Kazimir Malevich – a Tragic Hero? Written by a witness and confidant of many events from long ago

Z LEWEJ KAZIMIERZ MALEWICZ, KADR Z RADZIECKIEJ KRONIKI FILMOWEJ Z 1923.
KAZIMIR MALEVICH ON THE LEFT, IMAGE FROM A SOVIET NEWSREEL, 1923

What hurts me when I remember the last chapter of Malevich's life? What hurts me when I recapitulate the humiliations he experienced then, earlier, and after his death? It is the way historians and researchers have ignored the issue, passing it over in silence. I am 92 years old. I do not want to take with me to the other side an undecipherable mystery that was once shared with me in Leningrad by Anna Leporskaya, the artist's, her teacher's, confidant.

My memory serves me correctly. In 1935 I saw for the first time the Black Square, or rather its reproduction, in an issue of the now-defunct avant-garde periodical BLOK. I felt like confronting something infinitely attractive, though unfathomable. A teenager's confrontation with the mystery of new art. From that moment on Malevich became part of my imagination. When the Polish government briefly changed its policy towards Soviet Russia (1933-1935), an exhibition of Soviet applied arts opened at the IPS in Warsaw, but not featuring so much as a single work by Malevich. I had no idea at the time he was on the Soviets' list of undesirable artists.

Introduction. During different periods of my long life (starting with my deportation to the Ural through the September 1939 campaign) I was a witness and confidant of pieces of information and events and an observer of two spaces in Soviet Russia. A islet of independent thought and an ocean of totalitarianism. On many occasions I experienced on my own skin the workings of the communist state's security services. Horribly brutal and omnipresent. Ruthless, omnipotent, perfidious, especially towards independent-minded artists.

My old age imposes on me a duty to preserve even seemingly insignificant incidents, everything that is connected with Malevich, his struggle with the banal daily existence. When he was under constant criticism from opponents in both the artistic community and the Soviet regime. He met with open reprisals following his return from his sole foreign trip to Poland and Germany. These included unfair and thoughtless administrative decisions as well as actions by the security services, undertaken until the last days of his life. And after his death too, in the form of a ban on the public presentation of his works in the Soviet Union, with the exception of applied-art projects. Even his very name was banned, of which I was informed at the Russian Museum in Leningrad. There, in the storerooms, were his paintings, unavailable not only for the public but for researchers as well. Yevgeniy Kovtun, curator of the 20th-century painting section, an outstanding expert on Malevich's oeuvre, also had limited access to that part of the storerooms. He told me in confidence that his superior, the director of the Museum, was aware of the persecuted artist's greatness. He valued him and, paradoxically, protected him from the crassness of his superiors. He sought out ways to circumvent regulations in the name of higher values. Still, he was obliged to follow orders from ‘above' (meaning the KGB). This sounds absurd today. I am grateful to Kovtun for his first-hand, priceless knowledge, his interpretation of suprematist philosophy and Malevich's theory of the ‘extra element' in the art of various historical periods.

My younger colleagues, renowned art historians, probably had similar experiences, at the Russian Museum, in the Tretyakovskaya Gallery, at the Theatre Museum, and in other such places, between 1950 and 1970. They remain their professional secret.

It is worth remembering here an incident from the 1960s, from one of my research trips to Moscow (during that time I also taught a design seminar in Senezh near Moscow at the invitation of the USSR Fine Artists Association). What I mean is how high-ranking Fine Artists Association officials reacted to the very sound of Malevich's name. In that milieu, it inspired fear, or at least embarrassment. I tried several times in the Association's offices to talk to Konstantin Rozhdestvensky, Malevich's favourite disciple, his assistant. Besides pursuing an artistic career, Rozhdestvensky held at the time the important office of the Association's vice-president. He had a lot of power and enjoyed support from the highest circles of the state administration. As a designer of prestigious pavilions abroad, he was a frequent beneficiary of government commissions. He had reasons for professional pride. He won a Grand Prix at the Exposition Internationale des Arts et Techniques dans la Vie Moderne in Paris in 1937. For the millions of Soviet citizens, however, that year was an ominous one. Mass arrests, investigations, death sentences, deportations, camps, gulags for political prisoners, purges within the party and the army, a crackdown on artists and the intelligentsia. He was summoned briefly for an interrogation. Years later he mentioned it only in passing in a comprehensive interview (Malevich o sebe..., vol. 2). He saved himself. At what price? He avoided me, clearly wanted to get rid of me. I asked him, ‘Were you Malevich's student?' He denied. I repeated the question during my successive visits. He kept denying. It was only after the system collapsed that he started to share with the media his undisputed and profound knowledge about his patron. He was credible in that role. But after browsing through the catalogue of an exhibition of his drawings and paintings at Galerie Gmurzynska in Cologne (1993), I felt embarrassed. He was not only a disciple, but openly, though not without talent, used the Master's ‘crib' - his ideas, his characteristic palette of themes, colours, composition. Almost a copy. The degree of moral conformism and the depth of ethical duality makes me wonder. I find no explanation.

Conclusion. After more than 70 years since Kazimir Malevich's death, knowledge about the prematurely deceased pioneer of 20th-century art has become incomparably more extensive than before. Thanks, in large part, to the efforts of contemporary Russian historians, archivists and publishers. I think time has come for a joint research project on an international scale. Why do I insist on an internationalisation of research into the final chapter of the artist's life? The reader will find an answer in the disquisition below.

Z LEWEJ KAZIMIERZ MALEWICZ, KADR Z RADZIECKIEJ KRONIKI FILMOWEJ Z 1923.
KAZIMIR MALEVICH ON THE LEFT, IMAGE FROM A SOVIET NEWSREEL, 1923

 

The truth is bitter, dramatic. It spans virtually the whole of his life, with short, promising intermissions. From the very birth of Bolshevik Russia - a more or less brutal smear campaign against the artist. Open and covert, via the press and artistic organisations subordinated to the party's directives. Several arrests, first time in Vitebsk (he was saved then by a letter from Lunacharsky they found on him). Suspicions of involvement in subversive, anti-state activities (Unovis). Oppressive, humiliating censorship from the local authorities (1919-1921). Beginnings of starvation-induced tuberculosis. Being under constant surveillance from secret agents or planted provocateurs, sometimes even lunatics (I. Terentyev, a mixture of truth and fabrication). Poverty. Sporadic purchases of his works by museums or collectors. Touching concern for his family, mother (for her, he would always remain Kazio), wife, daughter (beautiful letters!). Securing a bread ration (pajok) for them. Extremely prolific correspondence. Second wife, Zofia, falling ill. Tuberculosis. Lack of money for medications. Experimenting and teaching (Artistic Culture Institute, INChUK), harassed by constant inspections. The real threat of the unique institution's liquidation. A smear campaign in the press as a prelude to a larger offensive from the conservative circles. Plans for staging an exhibition abroad presenting his oeuvre and research method. First and only trip to Warsaw and Berlin, under close KGB surveillance. Sudden orders to return immediately (it is known today by whom issued, reasons remain a mystery). Liquidation of the Institute. Personal freedom restricted to a minimum. Another arrest. Being searched. Suspicions of spying and engaging in counterrevolutionary activities while abroad. Even more acute poverty. Near starvation. Acute cold in the apartment and the studio. Lack of proper shoes and warm clothes. Beginnings of cancer (we know he was tortured in jail: Shatskikh, Demosfenova, vol. 2, p. 347-348). Being recommended by doctors to immediately go for a therapy abroad. A real possibility of a therapy in Paris or elsewhere to be paid for with proceeds from the sale of paintings left in deposit in Berlin. Passport application. Rejected (no material trace of the decision anywhere). A de facto house arrest. The course of his ‘last journey.' Certain aspects of, ignored by eyewitnesses, probably for noble reasons, known now from several sources (including Leporskaya). The mysterious disappearance after a couple of days of the symbols of suprematism from a place he had chosen to be his grave.

Barbarism. How else to call that state's practices? The terror of the system and the helplessness of the individual. We must bring to light all the aspects of this uneven fight between an artist, thinker, pedagogue, outstanding personality and the elusive machinery of fear. This evil should be thoroughly researched and condemned as the passage of time makes it more and more difficult to document. The last witnesses will have eventually passed away. I know of no similar moral obligation in the history of 20th-century European art - to open the Storehouse of Injustices. Making the tragedy of Malevich's life and death public will lead researchers to the, hopefully opened, archives of the Institution Guarding the Most Important State Secrets.

I am searching for analogies. A queue of women in front of the Leningrad prison, among them poet Anna Akhmatova, her husband executed, her son imprisoned. She whispers a promise to herself to describe this world of contempt. She will fulfil it in Requiem. Another similar testimony of courage was that last bastion of freedom, the literary-artistic periodical Nova Generatsciya published in Kharkiv (1927-1930), surprisingly, in the Ukrainian language. It is there Malevich found an intellectual shelter, there he published his theoretical treatises and reproductions of his paintings (he also published in the Kyiv-based almanac Avangard, 1930). A bravery paid for by the periodical's forced dissolution, arrests, sentences, death.

On the basis of my own knowledge, correspondence, family members' and friends' testimonies, I say it out loud that the party in power at the time, its organs, bear the moral responsibility for the premature death of Kazimir Malevich, an artist at least undesirable for the regime. Let us add also this case to the long list of crimes, murders, classified, ignored, sophisticated - never conclusively proven. Malevich did not fit with the Bolshevik system and its principle of exercising absolute power over everything and everyone.

Testimonies, getting closer to the truth. The collapse of the totalitarian system saw the publication of many objective, revealing works by researchers in Russia and abroad. A number of taboos have been broken, veils lifted. I mean here the two-volume work published in Moscow in 2004: I.A. Vakar, T.N. Mikhienko, Malevich o sebe, sovremenniki o Maleviche: Pis'ma, Dokumenty, Vospominaniia, Kritika [Malevich about Himself, Contemporaries about Malevich: Letters, Documents, Memoirs, Criticism]. The publication, impeccable in editorial terms, is accompanied by valuable footnotes, notes and a comprehensive afterword by Irina Vakar. The afterword is a unique work in itself. Step by step, the author builds a psychological portrait of Malevich, from birth to death. This book provided me with a compass aiding me in my search for truth; its publication was co-financed by the New York-based Malevich Society. I have cited this book here and I will do so several times yet.

The second compass were the publications of the Moscow-based art historian Aleksandra Shatskikh, Kazimir Malevich: Sobranie sochinenii v piati tomakh [Collected Works in Five Volumes] (1998-2004) and Kazimir Malevich i poeziia [Kazimir Malevich and Poetry] (2000). The young scholar, whom I met in the US, proved indefatigable in researching other, yet unrecognised areas of Malevich's practice. He leaned over his attempts to use the poetic phrase. The canonical five-volume work (co-written by Galina Demosfenova) offers the reader the possibility of immersing in an orderly and richly commented world created by Malevich, a natural-born visionary of the paths of civilisation.

However, even the most recent publications I am familiar with still bespeak of an unsatisfied expectation for the blank spots to be filled, for the ignored events, concealments and question marks to be explained. Including those related to the artist's Last Journey.

Let me start with information entrusted to me. Also suppositions, doubts, my own investigations. The person who entrusted her tribulations to me in a veiled form (in the late 1960s) was Anna Leporskaya, painter, ceramist, Malevich's former pupil and assistant. She apparently had reasons not to share her speculations with other people. It was, after all, a time of fear, anxiety, phone taps, despite the ‘thaw' declared following the satrap Stalin's death. At the same time, as professional contacts became easier, international interest in the history of the Soviet avant-garde grew. An impressive wave of visitors, renowned scholars, gallery owners, collectors, arriving to do research at the source, to study that which had survived from the ‘deluge.' I was one of them.

I tried on a number of occasions to open brackets by using in my public appearances non-standard, theatre-derived methods as part of my work of art historian. One such attempt took place at Madrid's Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, during a symposium accompanying the opening of an exhibition of the Russian avant-garde, Vanguardias rusas (2006). A staged attempt to reconstruct the mystery of the final, most dramatic moments of Malevich's last journey met with a cool response and went largely unnoticed. The same gesture was repeated, albeit on a more modest scale, in 2007 at Warsaw's Polonia Hotel on the occasion of the 80th anniversary of Malevich's exhibition there. A symbolic mourning ribbon with the inscription Malevich's Last Journey was presented by Piotr Nowicki and Sarmen Beglarian to Prof Andrzej Turowski. Virtually no response either.

WYSTĄPIENIE SZYMONA BOJKO NA SYMPOZJUM W MADRYCIE (2006).
SZYMON BOJKO'S APPEARANCE AT MADRID SYMPOSIUM (2006)

OPTYMISTYCZNY FINAŁ WYSTĄPIENIA SZYMONA BOJKO NA SYMPOZJUM W MADRYCIE (2006); Z LEWEJ PROF. NICOLETTA MISLER HISTORYK SZTUKI (NE
OPTIMISTIC FINALE OF SZYMON BOJKO'S APPEARANCE AT MADRID SYMPOSIUM; FROM LEFT: PROF NICOLETTA MISLER, ART HISTORIAN (NAPLES), SZYMON BOJKO, EKATERINA SELEZNEVA, ART HISTORIAN AND CURATOR (MOSCOW)

Why a tragic hero? Let us state the facts once again. The artist could serve as a model of vitality, energy, physical strength. That is how we see him in all photographs. His vitality is particularly evident in the sole preserved film image (a collective portrait of the participants of the 1923 Exhibition of All Directions in Petrograd). He died suddenly, after a short but painful disease of prostate cancer, at the age of 56. Diagnosed, he soon found himself in the care of renowned doctors. Their diagnosis anticipated the worst from the very beginning. They suggested therapy in Paris or New York. Soviet medicine was helpless. We have very scant information regarding his friends' attempts to obtain a pass - referred to as a ‘passport' - that would enable him to go abroad. Again an explanation is needed here on how the Soviet system worked. An artist's trip abroad for personal reasons rather than on ‘artistic business', as the bureaucracy called it (such as Malevich's first, single-time pass, suddenly interrupted, in 1927) was out of the question. The implications are fearful. The ‘organs' (which is how the secret police was commonly called), probably well aware of Malevich's critical health condition, did nothing to save a world-renowned artist. This suggests that the Lubyanka (the KGB headquarters) waited for the natural solution - death. And so it happened. Was it a deliberate strategy, a de facto criminal method to get rid of an aesthetical dissident? We know now of one of the KGB officials' words: ‘Don't touch the old man,' meaning ‘do nothing, wait, let it happen by itself.'

The closest family, mother Ludwika, wife Natalia, daughter Una, the disciples, Leporskaya, Rozhdestvensky, Suetin, all helpless by Kazimir's bed. His eyes in the photographs say that the end is near. We know the details of Malevich's original design of his own coffin (execution Suetin, Rozhdestvensky). An elongated, suprematist shape with offsets and profiles. Suprematist symbols on the lid, a square, a circle. His final expressive gesture, his message for the world. Indomitable even then, suffering. A solemn wake at his apartment, preserved in photographs, for eternity. Daniil Kharms (member of the OBERIU collective), always ingenuous, puts his poems into the open coffin. Malevich had also asked for his body to be given a vertical and horizontal form - arms spread. He himself, his body, was to play the role of a sign, supremus. How to fulfil that wish? We must recognise the surrounding space step by step. The devil, as they say, is in the detail.

The narrow entrance door, stairs, backyard staircase (its appearance, inconveniences, described in several memoirs) made any complicated manoeuvres with the catafalque impossible, threatening to violate the body's integrity. Everyone present was aware of that. Following the liquidation of the Artistic Culture Institute, some Soviet institutions moved into its premises. The artist and his family were allowed to remain in the three-room flat no. 5. But the front door was walled up, cutting the residents off from the main staircase, the paradnyi khod [‘parade entrance'], facing Isakovsky Square. The door connecting the apartment with what used to be the Institute's premises remained in place, like a stage prop. Behind it was a wall. That left only the back door, the servants' entrance, or chornyi khod [‘black entrance']. Had it not been a deliberate step to humiliate the artist, then still in his prime, artistically active, visited by friends, family members, guests and visitors? Who, or what, had made the building's management do it? One of the mechanisms of the Soviet system was the prikaz - bureaucratic orders from higher up. The apartment, referred to by friends as ‘Malevich's room,' housed a collection of paintings from various periods (as described by Kharms), priceless works, documents. Also a piano.

The photograph showing the catafalque being taken outside, carried by Suetin and Rozhdestvensky, bears the legend ‘The catafalque being escorted from the Artists' House' - and not from the apartment and through the back door. The chornyi khod had been bashfully left out. Questions arise. What happened in the meantime? One link we know from Rozhdestvensky's memoirs (vol. 2, p. 306). They had to remove the body from the coffin to be able to negotiate the latter through the door.

Let us quote the memoirs of painter and graphic artist N.I. Kostrov (vol. 2, p. 389): ‘I remember Malevich's funeral very well. [...] When they were escorting the coffin from the apartment, they had to put it upright because the stairs were very narrow...' In the large square outside - deputations with wreaths and people willing to pay their last tribute to the deceased artist. A band playing. A truck waiting. According to Malevich's will, the body was to be cremated, taken on a freight railway car marked with the ‘black square' to Moscow, and then to Nemchinovka, a village where the Rafalovich family, the parents of Malevich's second wife, Zofia, lived.

The gaps were being ignored for years, questions were not being asked. Anna Leporskaya carried them in herself. This explains why she behaved as if something was giving her pain.

ANNA LEPORSKA, KADR Z FILMU „SZTUKA DLA MILIONÓW”. WFO, ŁÓDŹ 1978.
ANNA LEPORSKAYA, IMAGE FROM SZTUKA DLA MILIONÓW [POLISH DOCUMENTARY ON OCTOBER REVOLUTION-ERA RUSSIAN AVANT-GARDE ART], WFO, ŁÓDŹ 1978

 

One day, it was the late 1970s, I visited Anna Leporskaya in her apartment in Leningrad. Suddenly, without any introduction or explanation, she said, ‘Shimonchik [which is how she called me], take your photo camera, go to Isakovsky Square to the palace, the former premises of the INChUK [Artistic Culture Institute], don't stop at the entrance, walk around to the corner, turn into an alley called Soyuz Svyazi 2, you'll see an arcade, go into the courtyard, to the left you'll see an inconspicuous kitchen door.' She warned, ‘The courtyard is guarded around the clock by an armed guard. Watch out. If you can, open the kitchen door and go inside. You'll meet a flight of several steps leading downstairs. I need a photograph of that door from inside.'

It worked. I tricked the guard. That photograph, plus another one, showing the main entrance to the building, accompanied by appropriate legends (probably with Anna's knowledge), were published in the catalogue of the Gmurzynska Galerie exhibition on the 100th anniversary of Malevich's birth (1978).

Neither aroused any interest from researchers or the media. They were never reproduced anywhere. The catalogue and the exhibition, though, gained international recognition. A photograph published for the first time: Una, Malevich's daughter, with Natalia, his third and most beloved wife, by the artist's symbolic grave in a field (the outskirts of Nemchinovka, shortly after the burial). A plaque with the ‘black square' affixed to the rectangular coffin. An appropriate plate on a nearby tree. Some flowers. Another picture from that event, featuring the Rafaloviches, was published in vol. 2 of the aforementioned I.A. Vakar work. There also a drawing of the grave (pencil, A. Bogdanov).

Soon the symbolic structure with the suprematist ‘black square' disappeared. The field, located near the Rafaloviches' house, overgrew with weeds and after the war it was ploughed. Some hand removed that piece of evidence too. It is possible that this time it was not the hand of the ‘organs,' but that the artist's mystic, cosmic vision fulfilled itself. In 1918 he wrote down a thought in the form of a poem. Here is a fragment:

I part with the earth, currents crossing my consciousness
reason increasing.
We move beyond the horizon to break free of
the earth scattering in the cup-dome of space like scattered points.

[ca. 1918]

There is yet another chapter to my memories of Anna Leporskaya. It is connected with the making of Sztuka dla milionów [Art for the Millions], a documentary about avant-garde art of the Revolution period (directed by Tomasz Pobóg-Malinowski, camera by Jacek Petrycki, written by Szymon Bojko, WFO, Łódź 1978). The film was heavily censored, then, uncompleted, cleared for distribution a couple of years later. The difficulties we encountered in Moscow and Leningrad were full of dramatic-comical events. The screenplay was presented to the producer, an educational film enterprise. The Soviet side obviously had no objections and we could make the trip to Moscow and Leningrad, the three of us plus the hardware. At first things looked promising. We interviewed artists, eyewitnesses of the early revolutionary years, examples of mass-scale propaganda activities, authors of agitprop posters - street art in museums, studios, archives. We had a car at our disposal and two companions - the driver, a woman, and a guide-translator, who spoke poor Polish. He was absolutely redundant, I spoke Russian. We had been given to understand that we would be watched every step of the way.

One day we were meeting Zinaida Raikh, actress, Meyerhold's wife. Before we could actually introduce ourselves, the doorbell rang. Several plainclothes men walked in. They said that from now on, upon the authorities' orders, we were not allowed to film or photograph anything, though we were free to carry on with the interviews. Our protestations that we were making a film as previously agreed upon left them unmoved. We left the apartment and returned to the hotel. We decided to cancel our other planned meetings in Moscow and instead, despite the ban, go to Leningrad as planned. On the train we were accompanied by the same KGB agent as before. My colleagues got him drunk, just for fun. He started talking about himself, mumbling critical comments about his superiors. Then they told him I was a high-ranking member of the Central Committee in Poland and that he would not get away with his confessions. I was off to the toilet. I suddenly heard the man knocking on the door and begging me to forget what he had said back in the compartment. That incident changed our agent's subsequent behaviour. When we arrived in town and checked into a hotel, he disappeared. As it soon turned out, he had handed us over to someone else. We met Anna Leporskaya and hot her permission to film her apartment. When we returned to the hotel, Jacek Petrycki found out that while we were away, some uninvited ‘guests' went into our room (with the hotel management's knowledge, I assume), opened the equipment crate and damaged the film camera's electric installation. Despite that, we decided to film the scene with Ms Leporskaya. We had to dismantle the camera and transport it to her apartment. We let her know we were going. The rest is unimportant for our story. But a trace of the damage remained on the film - several frames are missing...

Appeal
I feel relieved now that I have let it be known ‘what hurts me.' I would like to make a personal appeal to my younger colleagues, art historians, researchers of 20th-century art, pedagogues, popularisers, authors. They form an international ‘family' exploring the ‘cosmos' of Kazimir Malevich. The appeal is for the ‘blank spots' to be finally filled. Let this process assume the form of a ‘chain,' an online blog. My testimony for Obieg, a periodical functioning in virtual space, could start a polyphony, a multi-narrative, in the artist's incomplete, painful history. Below is a list of persons known to me, persons who have made great contributions to the history of suprematism and Malevich himself, persons I have utmost respect for. I am counting on them.

Alphabetically:
Troels Andersen
John Bowlt
Dmitro Gorbachev
Jean-Claude Marcadé
Alla Povelikhina
Andrzej Turowski
Dima Sarabianov
Aleksandra Shatskikh
and, known to me only from their publications:
I.A. Vakar and T.N. Mikhienko

Epilogue
The sole, nearly monthly visit to Warsaw of Kazimir Malevich, a herald of the New Art of the 20th century, will soon have been commemorated. On the initiative of Andrzej Turowski, an outstanding art historian, author of the source publication Malewicz w Warszawie [Malevich in Warsaw], a ceremony will be held on 29 My 2009 at Hotel Polonia Palace in Warsaw, naming one of the hotel's conference rooms the Malevich Room. It was in that hotel, which has survived the war, that in March 1927 Malevich's first foreign exhibition opened, followed by a banquet that gathered together Warsaw's cultural elites. Preserved in photographs, the event became history. For a moment, the eyes of the civilised world were set on Warsaw. For the generations to come, the life and figure of Kazimir Malevich will hopefully serve as a proof that cultures, languages, customs, family histories and genealogies are naturally interlaced. Despite the twists of history, the cordons, the mutual suspicions, the three neighbouring nations - Polish, Ukrainian, Russian - continue to generate (is it not by means of Malevich's planits?) inexhaustible build-ups of positive energy.

Warsaw, 2009

RYSUNEK KAZIMIERZA MALEWICZA (OK. 1930), NADPIS ODRĘCZNY GŁOSI:
DRAWING BY MALEVICH (CA. 1930), HANDWRITTEN INSCRIPTION SAYS:

 

It is only when we feel free
That we can go on discovering new forms.

POLISH VERION HERE