'...I FIT INTO THIS CENTURY LIKE NO ONE ELSE...'
There are so many forms of art that I find myself discovering artists every other day. Only a week ago I was invited to the Saas Gallery in Chelsea who are exhibiting a collection of Alexander Labas art.
What really excites me about Alexander Labas and his artwork is that the collection that is on display spans across different periods of the 20th Century from the 1920s and '30s, World War II, the peaceful fifties, the swinging sixties and the fantastic seventies.
This is an artist who was painting in a time when Russia's Soviet Union's Communist regime heavily persecuted artists during this time and as such, he was not allowed to visit England. Alexander had a desire to visit England from all the stories that he heard about the country, but despite not being able to visit and meet the different influencers of the time such as the English socialites, artists, writers and musicians, his vision of what England was like can be seen throughout his artwork. This gives visitors an idea of what England looked like through the eyes and imagination of an outsider looking in. As you go through each decade you get to see his vision on what England was like.
“I would like to live through the entire 20th century. It is the most astonishing age, the epoch of impressive discoveries, revolutions in life, science, technique, and art. This all occurred before my eyes. Everything was a real experience and in many aspects is related to my own participation. I am sure that with every decade my works will be clearer, and in fifty or hundred years they will gain full force and will reflect our time, which I seem to feel in detail and could understand the very complex events of our fabulous 20th century. To my surprise, I was born “in the right time”, and I fit into this century like no one else”, taken from Alexander Labas in his memoirs.
Alexanders work has been showcased in several museums around the world from MoMA in New York, J.Paul Getty Museum, The State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow and The Russian Museum in Saint Petersburg. These are some world renowned galleries that very few artists have the privilege of displaying their art.
The name of the exhibition originated through a piece of work by Alexander Labas’ contemporary and English poet, Wystan H. Auden’s “The Age of Anxiety”, which encapsulates the turbulences and fluctuations from high anxiety to peacefulness and calmness that was experienced globally throughout the 20th Century.
Alexander died in 1983 where it is said that he was "holding the brush" when it happened. His brother was shot away in 1937 and his wife was a Jewish-born German, who was a student of Kandinsky and Paul Klee. She went on to be a graduate of the Bauhaus, and although she could be arrested at any time, and he still remained a romantic and admirer of his century.
Alexander peaked his popularity in the 1920s and 1930s when first flights were taking place, airships were the rave and trains that could take you across continents in comfort. During this time his artwork attracted and impressed Malevich and Diego Riviera.
Later, during World War II, he kept watch on the roof, extinguished bombs and painted during attacks. With searchlights illuminating the night sky in and around Moscow, and as he watched the aeroplanes being shot down – this was his thing.
Then in the 1950s, landscapes of the Crimea, Moscow with pedestrians, people walking with strollers in the zoo. The period of the Taw and the second wave of avant-garde in the 1960s, Alexander returned to his earlier abstract works. At the end of his life, being an old man, Alexander dreamt of the cosmos, the idea of new planets which can be observed in his series named “Inhabitants of distant planets”.
“We are completely delighted and honoured to be showcasing this important collection and body of work from Alexander Labas’ and pleased that the family has entrusted this to The Saas Gallery.” commented Sofya Abbott, Gallery Founder and Owner.
What about the Saas Gallery London?
Founded by Sofia Abbott who herself originally comes from an already artist Moscow family, you could say art is in her blood. Sofia is the daughter of the well known Soviet painter Max Birshtein, but most importantly she grew up amongst the Soviet artists and for many years she has worked as a journalist. So you can rest assured that Sofia knows her way around the Soviet Art world. Now Sofia is an avid collector of contemporary art.
When Sofia opened Saas Gallery her vision was not just to display contemporary artwork but to make it a social club, a place where charity events can and are held. She also encourages art classes for both children and adults.
Whilst at the open evening, I had a chance to have a chat with Sofia to find out a little more about herself and the gallery.
What led you to open a gallery in London?
The reason I opened a gallery in London. I was rebased in a family of artists. My father was a famous Russian painter Max Birshtein, he was also known as a Soviet impressionist a student of great artist Falk and Tishler. My mother worked at a ministry of Culture, organising art exhibitions and creating methods on how to teach drawing and painting for children. I was raised surrounded by amazing art elite in Russia. When I moved to London in 2016 I started visiting art galleries and found out the storage tendency, that about 75 % of artists that are exhibited and promoted in London galleries are male. I found this imbalance rather odd.
"Glass ceiling" in the art world was something new to me. I decided to open a gallery which will support talented women in art. As I worked as a gender studies professor at Moscow State University for more than a decade and was writing about gender stereotypes in Russia this subject was very close to me. I am creating a couple of projects for this summer to support female art students as well as grown artists.
The other reason I opened a gallery is I want it to be a place where people meet, enjoy art, have talks about it, study how to paint (the age doesn’t matter, we have classes and talks for art lovers from age 4 till 99). My gallery is not one of those cold and unwelcoming places where you don’t even want to enter. A private gallery should be fun and interesting, it should fill your soul with joy, knowledge and pleasure to meet new artists, new people, new ideas. Art is all about feelings and emotions, it should wake us up from everyday life. It’s not a shop and it’s not an investment bank. It should feel full you with ideas and inspirations. That's what art is and what an art gallery should provide to guests to viewers.
What attracts you to Russian art?
My goal is not to be focused on Russian Art only, as I do believe that a great artist does not matter where he/she is from. I exhibited art from Russia and Serbia for now, I started with artists I know well, artists that already had proved their place in the cultural context, but I have a place to exhibit art from other countries too.
There are a couple of galleries and auction houses who deal with Russian contemporary artists but it’s rather a seldom action and there is art in Russia yet to be shown, to be introduced to the world.
Your father Max Birshtein is a well-known artist, have you ever thought about picking up a paintbrush yourself?
My family is a dynasty of great artists, my father max Birshtein, my sister an art academic Anna Birshtein and so on. I had no choice when I was growing up to be an artist, as long as I remember I was painting, drawing. The best memories of my childhood was when I went to my father's studio, a huge place with large windows and 5m ceilings. The smells of oil paint mixed with fresh fruits, vegetables and herbs (mint, coriander, basel), black tea in Uzbek cups, the big bunches of wildflowers (when it was spring or summer), I was given large pieces of paper markers, water coolers, crayons and I would draw for hours. I was taught watercoloring by famous Russian water colonist Sergey Andriyaka when I was 11, I was taught by my father and my mother who by that time was working in art education, and opened more than 20 art schools in Moscow in 1980s.
What advice would you have to art collectors who want to start their own private Russian art collection?
It is always hard to understand and interpret contemporary art because it is challenging for the traditional and modern forms of art, and a sense of aesthetic. We can say that contemporary artworks mainly based on the current issues from the 1950s onwards, such as society and environment, technology, feminism, globalization and multiculturalism and many other themes that can be related with the issues of a postmodern world.
As we live at the same time that the contemporary compositions are created; then why is it so complicated to comprehend those artworks and artists? First and foremost, contemporary art is not about technique, skill or craftsmanship in the traditional sense of these terms, but about the meaning and the idea. An artist doesn't have to know how to draw. If they do video art, their main language is video; drawing is not something they need to do. Contrary to the opinion of amateurs, however, the most prominent Russian artists were excellent draftsmen. Wassily Kandinsky graduated from the Munich Academy of Fine Arts. Despite the fact that throughout his life he painted an enormous number of beautiful and colourful landscapes, it was his abstract works that transformed the perception of painting among his contemporaries, and which made him famous.
It's most important to understand that "Art" doesn't exist. What you respond to and what I respond to, both positively and negatively, are likely to be so entirely different that it's ridiculous to even try to lump them together meaningfully. "Art" is the use of just about anything, in any way to create some kind of emotional reaction in the viewer. Ask yourself which of the works resonate with you. We get used to a certain way of living and thinking and don't want to change. It is the same with art – the new annoys us. On the other hand, there is an interesting paradox. We are happy to use the latest technology – smartphones, for instance – and somehow don't want to go back to the era of dial phones. In its day, the Hermitage, for example, was also conceived as a museum of contemporary art. Works by Dutch and other artists popular at the time were selected for the collection, but now we regard the Hermitage as a museum of entirely traditional art, and all attempts to add contemporary artists to the familiar displays are met with hostility by most people.
The main goal of contemporary art is to provoke reflection. It gives people the opportunity to contemplate, and even to try to understand what is happening with them personally, as well as with society and the world at large.
What made you want to showcase Alexander Labas artwork?
I plan to showcase twice a year one of the classic Russian artists. Alexander Labas was the first one. Labas is one of the greatest Russian artists, he was avant-garde, soviet expressionist, a friend of my father also. They worked side to side in a famous art studio building in Moscow, known as Maslovka. Now I am lucky to be a childhood friend of the legal successor of Labas Foundation, Daria Beskina, which gives me the privilege to showcase museum level artist Labas in a private gallery, where people have better access to art, they can see it and feel it.
Visit www.saas-london.com to find out more!