An arts centre dedicated to Kazimir Malevich, the pioneering modernist and the founder of suprematism, is being planned following a chance encounter in a field in Nemchinovka, near Moscow, between a Russian avant-garde enthusiast on a search for Malevich’s grave and a German investment banker concerned about Russia’s international image. Malevich made work and developed his theories on art in Nemchinovka, and it was where he wanted to be buried.
Aleksandr Matveyev, a physicist who has spent decades researching Malevich’s legacy, and Moscow-based fund manager and Nemchinovka resident Jochen Wermuth, have united to raise funds for the centre and oppose developers building a housing complex on the site.
“I noticed him [Matveyev] one day digging in the field behind my house,” says Wermuth, who moved to Russia in the 1990s and worked with the Russian government during the period of economic reform. Matveyev, who became interested in Malevich’s connection to the village while working with a Soviet youth organisation, was looking for the artist’s grave.
The burial site, under an oak tree on the edge of Nemchinovka and marked with a white cube with a black square designed by his close friend and fellow suprematist Nikolai Suetin, was destroyed during the second world war. In 1988, as the Soviet era was ending, an adjacent site was designated as a memorial and a white cube with a red square was installed. Until recently, the local authorities insisted that it was the actual grave. Malevich devotees try to gather at the second site every year on 23 February to mark the artist’s birthday. But the site is within the gates of an exclusive housing complex and access is tricky.
When Wermuth learned that he lives on “sacred” artistic territory, he donated $30,000 in support of the search for Malevich’s grave (Matveyev had already used up the funds he had raised by selling his home). The artist’s last resting place was finally found in a field on a former farm collective that is now a construction site being developed by property company Rondo. Matveyev and his assistant, Andrei Yanovsky, keep guard at the burial spot to make sure it is not destroyed by excavation equipment.
Wermuth has now launched a scheme to raise millions of dollars to create a Malevich Foundation, or Centre for the Russian Avant-Garde on the spot. He says that, as a Russian artist of Polish descent, Malevich “was an early global citizen”, who returned to Russia, unlike Chagall and Kandinsky, and was “buried in a field he loved and that inspired him, rather than in a proper graveyard because he stood by his beliefs”.
Wermuth envisions a centre with “studios, a theatre, a convention centre and hotel and possibly a school for the local children as well as [facilities] for university students.” Matveyev says the goal is to build a centre based on one of Malevich’s “Architektons”, his seminal abstract skyscraper constructions, including a telescope for viewing Jupiter.
“This place needs to be marked, so that people can gather,” says Vitaly Patsyukov, a curator at the National Centre for Contemporary Arts in Moscow, who is also working on the project. “In Russia today there is a problem with the absence of historical memory.” Russian appreciation of Malevich, who died in Leningrad in 1935, vanished almost completely when the Soviets rejected the radical ideas of the avant-garde and replaced them with a tightly controlled socialist realism aesthetic.
Nemchinovka, where Sofia Rafalovich—Malevich’s second wife—had a family home, was a favourite retreat for Malevich and the pre-revolutionary intelligentsia in general. It still has a grand pre-revolutionary train station. “It was an incredible time,” says Matveyev, referring to Malevich’s meetings there with friends such as film-maker Sergei Eisenstein and artist Ivan Kliun. “This powerful burst [of creativity] right before and after the revolution determined the course of world art,” he says.
John Bowlt, the director of the Institute of Modern Russian Culture at the University of Southern California, suggests that the project might serve as a research centre to combat fakes that plague the Russian avant-garde market. In the meantime, however, Matveyev takes a more mystical view. “It’s as if Malevich is directing this from above,” he says.