Art Forgery of the “Russian Avant-Garde”

Soviet art.

Image by Soviet Artefacts.

It’s been a strange season for me, I have to admit. That’s the only excuse I can think of for why, although I usually devour each quarterly issue of Jacobin as soon as I find it in my mailbox, it’s taken me until halfway through the summer to get to that magazine’s spring issue, devoted to conspiracy theories. And I like it. It contains just the right amount of ambivalence—not quite giving into the conspiracy theories it entertains, but sympathetically comprehending that these mostly mad ideas are driven by a desperation attributable to “social stress, exacerbated by unlivable wages and job insecurity.”

All the better, the issue even included an article that touches on my own more specific area of greatest fascination, modern art. But what does Owen Hatherley’s essay on “Futurist Forgeries”—the more fully explanatory dek reads, “No art movement has ever been so comprehensively faked as the revolutionary ‘Russian avant-garde’ of the 1910s and 1920s”—have to do with conspiracies?

Well, maybe not so much on the face of it, but still, yes, forged artworks passed off as historical pieces do present some congruities with the “fake news” that has been so much a part of our recent experience. You might call such works “fake olds.” But still, there’s a difference. Fake news works by being outrageous, attention-grabbing: “Lizard people are sexually abusing children in the basement of a Washington, D.C. pizza restaurant!” “Venezuelan agents have rigged our voting machines to swing the presidential election to Biden!” “The government is promoting transgender identities because more effeminate people are less likely to rebel against it!” A forged artwork should normally not call so much attention to itself. It should present itself as a normal product of a certain phase of a given artist’s work. It shouldn’t be too strange.

With that distinction in mind—between falsehoods that function by calling attention to themselves and ones that work by blending into the accepted doxa—one perceives the statement that Russian avant-garde art has been “more comprehensively faked” than any other as in itself an attention-getting statement of the conspiratorially minded sort. Is it really true? No statistical evidence for the claim is presented in Hatherley’s article. To put it bluntly, there’s just a lot of forged art out there. I’ve seen it written—again, I can’t vouch for the truth of this statement—that the most faked single artist is the Spanish Surrealist Salvador Dalí. But there were plenty of widely faked artists before him. Remember what they used to say about Camille Corot: that he made 2000 paintings, of which 5000 are in American collections. Hatherley points out that several museums around the world have had to remove Russian avant-garde artworks that turned out to be fake—although only one of the three institutions he mentions, the Museum of Fine Arts in Ghent, has anything like a significant international reputation. But again, this is not a rare phenomenon. Recall the twenty-five paintings, purportedly by Jean-Michel Basquiat, that in 2022 were seized by the FBI from a museum in Orlando, Florida—fake, every one. Still, that Russian avant-garde as a category has a special prominence in the realm of forgery might well be true. But what’s the broader significance of this fact?

Hatherley mentions in passing an exhibition in 2010 at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver, which he says consisted of “Russian avant-garde canvases its director, Adam Lerner, purchased online”—by implication, as a sort of lark or thought experiment. “Did it matter, Lerner asked”—according to Hatherley—“whether any of them were ‘real’ or not?” That doesn’t accord with the description of the exhibition on the museum’s website, which says that the show, titled “Orphan Paintings: Unauthenticated Art of the Russian Avant-Garde,” was the outcome of a story that “began in 2004, when architectural photographer Ron Pollard believed he had discovered a trove of Russian avant-garde masterpieces owned by a mid-level insurance administrator in Aachen, Germany. The owner told him the works were discovered in an unclaimed shipping container in German customs. Pollard partnered with his brother and a friend to purchase them and began an amateur research effort to have them authenticated.” They were never conclusively proved to be forgeries, but neither could it be shown they were authentic. So—pace Hatherley—the museum director had not purchased them, either online or otherwise. But the exhibition did mean to ask questions about authenticity: “What precisely are we appreciating when we look at a work of art? Are we appreciating what is visible to us, or is it a range of invisible factors, such as the belief that it was made by a master artist or the opinion of experts about its authenticity?”

The questions are good ones, and hardly new or radical, though ever unresolved. Hatherley rightly asks why there are so many forged Russian artworks, and starts off with the most obvious reason: copying them is relatively easy, since simplicity of form and straightforwardness of facture is of their essence. We’re speaking, after all, about the beginnings of monochromatic painting— Kasimir Malevich’s white-on-white (1918), Alexander Rodchenko’s triptych of the three primary colors (1921)—and not too distant was the outsourcing of fabrication, as with the Hungarian Laszlo Moholy-Nagy’s 1923 “telephone pictures,” produced by an enamel factory according to the artist’s instructions. With such works, we are already truly in the realm announced decades later by Lawrence Weiner in the era of Conceptual art, one in which “(1) The artist may construct the piece. (2) The piece may be fabricated. (3) The piece need not be built. (4) Each being equal and consistent with the intent of the artist, the decision as to condition rests with the receiver upon the occasion of receivership.”

But beyond the mere ease of the undertaking, Hatherley has a further explanation, and what could be more plausible?—Western ignorance meets post-Soviet cunning. When Soviet Jews, among them artists, began to emigrate in the 1970s, he says, some “saw an opportunity and took with them fakes that they could sell on the vast Western market for modern art.” This makes sense, but did it really take Soviet emigres to catch wind of a ready market? It’s true that in the West, a gradual rediscovery of such art had begun in the previous decade. This is usually said to begin with the publication in 1962 of The Great Experiment: Russian Art 1863-1922, whose author, Camilla Gray, complained at the time of the difficulties caused by the paucity of available documentation. But what was true in the West was even more true in the Soviet Union, since, as Hatherley himself remarks, avant-garde works could not be displayed there until the 1980s. So how plausible is it that émigrés in the 1970s would have been better informed than Western curators and dealers? And would those émigrés have made forgeries ahead of time to take abroad with them? It was never predictable whether their exit visas would be approved or if they would become refuseniks. As one scholar wrote in 1982,

Usually, no more than a month is allowed for departure, and sometimes

this is abbreviated to ten days, a period in which a person must

liquidate possessions, ship some and pack others, settle all financial and

personal affairs, obtain necessary papers, and the like. Some have sold their

belongings and apartments and have proceeded to the airport or rail station

for the journey out of the country, only to be told that permission has been

withdrawn. They must stay in the country, now without an apartment,

possessions, or income. Customs regulations are strict, and 6migr6s, especially

those departing by train, are subjected to humiliating searches and

often outright thievery by border guards, particularly at the border crossing

point at Chop, where the Vienna-bound train passes.

No, the likelihood that they would have taken forged paintings with them out of the country seems slim.

Another that made forging Soviet avant-garde art tempting, which Hatherley underplays, is the lack of documented provenance for many works, genuine or otherwise, in the Soviet Union. They were just hidden away, not valuable but potentially dangerous to their keepers. And then when the Soviet Union dissolved and Russia went gung-ho for capitalism, it was no longer just Westerners who were eager to buy modernist art: newly wealthy Russian collectors rushed into the market—another boon to forgers.

As an aside, Hatherley wants these avant-garde works, authentic or otherwise, to be called Soviet rather than Russian. He calls the phrase “Russian avant-garde” a Western invention of the cold war. He’s got a point when he reminds us that many of the protagonists of this art were by birth Latvian, Polish, Ukrainian, and so on. But all were born as citizens of the Russian Empire and most of them worked in Russia proper rather than in the lands of their birth. Hatherley’s further argument that most such art was made after the revolution and thus the foundation of the Soviet Union is somewhat belied by some of the illustrations to his article, a couple of works by Malevich dated 1915 and a Lyubov Popova from 1916. Much happened after that, of course, but Gray was right, the experiment that had begun under the Russian Empire was pretty much over by 1922. Or maybe a little later—Malevich once spoke of the period from 1907 to 1924 as a golden age. (1924, of course, was the year of Lenin’s death.) For Hatherley, the dissolution of the autonomous artwork was the experiment’s happy ending, as artists “put down their easels and their paints and devoted their lives to book and magazine design, photography, cinema, and architecture.” He doesn’t mention the difficult lives faced by many and the early deaths of some, for instance Gustave Klutsis, who Hatherley cites as one of “the most radical Soviet painters,” executed in 1938. Those who were able to persevere, such as Rodchenko and El Lissitzky, had to zigzag between experimentation and conformity. Both Malevich and Vladimir Tatlin, surprisingly, took up figurative easel painting again—a fact that many historians of the avant-garde have great difficulty digesting. In their late works, which remain little known, these artists seem totally disillusioned with the idea of progress their abstract works had embodied. We should take seriously their bitter experience. The revolutionary elan of avant-garde art in its “golden age” of the twilight of the Russian Empire and the early years of the Soviet Union remains extraordinarily inspiring. But Hatherley’s understandable desire to ridicule the absurdities engendered by an easily manipulable market gets mixed up with his starry-eyed view of the Soviet Union, and that prevents him from seriously addressing the most urgent question in his essay: “When [the] revolutionary promise failed, what was all this art worth anyway?” What should we make of our love for an art inspired by a movement that ended in catastrophe? And how Soviet, really, was an art that was comprehensively rejected by the country that produced it? Was the real Soviet Union the one the revolutionary artists dreamed of creating or the one that crushed them?

Hatherley’s refusal to face this question squarely—an avoidance all too common among art historians who would like to side with the Left—puts him at risk of succumbing to cynicism. He congratulates the forgers for sticking it to the man by “sowing doubt about the concept of authenticity and creating chaos in the capitalist art market,” not seeming to notice that the market has come out none the worse, even if a few players got burned (as they always do) and that the concept of (pretended) authenticity is precisely the forgers’ selling point. And then we’re left with what is, after all, a scenario perfect for the concoction of a classic conspiracy theory: a mysterious cabal of anonymous Jews from abroad sowing confusion for their own benefit.

Maybe the problem lies in framing the story of forged Russian or Soviet avant-garde as fundamentally a Cold War story. Beyond my assessment that a clear-eyed contemporary Left should take no side in that conflict, there’s the incontestable fact that, while the Cold War was still on, and despite most of the artists’ revolutionary fervor, it was in the West and not in the Soviet Union that this remarkable cultural efflorescence was valued. Trying to step around this contradiction is what leads Hatherley to his curious twists. Yes, the easy duplicability of Soviet avant-garde art reveals something crucial about it, but that’s not to say the counterfeiters who capitalize on that are somehow channeling the artists’ radical aspirations; they’re making a mockery of those aspirations, and we shouldn’t join them in chortling over their having been able to pull off the con for a while.

Barry Schwabsky is art critic for The Nation and co-editor of international reviews for Artforum. His recent books include The Observer Effect: On Contemporary Painting (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2019) as well as two collections of poetry, Feelings of And (New York: Black Square Editions, 2022) and Water from Another Source (New York: Spuyten Duyvil, 2023).