Chasen Galleries Sarasota's 'Russian Masters: An Historic Exhibit’ exhibit offers a colorful look at a foreign art style.
John Wurdeman fell in love with Russian painting shortly after being told he knew nothing about the value of art.
The critique was delivered by a friend of his son, also named John, when both were students at Russia’s Surikov Art Institute. Wurdeman was in Moscow visiting John when he found himself surrounded by students and professors passionately discussing art — in Russian, mind you, so John had to translate the painful remark for his father.
“One of them made a comment that I couldn’t recognize why a painting was worth $2,000 or why another might be $1 million,” says Wurdeman, curator of Chasen Galleries Sarasota’s “Russian Masters” exhibit. “I said, ‘What do I need to do?’”
The man told him it would take time, but if Wurdeman was willing to spend many hours with him and his colleagues, they’d teach him to see art for what it’s really worth.
The lessons paid off, because now Wurdeman is the president and owner of Lazare Gallery in Charles City, Va., which shows 20th century Russian fine art paintings exclusively.
“It really opened my eyes,” he says. “Why is Rembrandt (for example) so revered, what makes his paintings difficult? Subject matters and low-light situations that are very hard without contrast.”
Wurdeman, who has a home on Longboat Key but spends most of his time in Virginia, used to own another iteration of Lazure Gallery on the island. He knows the Florida art market well, so Chasen Galleries President Andrew Chasen knew he’d be the perfect person to curate a Russian-focused exhibit — so much so that they started planning before Chasen opened his local gallery.
Wurdeman’s so familiar with Russian art that the country’s Ministry of Culture told him Lazure brought more paintings from Russia to the U.S. — about 4,000 — between 2002 and 2008 than any other gallery or individual. This activity eventually caused Wurdeman to be investigated by the CIA because of the large sums of money he was spending on art purchases in Russia.
(Spoiler: They were all completely legal transactions).
Why the dedication to this kind of art? Wurdeman says those days spent with the Surikov art students helped him appreciate the highly skilled brushwork and color accuracy of 20th century Russian painters, common most likely because creative Russians greatly admired Rembrandt and other iconic baroque and impressionist painters.
“If people love French impressionist paintings, they love Russian art,” he says.
Although it derived great inspiration from the French impressionists, Wurdeman says the Russian School didn’t focus on high-society paintings like the French.
“They took the same way of painting — capturing light at a particular time, painting in plein air, not overworking a painting, large, full brushstrokes … but their subject matter goes from nude to still life to people working in the fields,” he says.
Chasen traveled to Virginia to put the show together, and the two went through the large Lazure collection to find 28-some paintings that are now on display. Chasen did most of the choosing, but he also asked Wurdeman to pick some that would potentially sell well in Sarasota.
Wurdeman says Floridians want bright, colorful work, and that’s what he kept in mind.
Vyacheslav Nikolaivic Zabelin is one such Russian artist whose work fits this description, and several of his pieces can be found in “Russian Masters.”
“He’s a master of color, so he saw color in everything he painted,” Wurdeman says. “It’s never just a blue sky, it’ll have purple, blue, pinks, crimsons, etc. All the colors he uses fit well in Florida, and I have sold many of his in Florida before.”
Asked to describe the style of the featured artists, he says it’s much different than modern or abstract art. These are works of realism that are highly representational academic art — the type of art found in several museums around the world, but in a variety of price points.
Some are the landscapes and seascapes known to sell well in coastal areas like Sarasota, but others are still lifes depicting scenes that are quite foreign to locals. Still, it’s far from the contemporary art that Wurdeman notes is making a big splash on the art scene right now.
“If you like a few eyes and dots on a canvas, this isn’t going to be your cup of tea,” he says.