LONDON - Two magnificent works both painted in 1917 - Robert Falk’s Man in a Bowler Hat (Portrait of Yakov Kagan-Shabshai) and Petr Konchalovsky’s monumental Family Portrait in the Artist’s Studio – have sold privately to an important private Russian collector ahead of Sotheby’s Russian auctions next week. Falk’s masterpiece, an arresting portrait of one of the most important collectors of Jewish art of the early 20th century, sold for a price well in excess of the auction estimate that had been placed on the work (£2.5-3.5m), and many times the existing auction record for a work by the artist. The buyer of that painting also purchased Petr Konchalovsky’s Family Portrait in the Artist’s Studio for £4,674,500 – some four times the auction record for a work by the artist (£1,035,850).* Both works will go on public view at Sotheby’s New Bond Street in London this Friday (22nd November) until Monday 25th at 3pm.
Jo Vickery, Senior Director and Head of Sotheby’s Russian Art Department in London, said: “The interest we saw in these two works before the auction, resulting in these extraordinary private sales, was unprecedented, demonstrating the enormous enthusiasm that exists in today’s market for truly great Russian art. Important new benchmarks have now been set for two of Russia’s most significant artists, whose work is less known outside Russia and yet will surely be re-appraised as a result.”
Man in a Bowler Hat (Portrait of Yakov Kagan-Shabshai), (1917)
Estimated at £2.5-3.5 million
Robert Falk’s masterful portrait of one of the most important collectors of Jewish art of the early twentieth century, Yakov Kagan-Shabshai, was last exhibited in public ninety years ago at the XIV Venice International Exhibition in 1924. It ranks among the finest paintings from the brilliant and experimental ‘Jack of Diamonds’ early period of Falk’s career (1910-17), and compares to the artist’s greatest works held in museum collections around the world.
Described by Marc Chagall as ‘a disorganised genius, an engineer with no means but big plans’, the distinguished scientist Yakov Kagan-Shabshai (1877, Vilnius – 1939, Moscow) was an enthusiastic patron of the arts who built up a celebrated collection of painting and sculpture in his Moscow home, dubbed ‘The Jewish Gallery of Kagan-Shabshai’. An unusual and protean character: both a serious academic and quick-witted ‘joker’, he was among the very first collectors of Chagall, and forged close relationships with a wide circle of young and unknown Jewish artists, lending material support from no motive other than a deep awareness of a shared sense of humanity.
Eager to raise the profile of Jewish art and Jewish artists on the international stage, Kagan-Shabshai made a formal application to open Moscow’s first museum dedicated to Jewish art in 1923. When permission was rejected by the Soviet government on ideological grounds, he gifted 139 canvases from his personal collection to the Mendel Museum of Jewish culture in Odessa in 1932 - the majority of which were destroyed twelve years later during bombing in World War Two. Following Yakov’s death in 1939, the remainder of his collection was sent to his brother Alexander in Paris, much of which was then sold and the buyers never recorded.
The 1905 Revolution had eliminated much of the social marginalisation reinforced by the tsarist regime and provided the opportunity for members of the Jewish elite, like Yakov Kagan-Shabshai, to assume central posts in political and cultural life. Their patronage was vital in enabling the Jewish culture to flourish, and in promoting the work of young and experimental Jewish artists. Now widely recognised as one of the most interesting and original artists in early twentieth century Russia, Robert Falk relied on the support of wealthy patrons, and their commissions, to pursue a career as an artist. Man in a Bowler Hat was most likely one of these special commissions, and, having entered Kagan-Shabshai’s personal collection as soon as it was painted in 1917, it remained with him until the end of his life in 1939.
Family Portrait in the Artist’s Studio (1917)
Estimated at £3.5-4.5 million
SOLD PRIVATELY FOR £4,674,500
Painted in 1917 following Petr Konchalovsky’s return from fighting in the First World War, the monumental masterpiece formed the centrepiece of the Konchalovsky retrospective in Moscow and St. Petersburg in 2010.
FAMILY PORTRAIT IN THE ARTIST’S STUDIO: THE HISTORY
On his travels through Europe and Russia before the First World War, Konchalovsky was almost always accompanied by his wife Olga (1878-1958), and his two children, Natalia (1903-1988) and Mikhail (1906-2000). As a family they were remarkably close and Konchalovsky painted and sketched them throughout his life to create a series of family portraits which are widely considered to be his finest works. He had painted two other monumental family portraits in previous years: the earliest dating from 1911 is now a highlight of the State Museum in St Petersburg; the second from 1912 is the focal point of the Konchalovsky gallery at The State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow. However, this third portrait from 1917 – among the largest works he ever composed– is the only one to remain in private hands
FAMILY PORTRAIT IN THE ARTIST’S STUDIO: INFLUENCES AND INSPIRATIONS
Konchalovsky’s single-minded focus on the technical aspects of painting and his remarkable disregard for the ideological schisms emerging during this period, established his reputation as one of the most significant Russian painters of the 20th century.
Konchalovsky was at the heart of the Jack of Diamonds society which also counted Mashkov, Falk and Lentulov among its core members. With their absolute focus on craftsmanship and their unique take on Primitivism, Post-Impressionism and dedication to Cézanne, these artists were at the very forefront of the Russian avant-garde and exhibited regularly alongside Picasso, Rousseau, Signac, Delaunay, Léger and Matisse. Konchalovsky, by his own admission, held onto Cézanne ‘like a drowning man will clutch at a straw’, and of all his contemporaries he remained most faithful to Cézannism well into the 1920s, using short brushstrokes and planes of dense colour in his works from this period.
The high regard he placed on the medium of painting and the pre-eminence of craftsmanship would come to fruition most clearly in this remarkable family portrait of 1917: the culmination of all he had learned over the course of what was the most formative decade of his life.