Andrei Sarabyanov on fakes of Russian avant-grade, Nikolai Punin and the bohemia of the past
05.03.2019
Признанный эксперт Русского авангарда рассказал журналу КП о фальшивых работах на стенах музеев, о художнике Николае Пунине и об интеллигенции прошлого. Оригинальное интервью на русском можно почитать здесь , а RA Gallery  ниже предлагает перевод для наших англоязычных читателей. 

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The recognized expert of the Russian avant-garde spoke with the KP journal about the fake works in Museum collections, the artist Nikolai Punin and about the intelligentsia of the past. The original interview in Russian can be found here , and RA Gallery offers a translation for our English-speaking readers below.

Слева направо: Николай Пунин, Казимир Малевич, Михаил Матюшин

Andrei Sarabyanov requires no introduction. An outstanding art historian, art expert, the greatest specialist in the subject of Russian avant-garde. At the time of its release, the book by Sarabyanov titled “Unknown avant-garde" revolutionized the art market. Having traveled to provincial cities, he found over two hundred canvases of Russian avant-garde artists of the highest tier, the existence of which was unbeknown to Museum workers.

His latest work is being called a sensation. With the participation of Andrei Dmitrievich, it was possible to locate and publish the thought to be lost memoirs of Nikolai Punin, an outstanding art critic of his time, better known to the modern reader as Akhmatova’s husband. 

Andrei Dmitrievich, am I right to think the interest in the avant-garde is declining?
AS: I think so too, at least now there is no such chaos surrounding the avant-garde in the markets — and this is very good. The excitement harms the market and the avant-garde itself, which is emasculated. In order for the avant-garde to occupy a certain niche in the history of Russian art, it is necessary for the excitement around it to subside. Unfortunately, an enormous financial interest in the art of the avant-garde era spawned a huge number of fakes.

Recently, the media has been actively raising the issue of forged works in the museums. Have you ever seen fakes on the walls of serious institutions?
AS: Unfortunately yes. I remember the horror we felt — my colleagues and I, after seeing the catalog of the avant-garde exhibition in the Italian Mantua. Only fakes were published there. Several years ago two publications about Goncharova were published abroad. In one edition, I counted 70 fake works, in the second — several hundred ... And one of my colleagues discovered a criminal network which bought up Scandinavian landscapes of the 19th century, added a Russian signature and a church poppy over the forest — and sold them for enormous amounts of money...

But at the same time you’ve found invaluable works of abstractionists in provincial museums, where they did not even suspect that they had such treasures...
AS: This is an interesting story. The fact is that at the beginning of the last century, immediately after the revolution, the idea arose of creating museums of pictorial culture. Therefore, works of avant-garde artists were sent to cities where art schools were located, and so there were more than two thousand works by our best artists in the regions. In the archives, I found the mailing addresses and traveled to these places. Finding works, sometimes unexpected, in museums — this is such a rush ... it’s like picking mushrooms. I remember that in one of the museums, under the stairs, there was a folder with drawings, which didn’t even have inventory numbers on the sheets. They were drawings by Kandinsky and l Malevich’s students in Vitebsk...

And there was also a funny story when the artist Kliun (Клюн) was mistaken for “Bedbug" (Клоп).
AS: Yes, it happened in the Yelets museum of local lore, where Kliun's work was signed as “an unknown artist, drawing based on the play “Bedbug” by Mayakovsky. At the same time, it was immediately evident that the drawing had nothing to do with “Bedbug". As it turned out, the back of the picture was signed “Kliun” in pencil, and someone read it wrong.

What did you do with the discovered works?
AS: Now the work has been put into scientific circulation. Museums exhibit them, exchange them, send them to exhibitions, earn money.

You are one of the most respected avant-garde specialists. But have you ever made a mistake attributing a painting?
AS: Of course, although it was not a matter of a fake. There was an avant-garde artist called Lev Bruni. He signed his landscapes with the letters “LB” or “L Bruni”, and once I fell for this, I published a picture in the book, attributing it to Lev Bruni. Later it turned out that this was the work of the artist Lionella Bruni, an Italian painter who worked in Paris at about the same time as Lev Alexandrovich Bruni. It cannot be said that their landscapes are very similar, but the time was right, the signatures were the same. It is clear that the work of Lionella Bruni is valued much lower, but a number of her works appeared on the market under the guise of Leo Bruni. Some of them are still hanging in private collections.

Not so long ago the book about the theorist of the Russian futurism Nikolay Punin was published in the “Encyclopedia of the Russian Avant-Garde” publishing house with your participation. Our newspapers and magazines called this book a sensation, likened to Aristotle’s “Poetics” for initiates.
AS: It’s an absolutely unique publication, there were legends about it. The book is called “In the struggle for the newest art. Art and revolution." Actually, these are memoirs about the Petrograd artistic life. They should have been published in the early 30s, but the book was banned. However, the text has been preserved in the archive of Punin’s heirs.

If Punin’s name is known to our cultured people, then it is as Anna Akhmatova’s husband and a terribly greedy person, as described by Lev Gumilyov.
AS: Unfortunately, this is true, although there is more to Punin than his marital status. Nikolai Nikolayevich was one of the most respected art critics of his time. As they would say now, he was a culture trigger, but I should note that there is no culture trigger today, equal in power to Punin. He did a lot for artists, promoted them any way he could. A well-known story: the old men are pressing, the old people don’t let the young people live, but Punin fought for the youth. As a commissioner of the Russian Museum, he bought their paintings for the museum collection. During the really hungry times, he commissioned porcelain painting, because he also worked at the Imperial Porcelain Factory.

Another important mission of Punin was that he guided the artists, he “predicted" their future to them. Punin had a great eye for artists and the gift of explaining art.

How could such an avant-garde man live with such a classic Akhmatova?
AS: Well, thats not necessarily true. She seems classic to us, but in fact she was quite avant-garde for her time. In addition, there was love between her and Punin...

Is it true that Punin is who invented futurism and put the ideas for their future works into our avant-garde artists?
AS: This is of course a little exaggerated. But the role of Punin in the formation of the avant-garde is enormous. In the mid-1910s, the left artistic intelligentsia gathered in "Apartment No. 5" on the University Embankment. It was the service apartment of the caretaker of the Museum of the Academy of Fine Arts and the young artist Leo Bruni resided there. Victor Shklovsky and Vladimir Mayakovsky, Peter Miturich and Velimir Khlebnikov, Vladimir Tatlin and Kazimir Malevich visited “Apartment number 5”. Punin was the ideological center of the “community of Apartments No. 5”, he gathered around himself young talents, and influenced their young minds. But at the same time, each of them was a unique person. There are some amazing stories ...

Was the bohemia of past different from the present day?
AS: Like heaven and earth. There was an amazing person, Nikolai Bruni ... He composed music, painted paintings, wrote poems. In 1914 he went to war and became a pilot. His plane was shot down, but when he was falling, he made a pledge: if he stays alive, he will dedicate his life to God. He fell and crashed, but the doctors literally pieced him back together and cured him. Nikolai entered priesthood, he served in a village near Optina Monastery, he suffered there, because he was a Bohemian man and he was having a hard time. Eventually, he couldn’t stand it, went back to Petersburg and became involved in science, he was an inventor.

And then they imprisoned him after he was tattled on by his own student, who appropriated the invention of the teacher, while the teacher was held in the camps near Inta. But there, in the camp, Nikolai was able to be useful to people and art. In 1937, he erected a beautiful monument to Pushkin — from bricks, plaster and other unsuitable materials. A year later, Bruni was shot, but the monument to Pushkin remained. In the 2000s, it was restored. Surprisingly, an eyewitness account of how Bruni died exists. When the people were being led to be shot, they cried and cursed, but Father Nikolai reassured and comforted them and told them that even before death one should behave with dignity: for soon they would appear before God.

Life is incredible.

We have some favorite readers who will definitely write in the comments that the avant-garde was born because of Jewish artists who are forbidden to paint faces.
AS: Oh, oh, oh, let's take a look at the main artists of the Russian avant-garde. Tatlin — Russian, Kandinsky — Russian, native Russian. Popova, Rozanova — well, absolutely Russian. Of course there were Jewish artists in the avant-garde. Especially in Vitebsk, among the students of Chagall and Malevich — there were many young Jewish artists, and many of them later became well-known masters. But national characteristics have nothing to do with this.

Where did the objectlessness (беспредметность) come from then?
AS: You know, this may seem strange, but I believe that the post-revolutionary life has had a great influence on the emergence of objectlessness. The term originated in the hungry years of 1918-1919 of the last century. Life itself was objectless: there was no food, people wore God knows what, it was cold, there was inflation. People had insane money on their hands, for which it was impossible to buy even a crust of bread. There was nothing— and objectlessness was born. There’s an explicit connection.

Which part of the book do you remember in particular?
AS: In general, I love Punin, I love his absolutely original literary language. His human wisdom is impressive, its testimony is one phrase. He once said to Akhmatova: "Do not lose despair." This is genius. Real life was full of despair, despair was a sign of life. And "do not lose despair", meant — do not die. This is the epigraph of the era.