Soviet painting: in Stalin's debt. (Joseph Stalin, who banned western art in the Soviet Union) (Books and Art) The Economist (US), Jan 28, 1989 v310 n7587 p89(1)

FIFTY-seven years after Stalin banned modern western art from the Soviet Union, no fewer than four big shows selling contemporary Russian pictures will be staged in London this spring. The Institute of Contemporary Art is also running a public exhibition entitled "Novostroika" (new structures), featuring work by the most renowned of the present generation of Muscovite painters, Ilya Kabakov. A tonic, perhaps, for the world-weary artists of London; but glasnost and the West may not be quite so good for Russian painters.

Much of the power of Soviet avantgarde painting stems from the fact that "unofficial" artists such as Mr Kabakov have not been allowed to show their work publicly in the Soviet Union since, 1932, much less sell it. As a result, artists have preoccupied themselves with znachenye - the "meaning" of art - rather than with developing marketable styles. The store of contemplative and well-made modern paintings in the Soviet Union owes its existence, ironically enough, to the cultural isolationism of Stalin and his political descendants.

Now the capitalist serpent has entered this walled garden. One British Royal Academician, long a lover of Russia, returned from a recent trip to Moscow aghast at the number of business cards from European auction houses he had found pinned to the noticeboard in a Russian collegue's studio. The owner of a London gallery showing Russian work this spring recalls visiting a perplexed Muscovite painter whose entire atelier had been snapped up by one Munich gallery. Western galleries clearly see the Russian art world as an untapped gold mine; and Mr Gorbachev's government too has woken up to the fact that znachenye can be a synonym for valyuta - hard currency.

This was vividly demonstrated by Sotheby's sale of contemporary Soviet paintings in Moscow last July, which raised a handsome [pounds] 2.1m, three times Sotheby's estimate. The six-figure prices were made by the likes of Grisha Bruskin, whose pretty, figurative work was preferred by western buyers to the intellectually demanding pictures of more established masters. Some of those masters, stung by Mr Bruskin's success, have staged a series of public protests at the philistine ways of the West. Some have withdrawn from shows in London. But western galleries are buying up the best of modern Soviet art as well as the worst; and members of the Russian art establishment, including the art critic of Pravda and the keeper of contemporary art at the Pushkin, have decried the fact that so much art is leaving, just as the new liberalism would have allowed it to be shown in public at last.

However, the artists of Leningrad (traditionally less high-minded than Moscow) are reported to have begun painting in saleable "western" styles. With an eye to the prices fetched by Sotheby's other recent coup, Andy Warhol, their favourite subject is repeated protraits of Soviet consumer durables. Stalin's role as an enlightened aesthetician may only now be beginning to be appreciated.