Sleepy Mantua is the unlikely centre of the latest controversy to enmesh the Russian avant-garde. The small Renaissance town between Milan and Venice recently hosted an exhibition entitled Avanguardie Russe dal Cubofuturismo al Suprematismo, which closed last month and has been described by one international specialist as “a total disgrace”. Another says he has doubts about “most of the pictures” included in the show.
The exhibition included 61 previously unknown works by 37 Russian artists, ranging from saleroom superstars such as Goncharova, Larionov, El Lissitzky, Rodchenko and Stepanova to more obscure names, including Ivan Gavris, Sergei Senkin and Sergei Romanovich.
The exhibition—comprising 17 paintings, 33 works on paper, eight booklets and three pieces of porcelain—took place in the Casa del Mantegna, built for Andrea Mantegna in 1476 and now used as an exhibition centre by the Province of Mantua. With cash-strapped Italian provinces unable to hire PR officers, the exhibition attracted scant media attention, and security appeared flimsy, with just one member of staff present during opening hours.
The 144-page catalogue was funded by Giacomini Investments, a firm with a track record of sponsoring art exhibitions—although, surprisingly, the Mantua show is not cited on its website (the organisers say that this is because the website has not been updated).
The show was organised by Gianfranco Ferlisi, the head of culture of the Province of Mantua, and Renzo Margonari, a prominent local artist.
In the catalogue, Margonari likened the works to “precious relics saved from a shipwreck”. To Ferlisi, their appearance was “a miracle… we are speechless with amazement that an important group of works should emerge from the mists of Mantua.”
Amazement has indeed been expressed by several international Russian avant-garde specialists, among them the London-based dealer James Butterwick, who dismisses the exhibition as “a total disgrace” with “hardly any genuine pictures”.
Speaking from Moscow, Maxim Bokser, a leading expert on 20th-century Russian art and a member of the board of the Russian Dealers’ Federation, tells The Art Newspaper that he has “doubts about most of the pictures [in the show], including many of the works on paper”. He adds that the exhibition’s organisers had done “a lot of work and gathered a lot of materials for their catalogue. But why do so much work and not bother to find specialists for each artist?”
The works are said to be owned by a group of Italian collectors who wish to remain anonymous. Speaking on behalf of the collectors and the show’s organisers, Giuseppe Melzi, the head of the Milan-based art legal consultancy Lex Art, says that most of the works were acquired by private treaty from the now-defunct Brerarte auction firm in Milan in the 1980s, with no record of how they reached Italy—although he says that the collectors know the identity of their original owners. The choice of Mantua as a venue was, he says, the result of a chance meeting between Renzo Margonari and one of the collectors.
Melzi says the works were vetted by the veteran art historian Arturo Schwarz, 90, whose survey of the Russian avant-garde in the catalogue talks of “exemplary works” owned by a group of “enlightened collectors”. But although his name appears prominently on the cover, Schwarz—best known as an authority on Dada and Surrealism (he donated his 700-piece specialist collection to the Israel Museum in Jerusalem in 1998)—told The Art Newspaper that he had “nothing to do with this exhibition”. When asked about this, Melzi pointed out that the show contained two works listed in the catalogue as having come from Schwarz’s personal collection. He added: “He knows all the works and the collectors very well and wrote a historical preface [to the exhibition] catalogue.”
Melzi says that the show also had the support of Enrica Torelli Landini, a professor of industrial archaeology at the University of Tuscia in Viterbo and the author of a monograph on El Lissitzky and The Artists of the Russian Avant-Garde. Her article on “Suprematism and the School of Vitebsk” was due to appear in the catalogue’s second edition.
Pigment analysis by the physics department at the Polytechnic of Milan is also said to support the authenticity of the paintings, although one work (purportedly by Rozanova) that was tested was shown to be of a later date, Melzi says, and was withdrawn from the show.
Butterwick dismisses the Polytechnic’s analysis as “meaningless” and says that the works were painted in the 1990s and 2000s. In an open letter to Melzi, he says that “the majority of the paintings in your exhibition are simply not by the artists claimed. Is chemical expertise the only evidence you can offer for a painting being genuine? Is there no provenance? No exhibition history, as there should be with any serious study of the Russian avant-garde?”
Butterwick blasts paintings purportedly by Lentulov (Cattedrale, 1920s) and Rozanova (Cubofuturismo, around 1910 to 1918) as a “sad pastiche” of museum works with similar themes, suggesting that they were produced by the same hand as paintings ascribed to Yakovlev (Pierrot, around 1917-20) and Kuprin (Still Life, aound 1920-22). He also believes that a work ascribed to Ivan Kliun was “known to every reputable dealer in Russian art as not being by Kliun”, despite the fact that the work was reproduced by Maria Valyaeva (as having come from a private collection in Moscow) in The Morphology of Russian Non-Objectivism, published in 2003.
Another work that courted controversy was a watercolour, Madonna and Child, by Natalya Goncharova, apparently based on a 1911 painting in Moscow’s State Tretyakov Gallery. According to Piotr Aven, one of the leading collectors of early 20th-century Russian art, Goncharova “never did watercolour versions of her oil paintings”. Aven said this at a press conference in Moscow in 2011, when he claimed that a criminal gang based in France and Switzerland was flooding the market with fakes.
Melzi has invited Butterwick on an expenses-paid visit to Mantua to inspect the collection, or to take the works to London for his perusal. He has also attempted to assuage Butterwick’s fears that works from the exhibition will surface on the market by insisting that the collectors have no plans to sell, but only wish to show their works in other venues, in Italy and abroad.
The controversy comes hot on the heels of last year’s appearance in Germany of hundreds of Russian avant-garde forgeries (thought to have been produced in Israel), and Butterwick believes that “we are in the middle of a long struggle. The faking will continue and our market will become even worse than it already is.”
The mood in Mantua is calmer. “We’re very happy with the scientific expertise. As for the authors of the works, we can discuss that,” Melzi says. “The collectors do not want doubt. When we read that there may be a problem, we are afraid. We are clear people. We want everything to be clear. If someone says ‘this is no good’, we say: ‘OK, sorry’.”