If Semyon Rotnitsky, Aleksandr Goulyayev and Oleg Lomakin are strange and unfamiliar names, they might not be for long. These Russian artists, along with dozens more, are part of the Soviet Impressionism exhibition at the Springville Museum of Art, through Oct. 24. With 145 paintings, the exhibit reaches into nearly every gallery of the museum, demonstrating the pure, undiluted talent of classically trained artists painting with passion and style.
"Russian and Soviet Impressionism," the second-largest exhibition of "official" Soviet art yet shown in the United States, is the result of the dedicated collecting of three individuals: Jim Dabakis, the popular but now retired talk-show host of KTKK; Vern Swanson, director of the Springville Museum of Art; and Raymond Johnson, director of the Overland Fine Art Gallery in Scottsdale, Ariz."I'd been going to Russia since 1981," Dabakis said in a recent interview. "Since the talk show business didn't pay much, I'd go a couple of times a year as a tour guide, taking people from the show." During the tours, Dabakis would purchase art whenever he came across something he liked.
After awhile, Dabakis considered the idea of moving to Europe and exporting Russian paintings as a business. However, he had no training in art history and was unsure of the value of Russian art. "So I visited my artist friend Gary Smith in Alpine.
"I said, `Gary, I think these paintings are really good. Are they?' And Gary said, `I think they are, but my agent would know the business side of this better than me,' so the next time Ray Johnson (Smith's agent) came to town Gary called me.
"I went over and explained this grand plan of moving to Europe, finding art and exporting it back. This was 1989. Ray said, `I love the idea. How much would it take for you to go over and explore this for a year?' And I said, `About $40,000.' "
To Dabakis' amazement, Johnson immediately wrote out a check for the entire amount. Dabakis sold everything, moved to Budapest (this was still during communist times) and began an exporting company, The Easti Group.
According to Swanson, who also curated the exhibit, Soviet art from the 1930s to '70s is conservatively impressionistic; he refers to it as "Working-Class Impressionism." However, he's quick to explain that it doesn't mean the art is "French Impressionism."
"Art of the 1874 Impressionists of France is basically bourgeois and feminine," writes Swanson in the exhibit's notes, "while the art of the Soviet painters is thoroughly working-class and masculine. Impressionism is a broad term encompassing wide stylistic approaches. For instance, how closely does the work of Degas relate to that of Monet? The breadth of Soviet Impressionism is every bit as wide as its French or American counterparts."
The Russian Impressionists aggressively attacked their canvasses with surprising boldness. The passionate display of their brush strokes challenges the myth that they were robots painting in a mechanical fashion. "The works in the exhibit are decisive evocations of life painted with great intensity," writes Swanson.
"A lot of what we did in collecting the art (was) really saving the art," says Dabakis. There were no private collectors over this period of Russian art. "Most of the art was `official art,' and it was painted for the state, for collective farms or for nurseries.
"But for an artist, you can't just say, `Only paint workers in fields who are building socialism.' You can't. They'd go home and paint from their heart. You would go into one of these artist's studio and virtually everything he'd painted from the '40s or earlier was before you. It was almost like a history book of the artist's life."
Unfortunately, because there were no private collectors, the paintings have deteriorated. "A lot of times the paintings were musty, or they'd been stored in a place where there was a lot of water."
Some have accused Dabakis and his associates of taking advantage of the dire conditions in Russia in the early '90s and of stealing Russian treasures. But Dabakis only purchased unwanted art that was sitting around the house. "The way we look at it is, great art is kind of borderless," he says. "If you look in the Hermitage, how many Russian paintings do you see? (The paintings are from all over the world). What's important is the work gets cleaned, restored and viewed."
Dabakis adds that every piece of art they bring to the United States is exported officially. "I've been tempted a few times, but I've always taken everything out the way it's supposed to be done." In Russia, every piece exported must first pass through a commission. "The commission establishes the market value and then you pay that in a tax." Because the tax is 100 percent of the work's value, Dabakis must purchase a painting twice. "Unfortunately you don't get as much money into the hands of the artists as you'd like."
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the exhibit at the SMA is the caliber of the work. The mastery of line and color is more than impressive. When pointing out an exceptional piece, Dabakis grows melancholy. "These artists are dinosaurs, in that they're the last realists who went through the same kind of rigorous, unbelievable training that the realists went through in the last century. Unfortunately, the young Russian art students now get the same type of training we get here in the West. The artists in their 70s, 80s and 90s used to spend the first two years at the institute drawing the human hand. It was rigorous, and it shows. The artists today just don't have the kind of discipline. It's a lost art. When these guys die, we've lost it."
"Russian and Soviet Impressionism," a bravura display of stunning visuals, can be seen Tuesday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Wednesday until 9 p.m. and Sunday, 3-6 p.m. at the Springville Museum of Art, 126 E. 400 South in Springville.