CHAGALL, LISSITZKY, MALEVITCH… The Russian Avant-Garde in Vitebsk (1918-1922)

Musée national d’Art moderne, Centre Pompidou, Paris
28 March – 16 July 2018

Blows to the Russian Avant-Garde are not new. The recent exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, having little to do with Vitebsk, is a striking example. Only the title gives it away.

Chagall, Lissitzky, Malevich, and in tiny letters at the bottom of the poster and on the catalogue, “Vitebsk” can hardly be seen.

Even if the organisers of the exhibition did not want to portray the scope of the creativity of the school of Vitebsk, the considerable importance of the teaching disseminated by the above-named teachers must be remembered. They were a new generation of artists who unfortunately were eliminated by a new repressive regime.

Although it is a pleasure to see a few great paintings by Chagall, a few rather sad Lissitzky’s, and a profusion of Malevich’s Architektons, the work of the students has been reduced to but a small handful. Was it a decree from Russian museums that determined the choice of work, cowardice on behalf of the organisers, or just incompetence?

The works exist, however, for several private galleries such as Annely Juda in London, Gmurzynska in Cologne (at the time), Jean Chauvelin in Paris have exhibited many works by the students of Malevich over the 1990s. So why are there all these intentional omissions?

The exhibition of Vitebsk is yet to be done.

InCoRM Member, Paris

26 June 2018

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InCoRM is aware of two articles that appeared on 15 January 2018 on the websites of and the Art Newspaper regarding the Toporovsky collection of Russian Avant-Garde works, now on exhibition at the Museum voor Schone Kunsten in Ghent, Belgium. InCoRM will be visiting this collection in the near future to view the works and to consult the supporting documents. Following this it will publish their findings on this website at FORUM.


Toporovsky Collection at Ghent

Having been maligned by a press in London and Belgium, the Russian Avant-Garde works exhibited at the Museum of Fine Arts in Ghent were temporarily withdrawn from view in late January, pending consideration by a commission appointed by the Flemish Minister of Culture, Sven Gatz.

InCoRM has been informed that the works were placed in the museum’s reserves so that they could be studied in an atmosphere of calm, and without the incursion of unauthorised photographic practices by certain journalists.

InCoRM was thus unable to view the exhibition and looks forward to visiting it once it is rehung in order to see the works and consult the documentation held by the collector and made available by the museum. This is solely in the interests of research, because as an organisation, InCoRM does not do, and never has done, expertises on works of art. Its concerns are devoted exclusively to knowledge of the Russian Avant-Garde.

Admin. 7 February 2018


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Provenance is NOT Authentication

And this is proven by lists submitted by Russian museums for the Royal Academy exhibition in London, REVOLUTION (Feb-April 2017; ). Of 107 works (not including photographic prints or coupons), the ownership of a work between its date of execution and acquisition by a museum is incomplete in 43 provenances and complete in 64 cases.

If one believes internet and media gossip that pretends that complete provenance is necessary to prove absolute authenticity, then the conclusion would be that over 40% of

works belonging to Russian museums would be of dubious authenticity. There is no reason to think that this is the case, however. So the fallacious claim casts uncertainty on genuine museum holdings and spreads nasty rumours.

Provenance is a record of ownership, and it is this ownership that may be incomplete due to circumstances so poignant in Russia from the First World War to the end of the Second World War. Between 1914 and 1945 there was not only world war but revolution and civil war, the imposition of a totalitarian society and the complete upheaval and restructuring of social institutions. Millions died, emigrated, were displaced.

Russian Avant-Garde art was subject to loss, with the whereabouts of works obscured and unrecorded. So tracing owners is a task as difficult for individual works as for those held by the Russian museums themselves – by their own admission, sometimes impossible. As they state: “Note that this object has an incomplete provenance for the years 1933-1945. Extensive research has been carried out in order to fill the gaps, but no further information has been found.”

And due to Stalin’s decrees against modernist trends, these spread dates can be extended from 1932 to the fall of the Soviet regime in 1991 when art that had been illegal suddenly became the pride of Russian museums and sought after by collectors. This had been an art deprived of ownership, languishing in abandoned warehouses, and it then was acquired by new owners who saved it after 60 years in obscurity.

As with works in Russian museums, there may be gaps in ownership, but since the authenticity of works is independent of owners, of provenance, this poses no particular problem. The work exists, so its authenticity is to be found within itself by thorough investigation and expert analyses by scientists and art historians.

Admin. 6 March 2017



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In the case involving accusations that Russian Avant-Garde paintings seized by the German police in June 2013 were fakes, the Regional Court in Wiesbaden, Germany, expressed the opinion on Monday, 7 October 2016, that there is no reason to believe there was a “ring of forgers”, as the BKA (Bundes Kriminal Amt) had proclaimed at the time.

As a result, the arrest warrants of Mr. Itzak Zarug, owner of most of the paintings, and Mr. Moez Ben Hazaz, former manager of the SNZ Galleries in Wiesbaden, were cancelled, against undertakings by them to attend all future court sessions until the case is finally decided.

Talks are going on between the lawyers representing the accused and the prosecution to negotiate a settlement, with the intention of putting it before the court in due course.


12 Nov 2016

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Fake or Fortune: on the Issue of Forgery of Russian Avant-Garde Art


Fake or Fortune: on the Issue of Forgery of Russian Avant-Garde Art

Wednesday, 2 December 2015. Gallery of Russian Art and Design, GRAD, London.

GRAD, a relatively new London gallery which is backed by the long arm of Peter Aven of the Alfa Group (on him see Putin’s Russia. The dangerous illusion of independent and western oligarchs, 19 June 2015,  Delfi. The Lithuania Tribune: en.delfi.lit/) is to be congratulated for taking this initiative to organise a talk on the complementary work of scientific analysis and art historical research into works of art. For while collectors and museums are in support of the contribution of science to art history, auction houses are generally diffident if not dismissive since they are candid that research is not their concern, while the ability of science to detect fakes or establish historicity is slow in coming into their realm of consciousness.

The speakers were the Russian cultural journalist and historian of Soviet photomontage 1935-1980s, Konstantin Akinsha, and the English conservator, Nicholas Eastaugh. The gallery’s announcement paired the two components stating that “scientific and historical analysis of works of art is becoming an increasingly necessary part of the due diligence process.” The assumption would be that the two aspects would be integrated in the presentations and responses to audience questions. In fact, Akinsha’s talk presented a list of asserted or implied cases of “fakes”, “pastiches” and “questionable work” reported on in the press, while Eastaugh set out how his science is used in the authentication process and in support of art history.

Akinsha was the first to speak. He began by showing slides of works that he compared with officially accepted works from museums in order to demonstrate the case for fakes. Using stylistic analysis, he pointed to spelling mistakes, misappropriations from sources (such as an early 20th century typewriter), or inept “twins” of a known work in order to assert that the comparative works were fakes, or forgeries. He did not take into account that they could be student works, for example, and he did not make reference to any of his own research into a particular artist, nor did he ever consider scientific reports that may have been carried out on the works he challenged. He mentioned the names of major and smaller London and German auction houses who have sold “fakes”, he said, as well as museums in Russia and the West who have exhibited and reproduced them in their catalogues. Nor did he hesitate to cite the names of published art historians whom he considers to have been “sloppy” and perhaps even guilty of “criminal work” – on what grounds? – in certifying art. He went on to make the audience cluck with disapproval about a current court case involving works accused of being fakes by the German police. About a Swiss collection, which he said was “under police investigation”, he did not reveal that all the some 400 works have been subjected to in-depth scientific analysis by highly esteemed and reputable and experienced scientists who have found NO FAKES.

How dangerous is a little or but superficial if not unreliable information taken from second-hand sources when such hearsay is used as if it represents the truth. How disturbing his proposal that some of his colleagues should be subjected to “criminal investigation”.

Nicholas Eastaugh was the second to speak. He touched lightly on the purpose of scientific investigation into works of art and its forensic role to establish authenticity through knowledge of techniques and material structures. Eastaugh mentioned the tools used to analyse pigments, supports – canvas, wood, etc. – as well as the practice of the laying in of paint in various layers by different artists and in different historical periods. All of this contributes to attribution and authenticity, he said, the “correlation of science and views of art history integrated and inclusive”. Being a new field since the 1990s, he noted, the scientific means of investigating the material aspects of works of art are continually evolving, and he discussed more recent methods involving carbon 14 dating for example. However under-proved this particular technique may be, scientific analysis of works of art is “here to stay”, Eastaugh asserted, because of the extensive information it provides in order to identify authentic works and detect modern copies. Eastaugh gave examples from the recent case in which a German painter, Beltracchi, analysed old materials and pigments and imitated techniques, but whose mistakes were detected by scientists.

The interaction of science and art history are “here to stay”, then, but there was little evidence that this interaction was appreciated in the responses from the speakers and the moderator, dealer James Butterwick, to questions put by the audience. The scholarly work on Russian Avant-Garde painters by known and responsible art historians was glibly trashed despite the contributions of scientists into the historicity of materials and methods in their books. But there was no acknowledgement of this or enquiry into it.

Are there Russian Avant-Garde fakes?

There is the case of the nearly 200 works on paper attributed to Mikhail Larionov which, following collaborative scientific analyses and art historical research, were declared by the Geneva Penal Court in April 2001 to be fakes. There is/was also the case of a Tel Aviv gallery called “Authentic Fakes” whose painters may produce a blue Kandinsky or a pink Picasso to match their clients’ sofas. In the first case, the intent was to deceive, to make modern works be taken for historical ones. In the second case, the works were clearly labelled and there was no intent to deceive. The first are fakes, or forgeries, the second are modern copies.

So before declaring a work of art to be fake or genuine, it must be proven by the combined contributions of experienced and reputable scientific and art historical methods. Since this collaboration has been being practiced over the last 20 years or so, it is therefore not possible to say, as Akinsha declared in his opening words, that there has been an “avalanche of questionable works on the market”, a “pollution”, even, a claim reiterated by dealer Butterwick. Rather, modern works have been detected by scientists and an impressive number of authentic historical works have been identified, complemented by the research of serious scholars.

It is a great pity, even a tragedy, then, that such an excellent initiative at GRAD – and one that was the foundation of InCoRM in 2007 and the exploration and application of which is found in all the articles published in the JOURNAL OF INCORM since 2009 – appears to have been largely a cosmetic affair.

Patricia Railing, PhD

10 December 2015

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