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Kazimir Malevich's Legacy Revisited

Although the Russian Museum has played virtually no part in the recent battles over the legacy of Kazimir Malevich, it has keenly followed events with interest. The lawsuits between the artist's relatives and Western museums have led to a fresh wave of interest in the history of how Malevich's works found their way into the Russian Museum. Many documents have already been published in Kazimir Malevich in the Russian Museum. There are, however, additional details, important both for the history of the ownership of Malevich's works and his biography.

Everything would appear to be cut and dried with respect to Kazimir Malevich's heritage in the Russian Museum. Vasily Pushkarev, director of the Russian Museum from 1951 to 1977, read a paper on this theme at the conference accompanying the artist's exhibition in 1988. Pushkarev, however, omitted many dramatic facts from the history of the relations between Malevich's various heirs.

After Malevich's death in May 1935, his relatives were awarded a certificate of inheritance, stating that they inherited, in equal shares, "various fixtures and fittings, a grand piano, paintings and other items of estimated value fifteen-thousand three-hundred and fifty-five roubles, 3 in accordance with the bailiff's deed of inventory No. 1343 dated 29 May 1935".

Malevich's legatees were named as Natalia Andreyevna Malevich (his widow); his daughter Una (Anna) Kazimirovna (born 1920); Lyudviga Alexandrovna Malevich (his mother); Galina Kazimirovna Sokolova (his daughter from his first marriage); and Galina's children (Malevich's grandchildren) - Igor Nikolaevich Sokolov (born 1922) and Ninel Nikolaevna Sokolova (born 1927).

In March 1936, five of Malevich's official heirs (with the exception of Igor Sokolov) moved ninety-four of the artist's paintings and drawings to the Russian Museum for temporary storage. Three works were later returned to the owners. The Russian Museum also holds other pictures by Malevich, transferred by his family in 1936. Not one single work has ever been sold or exchanged.

None of Malevich's relatives showed any interest in his works after 1936. On the contrary, as Vasily Pushkarev recalled, they attempted to distance themselves both from Malevich's name and his oeuvre. The Russian Museum decided to take the initiative, therefore, desiring to legalize the relationship between the museum and the artist's legatees in the mid-1970s. By that time, a number of Malevich's heirs had died. His mother, Lyudviga Malevich, passed away in 1942. Two other descendants had also died. Galina Sokolova (his daughter from his first marriage) passed away in 1973. Her son Igor Sokolov (Malevich's grandson) was killed in the Second World War in 1943.

The late academician Dmitry Likhachev, a good friend of the Russian Museum, volunteered to conduct the negotiations with the artist's widow, Natalia Malevich. Likhachev had once worked with Natalia and was personally acquainted with her.

The director of the Russian Museum, Vasily Pushkarev, also had the idea of repatriating Malevich's works that had found their way into the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. The process, however, could not be begun without the agreement of the artist's heirs. Pushkarev asked Likhachev to broach the matter with Natalia Malevich.

Likhachev reported back to the Russian Museum: "My negotiations and conversations with Natalia Malevich in August and September [1974] regarding the Amsterdam pictures were unsuccessful. She starts crying, and I hate to cause her pain. She does, however, agree to write a testament, whereby her share of the pictures, inherited by her and stored at the Russian Museum, passes to the Russian Museum ... She promised that Una (Malevich's daughter) would do the same."

Natalia Malevich was clearly unwilling to launch an official campaign to return the works now in Amsterdam. This seems strange if, as was later claimed, the paintings remained abroad contrary to the artist's own wishes. Although a state organisation was now offering to help her repatriate the works, Natalia Malevich seems to have had her own reasons preventing her from embarking on such a step.

In August 1976, Dmitry Likhachev forwarded Natalia Malevich's official settlement to Vasily Pushkarev, accompanied by the following note: "Natalia Malevich is unwell and would like all matters concerning the apportionment of her share of the inheritance to proceed without her participation and without the necessity of her presence at any official places (court, as a witness, etc.). I promised her that this would not happen. If, contrary to expectations, some information is nonetheless required from Natalia Malevich, I beg you to approach her through me ... It would be a good thing to include Yevgeny Kovtun on the commission. I told Natalia Malevich that Yevgeny Kovtun would sit on the commission and this reassured her Й PS Please do not send Malevich's 'heirs' (Una and the others) to Natalia Malevich. She bursts into tears at the slightest recollection of her conversations with them, various second-hand dealers and Khardzhiev."

Dmitry Likhachev's postscript is extremely significant, suggesting that Natalia Malevich had a low opinion of the artist's relatives. But what took place between Malevich's wife and Nikolai Khardzhiev? To find out, we must return to the late 1950s, when Natalia Malevich and Khardzhiev were on extremely good terms. In the mid-1950s, Khardzhiev was planning to write a biography of Malevich and often interviewed the artist's widow.

On 13 October 1957, Natalia Malevich provided information for Khardzhiev's biography, "work on which Malevich entrusted to you." The artist's wife told Khardzhiev that Malevich's brother "Myachislav is still alive, he moved away from Samoteki a long time ago and lives somewhere else in Moscow. You probably recall that he has a small but wonderful collection of K. M.'s works. I have still not been able to find his address."

There was thus a "small but wonderful collection" of Malevich's works somewhere in Moscow in the late 1950s. Where is it now? Did some or all of it end up in Nikolai Khardzhiev's own collection? What was the relationship between Khardzhiev and Malevich's brother, who lived in Moscow until his death? Is it possible that Khardzhiev used the information provided by Malevich's widow to his own advantage?

A month later, Natalia Malevich wrote again to Khardzhiev: "Dear Nikolai Ivanovich. Please forgive me for not writing for so long. My long silence was the result of a series of unhappy events in our apartment. The long illness and death (from cancer) of our neighbour (in the same room where K. M. also died of cancer) brought back many unhappy memories. Then there was Una's nonchalant idea to bring three heirs to 'grandmother' in Leningrad regarding her family disagreements and so forth. All this sent my blood pressure soaring."

Not wishing to be bothered when she felt poorly, Natalia Malevich asked someone called "T. N." to tell Khardzhiev that she was "temporarily indisposed". Khardzhiev immediately took fright, but the artist's widow reassured him: "T. N. is a kind-hearted and noble person. She keeps a loving memory of K. M. and understands many of his works. K. M. always spoke with great warmth about her, even though he did not know her for long." Natalia Malevich then goes on to mention another work by Malevich: "T. N. kept K. M.'s self-portrait during the siege. This was the last work that K. M. painted when he was virtually bed-ridden and which survived the predacious carving-up of his 'dear relatives'."

Yet again, Natalia Malevich expresses her displeasure at her late husband's relatives and their "predacious carving-up" of his heritage. But who exactly is T. N.? The answer is Tamara Nikolaevna Krechetova (1903-1960), senior curator of applied art at the Russian Museum from 1932 from 1945.

Tamara Krechetova's daughter, Irina Zakharovna, told me that both her mother and her father, Lev Lapin, were close friends of Malevich's family. After Malevich's death, they kept in regular touch with Natalia.

Natalia Malevich mentions a Self-Portrait kept by Tamara Krechetova during the Siege of Leningrad. This appears to have been the work mentioned by Vasily Pushkarev in 1999: "There is information that Malevich painted a self-portrait specially for his wife, which always hung in her room and which was never exhibited. After her death, the self-portrait was allegedly taken to Kiev by relatives."

Some more information can be added on this particular painting. In July 1935, the Russian Museum accepted four works by Malevich from the First Exhibition of Leningrad Artists, organised by the Leningrad City Council at the Russian Museum. These works are listed in the catalogue as Nos. 275-278:

  • Male Portrait (1934, oil on canvas, 69 x 58)
  • Self-Portrait (1933, 54 x 45)
  • Girl with a Flag (1934, 83 x 61.5)
  • Female Portrait (1934, 101 x 71)

All four paintings are accompanied by the words "acquired by the State Russian Museum."

The only work to remain in the collection of the Russian Museum, however, was Female Portrait, now known as Portrait of the Artist's Wife. The museum documents show that Girl with a Flag was awarded to the Palace of Pioneers in 1936, while Self-Portrait and Male Portrait were returned to Natalia Malevich.

Judging by a copy of the receipt now in the archives of the Russian Museum, Natalia Malevich sold two works in 1936, giving half of the money received to Malevich's other heirs. She wrote the following short note to Malevich's daughter Galina Sokolova:

To citizeness G. K. Sokolova

Paintings by the late K. S. Malevich, on exhibition at the time of his death, have now been sold.

Two-thousand eight-hundred (2,800) roubles were received for the paintings belonging to Malevich.

Believing that this sum should be divided between the heirs in equal parts, I wire the enclosed amount - one-thousand four-hundred (1,400) roubles - to you and your children.

5/2, Union of Communications Street
23 February 1936
N. Malevich
Bona fide copy: N. Bykova, A. Uriman 11 February 1976

The two works sold by Natalia Malevich appear to have been Self-Portrait and Male Portrait. Self-Portrait - the work mentioned in Natalia Malevich's letter to Nikolai Khardzhiev - seems to have been acquired by Tamara Krechetova. The painting was thus shown at the First Exhibition of Leningrad Artists in 1935, sold in February 1936 and in the possession of Tamara Krechetova during the Siege of Leningrad (1941-42). Self-Portrait turns up again in 1957, when Natalia Malevich mentions it in a letter to Nikolai Khardzhiev. It then vanished, resurfacing in the collection of Inkombank. Zurab Tsereteli acquired Self-Portrait for the Moscow Museum of Modern Art at an auction in April 2002.

Was Self-Portrait really returned to Natalia Malevich, finding its way into the Inkombank collection through her sister, who died in the Ukraine, or is there some other story? What happened to Male Portrait, also sold by Natalia Malevich in 1936? What is perhaps even more important is the tendency of works belonging to the most ardent fans of Malevich's heritage to vanish, becoming inaccessible to art experts and connoisseurs of the master's oeuvre, whereas those works now belonging to museums in Russia, Holland and America are preserved, studied, exhibited and reproduced.

One recalls the words of Natalia Malevich in the mid-1970s, expressing her discontentment with the "various heirs." The artist's widow clearly disapproved of their attitude towards Malevich's memory. This appears to have prompted her to take a decision. Acting on her own free will, she agreed to present her share of the inheritance to the Russian Museum. She also persuaded Una, Malevich's daughter from his second marriage, to do the same.

Natalia Malevich signed the following document on 24 August 1976:

I, Natalia Andreyevna Malevich, widow of the artist Kazimir Severinovich Malevich, present the State Russian Museum with my share of the painterly inheritance of Kazimir Malevich stored at the State Russian Museum, on the condition that the donated works are never sold, presented or transferred from the State Russian Museum.

I instruct the State Russian Museum to form a special commission, consisting of its curators and experts, in order to identify my share of the artistic inheritance from Kazimir Malevich's general heritage stored at the State Russian Museum. I instruct this commission to conduct all necessary affairs in court or other Soviet institutions on my behalf.

N. Malevich

The Russian Museum created a special commission that divided the collection of works accepted by the museum in 1936 into three parts, forming three inheritances. One belonged to the artist's widow, Natalia Malevich; one belonged to the daughter of his second wife, Una Uriman; one belonged to his granddaughter from his first marriage, Ninel Bykova.

Despite Natalia Malevich's willingness to donate her share of the inheritance free of charge, the Russian Museum took the decision to single out three works in each inheritance and pay out a sum of money for them.

Natalia Malevich was paid:

  • 2,000 roubles for Suprematist Colours (oil on plywood; K_/BX 4348)
  • 1,000 roubles for Three Female Figures (oil on canvas; K_/BX 4333)
  • 1,000 roubles for Spring. Landscape with a Small House (oil on canvas; K_/BX 4374)

Una was paid:

  • 2,000 roubles for Carpenter (oil on wood; K_/BX 5354)
  • 1,000 roubles for Red Figure (oil on paper, wood and canvas; K_/BX 4325)
  • 1,000 roubles for Apples [sic] in Blossom (oil on canvas; K_/BX 4375)

Ninel Bykova was paid:

  • 2,000 roubles for Girl in the Countryside (oil on wood; K_/BX 4386)
  • 1,000 roubles for Study for Woman Reaper (oil on wood; K_/BX 4331)
  • 1,000 roubles for Landscape with a Small House (oil on canvas; K_/BX 4373)

The Russian Museum thus paid out a total of 12,000 roubles - 4,000 roubles to each legatee. Bearing in mind the prevailing prices on the Soviet art market in the mid-1970s, the sums paid for these nine Maleviches were extremely generous. The prices paid for Malevich's works can be compared to the estimated costs of paintings by leading official artists, as recorded in the minutes of the Russian Museum purchasing commission of experts for 1976/77:

  • Pyotr Fomin's Old City - 1,000 roubles
  • Yevsei Moiseyenko's Still-Life with a Mandoline - 600 roubles
  • Alexander Samokhvalov's Conductress - 800 roubles

Works by avant-garde artists were rarely acquired and only for small sums:

  • Alexandra Exter's Still-Life with Eggs - 800 roubles
  • David Burliuk's Portrait of Vasily Kamensky - 1,000 roubles
  • Nathan Altman's Jewish Funeral - 1,800 roubles (not acquired)

The average monthly salary of an engineer or doctor was between 110 and 140 roubles at that time. A good house cost 4,000 roubles. Neither should it be forgotten that the entire contents of Malevich's flat, including his paintings, furniture and piano, were estimated as being worth 15,355 roubles in 1935. Natalia Malevich sold two paintings - Self-Portrait and Male Portrait - for 2,800 roubles in 1936.

The claims of Malevich's relatives that the works were evaluated at artificially low prices in the mid-1970s are, therefore, only correct in relation to current prices. If they are referring to the prices that Malevich's paintings can fetch in the West, however, this is a different matter entirely. It is meaningless to compare Soviet and Western prices for works of art.

Malevich's works temporarily stored in the Russian Museum since 1936 were thus accepted for permanent storage in 1977. Part of the collection was donated by the legatees; the other part was acquired by the Russian Museum. It seems strange to now doubt the 1970s evaluations of Malevich's paintings. In this case, all works would have to be revalued - and not only those in Soviet collections.

Since 1977, the Russian Museum has, at every opportunity, included Malevich's works in its permanent exhibition and temporary shows. In 1988, the Russian Museum and the Stedelijk Museum invited several of the world's leading galleries to contribute to the first ever international retrospective of the artist. The exhibition visited Amsterdam and Leningrad and was accompanied by a detailed catalogue, which remains an invaluable authority to this day.

This was the signal for a fresh wave of interest in Malevich among international art experts. Articles, books, monographs and albums began to appear in ever increasing numbers. This process was matched by a sharp growth in the number of those who claimed to be Malevich's relatives. It turned out that, instead of five or three heirs, Malevich has more than thirty relatives, all of them ready to claim their share of his legacy. Several members of the family have already issued writs in the West. 25 Their case is largely based on a claim made by Malevich's granddaughter, Ninel Bykova, who was eight years old when the artist died. Bykova stated that Malevich had told her mother, the artist's daughter from his first marriage, about his wish to have his works returned from abroad.

Without even going into the legal problems surrounding the rights of the heirs to the paintings left in Europe in 1927, there are several strange contradictions in this story. One of them is a letter written by Ninel Bykova to Raisa Gorbachev, readdressed to the Russian Museum on 23 June 1989:

Dear Raisa Maximovna,

I am the granddaughter and heir of the artist Kazimir Malevich.

Please excuse me for bothering you. I know that you are an extremely busy woman, but I beg you to read my letter to the end.

I once saw a television programme in which you accepted a painting donated by a foreigner on behalf of the Culture Foundation.

I could do the same thing. My mother, Kazimir Malevich's eldest daughter Galina Sokolova, died in 1973. Before her death, she gave me documents and asked me to fulfil my grandfather's will, whenever it would be possible. A month before my grandfather's death, she went to see him and was with him until the end. Granddad was perturbed by the thought that his paintings would remain abroad. He very much wanted them to be returned to Russia.

In 1927, he took the works to an international exhibition in Germany, where they enjoyed great success. But his wife Natalia wrote to him that his comrades were being persecuted in Russia and that he should remain there with the pictures.

Granddad left his pictures in the care of the architect Hugo Hering and returned home. You yourself know what was happening in our country at that time. Granddad also came in for a share of it. He was accused of being a German spy and spent several months in prison.

He had a wonderful painting of a Young Pioneer with a fluttering red tie, beating on a drum and illuminated by a bonfire. It was given to the Palace of Pioneers, but burnt as trash in those far-off days. There were many other things.

Things are different now. I appeal to you to help return the paintings now in Amsterdam to their homeland, where they were created and where granddad is buried! Where his descendants live and want them to occupy a fitting place in the history of art in our country, in our museum.

After my mother's death, I wrote to the Union of Artists, who redirected me to the Russian Museum and from there to the Ministry of Culture. The latter sent the papers on to the Foreign Law Collegiate, which has not been able to do anything for ten years, abandoning the entire case at 11 Khvostov Lane, Moscow.

The lawyer, Tatyana Zakharova, did not even inform me that the case was hopeless, although she did tell me that there was no evidence to show that Kazimir Malevich had left his paintings with H_ring and not sold them to him. What now needs to be done is to find a letter or paper written by my granddad, showing that he was concerned about the fate of his pictures and that he regarded them as his own. It would then be possible to attempt to secure their return. He had many friends, fellow artists. Perhaps somewhere, in some private archives, such confirmation can be found. Granddad may have written to the Ministry of Culture or the Union of Artists. It must be somewhere. There was no way he could not be concerned about their fate. They were his work, his life, his paintings! The archives for all these years must be checked and searched, but I am a registered invalid, sick and helpless.

Please help justice prevail. Perhaps a lawyer experienced in these matters is needed. But how can one be found? What can be done?

Please help, Raisa Maximovna. I am afraid that I will not live to fulfil the will of my granddad and mother. I want the paintings to be returned to their homeland. People need not hope that the Amsterdam museum will show these pictures here, as I heard on the television. All this is extremely painful. I, the artist's granddaughter, want to see the paintings in our museums, not auctioned off into private hands abroad!

I ask you to please help me.

I have sent all the papers to Dmitry Likhachev, chairman of the Culture Foundation, but have heard nothing from them.

With great respect and hope,

Ninel Nikolaevna Bykova, 20/9 Osipenko, Kuibyshev 443110.

There may well have been a good reason why Dmitry Likhachev, chairman of the Culture Foundation, did not respond to Ninel Bykova's request to demand the return of Malevich's paintings to Russia. Likhachev was well acquainted with the situation and the opinion of the artist's widow, who had rejected such actions back in 1974.

No one knows for sure what Malevich was planning or what he wanted before his death. He did not leave any notes or diaries from that period. The artist wrote a will in 1933, but only stated where and how he would like to be buried - not a single word about the fate of his paintings. Neither Ivan Kliun, who remained in close contact with Malevich right up until his death, nor such students as Anna Leporskaya and Nikolai Suetin, nor his wife, mention his desire to return the paintings left behind in Europe. The only person to make this claim is the artist's granddaughter, Ninel Bykova, quoting what he allegedly said to her mother.

Bearing in mind Malevich's attitude towards fame and his belief that an artist can only make an international name for himself by exhibiting his works in other countries, it is difficult to imagine him ever wanting to deprive the world of his paintings. He understood only too well that confining them to Russia was akin to consigning them to oblivion.

Malevich's illness could, of course, have made him change his mind. But before the summer of 1933, when he learnt that he was seriously ill, he had quite definite plans. After visiting Germany in 1927, Malevich hoped to return again to hold a second exhibition (his German visa had not been extended and he had been forced to return to Russia earlier than planned).

Before he left Berlin, Malevich wrote a note instructing the publication of his manuscripts in Germany. The beginning of this note clearly reflects the artist's pessimism concerning the future: "In the event of my death or unlawful imprisonment".

Returning to Soviet Russia, Malevich soon understood the hopelessness of his situation. In the late 1920s, however, he still hoped to return to Europe. This is proved by several documents.

In December 1928, the Society of Painters invited Malevich to contribute to an exhibition. On 6 May 1929, the artist wrote to the organisers that "owing to the late opening of the exhibition, I can only let you have five works:

  1. Woman Reaper (from the Peasants cycle of 1909)
  2. Female Torso (1910)
  3. Female Bust (1928)
  4. Head of a Woman (1910)
  5. Women Bathers (study for the painting Women Bathers 06.05.1910. K. Malevich 1929?)."

Two days later, however, Malevich wrote to Nikolai Radlov, the curator of the exhibition:

Dear Nikolai Ernestovich,

After sending you the information for your catalogue, I received a letter from the Novembergruppe in Germany, asking me to rush them works for a Novembergruppe exhibition.

In view of the commercial advantages, I have therefore decided to send the works promised to the Society of Painters to Germany instead.

For unknown reasons, these paintings were not sent to Germany. This contravened Malevich's plans, no doubt annoying the artist.

In a letter written in 1930 to his long-time friend Kirill Shutko, Malevich is clearly at a loss what to do. The artist says that moving from Leningrad to Moscow is "no escape," yet "I have no strength left here either, and no wish to follow Mayakovsky's example."

These words show that Malevich had reached breaking point. If the chance to leave Soviet Russia had presented itself, he would no doubt have emigrated. His attempts to do so in 1929 and 1930, however, were unsuccessful. In the summer of 1933, the artist learned of his terminal disease and the question was resolved de facto.

It is not entirely responsible, therefore, to claim that the dying artist had asked for his works to be returned to Russia, based on the sole words of his granddaughter, who was eight years old in 1935. One can, of course, only admire the desire of Malevich's descendants to see his paintings "occupy a fitting place in the history of art in our country, in our museum." In the same letter, Ninel Bykova adds: "I, the artist's granddaughter, want to see the paintings in our museums, not auctioned off into private hands abroad!"

Much time has passed since Ninel Bykova wrote this letter to Raisa Gorbachev in 1989. The artist's granddaughter is no longer alive. The position of Malevich's descendants has since changed. They are now prepared to sell paintings occupying pride of place in such prestigious museums as the Museum of Modern Art in New York into private hands and abroad.

The battle of Malevich's descendants for his legacy continues. As a result, many international museums and private collectors are now unwilling to loan paintings to exhibitions or to reproduce them in books. In doing so, they cause great harm to an artist who so ardently desired international fame and glory.

Yevgenia Petrova