A 24-year old Maria Baibakova goes around her gallery and paints over any smudges over the white walls. It is her tradition since she was an intern at a small gallery.
A few things have changed since her intern days. Her father gifted a gallery after she returned from the United States. Her assistant holds paint and a paintbrush for her. She needs to make sure that everything is pristine and perfect so she can welcome renowned artists and collectors.
In post-Soviet Russia, power and fortune depend on the grace of the Kremlin, and Baibakova’s customers ---oligarchs-- are very aware of that. Countless pieces of art collected by the oligarchs might paint over the source of their fortune and political webs, just as Baibakova paints over smudges on the wall.
ART AND OLIGARCHS Shows Us the Truth Under the Coated Paint
Art and Oligarchs by Tania Rakhmanova examines this trend among the Russian nouveau riche: art collecting. Rakhmanova aims to show us the truth under the coated paint.
Rakhmanova begins her story by recounting a dramatic event that shook the art world. In 2007, Sotheby’s canceled its auction event at the very last moment for the first time in its history. As Sotheby’s considered the Rostropovich collection as one of its most important Russian collections, many were left confused and curious. It turned that two days before the auction, a Russian billionaire Alisher Usmanov had purchased the entire collection. It is believed that he paid more than £20 million.
We learn that even the 2008 Financial Crisis did not stop this new craze. In 2008, the Russian market took up 40% of the Sotheby’s turnover. Then and now, the Russian nouveau riche are busy hopping around galleries and auction houses anywhere in the world that holds Russian objects. As people in their best suits begin to fill in a once-quiet room with a velvet curtain, the room becomes a battlefield where people are armed with their phones and cash. They are not shy in unleashing their money in this bidding war.
The treasures the Oligarchs seek are steeped in Russian history. Before the revolution, Moscow and St. Petersburg shone bright with grand palaces and lavish parties with the imperial family and nobles. Art and Oligarchs revisits some of the prominent collections, such as the Shchukin collection, accumulated in the pre-Soviet era. These new art patrons –the Oligarchs --seek to following the footsteps of the previous art patrons and leave their names in Russian history by focusing on collecting and promoting Russian art.
We are left with numerous questions. Where do art and culture belong in society? Can art be autonomous even when it is used as a political and economic tool? What is the actual value of art?
In this writer’s view, collecting art is surely a sophisticated way to showcase one’s appreciation of culture, and perhaps more importantly, wealth. By opening up an exhibition to the public and funding new artists, the business patrons could offer their generosity.
Viewing this film, you too might find yourself newly considering these and similar questions. Art and Oligarchs opens up the heavy curtain of the exclusive auction events to the viewers and reveals the behind of the scene driving this new craze. It shows the society where two seemingly opposite forces coexist: artistic and economic freedom and an authoritarian state. In less than an hour, we get a good glimpse of the high society of Russia, and its complicated web of rules and power and the multi-faceted role of art in contemporary Russia.
It is not the film for someone who seeks to delve into an art analysis of specific pieces or collections, yet anyone interested in studying the role of art in society would enjoy this film.
Director: Tania Rakhmanova
For more information, and to view the film, please visit the OVID website for ART AND OLIGARCHS.
Images courtesy of Ovid.tv
About the Author:
Yoo Jung Hah is a recent History graduate from the University of Chicago. Originally from South Korea, Yoo Jung has worked in education nonprofits in Chicago and a public advocacy nonprofit organization in Washington D.C. During her free time, she enjoys attending cultural and art events, painting, and cooking.