An interview with Russian art collector Alexander Dobrovinsky
Ekaterina Drobinina 28/07/2015
Before meeting with Alexander Dobrovinsky, a famous Russian lawyer and passionate art collector, I go see the exhibition of his movie poster collection at the Jewish Museum in Moscow (through 23 august, 2015). Failing to find at the exhibition one of the most expensive Soviet posters ever made – “Man With a Movie Camera”, made by the Stenberg brothers – (in 2012 Christie's sold the poster for almost 110,000 GBP) I begin the interview by asking if he owns the most expensive poster made in the USSR. “It is not the most expensive poster”, says Mr. Dobrovinsky with a smile as he walks me to his office, in which an original Rodchenko poster hangs alongside works by famous Russian painters – Kustodiev, Samokhvalov, Deyneka and others. His 22 collections include paintings and photographs, carpets and jewelry, works of wood and porcelain.
His legal office is lavishly decorated with movie and advertising posters from the Soviet era, and dozens of unframed ones are piled up in an empty room. In the reception area a visitor waits next to a massive table holding a display case filled with a collection of engraved lighters from Soviet times. As I follow Mr. Dobrovinsky around his office, he occasionally points to some of the works and tells me how he acquired them. Some were gifts from clients while others, as he jokes, remind him of them.
Soviet posters have become a collectible item for many Russians only recently, and in the past they used to attract mainly foreigners. This is why today many American galleries that sell vintage posters have voluminous stocks of Soviet works. Some were bought for 10-50 USD before the collapse of the USSR (one gallerist told me he bought dozens of works from a Russian translator who travelled to the US in the late 80s and would bring as many posters as she could pack in her bag). Visitors to the Soviet Union from abroad would buy propaganda or advertising posters as souvenirs.
However, the most outstanding posters from an artistic point of view, and which are also the most expensive ones, are posters made by constructivism artists from the 1920s to the 1930s – Rodchenko, Tatlin, the Stenberg brothers, Klutsis, Lissitzky, etc. – whose avant-garde works marked a new period in the history of posters. Finding a poster made by one of these artists may be a challenge today; although these ads were printed in large editions, they were never kept for more than a few months. And even though the publishing house would send several copies to the state libraries, hardly any of them were kept under proper conditions.
The interest in Soviet posters reached its peak in the 90s when Sotheby’s held the auction “USSR in Construction”, at which the Gustav Klutsis poster nicknamed “The Hand”, was sold for 18,000 USD. In 1995 Susan Pack published a book about her collection of Soviet movie posters of the 1920s - 30s. Later on several other non-Russian collectors organized public showings of the Soviet works they owned – from David King, whose collection was exhibited at the Tate Modern in 2005, to Tony Shafrazi, who showed his collection of movie posters in his New York gallery in 2011.
Vladimir and Georgi Stenberg. “The Three Million Process”, 1926. The Collection of Alexander Dobrovinsky
Why do posters interest you?
I think they are not studied well enough, and thus they are underestimated. Also, the effect that the posters have on the viewer is interesting. Finally, I graduated from the Institute of Cinematography (VGIK) some time ago, so this topic is very interesting to me. You have a 90 - 100cm piece of cardboard, a golden ratio that motivates you to buy something or to go and see a film. Depending on the artist’s talent, it either works for you or it doesn't. Sometimes very talented artists sacrificed the call for an action for the execution of the idea. Their works are fascinating!
How did your collection start?
One very happy client decided to give me, as a present, a poster for the film “The Three Million Process”. It was a very pleasant surprise, especially given that I had studied this film at the institute. Later I saw another masterpiece in an antique shop. It was a movie poster made by Vladimir Mayakovskiy himself [The movie starred the famous Russian poet and his muse, Lilya Brik – ed.], so I decided to postpone the purchase of another convertible and bought the poster. Now there were two of them hanging in the office...
Your collection includes some works by foreign artists – posters of Swiss resorts or Normandy. What do you like about them?
Why do you think I like them?
“All necessary species”. (Alexander Rodchenko, Vladimir Mayakovskiy)
Well, you have them in your collection, and you once said in an interview that you prefer to collect “with your eyes”, not “with your ears”...
I chose the best posters from foreign collections. I chose iconic, classical works, such as from the film “Strangers On a Train”, for example. However, that does not mean that I like them. I think they are too sweet and nice for my tastes, so I buy them to set off all of the beautiful features of the Russian posters which shout out loud and hit you hard. I buy foreign posters in order to highlight the contrast, but I have never said that I like them.
How do you chose works?
I try to stick to the 20th century, and I mostly prefer two periods: the 20-30s, and the 60s.
Advertisement of chocolate “Ritzarskiy” (Wassiliy Kandinskiy)
Have you ever considered your collection to be an investment?
I have never considered it to be one, but it always turns out to be an investment! When I started to buy porcelain figurines, the most expensive one cost 200 dollars, and the average price was one dollar! Nobody could understand why I did it; I have collected 4000 items in total. When I saw the porcelain figurine of [soviet youth] pioneers, I thought they looked funny and freakish. I left Russia when I was 19 years old, and when I returned, I saw such comic things that attracted only me and foreigners.
When I started to collect “agitlak” [The term was invented by Alexander Dobrovinsky to describe the lacquer propaganda objects that he collects – ed.], I discovered a whole layer of culture that had not been known outside of Russia at all! Former icon artists applied the styles and techniques they used for drawing icons to make drawings for political agitation topics. And because the classic rules no longer limited them, they made great works of art. Now I am collecting bone artwork featuring agitation topics. All the pieces were carved by hand. No one will ever be able to make a similar collection!
Six years ago I had a collection of military memorabilia, but I sold it because I got tired of it. I bought works in London, Paris and New York for 200 dollars. I remember very well how I bought a pin at a flea market for 150 francs, and then sold it for 70,000 GBP twenty years later. Did I think I was making an investment? No, I did not. Nobody was interested in those things, so nobody bought them. When you make an investment, you buy “with your ears”. For example, you buy a Modigliani because you know that it will become more expensive with time. When you buy something that nobody needs, it is not an investment. Later it becomes fashionable, but that only happens later.
“Dance of the nerves” (Unknown artist)
Do you think it is a normal situation when something that once cost 100 francs at a flea market is now worth hundreds of thousands? Do you think the art market should grow at such a pace?
I think it is completely normal. For example, collecting photographs – it started once the consumer realized that he could no longer afford collecting oil painting masterpieces because they had become too expensive for him. And they had become too expensive because collecting them was trendy! And then among the photography collectors there appears a group of people whose collections of photographs are bigger and more expensive than all the others’. So once again, now there are people who cannot afford to buy photographs, so they start to collect something else – let’s say, postcards. This is an endless process because there is much more money than collectible objects in the world. The ceiling price becomes the price that a person cannot afford. For example, I decided not to buy a poster for a Dziga Vetrov film because I thought it was overvalued. I was bidding for it, but when the price reached 175,000 GBP, I stopped because I thought that was too much for it. Some people buy art when the price starts to rise. I buy them when nobody yet needs them and pays little interest to them.
“A Man with a Movie Camera”. Original film poster by the Stenberg brothers
How do you chose the subject for your collections?
Wherever I go, I set aside some time to visit antique shops. When I find an interesting work I start to research it; I check if similar objects are present on the market, and how the prices have risen. I think the collector’s interest is based on three pillars: the instinct of a hunter (this is what I am speaking about - I have not yet started to hunt, but I am getting the gun ready and I am choosing the forest); the instinct of a researcher (you research what you have bought – who owned it and why the descendants of the artist decided to get rid of the work, as well as what catalogues have already published information on it); and lastly, the instinct to show-off. The latter one is my main motivator because art and collections give me an opportunity to communicate with interesting people, and communication is the most important thing we have in life.