Encyclopedia of the Russian Avant Garde 2

Photo: Global Expert and Service Team

Q: You worked with nearly 170 authors. Did you ever encounter a situation where for some artist or group of artists you were unable to find a specialist?

A: No, not really. The large number of authors came about organically, almost snowballing in the process. At first we planned only one volume, but then realised that we had to write about this and that, and so on. Some artists were recommended by the authors themselves. Let’s say Irina Arskaya from the Russian Museum was engaged with the Union of Youth; she herself suggested that I add a range of artists on whom she had information and photographs and examples of their work. Naturally I agreed, because I was unfamiliar with many of them. In this way, the Encyclopedia grew to three volumes, and we were soon forced to start excluding some of the ideas of our authors. In fact, there was no deficit of specialists in the researches, and I must add that the most valuable of them turned out to be attached to museums. It was also useful that our work coincided with the preparation of the general catalogue of the Tretyakov Gallery, which is now being readied for publication. We worked with some of the authors from the Tretyakov.

Q: You and your authors found a lot of archival material during your searches. Are there any obvious lacunae in the archives? Perhaps some periods of the avant-garde are sparsely covered, or because of emigration of the artists, a lot has been lost?

A: Certainly there are lacunae, and they mostly fall within the earlier period of the avant-garde, the pre-Revolutionary period, that is before 1917. Not even 1917, but rather before 1915. The avant-garde of that period was only forming, and in the background of everything else – the Wanderers, the Union of Russian Artists, symbolism, Vrubel, Repin, Serov – it appeared as a marginal activity. There is very little material on these marginal avant-gardists, and we need to seek it piecemeal. We know about many of the works of the time only because of publications in journals, such as Ogonyok, which came out from the beginning of the century. In them we might find portraits of the artists, and sometimes of their works. And then we discovered that the works themselves no longer exist: they disappeared in the Civil war, in the Revolution, or somewhere else. This is the most difficult period, because everything else is copiously documented, in the 1920s, things were more civilised. And when the avant-garde emerged from its sidelined position and transformed into an important, coherent style, then it began to leave a large amount of information and material.

Q: The Avant-Garde being one of the brightest periods of Russian art and firmly established in the world of art, often attracts speculation. There are regular discussions on the authenticity of a painting, and the appearance of ‘new’ works. Because of this, the selection of illustrative material and its expertise is paramount – on what basis did you choose the works that you wanted to show?

A: Of course, our main objective was to show the major works of an artist. To take Malevich: the goal was to show paintings from all his periods, from impressionism (he began as an impressionist) to realism. In his last years, he attempted to paint realistic portraits. In the middle of his journey was suprematism. Accordingly, we had to take a painting from each of his phases. The second objective – the paintings should still be in museums, which is why works from museum collections dominate in the book, nearly 80 or 90% of the total number of illustrations. From private collections come the remaining 10%, but these collections have been completely authenticated, with names and times. Therefore we have no irregular works, and we sometimes had to reject some works so that unnecessary questions would not be raised.

Q: Nevertheless, there are works presented in your Encyclopedia that have not been seen in major journals. Some works have appeared for the first time.

A: Yes, Malevich, for example.

Suprematism of the Spirit, by Malevich. (1919-20).

Q: You refer to the picture Suprematism of the Spirit (1919-1920) from a private collection?

A: Yes, this has been confirmed as a Malevich, in my opinion, by attributions by art historians, among whom are such famous specialists as Charlotte Douglas, who lives in America. She is the president of the New York Malevich society.

Q: Under the title of Suprematism of the Spirit, we are aware of other items, including paintings from the Khardzhiev collection which surfaced in 1997 and fell into the Khardzhiev-Chaga collection at the Stedelijk Museum separately from the main part of the collection. What is all that about?

A: That’s an entirely different matter. The theme Suprematism of the Spirit was very important to Malevich in the years 1919-20, when he was in Vitebsk. I think that this picture is from there, when he decided that painting was no longer necessary to him. At that moment he created suprematism, discovered the main thing in painting – white on white – and understood that painting was pretty much dead. He occupied himself with theory and created various forms, such as Suprematism of the Spirit, for his students. Malevich has several Suprematisms – one with Khardzhiev, the work in our Encyclopedia which was once published in German catalogues, and there even is a lithograph, it was produced in 1920 in the Unovis almanac. This almanac came out as a limited run, and only two or three copies have reached us in the shape of manuscripts, where printed texts were cut up with scissors and pasted into an album with large pages, in which appear colour reproductions. One example is stored at the Tretyakovka, while the others are in some private collections in France.

[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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