Every thaw has its surprises, especially if, as during the winter of Communism in Russia, the ice has accumulated over sixty-four long years. Perestroika has brought to light the work of the revolutionary avant-garde artists, long buried under the weight of Socialist Realism. One of the names on the long list of rehabilitated artists is Kasimir Malévich, whose heir, his granddaughter Ninel Bykova, has appealed to the Soviet Supreme Court to secure restitution of the most conspicuous body of her grandfather’s work, at present kept in the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam.
On 5 June 1927 Malévich left Berlin for Leningrad, fully expecting to be tried and imprisoned in his native land. As a precaution, he entrusted the bulk of his cubist-futurist works—those which preceded his suprematist period—to a few friends. Seventy or so paintings were involved, together with a large number of drawings, some architectural models and a large part of his theoretical writings. Malévich died in 1935. Forced to abjure his earlier work, he officially left a series of portraits and figures painted in conventional academic style, apparently signalling agreement with the dictates of the Soviet regime.
It was his daughter Una who first took up the struggle to have her father remembered as an important avant-garde artist. Repeatedly, she pointed out that Malévich’s works were better treated in the West, where at least there was no danger of them rotting away in museum storerooms. But the works kept in Germany ran risks far worse than simply being forgotten. In 1930, one of Malévich’s Berlin friends, the architect Häring, took the precaution of entrusting a part of the artist’s works to Alexander Donner, director of the Hannover Museum and a great admirer of the Soviet avant-garde. Donner hid the works in the cellar of his private residence, thus saving them from the Nazi witch-hunt against degenerate art. By good fortune, a large number of these works found their way to the United States, thanks to a celebrated coup by Alfred Barr, the legendary director of the MOMA, who in 1936 managed to fool the German customs by rolling the canvases and drawings loaned to him in some umbrellas and declaring other works to be “study material”. Häring took the remainder of the collection back to Berlin but, with Allied troops advancing, in 1943 he judged it prudent to hide his precious treasures in the little Swabian town of Biberach-am-Riss. In 1951, Willem Sandberg, then director of the Stedelijk Museum, ran to earth the by now old and sick Häring. It took him a further eight years, by which time the Berlin architect was at death’s door, to persuade him to sell the twenty-nine paintings and twenty-one drawings still in his keeping. Since then, the works have been kept by the Dutch museum. In essence, Malévich’s heir is contesting the legitimacy of Häring’s decision to sell works which, though in his custody, were not his own. She is also convinced that now is the time to restore the works to Russia, where she considers they would be best conserved in her own home at Uljanowsk on the Volga.
A suggestion put forward in 1989 by the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Culture, Genrikh Popov, demonstrates that the will to bring the works home to Russia exists. Speaking at a retrospective of the works of the great Suprematist organised by the Moscow and Leningrad museums in conjunction with the Stedelijk, Popov proposed an exchange: Russia might return to Rotterdam’s Boymans van Beuningen museum the collection of drawings formerly belonging to the banker Franz Koenigs, which was removed during the war, if Amsterdam would return the Malévich collection to Russia (see The Art Newspaper No. 13, December 1991, p.1). The negotiation has remained only semi-official, partly because the present director of the Stedelijk, Wim Beeren, is also understandably cautious.
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Malévich drawings in exchange for the Koenigs Collection?'