More than darkness and geometric form

Art: A painting titled "Black Square" sounds a new note for an old museum, as Russia embraces a disgraced artist and tests a new role for connoisseurs.

July 19, 2002|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia - After a half-century of political exile and a decade in a private collection, one of the signature works of 20th-century art has been given a public place of honor here.

In the State Hermitage Museum, where the walls are crammed with Rembrandts, Michelangelos and other masterpieces, Black Square by Kazimir Malevich hangs in a room by itself with its own uniformed guard.

Many visitors looking for Renoirs or Picassos wander in, glance at the 21-inch-square painting of a black square on a white background and shrug.

But the work, experts say, is more than just a depiction of a simple geometric form.

"The painting of the Black Square is the event in the history of 20th-century art," says Yelena Basner, a curator with the State Russian Museum here.

It prophesied, she says, both the brave beginning and the tragic end of Russia's rich avant-garde art movement. And as one of the first abstract works, it shocked the art world and influenced much of the Western art that followed.

The painting is one in a series of four similar Black Squares, executed by Malevich and first exhibited in 1915. (The Walters Art Museum in Baltimore will be showing three works by Malevich, including Red Square, in a major exhibition from Feb. 13 to May 25, 2003, called Origins of the Russian Avant-Garde.)

When Black Square was put up for sale this spring for a bankruptcy, some feared there were plans to sell it abroad.

Considered lost after the artist's death in 1935, the painting turned up in the early 1990s, when a relative of Malevich's wife brought it in a bag to the Samara branch of Russia's Inkombank. The family said the painting, as the work of an artist considered an enemy of the state, had been hidden for decades. At one point, it was kept in a KGB safe, at another in a potato crate.

Inkombank's president, Vladimir Vinogradov, reportedly paid $320,000 for the work, which became the crown jewel of an extensive collection of 20th-century art. The former engineer had launched the private bank in the kitchen of his communal apartment during the era of perestroika in the 1980s. It became the centerpiece of a conglomerate that held major interests in oil, steel, aircraft, candy and timber companies.

Vinogradov's business empire collapsed in the financial crisis of 1998, and the art collection was scheduled to be sold this spring to help settle the bank's debts.

As the sale approached, Black Square was valued at $1 million, alarming art specialists who said it was actually worth up to $20 million. The fire-sale appraisal prompted speculation the auction had been rigged - that the painting would be sold at a low price, cheating creditors, then resold abroad for closer to its market value.

The situation was resolved when the Ministry of Culture declared the painting a "state cultural monument" and one of Russia's tycoons, Vladimir O. Potanin, paid $1 million to buy it for the Hermitage.

The impulse, Potanin said, came "from the soul."

Just as the Black Square became symbolic of the Russian avant-garde, so has its acquisition signaled a new era for the Hermitage, considered one of the world's great museums of traditional art.

It was the first time a private donor had given the museum a painting, suggesting that other wealthy Russians might consider patronizing the arts, too.

And, until now, the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow and the State Russian Museum in St. Petersburg have been the great repositories of Russian art. The Hermitage, housed in a five-building complex here that includes the sumptuous Winter Palace of the czars, has been known for its spectacular collection of pre-Revolutionary, non-Russian art.

In 2000, it entered into a collaboration with the Guggenheim, and last fall the two organizations opened the Guggenheim Hermitage Museum in Las Vegas, where works from both are displayed.

Last month, the museums announced plans to open another branch, here on Palace Square. The Hermitage-Guggenheim Foundation (Potanin is chairman of the board and became a Guggenheim board member in January) plans to turn the 450,000-square-foot General Staff building into a showcase for modern art.

Malevich's influential painting will hang there.

After the 1920s, Malevich fell afoul of Soviet authorities, who favored "socialist realist" pictures of workers marching with upturned faces. But his work had a tremendous impact on important Western artists, such as the American abstract expressionist Mark Rothko.

"He is certainly one of the most important artists of the Russian avant-garde," says Timothy Harte, an expert in modern Russian art who teaches at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania. "He is incredibly important."

Born in the countryside near Kiev, Malevich was the son of a Polish engineer in a factory that produced sugar from beets. While still a child, he began painting rural scenes in a rustic style. When his father died in 1904, Malevich, then 20, went to Moscow to attend art school.

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