Malevich's Suprematism is the high point of the exhibition. Photo by Matej Stransky.

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A Czech provincial gallery scores a major coup with a show of Russian modernist painting rarely seen outside the Urals. From Respekt.

If you were to set out from Hluboka nad Vltavou in the Czech Republic and drive to Moscow, you’d only be halfway there. The Yekaterinburg Museum of Fine Arts is 4,000 kilometers away from the Ales South Bohemian Gallery; its collection is located in the foothills of the Urals right on the border between Asia and Europe. Now that overwhelming distance has been collapsed. “We have succeeded in doing something unique,” says Ales Seifert, head of the Ales Gallery, who makes no secret of how enthusiastic he is at having convinced his Russian colleagues to loan him several dozen paintings from the most valuable parts of that collection.  

The canvases today are hanging in the exhibition “Malevich – Rodchenko – Kandinsky and the Russian Avant-Garde,” and right now there is no other temporary exhibit of a higher insurance value in the country – the exhibition in Hluboka is insured for several billion Czech crowns. At the same time, it is the first chance ever, in the history of the Czech Republic, to see a comprehensive collection, all in one place, of some of the best art to have been created east of our borders during the 20th century. The museum in Yekaterinburg, thanks to a combination of historical circumstances, is the custodian to this day of this collection, featuring exemplars of the most radical currents in the Russian avant-garde, put together 100 years ago and untouched ever since. Now it can be seen in the Riding Hall of Hluboka Chateau. 

Goncharova’s Mowers. Photo by Ponomarev.

An Attempt at Rehabilitation

Ales Seifert became the director of the South Bohemian Gallery nine years ago. Back then he was just 35 and a harbinger of the basic generational changing of the guard under way in the leadership of regional galleries. This was not just about his age. Seifert succeeded Lubomir Bednar, who had to resign after scandals involving fake contracts and other problems stemming from the relatively generally-held belief that some quite weird things can be done outside of cultural centers such as Brno, Plzen, or Prague because they “will go unnoticed.”

This mistaken impression was demonstrated exactly 10 years ago in the case of an exhibition of works by the Russian avant-garde star Natalia Goncharova. The exhibit was contracted for the Ales Gallery under Bednar’s management and after it opened, it turned out to have been a transparent attempt to use this respected Czech institution to legitimize works were actually fakes. The exhibit ended in scandal, the police investigated the paintings, and after they were returned to the private collections abroad that owned them, they disappeared without a trace. This was far from the only problem with items claimed as original Russian avant-garde works on Czech territory. After the breakup of the Soviet Union, such works became sought-after targets of forgers – several fake paintings purporting to be originals by Alexander Rodchenko were even acquired at the turn of the millennium by the then-head of the National Gallery in Prague, Milan Knizak. In the case of the Ales South Bohemian Gallery and the Goncharova scandal, this embarrassment of international dimensions damaged the gallery’s reputation for years.

For that reason, Seifert frequently uses the expression “rehabilitation” in association with the current exhibition. “I admit this is also an attempt to come to terms with the failed exhibition, and for that reason we borrowed works from a state-owned collection this time, not a private one,” the director explains during a stroll through the exhibit, the beginning of which symbolically features an oil by Goncharova from 1911, Mowers. At the time that work was being produced, the avant-garde in Czarist Russia was just being formed. Artists there had close contacts with France and sought inspiration in Paris in particular, and their groups such as Jack of Diamonds and Donkey’s Tail did the same thing the Osma group did in the Czech lands: They continued the style of French Fauvism or (as Mowers did) of Cubism, although in the Russian case this was done much more bravely.  

In the exhibit at Hluboka this is easy to see in the works of Olga Rozanova. In 1912, as a 26-year-old member of the Union of Youth, she painted a portrait of her sister Anna. It is, overall, a still-traditional likeness of a girl half-lying on a chaise longue, barely hinting at the influence of the Italian Futurism which, in the years to come in Russia, would transform into an original Cubo-Futurism. Four years on, Rozanova was painting in an absolutely different style. At the end of the exhibition her own Non-objective Composition, an abstract canvas comprising layers of yellow, black, red, and blue rectangles, makes no secret of taking its basic inspiration from the work of her friend Kazimir Malevich. His painting Suprematism, from 1915, hangs immediately across from hers and is the exhibition’s most valuable work, the importance of which is comparable to his Black Square, painted in the same year, which has given rise to a cult fascination. 

Suprematism

It is also possible to see in the exhibit at Hluboka what the last 100 years has done to the paints used in these works. Malevich was known for making a point of going beyond established artistic rules and ignoring tried-and-tested technologies. He painted quite quickly and did not care that his paints might not dry in such a way as to not crack over time. In his Suprematism there is a black square and rectangle “levitating” above a white space that are so cracked that one fears the paint might peel off the picture – which is not behind glass – any moment and fall to the ground.

The End of a Long Silence

Two years after the creation of that painting, the Bolshevik Revolution arrived. Curator Adam Hnojil, writing in the exhibition catalog, describes how soon afterward something called the “People’s Commissariat of Enlightenment” (Narkompros) acquired the power to supervise all cultural events in Russia, and Olga Rozanova was, for a time, in its leadership. The new state, shaping its totalitarian rule, threw itself into cultural propaganda at the beginning of its reign of terror with an energy similar to that of Germany under the Nazis. So it was that revolutionary works representing the very newest tendencies headed to the state collections from all over the country and were meant to be made accessible to the broadest possible public. 

The collection in Yekaterinburg was born at exactly that time. In 1920 the city was chosen as one of six regional centers to which almost 100 canvases bought from Malevich, Rodchenko, and Wassily Kandinsky made their way. The aim was to create a centrally-directed complex of museums for “new art.” During Lenin’s administration, however, the Kulturtraegers reversed course, declared a “war on formalism,” and the subsequent doctrine from Stalin declared the only permitted artistic direction to be that of engagé social realism, drawing the line at the entire avant-garde. “During the 1930s they absolutely erased the art from memory, the uninitiated had no idea at all that something of the sort had ever happened in Russia,” Seifert explains.  

Rodchenko’s Non-objective Composition

The collection exhibited in 1920 in Yekaterinburg did not disappear, though (the city itself was renamed by the Bolsheviks and instead of commemorating Peter the Great’s wife Catherine it was called Sverdlovsk in honor of the Bolshevik leader who arranged for the bestial execution of the family of Czar Nicholas II there in 1918). The art was moved into the depository of the museum, where it quietly waited for its historical opportunity over the decades. It was presented to the public again in 1991, shortly after the death of the Soviet Union. It comprises 46 works, and before this exhibition in Hluboka nad Vltavou it has been exhibited outside of Russia in its entirety just once, in 2016, during the reconstruction of the Yekaterinburg gallery, when it was loaned to Budapest.

The current run of the exhibition in South Bohemia almost never happened. It was originally meant to open a year ago when the collection celebrated exactly 100 years from its first opening in May 1920. Then the pandemic arrived, the borders were closed, and the Russians canceled all export permits issued by their Culture Ministry. “During contacts with the Russian partners the most complicated thing is that they customarily go silent during the negotiations. You have to wait for them to contact you on their own,” Seifert describes the journey of how the postponed exhibit came about. Until the last minute he did not know when and whether it would happen at all.

Seifert had an advantage, though. Before running the gallery, he had examined the mysterious twists and turns of the bureaucratic apparatus at the cultural department of the regional authority in Jihlava, where he used to work. Besides that, in 2015 he had managed to locate three paintings from the collection of the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow for an exhibit in Hluboka called “Ilya Repin and Russian Art.” There is no better recommendation for Russians than exactly such collaboration with that world-famous institution in Moscow.

Mikhail Larionov’s Jewish Venus. Photo by Ponomarev.

Until January of this year, nothing was certain. The Russians were playing possum and the negotiations did not resume until Seifert’s team learned what was happening at the National Gallery in Prague. At the beginning of the year, the National Gallery managed to acquire permission in Moscow to export paintings by Viktor Pivovarov for his retrospective in the Trade Fair Place in Prague. “That was when we knew it would be possible. We sent new requests and the Russian side eventually was set in motion,” Seifert recalls. The paintings made it to Hluboka just a couple of days before the Czech-Russian crisis erupted over an attack [allegedly] by Russian military intelligence agents on a munitions depot in Vrbetice. The cultural event in South Bohemia was not affected, though.

It is certain that the exhibition will not be extended. It closes on 1 August and then the paintings will be packed up and immediately sent back. Whoever wants to see them somewhere besides Yekaterinburg will have to travel to South Korea, where they are scheduled to be on loan until the close of the year.

Into Exile

“In my opinion, the most talented was Olga Rozanova. It’s unbelievable how much progress she made in those four years,” Seifert says as he strolls through the chateau corridors past her two works. Rozanova died in 1918 of diphtheria. She never did see how quickly her beloved avant-garde became a hated artistic direction in the Russia of the Soviet Union. Many of her colleagues, both men and women, were never able to see those developments, or rather, saw them from a great distance. Kandinsky, Goncharova, Mikhail Larionov, and Natan Pevzner (later known as Antoine Pevsner) emigrated in the 1920s and all died in exile in Paris. 

Valued in the billions of crowns. At right, Olga Rozanova’s portrait of her sister (1912). Photo by Matej Stransky.

Malevich remained at home. Although he began to paint sunny little landscapes instead of his radical Suprematist compositions, and even though he repainted several of his early works, in 1932 he was declared a “formalist” after exhibiting in the collective show “Fifteen Years of Soviet Art” and his canvases were removed from circulation and placed in depositories. He died of cancer three years later and was not rehabilitated until the close of the 1970s – and then in 2001, the State Russian Museum in St. Petersburg allowed 120 of his works from their collections, with Black Square at the forefront, to be exhibited in Vienna and therefore in the West.

Each such event beyond the borders of Russia becomes an international one, thanks to how infrequently they occur. The exhibition at Hluboka nad Vltavou is the most recent. The newly released book Sans retour. Vytvarnici ruske emigrace v mezivalecne Praze (Sans retour: Russian Emigre Artists in Interwar Prague) can serve as an addition to it. Published by the Museum of Czech Literature, the book by art historian Jakub Hauser describes the still little-known aid provided by Czechoslovakia to Russians fleeing the Bolsheviks (like Goncharova). Thanks to an initiative of President T. G. Masaryk and Foreign Minister Edvard Benes, from the year 1921 several thousand Russians arrived here, the only European country to grant them state-sponsored asylum. There were many artists among them, but none ever achieved the renown of those named above. 

Jan H. Vitvar is the culture editor of the Czech weekly Respekt, where this article originally appeared. Republished by permission.

Translated by Gwendolyn Albert.