Europe Celebrates Kazimir Malevich, a Pioneer in Abstract Art
By KEVIN HOLDEN PLATTMAY 25, 2016
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One hundred years after the Russian artist Kazimir Malevich shook up the art world with the first exhibition of his Suprematist paintings, museums across Europe, from Austria to France to Spain, are celebrating his legacy with a series of exhibitions.
In his works, Malevich depicted planes of color speeding across an expanding cosmos, seeking to render moments of what he called “supreme” worlds floating through time and space. His use of purely abstract forms broke with centuries of artistic tradition. Malevich introduced his vision to the world in the winter of 1915-16 with a show in Petrograd (now St. Petersburg) called “The Last Futurist Exhibition of Paintings 0.10.”
“The ‘Zero-Ten’ show is one of the most important exhibitions in the history of Modernism,” said Matthew Drutt, who last winter recreated itfor the Fondation Beyeler museum in Switzerland. As the great powers sought to destroy each other in World War I with fearsome new weapons like tanks, poison gas and armed airplanes, Malevich was envisioning a postwar utopia visible only in the new world of abstract art, Mr. Drutt said.
The Swiss show also traced the arc of Malevich’s influence on generations of artists, including Piet Mondrian, Mark Rothko and the installation designer Olafur Eliasson.
Other museums featuring Malevich works this year include theAlbertina in Vienna (through June 26) and a new satellite of the StateRussian Museum in Málaga, Spain (through July 31). This fall, Malevich and other Russian avant-garde artists will be an important part of “Icons of Modern Art,” an exhibition at the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris that will display the collection of Sergei Shchukin, a Russian textile merchant who opened the first private galleries for modern art in Moscow in the twilight of czarist rule.
That Malevich’s provocative works survived the turbulent world in which they were created is something of an art-world miracle. It is a story of how art can become entangled in political movements, and the difficulty, decades later, of determining who has a legitimate claim to that art.
In 1927 Malevich, who had been well received in Germany, brought more than 100 of his abstract masterpieces to the Great Berlin Art Exhibition. While there, he received a letter from his wife warning that Stalin was escalating attacks on experimental artists, and pleading that he defect in Berlin.
Instead, Malevich decided to save his paintings by leaving them in Berlin and risked his life by returning to the Soviet Union to try to get his family out.
Branded a counterrevolutionary, Malevich was jailed and barred from leaving the Soviet Union. He died in St. Petersburg (then called Leningrad) in 1935.
Malevich’s descendants were themselves the target of the Soviet leadership. They remained behind the Iron Curtain until the collapse of the Soviet government in 1991 freed them to begin searching for the paintings Malevich had hidden in Berlin.
Before leaving Germany, Malevich appointed two friends — Alexander Dorner, a museum director in Hanover, and Hugo Häring, an architect — to safeguard his artworks.
Dorner displayed the paintings until pressure from the Nazi Party impelled him to hide the art. He risked imprisonment by showing them in 1935 to Alfred H. Barr Jr., founding director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, according to Clemens Toussaint, a German art historian and expert on Malevich who has been helping the artist’s descendants trace and stake a claim to some of his works.
Persuaded by Barr to lend 16 works to MoMA, Dorner smuggled them out of Germany in shipping crates filled with technical drawings. When the Nazis expelled Dorner from his museum post, Barr then helped Dorner escape from Germany, Mr. Toussaint said.
Dorner entrusted the remaining canvases to Häring for safekeeping.
After the war, Häring agreed to lend 80 works to the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, which promised to restore and exhibit them. The museum said later — in testimony in an American lawsuit — that Häring had agreed to sell it the works.
In 1999, the Museum of Modern Art agreed to return one of the works to the Malevich descendants, in a settlement brokered by Mr. Toussaint. He said that parallel efforts to recover paintings from the Stedelijk were unsuccessful.
Then, the Stedelijk sent 14 Malevich paintings to the United States for a show at the Guggenheim in 2003 organized by Mr. Drutt. Just before the paintings were to be sent back to the Netherlands, some of Malevich’s descendants filed suit in Federal District Court for the District of Columbia to recover them.
Howard Spiegler, a lawyer who represented the descendants in the case, Malewicz vs. City of Amsterdam, said that heads of state and even government-owned museums like the Stedelijk had traditionally been protected from such lawsuits by the doctrine of sovereign immunity, but that American court rulings had whittled away at that shield.
In its decision in the case, the court ruled that the exhibition in the United States of artworks taken in violation of international law could open the foreign lending museum to a lawsuit. In rejecting the Stedelijk’s claim of immunity, Judge Rosemary M. Collyer found that there was nothing sovereign about Amsterdam’s acquisition of the Malevich paintings “other than that it was performed by a sovereign entity.”
Evgeny Bykov, a great-grandson of Malevich, said that the decision “gave us hope that in our case justice would be met and that in the future it will help other families who are struggling for restitution of masterpieces that once belonged to them.”
While preparing to appeal the district court’s decision — but facing the prospect of losing all 14 paintings it had sent to the United States — the Stedelijk agreed in a settlement to return five artworks to the Malevich family.
Museum directors across America have been pressing Congress to enact legislation that would counter the Malevich ruling, arguing that exposing their foreign counterparts to suits by dispossessed owners could halt cultural exchanges.
The Senate is reviewing a bill that could again block access to the courts by those who seek restitution for what they say are illegally confiscated artworks, including works taken during the Cuban revolution, said Mari-Claudia Jiménez, an expert in art law in New York. Similar legislation was proposed in 2012 and met resistance from Jewish groups and others who believed an exemption for Nazi-era art was too narrowly drawn.
Mr. Toussaint said that while Malevich’s descendants continue their search for canvases, they have recovered eight paintings of the 100 left in Berlin, with one auctioned for $60 million.
“For the avant-garde art movement, Kazimir Malevich is a guru,” Mr. Toussaint said. “His works disappeared into the dictatorships but later re-emerged — like a phoenix — in a very mystical way.”
Showcasing these masterpieces in Paris will fulfill one of the artist’s most powerful dreams, he said: Malevich was planning to spirit his family and canvases off to a new life in Paris just before being detained in one of Stalin’s political prisons.
Black Square (Malevich), State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg
Black Circle (Malevich), State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg
Suprematism (Russian: Супремати́зм) was an art movement, focused on basic geometricforms, such as circles, squares, lines, and rectangles, painted in a limited range of colors. It was founded by Kazimir Malevich in Russia, around 1913, and announced in Malevich's 1915 exhibition in St. Petersburg where he exhibited 36 works in a similar style. The termsuprematism refers to an abstract art based upon “the supremacy of pure artistic feeling” rather than on visual depiction of objects.
1 Birth of the movement
2 Distinct from Constructivism
3 Influences on the movement
6 Social context
7 References and sources
8 Further reading
9 External links
Birth of the movement
Kazimir Malevich originated Suprematism when he was an established painter having exhibited in the Donkey's Tail and the Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider) exhibitions of 1912 with cubo-futurist works. The proliferation of new artistic forms in painting, poetry and theatre as well as a revival of interest in the traditional folk art of Russia provided a rich environment in which aModernist culture was born.
In "Suprematism" (Part II of his book The Non-Objective World, which was published 1927 in Munich as Bauhaus Book No. 11), Malevich clearly stated the core concept of Suprematism:
Suprematist Composition- White on White (Malevich, 1918), Museum of Modern Art