'Dark humour' of British artists takes Russia by storm

Billionaire oligarchs fuel demand for some of UK's best-known names
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The Independent Culture

First they conquered London, then it was Europe and America. Now, with an unerring instinct for money, the men and women behind the savvy marketing and the shocking works that have turned British art into a multimillion-pound brand are turning their sights to the east – or Russia to be precise.

Russia's industrial oligarchs are the new force in the multibillion-pound global art market. Earlier this month, Roman Abramovich, owner of Chelsea Football Club, was behind the world-record amounts paid for Francis Bacon's Triptych, 1976, which he bought for £43m, the highest price ever paid for a work of art at auction, and Lucian Freud's Benefits Supervisor Sleeping, which cost him £17m, making Freud the highest-selling living artist at auction.

Last September, the businessman Alisher Usmanov spent more than £20m at Sotheby's in London buying up the entire collection of the late Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, who had fled the Soviet Union and lived in exile in Paris and London.

Behind the scenes of the Russian art revolution are a host of familiar British names, all connected in some way with Damien Hirst, one of the world's most successful – in monetary terms – living artists.

Mollie Dent-Brocklehurst, Hirst's agent, has been recruited by Abramovich's girlfriend, Dasha Zhukova, to co-ordinate programming at her gallery CCC Moscow, which opens in September in a former Moscow tram shed designed by Konstantin Melnikov.

Sir Nicholas Serota, director of the Tate, will be one of Ms Dent-Brocklehurst's advisers. She had been working at the Gagosian Gallery in London, owned by Larry Gagosian, who is Hirst's New York dealer and recently opened a gallery in Moscow.

While Hirst's diamond-encrusted skull, due to appear at the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg in March, has been "postponed indefinitely" for unexplained reasons, his mentor and one-time backer Charles Saatchi is in negotiations to take a room at the Hermitage to display some of his contemporary collection, after an informal invitation from Hermitage director, Professor Mikhail Piotrovsky.

Also involved with the Hermitage is Sir Norman Rosenthal, former exhibitions secretary of London's Royal Academy which helped to launch the Young British Artist phenomenon in 1997. Sir Normam, a close supporter of Mr Saatchi, advised the museum on its "Hermitage 20/21" programme to attract contemporary art.

One of its first exhibitions last year was "USA Today: New American Work from the Saatchi Gallery", which is on display now. It first appeared at the RA last year. And in February Jay Jopling, who runs Hoxton's White Cube gallery and represents Hirst in the UK, rolled up with an exhibition by the American Chuck Close, "Family and Others", which finished at White Cube in January.

Jake and Dinos Chapman, who unveiled their new exhibition "If Hitler Had Been a Hippy How Happy Would We Be" at White Cube this week, held a show-cum-sale at the Triumph Gallery in Moscow, in December, with work for sale at prices up to $300,000 (£152,000).

Dimtry Khankin, a co-owner of the Triumph, said the Chapman exhibition "was extremely popular. Russia is part of the world culture now... We are going to have more British names here next year, but I cannot unveil them yet. Russians have a very good and dark sense of humour and British art has the kind of humour that Russians appreciate."

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