Savers of the Lost Art (with Ron Pollard)
Malevich and the long-lost work of the Russian avant-garde
In the fall of 1930, Kazimir Malevich was arrested by the KGB. The charge: espionage. Born in Russian-controlled Kyiv in 1879, Malevich was an ethnic Pole, and it was Poland for whom he was accused of spying.
He was not a spy. He was a painter and art theorist, a pioneer of 20th century abstract art, and a key figure of the Russian avant-garde movement. In the early days of the Revolution, the Bolshevik government encouraged and supported his work and that of other avant-garde artists. Art schools were subsidized by the state. Malevich taught with Marc Chagall in Belarus, and then the Leningrad Academy of Arts, the Kyiv Art Institute, and the House of the Arts in Leningrad. He published a treatise on his “Suprematist” style, The World as Non-Objectivity. He held wildly successful solo exhibitions in Warsaw, Munich, and Berlin.
Then Lenin died, and Stalin began to consolidate power. Moscow promoted the “Social Realism” style of art, which was anathema to Malevich. Stalin wanted realistic material that common people could easily understand, that wasn’t confusing; Malevich’s most famous painting is called Black Square, and that’s exactly what it is. “I transformed myself in the zero of form and emerged from nothing to creation,” he wrote about this work, which is still referred to by art critics and historians as the “zero point of painting.” Not the sort of thing Stalin was going for.
By 1930, Malevich’s work was considered subversive. His paintings were banned, confiscated by the State. (He had some inkling this would happen, fortunately, and left most of his paintings behind on his travels). He spent the last four months of that year in prison, under KGB interrogation. They did not wangle a confession out of him—he’d done nothing wrong—but they did manage to snuff out his spirit. When he left prison, he abandoned abstract art. Defeated, he painted in the style Stalin preferred until his death from cancer in 1935.
The suppression of creativity is an ugly byproduct of totalitarian rule. Fascism is a government for philistines; as LB has pointed out many times, a hallmark of the MAGA movement is artlessness. A society that consigns its books and its canvases to the flame has nothing to offer its people. The Taliban destroying the Buddhas at Bamiyan, ISIS laying waste to the ruins at Palmyra, the Soviets confiscating paintings by Malevich and his fellow avant-garde artists: these are crimes against culture, and therefore crimes against humanity. It’s not the same as state-sponsored murder, of course, but it is a form of death.
But there’s a catch: the Soviets didn’t burn the canvases. They gathered them up and put them in storage. Some were warehoused at the art museum in Kyiv. And then they were taken out of the country, perhaps after the fall of the Soviet Union, and somehow wound up in a shipping container in Germany—which is how Ron Pollard, an architectural photographer and art lover from Colorado, and my guest on today’s PREVAIL podcast, was able to acquire some 160 paintings of the Russian avant-garde, including works that appear to be by Malevich.
The experts who have studied the paintings all believe them to be, as Pollard puts it, “right.” Museum directors, for a variety of reasons related to the politics of museums and the larger art world, have been reluctant to give their seal of approval. And the Russians, including some very rich and powerful Putin-adjacent individuals, insist that they are forgeries.
Me, I think they’re real. That shipping container was a portal in time. It allows us to experience the orphan paintings, suppressed for so long by Stalin and his goons. There is, as Pollard puts it, an “urgency” to these works.
The artists could see what was coming.
Artists always do.
When Ron Pollard, an architectural photographer from Colorado, legally acquired a hoard of Russian avant-garde paintings, he couldn’t believe they were real. But they were; all the experts he asked agreed. Anyone connected to the Russian government, however—oligarchs, Russophile dealers, and so on—insisted they were forgeries. Are all of his 160 paintings fakes? Or is he sitting on a collection appraised at over $50 million? He talks to Greg Olear about his story, a lost school of painting, and the ultimate purpose of art. Plus: a song for the owner of the Speaker.
Follow Ron on Instagram:
Art of the Zero website, to view the collection:
Virtual museum of orphan Russian avant-garde art:
Pollard’s film “I Found Malevich:”
Photo credit: Ron Pollard. Unattributed. Unsigned. In the style of Kazimir Malevich. A label on the reverse in Russian translates to “It is verified 1939.”
Oil on canvas. 60 x 50.5 cm.