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Photo: Ekaterina Drobinina

A print-fair in Moscow reveals a craving for affordable art among the Russian middle-class 0

Ekaterina Drobinina

The beginning of May is a pleasant period of time to be in Moscow – because of the long public holidays there are few traffic jams, less people are rushing to work, and admiring the empty streets is one of the favourite pastimes for those who happen to be in the Russian capital. Organizing an art fair during such a quiet period of time seemed to me rather bold.

But I could not be more wrong – one hour after the opening of the one-day “Taste of Paper” print fair (or print-market, as the organisers put it), and the place is bursting with hundreds of visitors looking for a print to purchase. 

Photo: “Taste of Paper”

Most of the works are made by Russian artists, but some galleries have brought European works. A friend of mine, a British tourist, has ironically picked a bird's-eye-view of London by British artist Will Clarke; it was brought to the fair by “White Walls Problems”, an online gallery specializing in prints, and also one of the founders of the market. My friend is planning to hang it next to a work by Maria Smolyaninova, an independent Moscow-based artist whose train series is called “Opus”, referring to the overhead train wires that reminded her of a staff with notes on it, as in the sheet music used by an orchestra conductor.  

“I have a passion for music”, says Ms. Smolyaninova. “I have made two series: the one from Moscow is all about trains, and the other one is about St. Petersburg. St. Petersburg, unlike Moscow, is more linear, and rhythm is everywhere over there”, explains the artist.

Photo: “Taste of Paper”

The Russian art market is going through a difficult time. The only art fair in Russia that has survived the economic turbulence of the late 1990s and 2000s, as well as the unsubstantial demand for works of art, is the Antique Art Salon, which mainly deals in works done by 19th- and early 20th-century artists. Cosmoscow, another Moscow fair scheduled for the fall of 2016, specializes in contemporary Russian art. However, unlike the UK or America, where dozens of print fairs take place every year, Russia does not yet host any affordable art fairs.

Photo: “Taste of Paper”

Unlike most fairs, such events as “Taste of Paper” are meant to have a liberal spirit – there are no VIP openings, and customers are not judged for picking a poster that would match with the interior of the room. One can be taught and told how to make a print or a card. The free spirit and affordability of the works have attracted around 3000 visitors this year, compared with 2500 people who attended the two-day event the previous time it was held.

Affordable art fairs that originated in London and rapidly gained popularity all over the world, including North America and Asia, are not yet being organised in Russia, where the art-market is still at its nascent stage. The main reason for that is not enough demand for art.

The depreciation of the Russian currency has resulted in less stunning revenue figures from the auction houses, as art-collectors from the former USSR do not spend as generously as they used to in the early 2000s and even after the economic turbulence of 2008-2009. At the same time, the middle class is not yet ready to purchase art for themselves, and prefer to decorate their apartments with an Ikea print or a low-quality canvas featuring a popular tourist view.

However, the numerous buyers queuing at the packaging stand at the “Taste of Paper” print market might yet prove that there is some change taking place in the air.

Photo: “Taste of Paper”

The first print market in Moscow was organised in late 2014, when several print-makers and galleries (White Walls Problems, Mir, Format One and Wallelements) gathered to exhibit and sell their works. One and a half years later, twice as many galleries and artists (mostly from Russia, besides one outstanding exception from Ukraine) have gathered in the building of the Central Telegraph in Moscow – an example of avant-guard architecture from the 1920s with a big glass globe over the entrance that was once a part of an old USSR national emblem.

Unlike Western print fairs which provide a wide choice of works by both Old Masters as well as modern artists, the Moscow print market is all about affordable works made by young artists. While most prints are priced at around 50 USD, there are less expensive works, too. A print made from a work by Alexandra Kolcova-Bychkova, an early 20th-century Russian artist who went on a business trip to Paris to work for Hermes, can be purchased for under 10 USD. The only pricey exceptions are mid-19th-century etchings by Ivan Shishkin and early 20th-century engravings by Ivan Pavlov, both of which are going for over 1500 USD. While such prices are not unusual at Western fairs – where it is possible to find an etching by Rembrandt or Goya – collectors of prints are a rare breed in Russia.

“We brought one of each because we did not know what people might like”, says a smiling girl from Kiev. The corner with works by Ukrainian artists – a group called “Kopia0”, who took a train to come from Ukraine for just the one day – attracts a lot of people. Their works are elaborated and tasteful, with a pinch of humour. I pick “A Monument to a Reader” - a lino-graving by Olga Sabko that portrays a man reading in the shadow of a tree. “There are so many monuments to writers, but none to the reader”, says one of the artists.

Photos: Ekaterina Drobinina