Encyclopedia of the Russian Avant Garde 1

In the autumn of 2013, a seminal publication of art study came out – two volumes of the Encyclopedia of the Russian Avant-Garde, in which over a thousand artists connected with the great art movement are detailed. The editors, Andrei Sarabyanov and Vasily Rakitin, worked on it over ten years, with the contributions of around 170 authors.

The encyclopedia, published by Global Expert and Service Team, was premiered at the State Tretyakov Gallery, while a second presentation occurred at the International Non-Fiction Book Fair [in the Central House of Artists] in Moscow. Lenta.ru met Andrei Sarabyanov, director of the RA publishing house, before the events, and talked to him about the preparation of the encyclopedia, counterfeit art, and the issue of trust for museums. Sarabyanov explained why in the encyclopedia the second rank of artists is more important than Malevich, and why the avant-garde needs to be promoted.

Andrei Sarabyanov

Q: I have heard that you worked over ten years on the encyclopedia. Could you explain how much of the time was spent on its preparation, and what parts of the work were the most difficult, and most intensive?

A: All the work extended over considerable periods of time, because to gather the material – biographies of the artists, other participants, illustrations – the effort involved is, of course, long and hard. The history of the encyclopedia is nearly 25 years, but the work on this particular edition took 2-and-a-half years. Everything that had been gathered earlier had been gathered in an accidental fashion. Let’s say I’m researching some particular aspect of the avant-garde and I access the archives. There I might study one theme and find an interesting fact in the biography of some artist completely unconnected with my research, but I’d still copy it and photograph it. And this went on over many years. And since I often worked in the archives, I’d end up copying all sorts of material .

I could say the same about my colleague Vasily Ivanovich Rakitin, who also worked in the archives. In truth, we moved in different directions. He is older than me by about 10 years and had started on the Russian avant-garde earlier, even while a student. He was fortunate to make the acquaintance of Georgy Dionisovich Kostaki, whom he assisted in the creation of the famous avant-garde collection. Rakitin was key to the enterprise because, although young, he was already quite knowledgeable, while Kostaki at the time was still not as immersed in the Russian avant-garde. Rakitin would advise him where to go, to which relatives, guided him towards who owned which painting. Then Rakitin began to work in the archives especially those attached to private and family collections. I was occupied with the state archives, because by the time I began with art research, there were few works left in private collections. The avant-garde was already in state hands. And so we gathered our material, but each worked independently.

Vasily Rakitin.

Q: When you decided upon an encyclopedia, was the format immediately apparent – that there was such a wide scope across time and geography for the Russian avant-garde?

A: Ten years ago, we both had the idea in parallel that we needed to make such a book. The format, though, was not immediately apparent. Still, as we gathered material, the scope of the chronology and geography expanded, not because we desired it but because the material demanded it. It was clear that the avant-garde did not begin with the Blue Rose, but much earlier, and ended not in 1932, but much later, and its geography was wide – not just Russia, but the Caucasus and the Baltic.

Q: That is clear, but surely the inclusion of Matisse and Picasso in the text raises some questions?

A: I included them – and I say ‘I’ because it was indeed I who included them – because both of them had an immense impact on Russian art. Nobody else comes close. It may appear somewhat self-indulgent and somewhat arbitrary: here is the Russian avant-garde, and suddenly there are Picasso and Matisse; but note that their biographies are written from the perspective of their impact on the Russian avant-garde. This is not a biography of Matisse in its pure form; it is Matisse and Russian art; likewise, it’s not a biography of Picasso, there’s nothing in it about Guernica. We could even have included Braque in the encyclopedia. There’s another thing, though: we will publish a third volume which will have essays on Fauvism and Cezannism, and the influence of French art on the Russian, and these questions will be addressed more fully there. After the publication of the final book, the names of Picasso and Matisse won’t be thrown in accusation at us; it’s possible that their inclusion in the text will appear more correct than it does so now.

Q: During the writing of the essays, were the authors given any parameters to follow, in order to provide a uniform format to the biographies? What difficulties arose here?

A: There were lots of problems, but the main issue was to make the articles cohere with each other in terms of length. At first, obviously, we wanted the article on Malevich to occupy more space than some less famous artist. But it became clear that everybody knows everything about Malevich, there are hundreds of books and essays on him, while the ‘lighter-weight’ artists covered in the encyclopedia would be appearing in print almost for the first time. And then we understood that we had to do the opposite: maybe write less on Malevich than about some artist from the group ‘Union of  Youth’.

Q: It seemed to me at first that more could have been written about Goncharova. Then it became clear that the length of an article was not an indicator of the artist’s position in some hierarchy.

A: True, we could have written much more on Goncharova, but there’s already so much written on her, and for us it was more important to include material about those remaining unknown. When else would they be written about? And we had detailed stories based on archival materials on a great many artists. There is some dissonance in the length of biographies, but we attempted to establish a hierarchy by means of illustrations. We devoted a column and a half to Malevich’s pictures, and likewise for Goncharova and the other greats – but for the ‘light-weight’ artists we gathered fewer works. If the artist had one famous painting, we showed that; if she had three, then we showed three.

Q: Very good. But whom have you ‘revealed’ in your Encyclopedia? On which forgotten or little-known artist were you able to find information?

A: Sofia Baudouin de Courtenay, the daughter of a famous philologist of the time, was an absolute revelation. We knew of her, of course, but very little. Yulia Obolenskaya is also a discovery. In all there are about twenty new names.

[Translated loosely from Tatyana Yershova, «Мы вытащили имена, о которых все забыли»: Как искусство русского авангарда собрали в энциклопедию. Lenta.ru, Nov 28, 2013.]

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