“Russias! Memory/Distortion/ Imagination,” on view through July 25 at the Ca’ Foscari University of Venice, is promoted as the first exhibition in Italy of Russian art “from czar to Putin.” The title (in Italian, it’s “Russie! Memoria/Mistificazione/ Immaginario”) refers to the Guggenheim Museum’s blockbuster “Russia!” show in New York in 2005–6, but the Venice curators, Giuseppe Barbieri and Silvia Burini, pluralized “Russia” because they wanted to highlight the many faces of a country that has changed so much over the course of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st.
The organizers confronted a difficult task, however, since they chose to represent Russia’s many faces with more than 100 artworks from just two private Italian collections—those of Alberto Morgante and Alberto Sandretti. Morgante, according to a Web site about his collection, is a businessman who opened one of the first supermarkets in Italy and was subsequently awarded an honorary degree in economics by Columbia University. Sandretti is the president of a Milan-based engineering firm, Moneta Impianti, that supplies industrial equipment and technology to developing countries. Since 1993, the firm has been “assisting in the activity” of the Russian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, a biennale Web site says, “in connection with which” assistance Sandretti was appointed honorary consul of the Russian Federation in Venice.
The show boasts a long list of eminent official patrons—from the president of Italy to a host of local and university dignitaries. But both collections were previously unknown, and scholars and experts in the field of the Russian avant-garde are puzzled by the avant-garde art on view. The names are familiar: Chagall, Kandinsky, Malevich, Lissitzky, Tatlin, Goncharova, Larionov, and so forth, but the pictures in many cases don’t match the labels.
Experts in the Russian avant-garde, a field in which fakes abound, are particularly concerned with provenance and are suspicious of any work that was not exhibited or published during the lifetime of the artist said to have created it (see “The Faking of the Russian Avant-Garde,” Summer 2009). But the organizers of the Venice show have advertised that these collections are being seen and published for the first time.
The only clue to their origin is Morgante’s statement that he bought his paintings from the late Franco Miele, described in the catalogue as “a post-metaphysical painter, art critic, and historian of aesthetics.” Miele frequented Moscow during the ’60s, made friends with dissident artists, and is said to have smuggled artworks through diplomatic channels.
Among these works is a watercolor attributed to Vasily Kandinsky, titled Composition and dated 1919. The work is not included in the catalogue raisonné published by the Paris-based Kandinsky Society, the internationally recognized authority on the artist.
Another previously unknown work is Girl with Goat, attributed to Marc Chagall and dated 1911. ARTnews brought this picture to the attention of the Paris-based Marc Chagall Committee, which branded it an “obvious fake” (faux évident) and wrote to the exhibition organizers and curators demanding that it be removed from the exhibition and that all reproductions of it in print or on the Internet be recalled.
ARTnews also contacted the Moscow-based Petr Konchalovsky Foundation regarding Still Life with Oranges, attributed to Konchalovsky and dated 1935. The foundation, formed by the artist’s heirs in 2006, is in the process of creating a catalogue raisonné of his oeuvre. Still Life with Oranges is now posted on its Web site, with the notation that the foundation’s experts “consider this picture to be a forgery.”
Aleksandra Shatskikh, a well-known expert on Malevich and the author of numerous books on the artist, told ARTnews that she had seen the three pictures attributed to Malevich in the Morgante collection only in reproduction. “However I will be greatly surprised if these pieces could be the real works of Malevich,” she said.
One of the three is a Suprematist composition signed “KM” and dated 1917–18. It combines a black square and a black cross with a bar and a triangle in bright vermilion, a color otherwise absent from this artist’s Suprematist oeuvre. The forms are scattered on a thickly textured ground, which is completely atypical for Malevich. And, according to Shatskikh, he did not sign his Suprematist paintings.
An undated watercolor attributed to Malevich is described as a stage design. It depicts a room with an Art Deco–style armchair, a Modernist desk, and a fire screen adorned with a colorful image of a parrot—the only one in Malevich’s work—on a bright purple ground. The watercolor’s function is unclear, experts say, since it is unrelated to the Suprematist opera Victory Over the Sun or to Mayakovsky’s Mystery-Bouffe, the only theatrical productions for which there is documentary evidence of Malevich’s involvement.
Other works in the show are extremely similar to well-known paintings in Russian museums. For example, a small oil attributed to Vladimir Tatlin, in the Morgante collection, is described as a sketch for a stage design for the opera Ivan Susanin by Glinka, and dated ca. 1914. It closely resembles a painting in the Bakrushin Theater Museum in Moscow (which gives the opera its correct prerevolutionary title, A Life for the Czar). Tatlin’s known designs for this opera, experts say, are distinguished by their long horizontal formats—they are usually at least 35 inches long—and their crisp cubistic style; the Morgante painting is small (about 7.5 by 14 inches) and executed in a loose, expressionistic manner not typical of this artist.
An undated work in watercolor and gouache from the Sandretti collection, attributed to El Lissitzky and called The machines in depots, factories, and workshops are waiting for you, might pass as a pastiche of elements taken from three works by the artist, experts say. The slogan is written in exactly the same font Lissitzky used for a Suprematist poster produced in Vitebsk in 1919 and known only from a photograph, while the geometric elements are identical to those appearing in two famous nonfigurative compositions by the artist: Proun 1A: Bridge (1919), in the Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art in London, and Proun 12E, dated 1920, in the Busch-Reisinger Museum at Harvard University.
The curators, Burini and Barbieri, are professors at the university; neither is a specialist in contemporary art. Asked to comment on the doubts expressed about many of the paintings in the exhibition, they wrote in an e-mail: “The exhibition’s goal was certainly not to concentrate on the artistical identity of great Russian artists of the early XX Century.”
The curators emphasized that this “cultural project of a great Italian university” was noncommercial, and said it was “the result of an intense research period, still unfinished.”
They acknowledged that the two collections had “very peculiar origins,” but said that they were “quite convinced of the possible authenticity of the paintings by the way and the time in which they were obtained. That’s the reason why we never asked the respective foundations to expertise them. We never wanted to discuss the free choice of the collector.”
Konstantin Akinsha is a contributing editor of ARTnews.