In April 1987, I presented the exhibition “Mikhail Larionov : The Path to Abstraction” at the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt (Germany). Organized jointly with the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire in Geneva (Switzerland), this exhibition closed a year later in the Rath rooms of the Swiss museum. It comprised 193 works on paper – pastels, gouaches, watercolours, pen-and-ink and colour-pencil drawings – which I had selected and grouped in the painter’s “Russian period,” i.e. the years running from 1907 to 1915.
A substantial portion of the artist’s ink drawings (a total of 42 pieces, slightly more than 20% of the exhibition) consisted of urban scenes and portraits, whereas the gouaches and pastels were for the most part Expressionist (landscapes and a number of cabaret scenes) and above all Rayonist works. In other words they were abstract.
Unknown prior to 1987, they were acclaimed in Germany, which led to an additional venue for the exhibition in September 1987 at the Palazzo Pepoli (an annex of the Pinacoteca) in Bologna (Italy), in spaces destined to house that city’s new modern art museum.
Imagine my surprise when, a year after the successful reception of the Frankfurt and Bologna shows, which garnered highly favourable reviews in the art press, the same works were suddenly attacked in a series of articles in ‘La Tribune de Genève’. The Swiss newspaper charged that the exhibition as a whole consisted of “fakes.”
As I was to learn a few years later from the heirs of the artist’s widow, this press campaign had followed on the misappropriation of a considerable portion of the legacy of Larionov’s wife, who had died in September 1987. Discrediting the masterpieces I had put on show in Frankfurt, Bologna and Geneva was a way of influencing the market under terms which the scandal’s instigators alone would be able to dictate.
Refusing to be intimidated by the specious arguments put forward by a jejune journalist who had naively consulted only dealers eager to retain control of the future Larionov market, I rose to the defence of the works slated to be purely and simply destroyed.
Convinced that they were authentic, I undertook a series of arduous historical and technical investigations (for the only concrete element cited for casting doubt on the exhibition consisted in questioning the genuineness of one of the pigments in the pastels). Taking advantage of the opening of Soviet archives, I was able, starting in the summer of 1989, to document the works in question. I studied the nature of the pigments, researched the iconography and the inscriptions on them, including the artist’s signature, and established their provenance as a whole.
There ensued a fourteen-year legal battle. During all this time media attacks in Swiss, German and American press organs kept alive the climate of suspicion around the works. As early as 1993 the Geneva paper was condemned for defaming me and in 1995, when the case was dismissed, I was cleared of all accusations. In 2000, at the conclusion of numerous legal vicissitudes, the works were released from sequestration and a couple of years later were returned to their rightful owners.
Due to the anathema cast on the art featured in the exhibition (spring and summer 1988) no art historian, whether in Russia or in the West, had the courage to take position publicly concerning the unjustly incriminated works, though, as one may observe from reading second-ranking exhibition catalogues (New York 1987, Zurich 1988, Stockholm 1988) several of them –self-proclaimed art historians, at least – lost no time in repeating my attributions.
In the ensuing years the specialists have cloistered themselves in the silence of fear. What strikes one most is the blindness of their lucubrations and the fact that were more inclined to seek inspiration from the writings of other scholars than to actually look at the works which they claimed to interpret.
It is now a quarter of a century since the gestation of Larionov’s abstraction, not to say abstraction in general, has been waiting to be brought to light. Not just recognized, but understood too.
The following pages (Disputed Works) summarize this affair full of surprises – the skilfully orchestrated media scandal based on fallacies intended to cast doubt on a body of work that appears as a high point in the history of the advent of Futurist and abstract art and above all one of the keys to understanding the dawn of abstract art, that major modernist revolution.