Patricia Railing, Andréi Boris Nakov,
Viktoria Zaitseva, Nikita Lobanov-Rostovsky
Summer 1975 at Zaitseva’s home in
Posiolok DPS, near Kiev

Patricia Railing is an art historian specialising in the Russian Avant-Garde. To look at her Curriculum Vitae published on this website, one sees that she has published over 25 articles on the Russian Avant-Garde and her first books, on Kazimir Malevich and El Lissitzky, date from 1990 and 1991. She received her doctoral degree at the University of Paris 1, Sorbonne, in 2012, her thesis, Kazimir Malevich – Suprematism as Pure Sensation, being awarded “With Distinction”, or Summa cum laude. It was the culmination, she told me, of over 40 years of work on the Russian Avant-Garde art. Our first question to her, then, was, Tell me about the beginnings of your work on the Russian Avant-Garde.


PATRICIA RAILING I began in the 1970s. I was married at the time to Andréi Boris Nakov who was also interested in this little-known period of modern art history and so together we started to explore what could be seen in the West, followed by what could be seen in Russia. In the West there were only two museums who had collections, the Malevich works in the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam and the works in the Museum of Modern Art in New York. We began there, but we were fortunate to meet a painter who had been a pupil and friend of Alexandra Exter who lived in up-state New York, Simon Lissim. He could tell us something of the history of the early avant-garde in Russia although not very much since he belonged to the second generation of Russian modernists and had emigrated in the early 1930s. Lissim had inherited some works from Exter on her death in 1949 and being keen to make her more well known, he agreed to an exhibition in the Paris gallery, Jean Chauvelin, in April 1972. The catalogue was guided by what Lissim could tell us about the works, but he had not known Exter at the time of her most avant-garde work which made up the exhibition so admitted that he could not help very much. Although the catalogue was signed by Andréi Nakov, he included the passage in the dedication, “To the devotion of my dearest collaborator (collaboratrice) I owe the establishment of a great number of research aspects and the definitive organisation of the catalogue”. 1971 and Alexandra Exter were the real beginnings of my research into the Russian Avant-Garde.


QUESTION What were you able to see in Russia, then?


PATRICIA RAILING Actually not very much on our first trips. I went on my own in 1971 because I had been awarded a Canada Council Grant to continue my work on the French painter, Puvis de Chavannes, and was well received by Irina Antonova, Director of the Pushkin Museum of Fine Art in Moscow, and at the Hermitage in Leningrad by the Chief Curator, whose name I do not remember. There I was taken into the reserves to see the canvases by this painter and on one of the screens noticed a Cubist painting by Picasso. Expressing interest, the younger curator who was my guide said, “Oh, you’re not allowed to see that. It’s illegal.” And that was my introduction to “illegal art” in Russia, a concept totally foreign to me as I could not conceive how art can be classified as “illegal”. With a little bit of research I soon learned of the historical circumstances of the banning of early 20th century art that included the whole of the Russian Avant-Garde due to Stalin’s 1932 decree in which art became an instrument of state propaganda. A break-through came, however, on another trip when we were invited to visit George Costakis and see his collection. That was when Nakov and I first saw the width and breadth of the cream of Russian Avant-Garde painting. Malevich, Kliun, Popova, Kandinsky, Chagall, among others, all hung in his Moscow apartment, which was large because he had been allocated a double apartment, the privilege of privileged people. Although he was said to have been but a chauffeur at the Canadian embassy in Moscow, he was much, much more than that, receiving ambassadors and foreign diplomats on a regular basis. I remember remarking to Georgii Dionysevich how Russian curators must have been thrilled to see such wonderful works and his reply was, “They’re not allowed.” Again that phrase, again the reminder that Russian art historians had no access to the heritage of the Russian Avant-Garde. It was behind lock and key and only foreign art historians, museum directors and diplomats were admitted to the rooms of Costakis’ apartments.


QUESTION Were you able to do research in the archives?


PATRICIA RAILING With great difficulty. We were admitted on a rare occasion and requested to see certain of the numbered boxes. Then after a long wait we would be delivered totally different boxes – not Malevich archives, for example, but those of an unknown 19th century artist, and random numbered boxes. We did not profit to any extent by archival research.


QUESTION Did you meet the family of any of the Russian Avant-Garde artists?


PATRICIA RAILING Yes, a number of them. In Moscow we met Varvara Rodchenko, the daughter of Aleksandr Rodchenko and Varvara Stepanova. She lived in what had been her parents’ studio and the walls were covered mainly with Rodchenko’s paintings of around 1920; there is a photograph of me standing next to a photograph of Rodchenko himself! The apartment was in what had been the block of flats for teachers at the Vkhutemas, the Higher Technical Artistic Workshops, and there also lived the family of Nadezhda Udaltsova and Alexander Drevin, who showed us several portfolios of Udaltsova’s beautiful Suprematist compositions, probably for cushions. Although the descendants of the artists could tell us little about the works, the thrill of seeing them was a major part of our education in discovering the paintings of the Russian Avant-Garde.


QUESTION And were there artists’ families living in Leningrad?


PATRICIA RAILING Yes, there were several, especially the family of Ilya Chashnik and Nikolai Suetin. The daughter of Suetin had been brought up by Anna Leporskaya after the death of Suetin’s wife and the mother of his child, Nina, while Leporskaya herself had been a pupil then colleague of Malevich at the porcelain factory. Nina was married to the son of Ilya Chashnik and he showed us a number of works inherited from his father. From Suetin Leporskaya had inherited Malevich’s portfolios containing hundreds of drawings, some of which she would finally show us. As a result of this she agreed to send several of them to the Chauvelin Gallery for an exhibition which I went to select on a subsequent visit. On the huge table in her studio she had laid out probably over 100 drawings – and I could choose 10! How to make a selection? One was more interesting or more beautiful than the next. I decided to take one or two from Malevich’s main periods – Cubism, Futurism and Suprematism. I believe these drawings remained with Nakov who lent them to the Geneva Musée d’Art et d’Histoire, and which he subsequently sold to Wilhelm Hack for his museum in Ludwigshafen. Before that, however, they were exhibited at the Tate Gallery in London in an exhibition of Malevich drawings in 1976 for which we did the catalogue.


QUESTION Who were the other families?


PATRICIA RAILING We met the pupil of Malevich, Lazar Khidekel, on two different trips, but he said he had practically no work left from the early 1920s, which seems to have actually been the case. And we met the son and his family of Petr Miturich and saw a few of his famous little boxes. It was a memorable occasion because they had put on a magnificent meal for us, and such hospitality is one of my finest memories of these trips to the Soviet Union. The warmth and generosity of people who lived in great penury and with little to be bought in the shops sometimes could provide a goose from a farm. And I was always showered with gifts of amber jewellery, sometimes even ancient.


QUESTION Did you ever meet Malevich’s family in Leningrad?


PATRICIA RAILING No, his daughter, Una Malevich, was said to be very shy. In fact, however, it was quite dangerous to receive foreigners during the 1970s. Even to use the telephone – we always made our arrangements in a public telephone booth – and although we sometimes took taxis, the preferred way was to flag a black limousine, the driver being free of his official commitments for a time, or an ambulance, also unengaged. They welcomed the spare cash! And we were as inconspicuous as could be hoped for. Naturally, that was something of an illusion since our whereabouts were never unknown to the authorities, of course. But we never experienced any particular problems either coming into Russia or leaving. But back to Malevich’s family – in 1975 we visited one of the sisters of Malevich, Viktoria Zeitseva, who lived just outside Kiev, of which I have a very nice photograph (reproduced above). But again, she said she had no works nor did she have any documents. But it made me feel just that much more of an affinity with Malevich himself.


QUESTION Anyone else?


PATRICIA RAILING We had several nice meetings with the artist, Vladimir Stenberg, and his wife, two lovely and very warm people. Stenberg had shown some innovative sculptures at the May 1920, OBOKHU exhibition of Young Artists in Moscow and as he said they had been destroyed, the idea had been hatched to ask him to draw up the plans so that the sculptures could be remade. Several months later I went back to Moscow on my own to collect the drawings, taking a risk because they were on large architectural sheets and technical drawings could easily have been misinterpreted! Each of the 4 sculptures was made up in Paris in an edition of 3, and the exhibition was held in Paris at the Chauvelin Gallery in 1975. They were also shown at the Annely Juda Gallery in London and at the Galerie Gmurzynska Gallery in Cologne, and today are in museums. That was a real encounter with the Russian Avant-Garde, with an artist from the period and perhaps the only one still living. The exhibition gave him the pleasure of his work being seen in Europe during in his life time.


QUESTION Were there any exhibitions at all of Russian Avant-Garde art in the 1970s?


PATRICIA RAILING Oh, good heavens, no! Not art that was “illegal”. We could not even see it in museums, apart from an exceptional occasion when we had written to the Kiev Museum of Art requesting to see a large Cubist canvas by Alexandra Exter. When we arrived we were told that it would be impossible to show us the painting since it was in “remont” – inaccessible reserves due to rearrangements. We pleaded to no avail, but having arranged to meet an art historian, Selim Khan-Magomedov, we told him the story. We went back the next day and were shown the painting. As for exhibitions, the only exception was at the Russian Museum in Leningrad where the Chief Curator, Evgeny Koftun, had made a hanging of paintings around a theme and he had been allowed to include several Cubist paintings by Vladimir Tatlin. And this was our first encounter with the early paintings of Tatlin, while Kovtun was also a kind host. But, as everywhere, the information about the Russian Avant-Garde was either sorely lacking, especially for the Russians themselves, or they were unable to communicate it as it was officially “illegal” and, hence, dangerous for them.


QUESTION When did documentary information about the Russian Avant-Garde begin to be known?


PATRICIA RAILING John Bowlt had compiled a collection of writings from published material in the 1970s, and the writings of Malevich in the Stedelijk began to be appear in English and French translations, while a few Western university scholars on cultural exchanges had been given limited access to archives at the time such as Christina Lodder whose Russian Constructivism is the fruit of such research. A few cautious monographs had been published in Russia in the 1980s such as Dmitri Sarabianov’s, Liubov Popova, Karginov’s Rodchenko, Larissa Zhadova’s Malevich, and Sophie Lissitzky’s El Lissitzky taken from her own archives, while the Galerie Gmurzynska had published documents contributed by, among others, the Rodchenko family. It was only with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the subsequent opening of museum reserves – seen in the huge exhibition, The Great Utopia, on view in St. Petersburg, Moscow, Frankfurt, Amsterdam and New York – that the State archives were also opened. For the first time the Russian art historians began to discover the history of a period which had been totally and entirely unknown to them until that time, and foreign scholars also began to consult these archives. Only since the 1990s have art historians been able to piece together an outline of the history of the Russian Avant-Garde in any depth – yet there is still so much that is not known, questions are unanswered, works lost and not found. And, of course, it was only with the events of 1991 that Russian Avant-Garde art returned to being “legal”.


QUESTION It seems like you were really at the beginning of the discovery of the Russian Avant-Garde!


PATRICIA RAILING I was! So should anyone ask me if I’ve ever been to Russia, the answer is, I met the heart and soul of so many good Russian people on these numerous trips to the Soviet Union.


© March 2015