What I’ve learned Izabela Grocholski

What I’ve learned: Izabela Grocholski

The head of Christie’s Russian Art department in New York on the art and artists that have inspired her, from Fabergé to Falk, Grigoriev to Goncharova 

The arts and humanities were an important part of my upbringing in New York. My parents — who were driven to a large degree by the philosophy of the transcendentals (the three indivisible properties of being: truth, beauty and goodness) — saw art, music and literature as direct expressions of who we are as human beings.

While I was a student, I interned in the drawings department at MoMA. I worked closely with Magdalena Dabrowski, then senior curator, whose passion for the Russian avant-garde made a lasting impression on me. My initial connection to Russian art stems from my own heritage. Although it is rooted in Poland, my grandmother’s family also has Russian ancestry, with legendary ties to the founders of Kievan Rus’ — the historic lands that form present-day Ukraine, Belarus and Russia.

Working at the Jan Krugier Gallery in New York was a formative experience. I was involved in a number of memorable projects, notably Beckmann and Picasso, Drawing in Space  and The Third Eye, a series of partnered exhibitions between the Jan Krugier Gallery and Richard Feigen & Company. They included masterpieces from the collections and inventories of these two art-world titans — ranging from Goya and Turner to Hesse and Basquiat. 

Installation view of Warsaw-Moscow, 1900-2000, Zachęta National Gallery of Art, Warsaw, 20 November 2004 to 30 January 2005. Photo Courtesy of Zachęta National Gallery of Art, Warsaw
Installation view of Warsaw-Moscow, 1900-2000, Zachęta National Gallery of Art, Warsaw, 20 November 2004 to 30 January 2005. Photo: Courtesy of Zachęta National Gallery of Art, Warsaw

The landmark exhibition Warsaw-Moscow/Moscow-Warsaw 1900-2000  will be forever ingrained in my memory. It opened at the Zachęta National Gallery of Art in Warsaw in 2004 before moving to the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow in 2005. 

Works by artists such as Valentin Serov, Jacek Malczewski, Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin and Natalia Goncharova, among many others, were shown together, highlighting the fascinating parallels, cross-influences and contradictions between the works created in both countries across a turbulent 20th century. It was a monumental achievement at the time.

I was extremely moved by Frames of Memory-Labyrinths, a permanent installation of work by the artist Marian Kołodziej, a survivor of Auschwitz, at the St. Maximilian Centre near the original site of Auschwitz II-Birkenau in Poland. It commemorates Kołodziej’s personal suffering, as well as that of all the victims of the camp. It is a hugely important — yet little-known — exhibition that deserves attention.

Negatives of memory. Labyrinths of Marian Kołodziej, St. Maximilian Centre in Harmęże, Oświęcim, Poland. Photo Courtesy the archives of the St. Maximilian Centre in Harmęże, Oświęcim, Poland
Negatives of memory. Labyrinths of Marian Kołodziej, St. Maximilian Centre in Harmęże, Oświęcim, Poland. Photo: Courtesy the archives of the St. Maximilian Centre in Harmęże, Oświęcim, Poland

Russian art is enjoying an uptick in interest thanks to a surge in major international exhibitions. These include Divine and Avant-Garde: Women in Russian Art, currently on view at the Palazzo Reale in Milan; Russian Modernism: Cross-Currents of Russian and German Art (1907-1917), held at New York’s Neue Galerie in 2015; and the magnificent 2016 show at the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris that reunited the Shchukin Collection.

Market interest has grown in parallel, with artists such as Maria Iakunchikova (1870-1902), Marie Vassilieff (1884-1957) and Boris Grigoriev (1886-1939) representing great investment opportunities. Within the category of decorative arts, there are notable opportunities with works by Fabergé and Soviet porcelain.

Maria Iakunchikova (1870-1902), Gorodok. Sold for £62,500 on 23 November 2020 at Christies in London
Maria Iakunchikova (1870-1902), Gorodok. Sold for £62,500 on 23 November 2020 at Christie's in London

Discovering unexpected connections between people and places is one of the best parts of my job. Take the influential artist, thinker and activist Nicholas Roerich (1874-1947). Although he is best known for his costume and set designs for Stravinsky’s radical ballet, The Rite of Spring, he was also a key advocate for the preservation of cultural heritage, and laid the groundwork for international laws later implemented by the UNESCO World Heritage Convention.

His extensive travels to India and the Himalayas in the 1920s and 1930s, which he depicted in his extraordinary paintings, led to him becoming one of nine ‘National Treasures’ officially designated by the Indian government in the early 1970s. Works by this artist cannot be exported from India, so an unexpected Roerich market has developed as a result. Today, many of his most important works are in the Nicholas Roerich Museum in New York, one of the city’s hidden cultural gems.

Bakst Theatre, Evergreen Museum & Library, The Johns Hopkins University. Photography by Norman Barker and James T. Van Rensselaer; image courtesy of Evergreen Museum & Library, The Johns Hopkins University

Bakst Theatre, Evergreen Museum & Library, The Johns Hopkins University. Photography by Norman Barker and James T. Van Rensselaer; image courtesy of Evergreen Museum & Library, The Johns Hopkins University

Bakst Theatre Hall, Evergreen Museum & Library, The Johns Hopkins University. Photography by Norman Barker and James T. Van Rensselaer; image courtesy of Evergreen Museum & Library, The Johns Hopkins University

Bakst Theatre Hall, Evergreen Museum & Library, The Johns Hopkins University. Photography by Norman Barker and James T. Van Rensselaer; image courtesy of Evergreen Museum & Library, The Johns Hopkins University

One of my favourite places to see Russian art in the United States is the Evergreen Museum & Library in Baltimore, which houses a wide range of fine works acquired by the Garrett family in the 19th and 20th centuries. Among the treasures are works by the artist and theatrical designer Léon Bakst, including the only known existing theatre designed by the artist himself (above).

Another standout collection is at the Hillwood Estate, Museum and Gardens in Washington, D.C., the former mansion of the American heiress and socialite Marjorie Merriweather Post. It is home to the largest and finest collection of Russian imperial art outside Russia.

It’s always exciting to unearth works of art with pre-Revolutionary history in the Americas. In 2019, for example, Christie’s sold a beautiful silver-gilt and enamel casket (below) by Feodor Rückert, a pioneer of the Neo-Russian style, which had passed down through several generations of the same family in Mexico. 

A silver-gilt cloisonné and en plein enamel casket, mark of Feodor Rückert, Moscow, 1908-1917. 4¾ in (12.2 cm) wide. Sold for £100,000 on 3 June 2019 at Christies in London
A silver-gilt cloisonné and en plein enamel casket, mark of Feodor Rückert, Moscow, 1908-1917. 4¾ in (12.2 cm) wide. Sold for £100,000 on 3 June 2019 at Christie's in London

Working on the Van Cliburn sale was a career-defining moment. Ahead of the sale of the pianist’s private collection at Christie’s in 2012 — which included important European and Russian works of art — Cliburn was interviewed by Paul Holdengräber at the New York Public Library as part of a partnered event between Christie’s and the ‘Live from the NYPL’ series. It was exceptionally moving and one of his last public appearances before he died.

I fell in love with Robert Falk’s Red Furniture as soon as I saw it. Painted in 1920, and now housed in the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, this masterpiece is full of tensions — stylistic, political and psychological — all of which are sensed through the prism of an apparently innocuous living room. Several works by the artist are still in private hands and may eventually come to market. It would be a dream to handle one of them.

Robert Falk, Red Furniture, 1920. Oil on canvas, 105 x 123 cm. Tretyakov State Gallery, Moscow. Photo © 2021 Scala, Florence
Robert Falk, Red Furniture, 1920. Oil on canvas, 105 x 123 cm. Tretyakov State Gallery, Moscow. Photo: © 2021 Scala, Florence

I love music as much as, if not — dare I say — more than, art. I listen to a wide range of music from Lil’ Kim to Ethiopian jazz, but I especially love classical music: Monteverdi madrigals, Beethoven’s late quartets, the chamber music of Shostakovich, the work of East German composers from the 1970s. I know that many specialists listen to music while cataloguing: it would be fascinating to create a Christie’s playlist to explore our diverse range of interests — a reflection of our diverse areas of expertise.