In an art storage depot in south London, James Butterwick, an old Etonian art dealer in motorcycle leathers, is showing me the first piece of Russian art he ever bought. It is a pencil drawing by Léon Bakst, a painter and graphic artist who designed for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes.
James acquired the taste for Russian art while studying in the Soviet Union and bought the picture in 1987, when Russian art was going for a song. James was able to snap up pictures by important Russian artists for relatively modest sums of money. Most of the pictures in the storage were painted between about 1910 and 1930, the period of the Russian avantgarde that includes Malevich, Kandinsky and Chagall.
It seems to be Russia’s fate to be a latecomer to global trends and then make up for it its tardiness with sheer intensity. Russia left it until the 19th century to produce any writers of global stature, and then Pushkin, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Gogol, Dostoyevsky, and Turgenev all appeared. In politics, Russia had a frankly medieval set-up until 1861, with a tsar and legal serfdom; just over half a century later, it was leading the vanguard of world socialist revolution. The hordes of Russian shoppers on New Bond Street may have a different political ethos, but their single-minded pursuit of luxury has a similarly frenzied air of making up for lost time.
With Russian art, it’s the same story. For centuries, Russia was epitomised by icons and onion domes, but by 1917, the country was a hothouse of artistic creativity. In painting, design and architecture, Russian artists were innovating, experimenting and open to new influences.