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The New Artists.
Timur Novikov: Roots – E-E Kozlov: Cosmos
Inauguration of a monument to Kazimir Malevich, 30 July 1988, approximately two kms from Malevich's burial place at Nemchinovka near Moscow.
Photo: Hannelore Fobo, 1988
Chapter 8. Cosmopolitism and ethnicity: how Russian is the Russian avant-garde?
The Russian avant-garde was the last generation of Russian / Soviet artists and intellectuals who were a natural part of an international network of like-minded people. They had travelled to other countries – those of the older generation like Larionov, Goncharova and Kandinsky already before WWI and the younger ones like Mayakovsky after the October Revolution – where they had remained for shorter or longer periods, and some forever. Their cosmopolitanism made them all the more attractive to Soviet artists born in the nineteen fifties and sixties, like the New Artists, who could not even hope to achieve a similar degree of urbanity.
This explains why keeping the “line of tradition” intact was essential to remain connected to the world. What is more, from a distance in time, the New Artists could perceive as a more or less organic phenomenon the “pre-Soviet” and “early-Soviet” cosmopolitism this avant-garde represented, regardless of important differences and even conflicts between its protagonists.
The “compactness” of this avant-garde, but also the fact that Moscow and Saint Petersburg had been the epicentres of avant-garde activity in Russia, has made it natural to speak of a Russian avant-garde, thereby avoiding questions regarding ethnicity, although it would be more correct to speak of “people born in the Russian Empire”.
From today’s point of view – after the collapse of the Soviet Union – these questions need to be treated differently. The question of native roots has lost its simplicity, which becomes obvious when we compare different Wikipedia language pages dedicated to members of the Russian avant-garde. We will choose three of its most notable representatives: Kandinsky, Malevich and Chagall, as their examples are quite illustrative. With regard to their nationality, Wikipedia authors follow their own intuition, as there are no exact rules that could be applied in a standard way. The variations between the languages are considerable.
Wassily Kandinsky, born in Moscow in 1866, went to Germany in 1896 (where he started painting), returned to Russia in 1914, went back to Germany 1921, and left Germany to France in 1933, where he died in 1944.
Thus, the English Wikipedia page calls Kandinsky “a Russian painter and art theorist”, while Russian Wikipedia calls him a French and Russian painter and art theorist (“французский и русский художник и теоретик изобразительного искусства”). The French edition of Wikipedia calls him “un peintre russe, naturalisé allemand puis français“ – a Russian painter with a German and later French citizenship. The German edition speaks of “russischer Maler, Grafiker und Kunsttheoretiker, der auch in Deutschland und Frankreich lebte und wirkte.” – a Russian painter and graphic artist, who also lived in Germany and France.
Kazimir Malevich (1879-1935), born in Kiev (Kiev Governorate of the Russian Empire) to a Polish family, grew up speaking Polish, Ukrainian and Russian. All Wikipedia pages have his name in Polish and Russian, some in Ukrainian as well – which is identical to Russian – but otherwise differ from each other:
English Wikipedia presents Malevich as a Russian avant-gardist, and so does Polish Wikipedia. Russian Wikipedia calls him “российский и советский художник-авангардист польского происхождения” – a Russian and Soviet avant-garde artist of Polish origin; note that Russian Wiki uses the term Rossiskii instead of Russkii, which applies to all people living in Russia regardless of ethnicity.
The Ukrainian Wikipedia page defines Malevich as a Ukrainian avant-gardist, ”Ukrainian” referring to his birth register “в Києві в українсько-польскій католицькій сім'ї” – born in Kiev to an Ukranian-Polish catholic family – and some of Malevich’s own entries in official documents.
No less interesting is the definition of Marc Chagall’s (1887-1985) roots.
English Wikipedia gives his Chagall‘s full birth name Moïche Zakharovitch Chagalov and defines him as a Russian-French artist of Belarusian Jewish origin.
Russian Wikipedia includes his Jewish birth name in a different form, as Марк Захáрович (Моисéй Хáцкелевич) Шагáл [Mark Zararovich (Moisei Khatskevich) Shagal] and adds the Yiddish spelling מאַרק שאַגאַל, assigning a whole four attributes to this famous artist: “русский и французский художник русско-еврейского происхождения” – a Russian and French artist of Russian-Jewish origin.
French Wikipedia also indicates Chagall’s birth name in the same spelling as English Wikipedia – Moïche Zakharovitch Chagalov – but renounces on specifying any nationality at birth. The page refers to Chagall’s birthplace instead: Liozna near Vitebsk in Belarus, “alors intégrée à l’ Empire russe – at the time a part of the Russian Empire, adding that Chagall became a French citizen in 1937. On the other hand, the French disambiguation page for the name “Chagall” defines him as a French painter of Russian origin (peintre français d'origine russe)
Belorussian Wiki is especially intriguing in that it has two different pages: one in the current spelling, introduced with the orthographic reform in 1933, and one following the orthographic rules valid up to 1933. The pre-reform page, which is less extensive than the post-reform page, calls Chagall беларускі, расейскі і францускі мастак./ a Belorussian, Russian and French painter.  The post-reform page renounces on any mention of Russian attributes and calls Chagall беларускі і французскі мастак a “Belorussian and French artist”, but expounds his Jewish origin and upbringing.
The examples show that interpretations differ not only with regard to the question of who these people were at birth, but also who they became after leaving the country.
If we focus on the place of birth, we can say that in retrospective, famous people tend to be appropriated by the country “hosting” their birthplace once this country has become independent (after the collapse of the Soviet Union). Thus, Malevich has been defined as Ukrainian, but only by Ukrainian Wikipedia – on the ground of historical documents. Strangely enough, Polish Wikipedia lays no claim to Malevich, although both his parents were Polish. Russian Wikipedia ignores such trivialities altogether, calling Malevich a Russian and Soviet artist, while English Wikipedia doesn’t care about the difference between Russian and Soviet and simply calls Malevich a Russian artist.
When we look at artists who emigrated, there is a noticeable difference between Kandinsky and Chagall, who both settled to France.
In all of the Wikipedia pages quoted, Kandinsky has remained a Russian painter, acquiring only various citizenships. (An exception to the rule is Russian Wikipedia, where Kandinsky is simultaneously a French and Russian painter – for some reason, Russian Wikipedia is more generous with respect to a double nationality.)
Besides, we find the same approach to Mikhail Larionov and Natalia Goncharova, who are called Russian artists on all Wikipedia pages, although both spent most of their lives in France – almost fifty years. Only the respective French Wikipedia language pages add that they acquired French citizenship.
Chagall, on the other hand, has become a Russian and French painter, or, alternatively, a Russian-French artist, but never a Jewish, Russian, and French artist – at most, a Belorussian, Russian and French painter. Although Chagall‘s Jewish descent is mentioned in all pages and its importance for his work stressed to various degrees, his being born to a Jewish family remains a definition of origin and never becomes a permanent attribute like “Russian”. Perhaps considering Chagall as French and Russian somehow removes the problem of his not “really” being Russian. But it is also true that Kandinsky spent eleven years in France, so he became less French than Chagall, who lived in France for a total of fifty-five years.
It is impossible to work through all the ramifications of those nationalities suggested, but we have seen that establishing the New Artists’ native roots in the Russian avant-garde requires some thought. Yet the Soviet Union easily superimposed any hybrid descent with the creation of a “Soviet citizen”. Putting away such pedantry – Novikov wasn’t being pedantic either – Novikov’s declaration of native roots in 1986 constituted a double challenge:
It challenged the West, which couldn’t boast of such a large number of utopian avant-gardists (Picasso and Dali were avant-gardists, but they didn’t pursue a social mission, at least not primarily). And it challenged the Soviet system, which had removed many names of artists, musicians, writers and philosophers from public memory – many of whom, like Kandinsky, Malevich, or Chagall, had supported the Bolshevist regime in its early stage, if only for a short period of time.
Perestroika not only disclosed the fact that the socialist system couldn‘t compete with the capitalist system economically, which was something everybody knew already. It also forced Soviet people to admit that the Soviet system couldn’t compete with the popularity of Western pop culture (to use such a tautology) which had firmly established itself after World War II – and that this “lagging behind” was to no small degree self-inflicted, if not deliberately imposed by the Soviet regime. It was Soviet Russia that cut international ties by the end of the 1920s – when the Russian avant-garde was highly appreciated internationally. It was Soviet Russia that isolated and persecuted its intellectual and artistic elite or forced it into emigration.
Soviet-style internationalism and its heroic imperialism could not tolerate the concept of a cosmopolitan lifestyle, of the ability of moving naturally and at ease in different cultures. Cosmopolitism became an invective against Soviet Jews, the only ethnic group allowed to emigrate – on the grounds of their “rootless cosmopolitism”, as Stalin’s motivated his attack against Soviet Jews. As Margarita Levantovskaya writes in her dissertation “Rootless Cosmopolitans” “…the labelling of Jews as rootless cosmopolitans confirmed their images as aliens, or diasporic others who posed a threat to the Soviet homeland.”
With cosmopolitism banned, what remained was a desire for urbanity and style. They became a matter of taste, and their Leningrad protagonist was Georgy Guryanov, whose exact position with regard to the New Artists needs to be defined yet. Choosing Mayakovsky as a label to represent the Russian avant-garde of the early twentieth century, Novikov opted not so much for roots, but for urbanity and style, according to E-E Kozlov: “Mayakovsky stood for style, urbanity and radical originality. His genius was primary and made a unique contribution to the world of art.”
Luckily, neither Mayakovsky’s roots – Mayakovsky grew up in Georgia, then part of the Russian Empire, and was of Russian and Cossack descent from his fathers side and of Ukrainian descent from his mother’s side – nor his streamlined biography created any conflicts with the ideological requirements of the Soviet State.
To designate a Russian brand with an international impact, Mayakovsky’s name appears, however, to be not strong enough. This requires a higher degree of popularity than Mayakovsky possesses today. In 2007, the BREUS Foundation (formerly Artchronika Cultural Foundation) established a new art-award with the aim of creating a brand similar to the British Turner Prize. The “Kandinsky Prize” has in fact become Russia’s most prestigious art-award. But why not “Malevich Prize” or “Chagall Prize”? This cannot be a question of reputation, as all three artists are recognised as equally innovative and important in the international art scene.
Yet among those three, Moscow-born Kandinsky, a professor at the famous Bauhaus school from 1922-1933, is the one who perfectly represents Russianness and cosmopolitism alike. Another advantage is that Kandinsky was not only one of the first abstractionists. His work holds elements of bright, ornamental Russian folk art, too – it is conceptually profound and appealing at the same time. In other words, Kandinsky’s image makes him an ideal patron for the ambitious project of re-connecting Russian – “native” – art to the international art world. I suppose that Kandinsky would have endorsed this decision.
https://ru.wikipedia.org/wiki/ Кандинский,_Василий_Васильевич Web 2 August 2020
 https://ru.wikipedia.org/wiki/ Малевич,_Казимир_Северинович Web 2 August 2020
 https://uk.wikipedia.org/wiki/ Малевич_Казимир_Северинович Web 2 August 2020
 For details see Artur Rudzitskiy’s interview with Andrzej Turovskiy from 9 April 2009: Istochnik: “V nekotorykh anketakh 1920-kh godov v grafe „natsional’nost’“ Kazimir Malevich pisal: ukrainets“
 https://ru.wikipedia.org/wiki/ Шагал,_Марк_Захарович Web 2 August 2020
 Larionov’s place of birth, Tiraspol, is today the capital of the Transnistria autonomous territorial unit of Moldova, a post-Soviet breakaway republic with Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic as a proper name. There is no Moldovan Wikipedia language page and articles appear on Romanian Wikipedia, which defines Larionov as a Russian painter – un pictor avangardist rus – born in Tirapsol, Russian Empire.
 Obviously, the category of Soviet citizen didn’t work for those who had emigrated, and I don’t know how Marc Chagall’s or Wassily Kandinsky’s nationalities were defined in catalogue of the 1981 exhibition “Moscow-Paris at the Pushkin Museum, Moscow.
 The success was at least in part due to the engagement of the early Soviet regime which featured the avant-garde through international exhibitions like the First Russian Art Exhibition at the Berlin gallery Van Diemen in 1922 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/First_Russian_Art_Exhibition. At the same time, Lenin expelled several hundred intellectuals on the so-called Philosopher’s ships and on trains to Germany and Istanbul (1922/1923). https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philosophers'_ships
 Levantovskaya, Margarita. Rootless Cosmopolitans, UC San Diego, 2013, p.3
 Fobo, Hannelore. “Art into Life: Agitprop and Vladimir Mayakovsky”, 2020. Web 20 August 2020.
 The fact that in 1926, Mayakovsky’s daughter Patricia was born in New York was not known until after the collapse of the Soviet Union. See: Thompson, Patricia J. Mayakovsky in Manhattan: A Love Story with Excerpts from the Memoir of Elly Jones. West End Productions, 1993.
Research / text / layout: Hannelore Fobo, May / September 2020.
Uploaded 24 September 2020