Critics had long-since recognised that the USSR was home to world-class ballet dancers, writers, poets and musicians, but many now began to wonder whether the country’s artists were equally motivated to greatness, and none more so that Raymond Johnson. An avid collector already, Mr Johnson started to purchase Soviet-era paintings from the late 1980s onwards, making regular trips to Russia and visiting artists in their studios and meeting their families wherever possible.
His thirty year adventure in collecting has culminated in one of the greatest privately-owned collections of Soviet-era art. In 2002 he was instrumental in founding the Museum of Russian Art in Minneapolis; in 2004, Mr Johnson was named an honorary consul of the Russian Federation; on 19 January 2006, he was awarded the Order of Friendship by the Russian Federation in recognition of 20 years of efforts to enhance cultural understanding between Russia and the United States.
These extraordinary achievements and the artistic legacy that he has preserved represent only a fraction of his experience as a collector however. ‘What is most important to me’ he explained, ‘is that we developed great and long-lasting relationships with the artists and their families. For me, the exceptional training combined with the passion and spirit of these artists is irresistible. The artistry, mastery and craftsmanship took my breath away.’
The name of Georgy Rublev was all but forgotten until the exhibition which took place at the Tretyakov in 1990. Previously known as a painter of murals and designer of Serpukhovskaya metro station in Moscow, this event introduced the public to the artist’s early easel painting which proved to be a revelation. The huge retrospective at the Tretyakov Gallery in 2002 only built on this, the introductory article to the 2002 catalogue describes him as ‘quite possibly one of the last great discoveries in the study of the art of the 1920s and 1930s’.
Factory Party Meeting of 1933 belongs to the artist’s most interesting period before he retreated to the relative safety of painting still lifes, interiors and landscapes after being accused of formalism in the late 1930s. 1932 saw the inauguration of Socialist Realism as state policy after Stalin’s decree on the Reconstruction of Literary and Artistic Organisations, it was also the year of the completion of the first Five Year Plan, a year ahead of schedule, and between 1928 and 1932 party membership trebled to reach new heights of 3.5 million. The present work belongs to the artist’s series of scenes from everyday Soviet life, but unlike his earlier depictions of cafés, barbershops, farmworkers, the party, and the Socialist Realist concept of Partiinost, has a much more explicit presence, even though the self-consciously primitive style is a world apart from the what was soon to be churned out by the officially sanctioned movement.
In the early years of the Soviet Union, while the arts were still under the auspices of IZO Narkompros, the revolutionary ideals of the Proletkult were preserved and the avant-garde was tolerated under Lunacharsky’s indulgent directorship. As part of the generation who came of age after the Revolution, Rublev was at the forefront of this struggle to find a suitable proletarian style that didn’t borrow from bourgeois culture and rejected professionalism. This led to an upsurge of interest in primitive art and the art of children. ‘It was common in the late 1920s and early 1930s for adult Soviet painters to model themselves on children’s art. An example is Georgy Rublev’s A Factory Party Meeting.’ (C.Kelly, pp.86-87). At the time Moscow had a museum devoted to children’s art and the Narkompros controlled art school VKhUTEMAS, where Rublev studied between 1924 and 1930 in the Department of Monumental Painting, had its own studio of children’s drawings.
Described as the Russian Matisse for his use of colour and neo-primitivist style, Rublev’s easel-work of the late 1920s and early 1930s harks back to the first generation of Russian neo-primitivists, most notably Mikhail Larionov. The motif of the black scissors on the table is a recurring one in Rublev’s work at this time and recalls Larionov’s barbershop series, as well as in the present lot, we also see it in Seamstresses (fig.3) and A Letter from Kiev (fig.4). Rublev pays direct homage to this series in his own Barbershop of 1928.
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