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Malevich - The rise, the fall and the resurrection

Kazimir Severinovich Malevich (1878-1935) was a leading Avant-Garde painter of the early twentieth century. Born in the Ukraine, the artist identified himself as Ukrainian, although he was of Polish ancestry, and is often identified as Russian since he spent the latter part of his life in Moscow and in Leningrad. After his death, he was virtually forgotten - until 1989, when an exhibition of his works took place first in Leningrad and Moscow, and then Amsterdam, Washington DC, Los Angeles, and New York. The 1989 catalogue of the Amsterdam exhibition and the 1990 U.S.A catalogue discussed an exhibition of Malevich's paintings that allegedly took place at the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, sixty years earlier, in 1929. A list of 49 paintings allegedly exhibited in the Tretyakov Gallery in 1929 dated 1903-1916 under the title "Exhibition of K.S. Malevich List of Paintings" was referred to by the U.S.A 1990 catalogue and made available in the Tretyakov archive. According to this list the paintings were early ones, created before the 1917 revolution.

The year 1929 is a crucial reference point for tracing the lost Malevich paintings. It is documented that at that point, the Museum of Pictorial Culture owned 14 Malevich paintings. In amongst the lists of paintings that were acquired by the Soviet State Art Fund between 1919 and 1921, there were 46 Malevich paintings mentioned (RGALI fond 665), 32 of which were distributed to various museums and the remaining 14 were housed in the Moscow Museum of Pictorial Culture.

These museums were founded and sponsored by the state during the utopian days of the Soviet Revolution and in 1919 were declared "the future centers of modern innovative art". Under this protective shield, the state purchased and displayed avant-garde paintings. A decade later, in 1929, these museums of pictorial culture were closed on Stalin's orders.

Vertions of the 1929 exhibits

In 1998 Irina Vakar, a senior researcher and curator at the Tretyakov Gallery, presented an astonishing revision of the 1989 list of paintings that were allegedly exhibited in the Tretyakov in 1929. In her paper "The Kazimir Malevich Exhibition at the Tretyakov Gallery in 1929", she now claimes that the paintings exhibited in the Tretyakov in 1929 were not the early Malevich paintings, but mostly from a later period (1928-1929).

Furthermore, Vakar asserted that they were sent not from the Moscow Museum of Pictorial Culture, but from the Russian Museum in Leningrad 450 miles away from the Tretyakov Gallery. She reviewed the names and dates given to the paintings, and substituted them with new, "more modern" titles. She implied that the authors of the 1989 Amsterdam Malevich catalogue and the 1990 U.S.A catalogue which included members of the KGB who were the guardians of the archives, had all erred, even though they were affiliated with the Soviet cultural elite. Her accusations were perplexing, since they were levelled against the Catalog of an exhibition which had been opened in 1990 in Washington D.C. by the General Secretary of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, his wife Larisa, and the President of the United States, George H. Bush.

1998 revision

Vakar's revised version of events invites investigation, as does the mysterious 1929 Tretyakov Malevich exhibition itself. Her paper begins thus: "The Kazimir Malevich one-man show at the Tretyakov Gallery in 1929 has, for a long time, attracted the attention of experts. The very fact that it was held and was a success, was astonishing enough; it is bewilderingly hard to understand how the country's most important museum could put on a show of works of the painter who was, that year, the year of Stalin's 'great turning-point'dubbed the most odious Russian Avant-Garde painter. Neither the motivation behind the creation or the dating of the figurative works shown for the first time at the exhibition is entirely clear. It should be immediately stipulated, however, that the compilation of a complete representation of the show is well-nigh impossible. Photographs of the exhibition have either not survived or have not been found; neither are there plans or descriptions. It has not been established in which rooms the exhibits were located. Several questions have not only been left without elucidation, but they have proved to be even more complex and vexed."

The cover-up

The motivation behind Vakar's 1998 revision was to conceal the embarrassing reality. There was a need in 1988 to move Malevich paintings from the Russian Museum (that owned some 100 Malevich paintings) to the Tretyakov (that owned only four), as the Tretyakov lost or traded away many of the Malevich paintings it owned in 1929. It would be embarrassing if the Stedelijk Museum (that owned some 30 Malevich paintings) were to have a larger part of the legacy of Soviet citizen Malevich than the Tretyakov Gallery.

To complicate matters further, in 1976, the painter's widow, Natalia Malevich, sold ninety-four paintings from her husband's estate to the Soviet authorities. The paintings had been stored in the Russian Museum since 1936. Under the terms of this sale, they could never leave that museum. Vakar made this attempt at historical revision to facilitate the transfer of some of these paintings to the Tretyakov. This transfer claim that the paintings were owned by the Tretyakov since the 1929 exhibition and the early 1930s — in the hope that no one would notice or care about the violation of the conditions of their sale. The Soviets in charge of the Amsterdam 1989 Catalogue and the 1990 U.S.A catalogue were covering up for the loss of fourteen early Malevich paintings last mentioned in two letters of Malevich written in the Tretyakov and sent to his wife in May 1929. These paintings had been transferred from the Museum of Pictorial Culture to the Tretyakov and he restored them on the premises of the Tretyakov. These paintings are missing.

The rediscovered paintings

Vakar's revision had unintended consequences. It created havoc in the dating of Malevich's paintings. Due to this erroneous account of Malevich's entire heritage, no one looked for the lost paintings from the 1929 Tretyakov exhibition. Likewise, no one looked for the paintings that the Kiev Art Gallery had purchased in 1932, or for the paintings sent to Odessa and Lugansk. In the late 1930s, in keeping with Stalin's orders, all Malevich's paintings, along with hundreds of other Ukrainian and Russian Avant-Garde paintings, were consigned to the basement of National Museum of Ukrainian Art in Kiev. They survived and surfaced more than half a century later, during the 1990s.

This book tells the story of the last two exhibitions that Malevich himself planned, one in the Tretyakov in 1929 and the other for the Kiev Art Gallery in 1930. Malevich sent the Tretyakov some 49 paintings for display (Malevich himself wrote 40 in a letter to the Tretyakov but Soviet documents refer to 49); most of them were then shipped to the Kiev Art Gallery. Later, they were transferred into the Kiev Spetsfond, created in 1937. They lay there for half a century until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. This book presents the history of these unknown Malevich paintings and corrects inaccuracies about the artist and the fate of his work that arose during the last days of the Soviet Union and the early post-Soviet period. In fact, most of the iconic Malevich paintings the Russians say are lost, do exist. We present evidence from multiple sources including archive documents and advanced analysis including forensic techniques which substantiate this claim.

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