Longread — 4 Oct 2017 — Frank van Lamoen

One of the reasons why the Stedelijk Museum was established in 1895 was to act as a venue for the ‘exhibition of living masters’ held every four years. As time went on, artists living abroad began to submit work, too, and the first Russian art went on view at the Stedelijk. For a city museum, such as the Stedelijk was, these exhibitions were the first modest step towards presenting international art. 

Due to the influence of conservative, high-ranking Amsterdam citizens, the Stedelijk was initially unresponsive to unorthodox approaches in modern art. The first Russian artists to be exhibited were, in fact, emigres from Paris, Berlin and Munich such as Chagall, Zadkine and Kandinsky, whose work was presented at the Stedelijk by progressive artists’ societies like De Onafhankelijken (The Independent) and collectors such as P.A. Regnauld. It was not until The First Russian Art Exhibition of 1923 – with the Suprematism of Malevich and the contra-reliefs of Tatlin, and work by many other artists who had briefly visited Western Europe, if at all – that the general public encountered the revolutionary artistic advances that had shaped the Russian avant-garde since the outbreak of the Great War. Communist artists such as Peter Alma and De Stijl staff member El Lissitzky were key figures in organizing this exhibition, and in forging contacts with Russia.

A few years later, in 1928, the Stedelijk presented work by Mtislav Dobuzhinsky, a Russian emigre from Paris. In 1929 the society for Dutch and Russian relations, Nederland Nieuw-Rusland, mounted an exhibition of Russian graphic and book design, Grafiek en boekkunst uit de Sovjet Unie at the Stedelijk. This was followed in 1930 by an exhibition of Russian masters – classics such as Repin and Korovin – organized by an art dealer whose identity remains unknown. Later that year, the Socialistische Kunstenaars Kring staged the Internationale tentoonstelling socialistische kunst heden te zien, an exhibition of modern Socialist art.

Many artists and intellectuals belonged to the Genootschap Nederland Nieuw-Rusland, which brought the latest news of the new Socialist utopia, offered Russian language courses and organized exchanges. The architect Berlage was a member – In 1929, he travelled to Russia where slide projections of his work were met with overwhelming enthusiasm. – Furthermore: Menno ter Braak, Charley Toorop, Rietveld, and Zwart and Schuitema, Constructivist designers who focused on the work of Lissitzky and the new photography of Rodchenko. The Filmliga screened Russian films, Russian directors visited the Netherlands, leaving behind copies of their films. (Later, these were acquired for the collection of the film museum – now EYE – which was housed at the Stedelijk Museum in 1952). In the 1930s, almost anyone who was anyone saw the Soviet Union through incredibly rose-colored glasses – until the outbreak of the Second World War.

In 1958, director Sandberg succeeded in acquiring works by Malevich that are now classed among the collection highlights. The acquisition encompassed paintings, drawings, didactic charts and manuscripts left behind by Malevich at the Grosse Berliner Kunstausstellung of 1927. The Stedelijk commissioned the Danish art historian Troels Andersen to reconstruct Malevich’s contribution to this exhibition. This meant that, in 1970, the Stedelijk was at the forefront of the Malevich research underway in the West during that decade.

The Russian reformation politics introduced by Michail Gorbatsjov in 1985, under the banner of Glasnost and Perestroika, endeavoured to renew relations with the West. This paved the way for a major Malevich retrospective at the Stedelijk (1989), co-organized with the Russian State Museum in Leningrad and the Staats Tretyakov Galerij in Moscow. Not long after, on 9 November 1989, was the fall of the Berlin Wall. In the subsequent years that ultimately led to the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Stedelijk staged an exhibit of ‘unofficial’ Russian art produced between the 1970’s and 1990, In de USSR en erbuiten (1990), including work by dissidents and artists in Russia with a double – official and unofficial – oeuvre, such as Ilya Kabakov. A year later, contemporary art from the Eastern Bloc was presented under the title Wanderlieder (1991), an exhibition that touched on current events, and the imminent breakup of Yugoslavia. 

Perestroika also led to the reinstatement of the ‘unofficial’ Russian past, and the avant-garde art once dismissed as ‘formal’ was retrieved from the storage depot. Capitalizing on this renewed interest, the Stedelijk staged the major survey The Great Utopia (1992). 

With nothing to prevent them, many Russian artists and intellectuals left the country. Ilya Kabakov emigrated to the West in 1987 and settled in New York in 1992. A year later, when Wim Beeren stepped down as director of the Stedelijk, Kabakov built the installation the great archive (1993), his vision of Russian reality, a messy bureaucratic reality worlds away from the utopia envisaged by a Soviet artist such as El Lissitzky.

In that same year, 1993, the elderly Russian philologist and art historian Nikolai Khardzhiev came to live in Amsterdam. As self-appointed guardian of the outlawed avant-garde ideology, he had accrued an unmatched art collection and documentary archive. Khardzhiev established a Foundation to which he bequeathed his collection, which contains, among other things, 175 works by Malevich, most of which are small drawings. After Khardzhiev’s death in 1996, the collection and archive were entrusted to the care of the Stedelijk (on long-term loan from the Foundation since 2001). In November 1997, the Stedelijk exhibited drawings by Kazimir Malevich from the Khardzhiev collection. Earlier that year, the museum had presented contemporary art from St. Petersburg in Kabinet (1997).

As custodian of the Khardzhiev archive, the Stedelijk was able to grant experts access to the collection, facilitating research that culminated in ground-breaking publications such as Alexandra Shatskikh’s Black Square. Malevich and the origin of suprematism (2012). The Stedelijk’s Malevich collection and the Khardzhiev collection comprised a complementary whole that was fully explored in the large-scale Malevich retrospective at the Stedelijk (2013). The exhibition was also accompanied by the publication of the collection catalogue of Khardzhiev’s art collection.