Fleming foundation

From London, though I’m yet to arrive there, with stops at Vienna and Paris, but what’s a little topographic imprecision among friends? Vienna, because the eccentric diva who, as the reader may recall from my New Year missive, wore three different wigs in a single night, has invited us there; Paris, because a benevolent friend there gives my wife sound advice with regard to her concert career; and finally London, because there Irina has just had published a monograph on her collection of paintings, a massive tome entitled Flying in the Wake of Light. Irina Stolyarova – such is the lady’s full name – has been exceedingly kind to me over the years, but this isn’t the reason I want to tell you about her. The lady is well off, but not stinking rich. She’s a blonde, but not a dumb blonde. More than that, she is the product of a Russian intelligentsia – how best to put it? – from before the current era of government by secret police, meaning that she yet has what one might call a cultural conscience, or a sense of aesthetic shame, or a squeamishness in the face of banality. And it is this endowment, rather than mere lucre, that she has been using over the last two decades to build up her private collection of pictures by Russian painters who functioned underground in the late Soviet epoch. I do not mention their names here because most of them, if not wholly obscure, are unfamiliar to the Western audience, a state of affairs Stolyarova’s monograph goes some way to meliorate. But, once again, this is not why I want to tell you about her. I am fascinated with Stolyarova’s collection because, in this day and age, it takes immense intellectual courage to initiate anything at all with the intention of keeping it private. Today, individuals whose lives are truly private, who do things for their family and friends rather than for publicized charity and Instagram fame, are not only rare, they are socially suspect. Like the early Christians, they risk ostracism, if not persecution, as they pass their lives in virtual caves, hiding from the social media, the newspapers, and all other virulent agents of influence. This is something more than a figure of speech, come to think of it. The early Christians were also lifelong collectors, painstakingly collecting symbols expressive of their creed and exchanging them privately among themselves. A Russian émigré art critic says something similar in his introduction to Flying in the Wake of Light. Stolyarova’s collection, writes Alexander Rappaport, is a painting community that demonstrates a new way of life for works of art. If the twentieth century was a time for imperial and state museum collections, this century may be the time for private collections. That is not to say that large collections will lose their significance and their value. No, they have nothing to fear. But having acquired a dominant monopoly role in the art world and the art market, they necessarily enter the domain of mass culture and inevitably become trivialized. Their fate is akin to the fate of other large institutions – huge supermarkets, famous hotels, fashionable resorts and the like. Universal fame and accessibility of major museums make them by definition commonplace and banal in spite of all the unrivalled masterpieces within their walls. And, on the contrary, small provincial museums, private collections, little known artists become the new heroes, a new environment for sudden discoveries at a remove from media and advertising. To a critic unbound by the Western ideology of political correctness, elitism is not a baleful social tendency; it is a resurgent cultural trend, auguring manumission from the bondage of institutionalized art appreciation with its implied message of “culture for the people.” Who but a Russian of the Soviet epoch, forced since childhood to accept that slogan at face value, is free enough nowadays to draw such conclusions from the mere existence of a private art collection like Stolyarova’s?

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