State-Sanctioned Trips of Soviet Artists to the West in the Late 1920s: The Unusual Case of Kazimir Malevich
Kent State University–Stark
In February 1927, the Soviet artist Kazimir Malevich took his only state-sanctioned international trip abroad. This article places Malevich’s journey within the wider scope of Soviet visual artists’ professional travel abroad between 1926 and 1930, when it was extremely rare for Soviet citizens to go to the West. It considers how Malevich’s journey was unusual by comparison. In contrast to his contemporaries, Malevich encountered insurmountable hurdles from the state in terms of the extension of his visa. On a personal level, he confronted language barriers and unbreakable ties to family at home. While many other artists emigrated or remained abroad for most of a decade by means of their state-sanctioned trips, or komandirovki, Malevich abruptly returned after five months, well before he intended. This article considers the ambivalent situation of Soviet artists abroad in the 1920s while they negotiated economic survival and made difficult choices about when or if to return. It compares that broad picture to the particularities of Malevich’s case.
Keywords Stalinism / Russian Artists Abroad / Emigration / Kazimir Malevich / Anatolii Lunacharsky
In February 1927, the Soviet artist Kazimir Malevich took his only komandirovka, or state-sanctioned professional trip, abroad. At 48 years old, he travelled with no family members or associates. His journey took him first to Warsaw and then to Berlin, and in both cities he held critically acclaimed exhibitions. He returned from Berlin in June of the same year, earlier than he had intended. This article places Malevich’s journey within the wider scope of Soviet visual artists’ travel abroad during the power struggles after Lenin’s death in 1924 and the first years of Stalin’s secretaryship of the Communist Party. This era marks the beginnings of bureaucratic hurdles for Soviet citizens after a period of relative anarchy during the Civil War that lasted from the October Revolution in 1917 until approximately 1923. Whilst hundreds if not thousands of artists travelled abroad during this earlier era, only a handful made such journeys during the timespan discussed here.
Within this context, Malevich’s journey and its outcome were unusual by comparison with his contemporaries. This article draws on evidence not previously marshaled in published literature on Malevich’s biography to explain complex circumstances surrounding his journey and its reception. He theoretically could have sustained a decades-long career in the West, as did many of his avant-garde compatriots, but he did not emigrate. Moreover, while it is well known that he was persecuted by Soviet authorities following his return from this journey, I suggest that despite the good graces that approval for such a journey might seem to indicate, he received little of the special state treatment that other artists abroad garnered.
Comparing the specific circumstances of artists who represented a diverse swath of stylistic and political orientations, and contextualizing them within the bureaucratic approval process for state-sanctioned travel between 1926 and 1930, I consider variances in personal circumstances of ethnicity, language skills, and means of subsistence across seventeen cases. Financial support derived either from private patrons abroad, of which there were substantially fewer in Berlin, where Malevich concluded his journey, than in Paris, where most of the other travelers ended up, or from the state, which was influenced by politicized perceptions of individual artists’ contributions. Last, I consider how the family situations and vagaries in visa approvals may have influenced the significant discrepancy between the relatively short duration of Malevich’s stay from the longer sojourns of other artists.
Context and Bureaucracy of Soviet Travel Abroad
The late 1920s constituted the last significant opportunity that Soviet artists had to journey abroad until well after the Second World War. Soviet borders were relatively permeable during the Civil War and early Soviet era; in 1920, for example, the artist Konstantin Tereshkovich emigrated to France with neither money nor passport (Leikind et al. 565). One can legitimately speak of a Parisian “école Russe” founded well before Lenin’s 1924 death, with artists congregating around Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes and avant-garde leaders including Marc Chagall, Natalia Goncharova, and Mikhail Larionov (Bowlt 216). Indeed, painter Martiros Saryan remarked in his memoirs about his time in Paris between 1926 and 1928 that he “met so many acquaintances and compatriots in general that sometimes it seemed as if you were in Moscow” (331). Another significant group of Soviet artists, including Wassily Kandinsky and Ivan Puni, gathered in Berlin during the early 1920s (Die Russen in Berlin).
The scholarly literature differs about the ease with which Soviets traveled abroad in the early years of Stalin’s secretaryship. On the one hand, Yuri Felshtinsky has noted, “All this openness and fluidity [of the early Soviet era] ended abruptly in the late 1920s. The government, now under Stalin, forbade such movement, not merely into or out of the country, but even within it” (327). As the 1920s progressed, obtaining foreign travel documents required leaping over a growing series of hurdles. An increasingly complex bureaucracy requiring several layers of institutional approval made trips abroad “practically impossible,” according to Felshtinsky (339–40). The details of this bureaucracy provide a broad picture of the remarkable circumstances under which all the artists discussed in this article traveled.
Requests for visas and funds to travel abroad had to rise through three bureaucratic levels: first, a sponsoring organization; second, the appropriate commissariat; and, last, a central committee commission which included representatives from the OGPU or secret police. At the first level of this bureaucracy, one of the most important sponsoring organizations for cultural and intellectual travel was the non-governmental agency known as VOKS (the Society for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries), under the leadership of Ol’ga Kameneva, who founded the society in 1925. Kameneva would have been instrumental in securing travel permissions for many of the artists who went abroad during the late 1920s. Malevich did accuse Kameneva of being “an opponent of the new [i.e., avant-garde] Art” (205). However, it was VOKS, under Kameneva’s leadership, that sponsored the 1929 journey of avant-gardist (and Malevich’s erstwhile antagonist) Pavel Mansurov to Rome, where he held a personal exhibition at the Casa d’Arte Bragaglia and participated in the Venice Biennale (Mansurov and Kiblitsky 222–23; Verdone et al. 510–11).
Although VOKS remained an interested party that advised and petitioned for travel abroad, it was only able to provide sponsorship and sometimes financial support for travel and had no power to grant official permissions or documents. For the second bureaucratic level, Narkompros (the Commissariat for Enlightenment) approved requests and provided financial support for traveling artists. This agency was led by Anatolii Lunacharsky, a key figure connected to several of the artists discussed in this article. It was responsible for all governmental activities related to culture and education, including the arts, humanities, and sciences.
The third level of bureaucracy consisted of the Central Committee Commission on Travel. It is at this level that the historical data regarding intellectual and cultural travel becomes particularly revealing. In 1926, this committee significantly tightened their rate of approvals, purportedly for financial reasons, particularly with respect to petitions that came through Narkompros. In 1924 and 1925, the Central Committee approved 70% and 86.8%, respectively, of applications from Narkompros-sponsored applicants, but in 1926, that percentage fell to 42%. By comparison, approval of applications from other commissariats did not fall as dramatically or at all during this period; between 1924 and 1926, the Central Committee approved anywhere from 88% to 97.5% of applications for the commissariats for foreign affairs and foreign trade (David-Fox, “From Illusory 'Society'” 19). We can conclude from this disparity that, by 1926, the Soviet state had particularly targeted cultural and intellectual figures with increased restrictions on international travel. In other words, the artists considered here, who traveled between 1926 and 1930, made it through much tighter control than in previous years and faced tougher scrutiny than other sectors.
Despite this bureaucratic maze, Michael David-Fox has argued that Soviet borders remained semi-permeable membranes even through the heights of Stalinism (“Iron Curtain”), and Katerina Clark has demonstrated how the Soviet Union of the 1930s developed through cosmopolitan international networks (6–7). International travel was a politically useful tool for the young Soviet state. VOKS, particularly through the voice of Kameneva, advocated aggressively for the place of cultural exchange in promulgating a Marxist agenda.
The argument for Soviet international cultural excursions appeared in print both at home and abroad. In a 1928 article published in English translation in the College Art Association’s Parnassus journal, prominent Soviet critic and museum administrator Abram Efros (1888–1954) argued for the superiority of new Soviet art, particularly in the realm of theater, after the “political, economic, and cultural blockades of Russia were lifted” in 1924 and 1925 (Efros and Gordon 6). He indicated that Soviet cultural forays into the West were viewed at home as an opportunity to introduce the new brand of uniquely Soviet art and culture that had developed during the first decade of the nation’s existence. He asserted, “When our art productions reappeared in the West after ten years of war and revolution they were received with great amazement…the Soviet Republic sent out across the cordon of the reopened border something entirely new” (Efros and Gordon 6). Soviet intellectuals traveling abroad served as cultural ambassadors of the new Soviet era. Travel abroad was beneficial not only for garnering international acclaim for the grand Soviet experiment, but also for establishing authority at home through accounts of such international acclaim.
Domestically, Lunacharsky advocated for the role of Soviet cultural ambassadors in a 1927 article published in the popular Soviet magazine Ogoniok. In “Russian Artists in Berlin,” Lunacharsky hailed the fact that Russian artists held a “prominent place” at the spring exhibitions in the German capital. He commented on the favorable opinion of the press and public for the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky’s posters and the engravings of Sergei Koleshnikov, a Soviet artist who arrived in Germany in 1925, although he would never return to the Soviet Union (Leikind et al. 337). Lunacharsky also praised Malevich’s personal exhibition in Berlin. He strategically reaffirmed the connections of these artists to the Soviet nation, noting that “all these artists are either citizens of Soviet Russia, firmly connected with their homeland,” or else “pre-war ‘Germans,’” i.e., Russians, who left before the Revolution. This latter group, he reassured, “after the Revolution, however, particularly thoroughly emphasized their sympathies with the new Russia.” Thus, two subtexts of Lunacharsky’s comments are international acclaim for Russian artists exhibiting abroad, and those artists’ continued allegiance to or sympathies toward the Soviet cause.
That Efros’ and Lunacharsky’s articles appeared in the late 1920s rather than the early 1930s is unsurprising; the tide of international travel for cultural figures turned with the decade. In 1930, Kameneva was replaced as head of VOKS; as Trotsky’s sister and ex-wife of Bolshevik leader Lev Kamenev, her fortunes fell by association under Stalin’s consolidation of power. Equally as significantly, in 1929 Stalin removed Lunacharsky from his post at the head of Narkompros. A champion of the avant-garde, with numerous social and professional ties to artistic communities, Lunacharsky remained close with several of the individuals considered here, in particular Kliment Redko, who regularly corresponded with the Commissar and who visited his friend and mentor in the French hospital where he died in 1933 (Redko 106–109). The displacement of both Kameneva and Lunacharsky, in the midst of the general upheaval of 1929 under new Stalinist policies, surely had a profound impact upon artists’ travel thereafter.
Seventeen Soviet Artists Abroad
For the reasons stated above, the parameters of this study begin in 1926, when stricter control of artists’ travel was implemented, and conclude in 1929–30, when Kameneva and Lunacharsky both found themselves relieved of their posts. During this half-decade, at least seventeen Soviet professional visual artists from Moscow and Leningrad successfully exited the Soviet Union on state-sponsored visas for professional reasons: Natan Altman, Alexandre Benois, Feodor Bogorodskii, Sergei Chekhonin, Robert Falk, Simon Fiks, Raisa Idelson, El Lissitzky, Malevich, Viktor Midler, Mansurov, Redko, Georgii Riazhskii, Saryan, Pavel Sokolov-Skalia, Piotr Viliams, and Piotr Vychegzhanin (who changed his name to Pierre Ino in France).1
All of these artists were members of an interconnected social and professional network. Each can be connected to at least one other through professional association. Many were somehow allied with the avant-garde while it supported the fledgling Soviet state following the Revolution. Malevich, Lissitzky, and Falk taught at the Vitebsk Artistic and Practical Institute and at Vkhutemas in Moscow in the early- and mid-1920s, whilst Idelson, Redko, Sokolov-Skalia, and Viliams were students at that institution. Prior to 1917, Benois and Chekhonin worked together within the World of Art (Mir Iskusstva) movement. As artistic director at the State Porcelain Factory in Leningrad between 1925 and 1927, Chekhonin approved designs for agitprop porcelain by both his stepson Vychegzhanin (a.k.a., Ino) as well as Malevich (Leikind et al. 302).
Their peers considered many of these figures to be the most important representatives of Soviet art. Altman, Malevich, Falk, and Chekhonin all appear on a 1926 list of twenty-six artists to receive the title of “Honored Artist” from Narkompros (Vakar and Mikhienko 1: 517–19). Efros’s 1931 compilation of biographies of prominent Soviet artists, all written in the early 1920s, included Benois, Chekhonin, and Altman as three of the fourteen artists (Efros 75–80, 209–23, 247–86). Others represented the bright future of Soviet art, with their travel funding awarded due to strong performances in national exhibitions (Sokolov-Skalia, Riazhskii, and Bogorodskii) or as state scholarships towards furthering their artistic education (Falk, Redko, Saryan, and Viliams) (Sokolov-Skalia 74; Muratova 213–15).
The seventeen artists represent a cross-section of artistic styles and politics. While Malevich and Mansurov embraced quite radical approaches to artistic abstraction, Falk and Redko were committed figure painters, with avant-garde roots but a repertoire of traditional landscapes and portraits. Benois maintained the aesthetic of fin-de-siècle neo-romanticism. Viliams, one of the founding members of OST (Society of Easel Painters), embraced iconography of Soviet modernity within a realist style informed by the lessons of Constructivism and German Expressionism. Sokolov-Skalia and Bogorodskii, both members of the aesthetically conservative AKhRR (the Association of Artists of Revolutionary Russia), advocated aggressive realism and looked to the 19th-century social realist Wanderers (Peredvizhniki) movement for inspiration (Severiukhin and Leikind 23–28, 193–95).
Each of these artists brought on their journeys varying personal circumstances in terms of ethnic identities, languages spoken, and financial means of subsistence. This next section considers how Malevich’s case differed significantly from the other sixteen artists’ circumstances in ways that influenced his experiences and choices while abroad.
Having been born in Ukraine to a Polish family, Malevich’s unmistakably Polish name may have inflected his experience within the Soviet bureaucratic approval process for travel abroad. His first name even retained a certain Polish nationalist flavor, having been held by numerous medieval Polish kings and prominent nobility. Although at least half of the other artist travelers considered here bore ethnically Russian names, many represented other ethnic groups. Altman, Falk, and Idelson were all Jewish; Saryan was Armenian; Benois descended from a French family who fled the Revolution and presumably Viliams and Midler also both descended from families with Western European, probably Germanic or British, origins.
The Soviet Union actively sought both to establish stronger ties with Western nations during this era and cultivate cultural diversity domestically. Significant efforts were devoted particularly to the integration of historical imperial conquests of the tsarist government, such as Armenia, into the diverse Soviet collective (Hirsch). Jewish culture, which tsarist policies had horrifically repressed, found unprecedented state support for culture and language that was unheard of anywhere else in the world (Veidlinger). Malevich’s Polish and Ukrainian origins would have been much more problematic in the late 1920s than Armenian, Jewish, or Western European ethnic origins. Russia had a long history of anti-Polish sentiment (Pogorelskin), and the nation’s attempts to encroach upon Russian territories during the recent Civil War and general support of the Whites in this conflict would only have exacerbated tensions. The issue of Soviet anti-Ukrainian sentiment remains more complex, with a surge in Ukrainian nationalism in 1917 (Guthier).
Malevich spoke Polish fluently and spent his first month abroad in Warsaw. He commented in a letter to his soon-to-be wife upon his departure, “The train will be carrying me beyond the borders of the country in which I have lived many years and found you, my dear Natasha, darling beloved” (271). Such a statement indicates sentiments that Russia represented for him an adopted place to live and work, rather than a true homeland. Malevich’s experiences between 1926 and 1930 appear to have made him more attuned to the problematics of his ethnic identity within Russia. In his 1926 request for a visa, written in French in his own hand, he declared his nationality as a Pole. However, in the secret police file from his arrest on September 20, 1930, two different questionnaires list his ethnicity as Ukrainian (Vakar and Mikhienko 1: 563, 565), which, as part of the Soviet Union, may have been slightly less problematic than Polish.
Malevich faced insurmountable language hurdles while abroad, in contrast to many of his compatriots. While he could speak fluently with colleagues in Warsaw, in Berlin Malevich was quite out of his element. Hans Richter recalled how, “Malevich…greeted me, to my surprise,” with the name of a random German poet, in what perhaps may have been a gesture of absurdity in the spirit of Dadaism or avant-garde alogism. “He took off his hat and gave a deep bow, and it transpired that he did not speak German” (Die Russen in Berlin 40). Likewise, his translator, Tadeusz Peiper, noted in a 1927 article that, during his visit to the Bauhaus, “the short distance between Malevich’s chair and the other artists in no way lessens the distance between Leningrad and Dessau: Malevich speaks neither German nor French” (366). Indeed, Malevich himself commented in a letter to Alexander von Riesen after his return, “Give everyone my greetings, I would write to [Hugo] Häring, but I can’t write in German” (207). The lack of reliable translators in Germany added to the difficulty. Peiper lamented, “Kandinsky greeted Malevich with a vague gesture and soon disappeared without a trace. Even the hope that Kandinsky might at least relieve me of the tedious job of interpreting for a while came to nothing” (367).
By contrast, many of the artists considered here ended up in Paris, where the thriving Russian expatriate community made communication much less difficult. Russian artists frequented each other’s studios and attended each other’s gallery openings. Some artists commented on their explicit efforts to learn French. Falk mentioned how his French language teacher employed him as a piano player (81). Redko wrote in 1926, “I live in France and I do not know the language! But I will study. I divide my time and efforts into two primary portions: drawing and French language” (79). Some artists may have already possessed the necessary language skills. Idelson’s well-rounded education as the daughter of a prominent Vitebsk physician would likely have included French language instruction. Benois also would have been conversant in French, both through his family as well as through his nearly constant trips to Paris both before and after 1917.
Private Financial Support in Paris vs. Berlin
Differences in language skills are only the beginning of the contrasts between the experiences of Malevich in Berlin and those of others in Paris. While Malevich did not travel to France, there is indication that he wished to visit Paris. A visa application from 1926 indicates that his original plan was to visit his old friend Larionov in Paris (Vakar and Mikhienko 1: 576–77). He had also made tentative preparations to proceed to Paris from Berlin. A letter from Berlin in May 1927 contains the deliberately cryptic statement, “I received all the French and Vr [illegible] addresses.” Editors Vakar and Mikhienko comment on this quotation that “the last words are illegible on purpose”; indeed, the closing line of this letter speaks directly to censors reading the mail. The editors’ commentary continues, “He is referring to the addresses of people in Paris, and perhaps also in Warsaw, with whom he had plans for further exhibitions” (1: 272).
Except for Malevich and three others (Viliams, Bogorodskii, and Riazhskii), every other artist in the group of seventeen visited Paris. The two cities faced distinctly different economic circumstances in the late twenties. Indeed, Lunacharsky clearly delineated in his 1927 article that, compared to Berlin, “Another thing is Paris.” Earlier in the decade, the Russian population of Berlin had numbered in the hundreds of thousands (Die Russen in Berlin 22). In Weimar Germany, foreign currency floated emigrants upon the waves of the tumultuous economy. By the middle of the decade, most of those Russians had moved on as the cost of living rose dramatically. When Falk visited the city in 1928 on his way to Paris, he commented in a letter to his mother on how “it is extremely unprofitable to linger in Berlin. There is not a trace left of the formerly renowned inexpensive nature of living in Germany” (78).
Malevich came to Berlin partially on the pretense of affirming Soviet contacts with the Bauhaus. Yet, when he made an overnight trip to Dessau to visit the school, his arrival on the first day of spring break was inauspicious. His reception from Kandinsky, Bauhaus professor and fellow Russian, was chilly, if the recollections of Peiper can be trusted (367). To Berlin he also brought with him drafts of his book, The Non-Objective World, in hopes of securing a publisher for it in the West. He did succeed in this mission, and the book was published after his departure. According to a letter Malevich sent to Laszlo Moholy-Nagy in December 1927, he had received an advance honorarium of 300 marks in May and expected a remaining 700 marks to be paid upon publication (209).
Malevich’s letters indicate that although he eagerly sought out buyers for his paintings, there were few takers. In a letter from 7 May, he remarked that he was able to sell one painting for 2,000 rubles, and that the commission of a “Suprematist ornament” for 500 rubles was in the works (199). These were the only mentions of sales in all of his letters from abroad, but they added up to a considerable sum. By comparison, upon his return in 1928, his monthly salary was only 160 rubles (Vakar and Mikhienko 1: 537). Indeed, he commented in a 1927 letter to his student Nikolai Suetin from Berlin, “I’ve already made enough to live on for a year” (201).
Bogorodskii seems to have had similar experiences in Berlin two years later. In early winter 1929, he had four landscapes exhibited in a group show at the Flechtheim Gallery alongside works by avant-garde French artists. He was reviewed in the German press and sold two works, although his memoirs do not indicate the funds that he obtained from these sales (Bogorodskii 142). Falk, too, commented in a 1928 letter from Berlin that “I have the impression that some fame can be acquired here, but it’s not easy to sell in Berlin” (78). Falk’s accounts corroborate Malevich’s reports: “Fame pours down like rain and runs in the gutters. But they have just one shortcoming, which is that it doesn’t occur to anyone to stick some cash in between the laurels of fame. Their opinion of me is that such a famous artist is of course well off” (199). This observation would be confirmed with the disappointing lack of sales from his personal exhibition in Berlin, which he left hanging upon his departure.
If Malevich hoped to secure income as a famous artist in Germany, it was not likely to materialize. Falk wrote from Berlin about the possibility of “getting the [stage design] production here at the Piscator Theater” (78). The possibility never materialized, because it appears that employment options were limited for foreign artists in Berlin. By contrast, Paris offered emigrant artists significant options for income. Benois’s work with Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes provided him with a level of economic support that institutions in the Soviet Union could not begin to approach, and the company employed many other Russian artists as stage, costume, and poster designers. In the arena of high fashion, Mansurov found employment with houses such as Chanel and Schiaparelli (Mansurov and Kiblitsky 223).
Exhibition opportunities, while not easy to garner, nonetheless were available and more lucrative in Paris. One particularly well-known group exhibition in 1928–1929 at the Galerie L’Hirondelle featured four of the artists considered here: Altman, Falk, Chekhonin, and Vychegzhanin (a.k.a., Ino). Saryan held a successful exhibition at the Galerie Girard towards the end of his sojourn in Paris (Razdolskaya 107). Redko was also able to secure a personal exhibition at a commercial gallery a little more than a year after his arrival, and at that exhibition he was able to sell his work, including his “best sale…for four thousand franks [sic] bought by a banker” (86).
Falk fared even better, arriving in Paris with a patron, Aleksandr Kogan-Shabshai, who commissioned him in the first month to paint a portrait of his wife. Falk also completed poster designs for the State Yiddish Theater’s productions while it played in Paris. This work provided him, he noted in a letter to his mother, with income for a month (79). Altman, who had traveled to Paris with the State Yiddish Theater as its set designer, subsequently found employment designing advertisements for children’s books with the Gallimard publishing house and producing graphic work illustrating French books (Natan Altman 75, 81). Similarly, Chekhonin met with almost immediate success following his arrival in Paris. He exhibited in the Fall Salon of 1928 and had personal exhibitions in both 1928 and 1929 (Leikind et al. 608; Ivanova et al. 17). He quickly found a supportive patron in the figure of the prominent jeweler Alexander Marchak. He wrote from Paris in 1928, “About myself, I will say, there is very much work” (Andreeva 235). His drawings and watercolors were appealing to both state and private collectors, and he found work in advertising and stage design (Leikind et al. 608). He continued to complete new work requested by correspondence with Soviet publishing houses and was commissioned to paint the portrait of the Soviet ambassador to France (Andreevna 238).
Financial and Rhetorical Bolshevik Support
Soviets on komandirovki, particularly those sponsored by Narkompros, were infamous for being sent abroad with very limited capital support, which turned out to be an economic incentive to find other sources of income while abroad. In 1926, Maxim Litvinov, from the Commissariat of Foreign Affairs, complained that Soviets who were sent to the West, particularly cultural figures like artists and scholars, found themselves “living a half-hungry or even starving existence and discrediting the Soviet state” (David-Fox, “From Illusory 'Society'” 17).
The situation of Redko, even with the few sales he made, provides an example of such economic struggles. He commented in his diary about eating only three days each week, the fortuitous circumstances of receiving a free bag of apples, and freezing in his studio due to his inability to purchase fuel (93). Redko was one of the few lucky ones who also managed to secure some support from the Soviet state. In June of 1927, Commissar Lunacharsky himself certified Redko’s application for an additional 400 rubles of support, noting, “Redko used the komandirovka well and in full deserves further support” (Redko 81).
Redko commented in his diaries, “Under my circumstances, acquaintance with the right people is the material basis,” i.e., the means to survive, referring to buyers in Paris (86). Nonetheless, one cannot help but interpret this statement in light of his close relationship with Lunacharsky. Such insights certainly also pertained to the Social Realist artist Bogorodskii, who in 1929 received an unexpected telegram from the acclaimed expatriate writer Maxim Gorky, during a period when Gorky was tentatively attempting to repair ties with the Soviet government after severely criticizing Lenin publicly during the earlier part of the decade. Gorky invited the young, state-acclaimed artist to visit his household in Sorrento, providing generous instructions on how to access funds at a Berlin bank to support the journey (Bogorodskii 150).
These various levels of support allowed Soviet artists to remain abroad sometimes for many years, and such long-term sojourns raise the issue of Soviet attitudes towards cultural luminaries who remained too long in the West, Gorky being perhaps the prime example. Antithetical to Lenin during the years leading up to the October Revolution and the Civil War years, Gorky had been one of the original group of Bolsheviks but remained in exile in Italy from 1921 (Williams). Lunacharsky alluded to the issue of Soviets who remained abroad in his 1927 report from Berlin, commenting specifically on the situation of Soviet artists in Paris. He noted that there were some artists “who are somewhat too ‘stuck’ in Parisian life, so much so that it is time now that it would do some of them good to remember their homeland.” Although he did not list names, one might presume he had in mind many who departed in the early 1920s. He added, “Most of these artists…most definitely emphasize that they are by no means ‘emigrants’ and that, while unwilling to break ties with France, they would like to renew or strengthen connections with their old homeland.” Such artists fell within the middle of the spectrum of acceptability for Lunacharsky. This spectrum began on the one end with those whom Lunacharsky referred to in his 1927 article as “Soviet artists who came with our passports, some even receiving our subsidies and intending to return as soon as their time has expired.” On this spectrum, artists “unwilling to break ties with France” were not far from those in the process of completing their work, while also communicating their intentions of returning.
Even pre-Revolutionary emigrés who still considered themselves friends of the Soviet Union fell under Lunacharsky’s favorable opinion. If an artist intended to return or at least maintain ties with the Soviet Union, Lunacharsky’s implicit logic could include them within the wider category of “Soviet” artists abroad. In this way, the Commissar of Enlightenment could seemingly hypocritically continue to support figures like the luminary of the turn-of-the-century Mir Iskusstva (World of Art) movement, Benois, who repeatedly in his letters lamented his separation from his native land, but who would never actually return. Likewise, this sort of approval would have extended to porcelain designer Chekhonin, who wrote in 1929 of how he was working in the field of enamel jewelry, “in order to become a master specialist, so that upon returning home I think this area could be set up for production” (Ivanova et al. 17). With his untimely death, this never occurred.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, Lunacharsky decried “a group of malicious emigrants who fled Russia at various times, with whom reconciliation is not possible and who are dead to us.” Those exactly who fit into such a category remain unnamed. Presumably Lunacharsky was referring to artists who sympathized with that group of emigrants that conservative AKhRR artist Sokolov-Skalia termed in his memoirs “beloemigranty,” or “white emigrants,” referring to the losing side of the post-Revolutionary civil war (73).2 Armenian artist Saryan also commented on his time in Paris wherein he encountered “tourists, students, but more often—emigrants…for the most part they were officers of the White Guard” (331–32), and they had therefore fought against the Soviets in the Civil War.
In the late 1920s it would have been far more difficult to distinguish the emigrant from the non-emigrant than by simply identifying someone as a former member of the White Army. A case in point is Koleshnikov in Berlin, to whom Lunacharsky referred favorably in his review and who ended up emigrating. Whether one had chosen to remain abroad permanently or merely to bide one’s time until things settled down at home, as Lunacharsky advised Benois to do, might have depended upon one’s mood or circumstances on any given day. One can imagine, for example, Redko’s ambivalent position with respect to his homeland, especially after his champion Lunacharsky’s death while both were abroad. While Redko did not write in his diaries about such ambivalence, Malevich’s letters are full of an implicit conflict between his desires to pursue work abroad and his need to follow the restrictions placed upon him by the Soviet authorities. From another perspective, Chekhonin wrote in 1928 to an old friend back home, “Many Russian artists have made a significant name for themselves and almost all have dramatically changed their style in the spirit of modern Paris” (Andreevna 235). One wonders if this reference was not an oblique speculation about his own stepson, Vychegzhanin (a.k.a., Ino), whose paintings from the 1930s would echo surrealism in a style he would name “fantastic realism” (Muratova 388–90; Ino 148). Remaining abroad, especially for a span of many years and with sufficient private financial support changed Soviet artists stylistically and in terms of their attitudes towards the Soviet state.
Trip Duration and Family Ties
The ambiguous state of Soviet travelers and their emigration status was compounded by vast discrepancies in the duration of journeys and who they were or were not able to bring along with them. Of those who made a single round-trip journey, Malevich’s was one of the shortest, at less than five months. By comparison, early-career artists Sokolov-Skalia and Riazhskii returned after journeys of over six months (Sokolov-Skalia 74). Idelson returned less than a year and a half after departure, leaving her husband, Falk, in order to return to her family. Saryan spent two years in Paris, returning after his personal exhibition in 1928 (Saryan 323–42), and Bogorodskii spent two years in Italy and Germany (Bogorodskii 489). Most of the rest remained abroad for at least two years. For almost all the artists in this list, trips consisted of a single departure with varying dates of return, if any. The only exceptions are Benois, who spent almost as much time in Paris as in Russia during the three years prior to what became a permanent, reluctant expatriation in 1926, and Lissitzky, who married a German citizen in 1927 and completed round-trip journeys in 1926, 1928, 1929, and 1930, after which he permanently settled in the Soviet Union.
Questions of family ties undoubtedly inflected artists’ choices about how long to remain abroad. Securing travel documents for family members was neither a consistent nor a straightforward process. On the one hand, Idelson almost certainly traveled to Paris as Falk’s wife. While Idelson was an artist in her own right, she does not appear to have completed much work in Paris (Alshibaia). Falk commented in a letter from 14 February 1929, over six months after their arrival, that Idelson had begun to work, but that most of her time was occupied with preparing for “the [his] exhibition” (84). Although Idelson would leave not long after, Falk’s seventeen-year-old son, Valerii, joined his father in Paris in 1933, not leaving until Falk himself returned to the Soviet Union in 1937 (Sarabianov and Didenko 22, 100).
On the other hand, the other avant-garde Jewish artist in the group, Altman, also brought his wife, the ballerina Irina Degas, to Paris, but they had to wait a year after his arrival in Paris for her visa. Altman chose, along with a significant contingent of his colleagues, to remain in Paris after the State Yiddish Theater returned to the Soviet Union. Since his visa was directly associated with the theater company, remaining behind after its departure directly contradicted the terms of his own visa. Under such circumstances of explicit visa violation, it is surprising that Degas secured travel permission at all.
Other artists travelled with family members. It appears that Mansurov emigrated with his mother. He indicated in his reminiscences how “mama worked at the Trade Delegation on Av. de l’Opéra,” (Mansurov and Kiblitsky 57). When his mother died in 1932, he maintained no further ties to his homeland (Mansurov and Kiblitsky 223). While Chekhonin brought his stepson with him, it was possibly in Vychegzhanin’s (a.k.a., Ino’s) official capacity as a porcelain factory designer, rather than as Chekhonin’s immediate family. Benois is the outlier in this group; much of his family, including his two children, brother, and three nieces and nephews, had settled in Paris before his last journey from Leningrad in 1926.
Malevich definitely contemplated emigration prior to his trip. In 1925, he wrote to Lissitzky that “it is apparent that [in Germany] our brother can manage to live…the only help I would need from your side would be to resettle me, I keep hoping that I could put together the money, but it’s impossible to earn a living with Suprematism, but where you are obviously I could” (178). He sent this letter during the last few months of the life of his second wife, and even stated in the letter, “She will not live that long, she’s been bedridden for three months” (179). If emigration had been a conceivable option for him in 1925, presumably following the death of his wife, his personal life complicated matters two years later. He left behind not only a seven-year-old daughter, Una, by his recently deceased wife, along with his mother, with whom he was quite close for most of his life, but also Natalia Manchenko, the woman who would become his third wife. He wrote to her from Berlin on 12 May, “I miss you so much I am losing my mind” (272). He refers to her as “my wife” in several letters, and she appears with the rest of his family and close associates in a photograph taken shortly before his departure (Vakar and Mikhienko 2: 464). They would be officially married less than a month after his return to Leningrad.
For Malevich’s thoughts on the matter of emigration, we can refer to a letter sent to Natalia shortly before his departure for Warsaw. He wrote, “I’m longing to send for you, you and my daughter, I want to gather you to me as soon as possible” (270). He also wrote, “In Belorussia they consider me a Belorussian artist…They say that the Belorussian republic wants to move me to their republic. Maybe the Poles will consider me one of them” (270–71). If he sought out Polish citizenship while in Warsaw, it failed to materialize. He wrote to his friend Mikhail Matiushin, “My travels have been cut short, so I’ll be back in May” (196). Vakar and Mikhienko interpret this comment as a reference “probably to his failure to obtain Polish citizenship” (1: 196). Once he left Warsaw for Berlin, Malevich’s letters no longer mention any hints of possible emigration.
Many of the seventeen artists never returned from abroad. Chekhonin died in 1936 while traveling through Germany on a trip from his base in Paris; Benois, Mansurov, and Vychegzhanin (a.k.a., Ino) lived out their lives in France, Benois until 1960, and Mansurov and Vychegzhanin through the 1980s. We certainly can consider the journeys of the latter three as emigration; Chekhonin on the other hand indicated in letters that he intended to return home eventually. It is worth noting that, of all the cases considered, Mansurov and Vychegzhanin were also two of the youngest, born respectively in 1896 and 1902; Benois was the eldest, born in 1870. Another three, Redko, Altman, and Falk, would not return to the Soviet Union until 1935, 1936, and 1938, respectively. Although the exact circumstances of the repatriation of those three exceeds the scope of this article, it is not surprising that the latter two, of Jewish descent, made the wise choice to leave France during the rise of Nazi Germany. All three survived the Second World War and maintained at least two decades of active careers in the Soviet Union following their return.
Lunacharsky’s direct involvement with four particular artists, Benois, Redko, Chekhonin, and Vychegzhanin (a.k.a., Ino), can shed light on their choices to prolong their time in the West. Benois wrote Gorky in 1929 about a conversation with Lunacharsky held two years earlier. Benois claimed that Lunacharsky had advised him to remain in Paris “for the time being, since [in the Soviet Union] our basic material needs would not be met until a certain ‘normality’ is restored” (536). Lunacharsky also personally authorized travel approval for at least two other artists considered here; Redko wrote of Lunacharsky’s pre-departure recommendation for his komandirovka in his diaries (76–77), and Chekhonin’s journey to Paris arose from the recommendation of the Commissar in order to prepare an exhibition of Soviet porcelain (Leikind et al. 608). Because Vychegzhanin also traveled with his stepfather Chekhonin, Lunacharsky is directly implicated in his travel as well. Perhaps it is unsurprising then that all four of these figures with close associations to Lunacharsky remained abroad for many years.
Malevich’s letters indicate that his attachment was not to Russia or the Soviet Union as a political entity, nor did he possess a sense of patriotism or love of homeland. Rather, he maintained an attachment to the people and connections that constituted his familial and social livelihood, all of which remained in the Soviet Union. By contrast, permanent residents abroad, like Benois, Mansurov, and Vychegzhanin (a.k.a., Ino), all in Paris, emigrated with or to family members. Of the individuals who stayed abroad for many years before returning home, Altman and Falk brought their wives with them (although neither of the wives stayed as long as their soon-to-be-former husbands). Redko was an exception in this respect, traveling alone and nonetheless staying abroad for many years longer than similar young artists like Riazhskii, Sokolov-Skalia, or Viliams.
The prolongation of the stay in the West of the artists who did remain abroad for many years raises the question of official visas and their long-term extension. Upon arriving in Paris in July 1928, Falk wrote to his mother, “But they hold things up here. Namely, the question of the prolongation of the visas; the actual visa was given only for two months” (78). He returned to the question in a letter from August, noting an obligation to be in Paris on 12 September “to petition about the prolongation of the visas” (79). He mentions this same issue in a letter to Midler from 1928 (82). In an undated letter from 1928–1929, he wrote that, due to the length of time it was taking him to secure an exhibition space, he had written to Vkhutemas and “requested an extension of leave.” It is unclear if this request was connected to the visa issue (83). Whether Falk succeeded in extending his visa or simply stayed on without permission is unclear; his published letters do not mention the issue of prolongation again.
Visa difficulties plagued other artists as well. In a letter Bogorodskii wrote from Rome to a friend in August 1928, he noted, “We wait for visas…[we will go] to Naples. And then to Rome, then Florence, Venice, Milan and…of course Paris, where I absolutely must be” (149). Despite his plans, such a trip to France never transpired. Sokolov-Skalia recalled of his late 1928 reunion in Berlin with his social realist friends Bogorodskii and Riazhskii that his comrades “were hoping for visas to France, which they never achieved” (74).
It is unclear from whom Falk or Bogorodskii sought to obtain their visas: their own government or the French. Sokolov-Skalia wrote that he “was not losing hope for an Italian visa, for which I had already been three times denied by Mussolini’s personal chancery” on account of illustrating a controversial book (74). One is suspicious that Mussolini actually personally rejected his visa request, given Sokolov-Skalia’s rhetoric, but his account nonetheless casts confusion as to where the responsibility for visa denials fell. His frustration suggests that other countries were largely responsible for refusing visas to Soviet travelers.
By comparison, some urgency marked Malevich’s return to the Soviet Union, and this was related to the expiration of Malevich’s visa at the hands of Soviet authorities. Malevich’s letters from Berlin suggest he sought further opportunities to travel abroad. He wrote to Nikolai Suetin, “You can really work well in the West. But unfortunately the way things are with visas, I have to go back and prepare for next year in France and America” (201). He petitioned to remain in Germany longer than his visa would allow, but the 7 May letter states that he learned that a visa extension would not be forthcoming (188–89). A week later, he wrote that another petition for its extension was filed on his behalf at home, indicating that his petition was sent to the Soviet authorities, not the Germans. Malevich’s visa, according to his letters, expired on 20 May, but he did not return to the Soviet Union until 8 June. He noted that an extension should have come through on 15 May, but that “If it doesn’t, the polizai bureau will come out for me.” Referring to his imminent exhibition, he continued, “if the show opens on the 14th and they don’t give me a visa, I’ll be back on 8 June” (272). This letter noted that he had heard rumors that his contacts at home “want to recall me.”
In a 2015 publication of documents related to the artist’s life, Vakar speculated that “Apparently Malevich’s request raised concerns about his possible emigration” (Vakar and Mikhienko 1: 272). In Germany, Malevich stayed with the von Reisen family, and the son, Hans, recalled in a 1967 publication, “At the end of May Malevich received from Leningrad a letter, which instructed him to interrupt his stay in Berlin and return to Leningrad…He hoped to return again the next year” (364). Additionally, Malevich’s colleague and student, Anna Leporskaia, according to her friend Boris Bezobrazov in a 1988 interview, told a story that Malevich had received a telegram in Berlin ordering him to return home (Vakar and Mikhienko 2: 374). Although second- and third-hand, these posthumous, post-WWII accounts from both sides of the Iron Curtain corroborate each other in terms of the impression that he returned home in haste.
The urgency of Malevich’s return may have been fueled, at least in part, by new developments in a war scare that engaged Soviet popular concern in late 1926 and 1927. Fears emerged in late 1926 regarding suspicions that other nations, including Poland, a key player in the various theoretical scenarios, were conspiring to attempt a violent overthrow of the Soviet government. John Sontag has noted how “the second flowering of the war scare began in late April 1927, and the Pravda editorial for May Day declared that ‘the most important world question…is the question of the war danger’” (70). This scaremongering happened to coincide directly with the petitions and urgent return of Malevich. While historians have since considered political machinations between Stalin and his rivals to have heavily motivated the war scare of 1927, it nonetheless seems to have sufficiently disturbed public opinion. Sontag commented, “The panic caused by the fear of war in early 1927 suggests that sufficient numbers believed in the possibility of Western aggression to make this belief a powerful weapon in the hands of those who exploited it” (71). Although Malevich’s letters fail to mention the war scare, that he might have been oblivious to the public tensions at home is likely, and it is possible that they influenced the authorities’ decision not to prolong his visa.
By the time that most of the artists considered here traveled abroad in 1928 and 1929 (only four or five—Malevich, Benois, Redko, Saryan, and possibly Midler—commenced journeys in 1926–1927), the intensity of the scare had lowered to a pervasive simmer. Yet the coincidence of these geopolitical tensions highlights the unusual circumstances that Malevich faced. No other artist traveling abroad at this moment seems to have had anywhere near the difficulties that Malevich did in obtaining permission to stay abroad when desired. While Malevich agonized about his return, with sparse news from home about his fate, Redko by contrast faced no such antagonism from Soviet authorities. Instead, he found himself in May 1927 touring the latest Parisian exhibitions, serving as Lunacharsky’s personal guide (Redko 80–81).
Malevich managed to traverse a series of bureaucratic challenges and obtain approval for a komandirovka despite his lack of personal endorsement from Lunacharsky himself, of the sort that Benois, Chekhonin, and Redko received. Of the other artists considered here who traveled abroad during the early Stalinist era, Malevich faced perhaps the most stringent treatment from Soviet authorities while in the West. Although most of the other cases considered here spent time in Paris, Malevich was denied travel to France. Bogorodskii and Ryazhskii faced similar refusals, but in the case of at least the former, this refusal did not result in his immediate return home. While Malevich abruptly ended his journey, Bogorodskii proceeded to spend several further months abroad in Sorrento with Gorky.
Malevich gained formative experiences during his excursions abroad, providing him with access to artistic communities, including the Warsaw avant-garde and the Bauhaus, and exposing him to a wealth of contemporary art. Though no documentation exists of exactly what he viewed while abroad, his artistic production and attitudes toward formal problems changed dramatically in the following years, when he returned in earnest to figurative painting, much of which would evoke trends in European avant-garde art that he must have seen while abroad.
The artist never gave up hope for another foreign journey. He even wrote before leaving Berlin of his plans to “go back [to Leningrad] and prepare for next year in France and America” (201). Finding the funding to support such a journey, to say nothing of simply maintaining his livelihood in Stalin’s Soviet Union, seems to have proven to be an insurmountable hurdle. Upon his return from Berlin, in late summer 1927, he wrote to Alexander von Reisen, “Oh where! oh where!!! can I get sieben Tausend Marks so that I can find myself in Berlin working” (205). He seems to have embarked upon his first journey in hopes of finding invitations to emigrate and sources of private patronage, which had dried up under Communism. Finding neither on his first attempt, he likely wished to make another attempt after processing his first experiences. However, such a return to the West, which might have included women in his family, never materialized. Moreover, the experience abroad left him open to suspicions of espionage as the paranoia of the Stalinist era gained steam, culminating in the Great Terror of 1936–1938 which Malevich would not survive prostate cancer to see. Nonetheless, before his 1934 death, he spent over a month in the custody of the OGPU, or secret police, in autumn 1930, where they interrogated him about his activities abroad.
A major consequence of Malevich’s inability to travel again to Germany is the impact on his legacy within the Western art historical canon of the 20th century. Because he was unable to remain abroad through the end of his personal exhibition, a luxury afforded by contrast to Saryan and others who were allowed to stay until they could retrieve their works, all of the paintings he brought to Berlin to exhibit and hopefully sell remained abroad. Through a series of convoluted transactions complicated even more so by Nazi policies and the Second World War, many of these works found their way into major Western European and American collections, where, orphaned from their creator, they held pride of place as documents of Western art’s initial forays into abstract painting. Several of these works have, since 2000, through legal restitution cases, found their way out of public museums and into the hands of private collectors willing to pay millions of dollars for works by this famed artist. Presumably the lawyers for the artist’s heirs drew upon much of the same evidence given here that Malevich’s repatriation and abandonment of these works was against his intentions. This article details the complex historical circumstances surrounding Malevich’s journey, with the caveat that while some of those circumstances were precipitated by Soviet authorities’ intervention or lack thereof, many others were largely coincidental.
1 This list makes no pretenses towards being exhaustive. It does not include komandirovki from republics like Ukraine, such as that of Mikhail Boichuk, Vasyl Sedliar, and Andrey Taran in 1927 to the West (Redko 79). Additionally, Mayakovsky traveled abroad frequently during this era, but presumably more so as a famed poet than as a visual artist. The parameters of 1926–1930 represent a calculated focus; if 1924–1925 were included, the list would triple, and I found no evidence of artists making komandirovki in the years immediately following 1930. Regarding Fiks, see RGALI Fond 2907 Op. 2 Ed. Chr. 831. Redko names Fiks in his diaries (88). Regarding Midler, see RGALI Fond 2943 Op. 4 ed. Chr. 458. Falk corresponded with Midler in 1928-1929 (82-83).
2 Sokolov-Skalia used this disparaging moniker with ambiguous reference to a list of names, not all of which would have accurately fallen into the category: “M. Chagall, Kisling, Soutine, Fujita, Redko, Malevich, Kandinsky. Many of them [are] white emigrants, in other words ‘non-returners’” (73). Indeed, Chagall, Soutine, and Kandinsky did all emigrate. At the time of Sokolov-Skalia’s journey, Redko would still have been abroad, but Malevich would not, although such details of fact would have been irrelevant to Sokolov-Skalia’s rhetoric. The incorporation of non-Russian names into this list (Kisling, Fujita) obfuscates, perhaps deliberately, his meaning. This rhetorical device applied a dismissive tone by proximity with the word beloemigranty (“white emigrants”) without explicitly claiming that disparaged status for the named individuals.
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