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Published 30/05/2002 email E-MAIL print PRINT

The Blackest Square

Andrey Kovalev

The fourth ‘Black Square’ by Kazimir Malevich belonging to Inkombank, which collapsed during the financial crisis in 1998, is now exhibited in the Hermitage. This icon of modernism found its final sanctuary among the masterpieces at the Hermitage exactly in time for the arrival of George W Bush in St. Petersburg.

A sum of one million dollars for the acquisition of the painting was provided by Vladimir Potanin, a well-known businessman. Despite its mysterious origin ‘in a bag of potatoes’ in the provincial town of Samara in 1993, and the fact that the market of Russian avant-garde is overfilled with fake copies, even sophisticated experts still haven’t expressed any serious doubts about the authenticity of the items from this collection. Nevertheless, there is every reason to believe that several sketches, photographic images, Malevich’s own manuscripts and the broken pieces of the architectone have been lost. This detective story seems to have been predetermined by the great master Malevich himself. For example, the reverse of the painting contains the date 1913. Despite the fact that the first ‘Black Square’ is dated 1915, this dating implicitly serves to show that the painting is quite authentic. In the late 1920s Malevich, forgeing his own biography, intentionally pre-dated his works.

On the 22 of January 2002 the Russian Ministry of Culture declared the ‘Black Square’ as being an exclusively significant cultural asset, thus prohibiting its eligibility for being sold or exported. On the 13 of April the collection of Inkombank was put up for auction at Gelos auction house. At the sales the Moscow Museum for Modern Art purchased ‘Self-portrait’ and ‘The portrait of wife’. Meanwhile, the state has exercised its privilege to acquire ‘exclusively significant cultural assets’. In such a way, the ‘Black Square’ has finally found its present position in the Hermitage, and Mikhail Piotrovsky has a special programme of establishing a section dedicated to twentieth century art at the Hermitage already, in which the ‘Black Square’ will be exhibited among such items as ‘Composition IV’ by Kandinsky, ‘The Dance’ by Matisse and ‘The Three Graces’ by Picasso.

However, the former owners of the ‘Black Square’, the bankers belonging to the epoch of primary accumulation, were not fully conscious of the value of the items they possessed. Nevertheless, the art market experts named prices ranging from 15 to 25 millions of dollars, provided the picture is going to be sold on the western market. Vladimir Potanin, a media tycoon and the owner of the famous ‘Norilsk Nickel’, used the opportunity to improve his international image. The progressive oligarch was installed as a trustee of the Guggenheim Museum, in return for donations of at least one million dollars a year. The Financial Times stressed ironically, ‘While millions of their countrymen suffered collapsing living standards, declining health and increasing alcoholism, a few made enough money to join the ranks of the world’s richest men’. Finally, as long as it is owned by the state, the ‘Black Square’ is eligible to be transported across the borders and be exhibited at any affiliate branch of Guggenheim all around the world. Or, for example, in the Hermitage rooms at Somerset House.



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