of artists from the last wave of Leningrad’s Soviet underground are embroiled in lawsuits over ownership of 25 of their works, which were last seen in the late 1980s, before resurfacing at a retrospective exhibition in the city last spring.

Sergei Bugaev, an artist, musician, curator and star of the “Noviye Khudozhniki” (“New Artists”) group, but now also known for his erratic behaviour and vocal support of President Vladimir Putin, angered fellow artists when their works showed up last spring at the Russian Academy of Fine Arts Museum in St Petersburg (the city reverted to its original name 1991) at an exhibition called “Assa: the last generation of Leningrad’s avant-garde”. “Assa” was a Russian cult film that made Bugaev, who uses the pseudonym Afrika, and his character in the film, Bananan, into stars.

Last month, St Petersburg’s Dzerzhinsky district court ruled that Bugaev must return 21 of the works. Over the course of the proceedings, which lasted three months, it was found that the other four works were in the hands of Vladislav Gutsevich, another member of the group. Gutsevich showed the works that he has in court. Bugaev did not, and it is not clear where they are now since the exhibition has ended. He has one month to appeal.

Afrika and his virtual Institute of the New Man organised the “Assa” exhibition with the Academy of Fine Arts Museum. The other artists in the group say they were stunned to see their long-lost works on the walls and in the catalogue. They said they had lent them to Bugaev in the late 1980s.

Some of the works travelled abroad, to Sweden and the UK, capitalising on the interest in unofficial Soviet art during Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika era, sometimes as stage sets for the underground rock band Pop-Mekhanika.

Oleg Maslov says he saw four of his works at the “Assa” exhibition. “He took them away many times, and I think he has not only these paintings, but others as well. We can’t prove this, however, since he doesn’t show them to anyone, but hides them.”

Artists in that milieu were not known at the time for demanding contracts or written records, said Andrey Vasilyev, a lawyer representing the plaintiffs, but Maslov said that after attempts to get the works back when they first disappeared, he would not let the matter rest when they resurfaced and when Bugaev again refused to return them.

A first lawsuit against Bugaev was started by the artist Evgeny Kozlov, and a second one by Maslov and two other artists, Inal Savchenkov and Oleg Zaika. The disputed works in Gutsevich’s possession are by Savchenkov.

Andrei Khlobystin, an artist, art historian and curator who has a long association with the “New Artists” group, told The Art Newspaper that the court ruling was “a miracle in the history of Russian contemporary art”. Vasilyev called the ruling an important precedent that could help “civilise” the Russian art market.

Afrika could not be reached for comment, but after the ruling, he told St Petersburg television that the plaintiffs are a “group of pathetic misfits”. “I kept the works at my own initiative because they are precious to me. If something was on the stage of Pop-Mekhanika, this is very important historically.”

Maslov told The Art Newspaper that he sells paintings both in Russia and abroad. He recently sold a painting of his from the 1980s to the Moscow Museum of Modern Art for $20,000 and a contemporary work to a collector in Denmark for about $10,000. Works by Timur Novikov, founder of the “New Artists” who died in 2002 and has a cult following, are being offered with an estimate of up to £15,000 to £20,000 at Sotheby’s “Contemporary East” sale in London at the end of November (see related story).

Kate Sutton, a curator at Baibakov Art Projects, who wrote her thesis on the “New Artists”, says: “The paintings were about capturing a moment that could not be repeated. They embodied an energy and an expressiveness the artists couldn’t reproduce later (though some tried.) Bugaev must have recognised their value, but at the same time by hiding the works away, he prevented that value from accruing.”

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