Putin and the art of power

First it was fishing, then judo. Now the Russian premier has turned his hand to painting
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The Independent Online

Over the centuries, Russia has given the world many artistic masterpieces, from Andrei Rublev's medieval church icons to Ilya Repin's intense portrait of Ivan the Terrible killing his own son, and Marc Chagall's modernist flights of fancy. In 2009, however, a new name is set to rock the Russian art world – Vladimir Putin.

A painting by the Russian Prime Minister went on display yesterday in St Petersburg as part of a charity auction to raise funds for children's hospitals. The painting depicts a window with patterned white curtains that looks out onto a raging blizzard.

"As far as I know this is just the second time Putin has picked up a paintbrush," said Igor Gavryushkin, the organizer of the auction. "He painted it in 20 minutes."

It is one of a series based on the theme of The Night Before Christmas, a short story by the Russian writer Nikolai Gogol. Well-known Russians were asked to create canvases based on a letter from the Cyrillic alphabet. Putin's is U and the Russian word Uzor, which means "pattern".

Mr Putin is often heralded on Russian state television as a man of many talents. Two years ago he was photographed bare-chested and buff on a carefully choreographed Siberian fishing trip. Last year he rushed to the rescue of a television crew to coolly shoot a ferocious tiger with a tranquiliser dart, and he also released an instructional judo DVD.

This year we are being treated to Putin the Artist – a new, softer and more cerebral incarnation, even if it does come as the Russian prime minister is uttering his usual uncompromising rhetoric about Ukraine's responsibility for the dispute currently paralysing gas flows to Europe.

Putin was offered the chance to paint a picture in the series during a visit to a Christmas fair in his home town of St Petersburg in late December. He dashed off the outline of the window-frame.

It is unclear just how much of the final artwork can be put down to Mr Putin's talents. It was given to a professional artist after he had finished it, to be "touched up". However, the work is signed "V. Putin" in large letters at the top of the canvas. The painting that comes after Putin's in the series is by Sergei Shnurov, lead singer of the controversial ska-punk band Leningrad, which is famous for songs peppered with obscenities and until recently was banned from playing in Moscow.

Other well-known figures who picked up paintbrushes for the auction are the conductor and pianist Maxim Shostakovich, the governor of St Petersburg Valentina Matvienko, and the head of VTB, one of the country's largest banks. All the masterpieces are set to go under the hammer on Saturday.

At last year's auction, a painting by Ms Matvienko was sold for around £200,000. Her effort for this year's auction is also likely to gain a decent price from local businesses keen to make a good impression. But it is the painting by Putin that is expected to generate the highest price.