An ambitious exhibition is at the Schirn Kunsthalle until 10 May. The 800-exhibit “Die grosse Utopie: die russische Avantgarde 1915-32”, of paintings, drawings, sculpture, architectural models, posters, photographs, and decorative arts, aims to be the first comprehensive overview of the Russian Avant-garde, put together in the new conditions of intellectual freedom by a committee composed equally of Russian, U.S. and German scholars. Many of the exhibits are coming from the former Soviet Union and have never been seen by Westerners.
There are fears, however, that the attempt to be so all-embracing may have undermined the exhibition’s worth, with suspicions as to the authenticity of some of the exhibits rife, and scholars who were involved at the outset distancing themselves from it now that the exhibition is at last opening.
This mammoth undertaking has been long time gestating. It was conceived four years ago by the Guggenheim Museum’s global-thinking director, Thomas Krens, and was to have opened at the renewed Guggenheim in New York last autumn. The museum was not ready for it, however, so it was rolled on to its German venue. For economic reasons it is still undecided whether it will go, as originally planned, to the Russian Museum in St Petersburg and the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow this summer. This autumn will, however, definitely see it at the Guggenheim.
The first problems seem to have arisen over the nature of the committee. This includes Svetlana Jafarova, Yevgeny Kovtun, Irina Lebedeva, Alla Povelikhina and Anatoly Strigalyov (for Russia); Vivian Endicott Barnett, Charlotte Douglas, Jane Sharp and Margarita Tupitisyn (for the U.S.A.); Tina Bauermeister, Hubertus Gassner, Yelena and Vassily Rakitin (for Germany). Too many people, has been the most common criticism: “The left hand does not know what the right hand is doing”, said Alexander Laurentiev, Rodchenko’s grandson in Moscow. Too many theorists and not enough reliable connoisseurs, has been another serious objection.
Many of the works of art going on show have never been seen by most of the members of the committee. Scholars outside the committee who were asked to contribute essays to the catalogue were told that they did not need to worry about what was going to be exhibited.
This lack of an object-orientated approach is considered to be particularly dangerous in a field which suddenly became very valuable in the 1970s and is scattered with fakes. As one commercial expert said: “Western scholars are not sure about the reliability of Russian scholars, and not enough has been seen in the West”. Not for nothing has Sotheby’s suspended its specialised sales of Soviet avant-garde art until more is known about the subject.
As George Costakis, the famous collector of Soviet avant-garde art, said in a letter to IFAR (International Foundation for Art Research), in 1986, “I would urge all those who are contemplating the sale (or purchase) of works of art in this field to exercise particular caution, insisting on evidence that the representation of the provenance is fully verified...It is of the greatest urgency that all those who are genuinely interested in the work of these artists collaborate in an attempt to assure that the history of the movement is accurately preserved and that the ‘clear waters’ of the Avant-garde are not muddied either with false works or fabricated provenances”. Christoph Vitaly, Director of the Schirn Kunsthalle, has already been burnt once by the perils of the field. In 1987 he showed an exhibition of works on paper entitled “Mikhail Larionov: the path to Abstraction”. This exhibition of nearly 200 works is widely believed to have consisted largely of fakes. The exhibition went on to the Musée Rath in Geneva the following year. The City of Geneva is now suing the organiser of the exhibition, Andrei Nakov, a talented independent scholar. Nakov was not invited to form part of the committee of the “Grosse Utopie” exhibition, but Vassily Rakitin, the author of the introduction to his catalogue, is among its members. Rakitin’s claim to fame is that he wrote the first catalogue raisonné of the Costakis collection when it was still in Russia. He now lives in Germany and earns his living as an independent art expert.
In the meanwhile, some contributors to the catalogue, dismayed by the perceived lack of curatorial control, have distanced themselves from the whole affair. Vivian Endicott Barnett, the Kandinsky scholar, who resigned from the Guggenheim in 1991 due to disagreements with the administration, emphasised to The Art Newspaper that it was a year and a half since her opinion had been sought. Nina Lobanov-Rostovsky, author of the recent book on revolutionary ceramics, and of one of the introductory essays to the catalogue, requested, and received, a letter from the Guggenheim confirming that she had not been involved in the choice of exhibits in her field.
The exhibition is supported by Lufthansa Kulturförderung, and the 800-page catalogue, on extra thin paper, is published by Benteli-Verlag, Wabern-Bern, price DM39.
We would like to correct an error of fact in our March issue (No. 17, p.6) about the recent Frankfurt exhibition of Russian avant-garde painting. It is not true, as we stated, that the City of Geneva is suing Dr Andrei Nakov in connection with an earlier exhibition, organised by him, of the work of Larionov. In fact, Dr Nakov is suing a Geneva newspaper and museum director for alleging that the works were not authentic. The issue of authenticity will be determined in those proceedings, which have not yet been heard. We apologise to Dr Nakov for any embarassment we may have caused him.
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'A great Utopia or a great, misleading confusion'