The “Soviet Art. Soviet Sport” exhibition, presented by Sotheby’s, the Institute of Russian Realist Art and PromSvyazBank, includes 35 paintings, drawings and sculptures by artists includin Deyneka, Pimenov, Nissky, Luchishkin, Zagrekov, Kutilin and Popkov.

They are on display in London until January 14 and then will move to Moscow for the opening of the year of Russian culture in the UK and British culture in Russia.

It might seem counterintuitive that Soviet art launches the UK-Russia year of culture as it has been broadly dismissed as a mere propaganda tool in the West. Alongside scientific and industrial achievements, space endeavours, ballet and other arts, sport emerged as an ideologically charged symbol of the young Soviet state, empahsising the endurance, glory and unity of its people.

The representation of sport in art has been equated with Socialist realism, which became state cultural policy in 1934 following Andrei Zhdanov’s speech at the First Congress of Soviet Writers. One of the strongest export brands of the new Soviet state in the early 20th century, sport has been heavily exploited in art as a symbol of the collectivist society.

“I can’t think of another artistic trend where the theme of sport would have been explored in such a systematic way as in the 20th century in Soviet Russia,” said Jo Vickery, Head of the Russian Department at Sotheby’s. It also reflected a celebration of the human body in the search for a new archetypical post-revolutionary person, she explained.

Mikhail Pereyaslavets 'Marathon,' 1980. Source: Courtesy of Sotheby's

The images of strong, healthy people enjoying sporting activities together sent a clear ideological message to the rest of the world, visually representing the Soviet way of life better than anything else, said Alexey Ananiev, director of the Institute of Russian Realist Art, who built the collection.

However, idealisation and realism bizarrely walk hand in hand in this trend. Sport, as well as a tool of propaganda for Soviet achievements, was indeed a daily activity for many Soviet citizens, one of the few available hobbies for them, he explains. The aim of the exhibition is to show the ‘human face’ of Soviet sport and reveal the ‘realism of the time’ rather than the ‘Socialist realism’.

“Our aim is to bring an understanding in the UK that real art which lived and was developed in the USSR was not necessarily just propaganda art,” said Ananiev.

Ananiev and Artem Konstandian, Chief Executive Officer at Promsvyazbank, where Ananiev is also a shareholder, came up with the idea to try and tell another story about Soviet art when Lord Mark Poltimore, Deputy Chairman of Sotheby's Europe, visited the Institute of Russian Realist Art in Moscow last year.

“He showed sincere interest and appreciation of the collection and suggested doing something together to make this art better known in the West,” said Ananiev.

Lord Poltimore considered the collection one of the finest examples of 20th century realistic art. He said: “Socialist realism has the reputation of being sterile, devoid of creativity, but the more you look at it the more you appreciate it. Beyond propaganda, sport is a very strong topic and it has always had the ability to unite people.”

Alexander Deyneka 'Sportswoman tying a ribbon',1950s. Source: Courtesy of Sotheby's

Jo Vickery agreed: “Socialist realism is something that many people have been dismissing for a long time. I was one of them as a student.”

But now there’s time for a revaluation, she believes: the political environment has always been difficult in relations with Russia, but there’s room for a more positive approach.

The business potential suggests this too: Sotheby’s recently sold a painting by Pimenov for a record $1.5 million at auction in the US, which has shown the greatest interest in this period in Russian art so far. Although the organisers emphasise that this exhibition is a non-commercial, educational project, there are hopes for an economic effect in the future.

This is not just about the bids that newly appreciated masterpieces can achieve. Konstandian believes that the exhibition will contribute to the year of culture between Russian and the UK by enhancing mutual trust in various spheres, including the financial world. 

“Sport is easy to look at and it’s not a partisan issue,” he said. However, the organisers chose to make no links with the upcoming Olympic Games in Sochi to highlight the uniting potential of sport.

The exhibition is open till January 14 2014 at Sotheby’s in London (Monday - Friday  9:00 AM - 4:30 PM, Saturday & Sunday 12:00 PM - 5:00 PM) and 5 February – May 2014 at the Institute of Russian Realist Art in Moscow.