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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russian Art Brought Back Home, For a Change

Gallery owners and art collectors spent most of the past 70 years trying to devise ways to spirit great paintings out of Russia and onto the Western market. Now, for the first time, a team of critics and entrepreneurs has made it their mission to reverse that current -- and to bring art by Russia's masters home again.

The group, called Four Arts Ltd, is comprised of connoisseurs from the Pushkin Museum, the Tretyakov Gallery, Russia's Ministry of Culture, and Moscow's Scientific Restoration Research Center. They spent most of the last year scouring private collections here and in Europe in search of top-notch canvases by respected Russian artists. Ultimately Four Arts plans to hold several auctions each year, but their initial findings are the fodder for the group's first exhibit, which is currently on view at the Central House of Artists.

The result is a compact, fine show of paintings and graphics from the 19th and 20th centuries. There are a few gems by Russian masters such as Ilya Repin, Isaak Levitan and Mikhail Vrubel, but the bulk of the works is by less-known artists. Don't let that put you off -- many of the more obscure pictures are quite compelling.

"In the past, collectors in Europe were more interested in getting art out of Russia, by hook or by crook," said Mikhail Kamensky, the art director of Four Arts. "Now there are a lot of rich Russians who want to start their own private collections. Russia is getting richer and richer. The atmosphere is changing. There are dealers in the West who want to sell art here."

As a result, part of Four Arts' purpose is to promote the idea of collecting art in Russia. The spirit of patronage of the arts that was so strong in the late 19th and early 20th century -- railroad mogul Savva Mamontov gave Vrubel his start, while textile merchant Ivan Morozov essentially discovered Henri Matisse -- disappeared with the advent of communism. Only now is that spirit returning. Four Arts itself is funded mainly by Markon, a Moscow-based investment firm that deals with foodstuffs. Markon has its own corporate collection, as do firms such as Inkombank and Crosna, among others.

The curators of the show -- that is, the researchers who went looking for the art -- did their homework and found some treasures. They used their contacts with museum chiefs and art dealers in Europe to locate the Russian art; some paintings were bought from private collections, others were donated by art galleries.

Some of the finds are fascinating.

Two graphics by Polykarp Chernetsov, younger brother of the more famous Nikonor and Grigory Chernetsov, will be donated to the Tretyakov gallery once the exhibit ends. Polykarp died at 20 in 1842; few people knew that he painted in the first place.

Another fine piece to watch out for is "Self Portrait With Wife" by Konstantin Chebotarev, who died in 1974. This 1917 graphic shows the artist walking with his wife towards what appears to be a blue mountain with a whitecap or a breaking wave. It is one of the few abstract works in the collection, and in fact the avant-garde movement does get short shrift, although Kamensky promised that the curators are currently looking for works by Tatlin, Malevich and Kandinsky.

One of the best canvases in the show is off in the corner, near two small watercolors by Repin. It is an exquisite cityscape by Alexander Benoit, a 19th century Russian painter of French origin. In it, a triangle-shaped shadow falls on a bright corner building, as people hustle along the sidewalk. The deep blue sky, the sandy yellow building and the movement on the street give the picture a luminous, summery mood. You can tell it's a hot day just by the light.

None of the works is for sale, although the show's sponsors say that this is their first and last non-commercial exhibit. Soon they will begin putting on auctions, and Kamensky says that some of the paintings in this show will be in the first one.

Nevertheless, at the exhibit's crowded opening, Kamensky and his colleagues stressed that this show was not about making money.

"This exhibit is non-profit because we want to show what we're capable of," said Kamensky. "We're still new. We need to gain a niche in Moscow's art world."

The group chose to be called Four Arts in honor of the school of painters by the same name that flourished in the 1920s and 1930s. The current incarnation of the group does not limit itself to oil and canvas, though: Four Arts is also publishing several art books and a comprehensive, illustrated history of St. Petersburg.

"The organization may be new," said Valery Perfilyev, an official form the Ministry of Culture who attended the crowded opening. "But the people in Four Arts are hardly beginners in the art world. They are taking their expertise to a new level."

"Russian Paintings and Graphics of the 19th and 20th Centuries" is on view on the second floor of the Central House of Artists, located at 10 Krymsky Val, until Oct. 2. Open 11 A.M. to 7 P.M. Closed Mon. Tel. 238-1955. Nearest metro: Oktyabrskaya.