THE AIVAZOVSKY “BRAND” IN THE SURGING SEA OF RUSSIA’S ELITE

Mikhail Kamensky

Article: 
POINT OF VIEW
Magazine issue: 
#4 2016 (53)

Ivan Aivazovsky, that most renowned artist, outstanding representative of the Russian academic school and internationally recognized seascape artist, has long been a symbol of prosperity, stability and investment wisdom for Russian society. Alongside artworks by Isaak Levitan, Vasily Polenov, Ivan Shishkin and Konstantin Makovsky, the homes of certain “most prominent” representatives of the “Russian World” are often decorated with Aivazovsky’s paintings - as if they are an equivalent of the gold reserve or a signifier of strong faith in the stability of the government; a symbol of power, and an articulation of the conservative notion of the “imperishable”; an attribute of luxury, and a reminder of an enviable dowry or rich inheritance.

None of the achievements of the Russian avant-garde or European modernism has been able to shake the adamant, deep-rooted notion of such “true values”: fears for the integrity of the national culture's core have proved groundless. The imagery and artistic merits of national realistic painting of the 19th century were echoing an archetypal notion inherent in Russian society - the notion of an ideal world with its clearly defined criteria of good and evil, heroes and enemies, joys and woes. Possessing a high level of immunity to any conceptual “vaccinations” of later times, the models of that world, elaborately delineated by the greatest masters and passed down over the generations, are still deeply relevant today.

Aivazovsky, that flagship of marine and battle painters, contributed to these world models with his mighty storm clouds, the furious noise of his waves, and the creak of masts; with his battles against the forces of nature, and their tragic or victorious ending; with his pride and faith in Russia's great naval power and victorious fleet, its white sails sparkling at naval parades and proving its thundering might in battles at sea. Corresponding to the needs of the nation's imperial consciousness, Aivazovsky was, and remains, one of the most brilliant artists in visualizing the archetypes of strength, will, courage and power in the eyes of the “Russian World” from the middle of the 19th century to the present day.

Foreign connoisseurs, with their never-waning eagerness to acquire his canvases, have always well understood the symbolic value of Aivazovsky's paintings. The “pleasantness” of his works to the Russian eye was well-known: foreign partners would often introduce his paintings into the visual context of diplomacy at historically significant negotiations as an important element of “politicized decor”. The works of the master were added as a “supplement” to support peaceful intentions - in the eyes of foreign hosts, halls decorated with the paintings of Aivazovsky would testify to nothing but the deepest respect for Russia. His art was an evocation of the Great Russian Power adherent in traditional values and embodied in powerful storms and mighty waves.

Through the efforts of the Sublime Porte, the San Stefano negotiations of 1878 that resulted in the Preliminary Treaty signed by Russia and the Ottoman Empire took place against the background of Aivazovsky's paintings of the Bosphorus, his seascapes and landscapes of Constantinople and the like - just a few of the 40 (!) canvases acquired by Sultan Abdul Hamid II from Aivazovsky himself.

Another historical example: in 1892, during his trip to the Unites States, Aivazovsky presented Washington's Corcoran Gallery with two of his paintings - “The Relief Ship” and “Distributing Supplies” - in gratitude to the American people which had provided Russia with food aid following the drought of 1891.

In 1962, at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis when tensions between the two Cold War powers reached a peak, President John F. Kennedy asked his wife to plan the decor of the rooms in which his meeting with the Soviet delegation was to take place. Jacqueline recalled the two notable works by the Russian artist that she had seen at the Corcoran Gallery and arranged for them to be temporarily exhibited in the White House. Aivazovsky's paintings decorated the Fish Room where the negotiations took place and must have made an impression on the Soviet delegation, which appreciated the symbolic meaning of the gesture. While the American side perceived the famous master's art as mediatory mainly because of its subjects, the Soviet delegation attached as much importance to his name.

The “wattage” of Aivazovsky's works, their “appropriateness” in the public, political and domestic space alike, the diversity of their subjects and the universality of artistic language - all these factors have combined to turn Aivazovsky's art into a popular artistic currency widely circulating the world, one to be used in various situations.

This wide range of social functions of Aivazovsky's paintings have had a direct and immediate impact on their market value. The rapidly growing Russian bourgeoisie of the turn of the 20th and 21st centuries, with its newly emerging private capital, and the desire of this emerging class to reach selfunderstanding - not least through its attempts to find self-identity through nati onal culture - all have led to the sharp rise in the price of Aivazovsky's works on the art market, and their gradual evolution into an equivalent of a currency, the Aivazovsky.

This new Russian establishment which gravitated towards money and power had a remarkable class instinct. Since the mid-19th century and right up to the present day, the love affair between the oligarchy and the Aivazovsky was, and remains strong: the feeling proved mutual. The artist was acutely aware of the charisma of power; he was drawn to the dazzling decorations and powerful magnetic field of new opportunities. He would dedicate himself entirely to serving the Empire with all the might of his artistic talent. As a creator who had found appropriate motifs, plots and manners of depiction, he perfectly represented the imperial authorities' idea of what might - the sea - and indomitable will - the waves - personified.

Having grown into an outstanding marine painter, Aivazovsky managed to glorify the idea of the rule of Power over Man in an extremely soulful and talented way. He found both truly direct and quite hidden, sublime metaphors to describe the relationship between society and the authorities. Parallels between nature - ruthless, metaphysical, indifferent power - and state machinery naturally appeared in some of his best works, and was far from limited to just the likes of “The Ninth Wave” or “The Black Sea”. Society interpreted the educational and suggestive sentiment of the emotionally rich, pretentious canvases as an awareness of impending doom, and the senselessness of resistance for those suffering shipwreck - as an equivalent to the realization of the meaninglessness of any form of civil resistance. The creator of odes to the might of power and nature, Aivazovsky always was - and still is - an imperial artist, essential in the state system of social manipulation.

Aivazovsky was known for his craving for the attributes of power and for state honours, his penchant for an expensive gilded interior, his pride and constant desire to emphasize his close proximity to the Imperial family and senior dignitaries. Power and money deeply penetrated his works, and they have never lost their alluring, intoxicating fragrance. In many ways that explains why the artist's works have attained the value and essence of money. Wealthy representatives of the “Russian World” across the globe have recognized the value of his canvases, as the Aivazovsky became an asset easily exchangeable for real money of any currency.

Gradually such Aivazovskies acquired an independent exchange value, becoming highly liquid. They were used as a means of informal payments within certain circles, were easily exchanged for paper money, cars, apartments or country houses; they could even be set off against a debt at face value. Investment in Aivazovskies became a substitute for money, a convenient form of storing wealth, easily convertible into any currency without loss of value and always accepted without hesitation. Moreover, in the language of the North American Indians and in terms of social anthropology, they have become a perfect unit of inner- and inter-clan potlatch (“exchange of gifts”) for the Russian elite. In its very architecture, the house of any representative of the federal or regional elite provides for a sort of altar piece, a “red corner” of a kind in which to place these Aivazovskies - its exact form depending only on the rank and authority of the oligarch or dignitary concerned.

Of course, Aivazovskies were never a means of payment in the legal sense - they were backed by no guarantee from the government, which also (most unfortunately) refrained from any legal action in the case of forgery. However, their high market “valence” and the possibility of engaging in hidden, non-public financial relations was a significant attractive supplement to the obvious artistic merits of the famous painter's works: until very recently, in the eyes of the “Russian World” he was an almost perfect example of the union of formal demonstrative patriotism and investment feasibility.

For that matter, statistics on sales of works by Aivazovsky and the entire market of Russian art serve as a reliable barometer of the attitudes of the elite and their understanding of the realities of social, economic and political life. Along with other glorious personae of Russian art and literature of the 19th and 20th centuries, whose works have always been included in classical museum collections and school anthologies alike, Aivazovsky has contributed to the formation of the collective consciousness and the Russian mentality, to the shaping of popular ideas about the highest standards of the country's artistic culture. Nevertheless, the artist's ability and desire to romanticize official patriotism can be considered the major trait of Aivazovsky's art, which has proved both attracting and enchanting to the authorities right up to the present day. As for the private buyers and sellers of Aivazovsky's paintings, the indicators of their market behaviour have begun to correspond with the level of optimism or pessimism of the elites regarding the country's development prospects and their own place and role in its social and economic life.

Of course, Aivazovsky is not the only master whose impact on the national consciousness can be considered significant. But in the realm of painting he is one of the few Russian “admirals” whose heritage is widely and comprehensively represented in the world art market. Due to his professional habit of following the rules of oil painting technique strictly, the great part of his vast artistic heritage has been preserved in a nearly perfect state. Aivazovsky's high creative productivity, the well-preserved state of his work, as well as its resistance to temperature and climatic extremes make the rumours of 6,000 paintings created by Aivazovsky (the figure named by the leading scholars who study the artist) seem quite realistic. It is important to note that neither Shishkin, Savrasov, Levitan nor any other “textbook personae' of Russian 19th century art possess all the qualities needed for correct analysis - only significant long-term sales figures of works by the artist allow us to apply the Aivazovsky brand as a common indicator and consider the overall statistics as representative.

The 1990s are known as a time of rapid income growth for both corporations and their owners. That growth, which started in the 1990s and lasted steadily during the first half of the 2000s, was matched by a spectacular rise in prices for Aivazovsky's work. Since 2008 the “modernization wave” has given rise to a new focus in the preferences of the new generation of the Russian elite, giving an entirely new impulse to the social and political fashion of collecting contemporary art. It was the result of a change in ideological paradigms. The market in Aivazovsky's art underwent significant correction, and the value of the Aivazovsky decreased. Years later, at the moment of yet another substantial restoration of conservative views which directly affected trends in collecting, the Aivazovsky started to regain its previous position.

However, statistics show that since 2014 the crisis has cooled the imperial instincts of lovers of marine painting - those individuals who financially personified the conservative part of the collectors' community. Although the effects of the crisis have not caused the elite any significant loss of capital, their moral and artistic “desertion” is clear: the curve of the elite's inner, unostentatious belief in its country, closely related as it is to the level of demand for one of the country's major cultural symbols, has been declining steadily, indeed rather considerably. According to artprice.com Aivazovsky's position in the list of the world's most expensive artists has changed from number 35 (according to the results of auctions in 2005) to number 7,652 (based on the data of 2015)! Every $100, invested in his art in 2000, brought an average income of $597 (240%) in 2005, $699 (260.5%) in 2008 and “only” $266 (166%) in 2015. In the past two years, solely because of the decline in Russian national demand and interest, prices have fallen by almost 60%!

When applying data on the sales of Aivazovsky's paintings as a hypothetical indicator of the sentiments of the Russian elite, one might wonder: are his works the only domestic artistic brand that can be said to objectively reflect the carefully hidden personal motivation of an influential group of people, one which otherwise resists any traditional measurements of sociological research, due to the deep reluctance of its members to be measured in any such way?

It is generally known that any object of study can and must be revalidated by employing alternative indicators. Comparison between currencies, precious metals and energy resources offers a more objective assessment of the economic situation - in a similar way, the sociologist should look for equivalent indicators in the art market. It seems fair to use the sales statistics of the famous Russian firm of Faberge as an alternative indicator - it is an entity that certainly matches the paintings of the great seascape artist in both aura and symbolic significance. While the Faberge brand is considerably better known in the world, in Russia the level of fame, popular love and pricing of the two is quite comparable. For the conservative part of the Russian elite, Faberges have quite the same qualities and virtues and carry the same notions of statism as Aivazovskies. If we admit the similarity in the symbolic roles played by the two brands in the political culture of the Russian elite, it becomes obvious that their fate on the art market should be similar as well. The graphs concerned perfectly illustrate the concurrence.

Under the current difficult economic and political situation, and despite immense financial opportunities, the Russian elite - that element which believes itself the personification of state authority - is becoming less and less willing to identify with the symbolic values of its native country and invest in attributes of national artistic and spiritual heritage. Attributes which that very same elite had only recently been praising to the skies...

Illustrations

IVAN AIVAZOVSKY. Shipwreck. 1898
IVAN AIVAZOVSKY. Shipwreck. 1898
Oil on canvas. 20.3 × 27.8 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
IVAN AIVAZOVSKY. Sea before Storm. 1898
IVAN AIVAZOVSKY. Sea before Storm. 1898
Oil on canvas. 16.3 × 26 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
IVAN AIVAZOVSKY. Storm at Sea. 1857
IVAN AIVAZOVSKY. Storm at Sea. 1857
Oil on canvas. 100 × 149 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
IVAN AIVAZOVSKY. After a Storm. Off the Yalta Coast. 1876
IVAN AIVAZOVSKY. After a Storm. Off the Yalta Coast. 1876
Oil on canvas. 20.5 × 27 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
IVAN AIVAZOVSKY. Yalta. 1866
IVAN AIVAZOVSKY. Yalta. 1866
Oil on canvas. 29.4 × 38.7 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
IVAN AIVAZOVSKY. A Call for Help. 1886
IVAN AIVAZOVSKY. A Call for Help. 1886
Oil on canvas. 26.3 × 36.2 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
IVAN AIVAZOVSKY. An English Frigate. 1855
IVAN AIVAZOVSKY. An English Frigate. 1855
Graphite pencil with stumping and watercolour on papier-pellé (gypsum-coated paper); scratching. 26 × 35 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
 
IVAN AIVAZOVSKY. Morning at the Seashore. Sudak. 1856
IVAN AIVAZOVSKY. Morning at the Seashore. Sudak. 1856
Oil on canvas. 96 × 146 cm. Russian Museum
IVAN AIVAZOVSKY. Twenty-six-canon Ship at the Seashore. 1852
IVAN AIVAZOVSKY. Twenty-six-canon Ship at the Seashore. 1852
Oil on canvas. 95.5 × 141.5 cm. Russian Museum
IVAN AIVAZOVSKY. Seacoast at Amalfi. 1841
IVAN AIVAZOVSKY. Seacoast at Amalfi. 1841
Oil on canvas. 71 × 105 cm. Russian Museum
IVAN AIVAZOVSKY. The Road to Ai-Petri. 1894
IVAN AIVAZOVSKY. The Road to Ai-Petri. 1894
Oil on canvas. 41.5 × 59.5 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
IVAN AIVAZOVSKY. Constantinople. 1882
IVAN AIVAZOVSKY. Constantinople. 1882
Oil on canvas. 53.3 × 71 cm. Russian Museum
IVAN AIVAZOVSKY. Ukrainian Landscape with Cart-drivers by Moonlight. 1869
IVAN AIVAZOVSKY. Ukrainian Landscape with Cart-drivers by Moonlight. 1869
Oil on canvas. 60 × 82 cm. Tretyakov Gallery

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