Noemi Smolik on “The Russian Avant-garde at the Ludwig Museum: Original and False”

WHAT HAPPENS when a painting is unmasked as false? The colors, the shapes and the brushstroke remain the same, and yet everything has changed. The charm of authenticity, linked to what Walter Benjamin called the “aura” of a work of art, is broken. A moving exhibition organized by Rita Kersting and Petra Mand at the Ludwig Museum in Cologne, titled “Russian Avant-Garde at the Museum Ludwig: Original and Fake” and until February 7, seeks to pick up the pieces, by provocatively associating its works of dubious provenance alongside genuine loans to contextualize the challenges of collecting, selling and conserving works of the Russian avant-garde, whose market has been saturated with counterfeits from the start. By shedding light on this history, the museum, as well as a virtual colloquium it held in early November, not only sheds light on the future of provenance research, but encourages us to investigate the deep contradictions at the very heart of the aesthetic experience. .

In “Original and false”, Lyubov Popova Pictorial architectonic, 1918 — a Suprematist composition similar to a collage of superimposed faceted planes — from the Thyssen-Bornemisza collection in Madrid, hung next to an almost identical canvas belonging to the German institution, the first being distinguished from the second mainly by its thicker and rougher impasto, more pictorial treatment of the surface. While the Madrid painting has been correctly authenticated, the attribution of Ludwig’s painting remains debated. Even more doubtful is the attribution of another Popova, containing a pigment which only arrived on the market after the artist’s untimely death from scarlet fever in 1924. In the case of a work by Olga Rozanova , the material on which it is mounted contains synthetic fibers which, the label explains, did not exist during the artist’s lifetime. With this meticulous rigor, the museum presents these paintings as well as the results of an investigation of several years, during which it takes care to circumvent the word “counterfeit”. It is only false, in the legal sense, when an intention to deceive can be proven.


View of the “Russian Avant-garde at the Ludwig Museum: Original and Fake,” 2020–21.  Left: two canvases attributed to Olga Rozanowa, 1913. Right: two canvases attributed as Ljubow Popowa's Painterly Architectonic, 1920 and 1918 respectively.

Chocolate magnate Peter Ludwig and his wife Irene began acquiring Russian art in the 1970s. Within twenty years the Ludwigs had assembled an internationally renowned collection of six hundred works, first made available to the museum on loan. After Irene’s death in 2010, the property was transferred to the museum. The first suspicions of attribution were raised in the 1980s and have only increased over the years. As a result, the museum’s director, Yilmaz Dziewior, launched an in-depth investigation under the direction of curator Petra Mandt, carried out in three stages of analysis: provenance, style and laboratory. The results were sobering: of the forty-nine images examined, twenty-two were found to be of questionable attribution.

How could something like this happen? Was naivety really responsible for this development? In fact, for a long time almost nothing was known about Russian avant-garde art. It was not until 1960 that Life The magazine published a report by Alexander Marshack titled “The Art of Russia … Nobody Sees” – which drew attention to works purchased by institutes directly after the October Revolution in 1917, but which were languishing. now in museum basements. Two years later, Camilla Gray publishes her book The Great Experiment: Russian Art 1863-1922, the first story of the Russian avant-garde, arousing curiosity for this mysterious art. Auction houses and galleries have followed suit. As no open trade with the Soviet Union was possible at that time, most works traveled west by illegal routes – in diplomats’ bags, in some cases – without documents proving their provenance or means of compare them to authentic examples still locked up. museum deposits. It has brought all kinds of forgers and frauds on the scene.

Founded in Cologne in 1965, Galerie Gmurzynska, now based in Zürich, quickly became one of the leading importers of the Russian avant-garde, and their exhibitions and catalogs made more contributions to the field than perhaps any. other institution. Recent claims by the Ludwig Museum that the dealer sold unreliable attributed pieces – claims rejected by gallery owner Krystyna Gmurzynska, who unsuccessfully requested that the museum make all of its research public – not only suggest far-reaching implications. scope for the collections. around the world, but also pose difficult questions about the integrity of scholarship based on inauthentic specimens – questions that one would have liked the symposium to address a little more. Of the hundred canvases in the Ludwig collection, eighty-one come from this gallery, of which thirty-nine have been analyzed by the museum; the attribution of twelve paintings has already been questioned. The Gmurzynska Gallery, which supports their works, has filed a complaint demanding that the museum make its research public before the exhibition opens. Their efforts were unsuccessful.


This work attributed to Mikhail Larionov Rayonism Red and Blue (Beach) (detail), 1913, is one of many Russian avant-garde paintings in the Lugwig Collection currently under forensic examination.

The difficulty of disentangling the validity of attributions was also demonstrated by the case of the Costakis Collection. George Costakis, a Greek, worked in Moscow for the Canadian Embassy. From the 1940s, he began to collect works still kept in private collections. When he left Moscow in 1977, he transferred much of the collection to the Tretjakov Gallery, housing the rest at the National Museum of Contemporary Art in Thessaloniki. His collection was considered, without a doubt, to be sublime – until it was discovered that there were two paintings attributed to Rozanova that were almost indistinguishable from one another: one known as Green band, 1917, in the Rostov Museum, the other in the Costakis Collection. What was the original and what copy? Even today, experts disagree, as Hubertus Gassner reported at the symposium. There are known cases where an original painting stored in the basement of a Russian museum was quietly replaced with a copy, and the original was later found in the West. The role that official agencies, in particular the KGB, may have played in this disorderly proliferation of Russian art awaits clarification.

Confidence in the Russian art trade was definitely shaken in 2018, when twenty-four works from the hitherto unknown collection of Igor and Olga Toporowskij were exhibited at the Museum of Fine Arts in Ghent. The reviews over their authenticity were so overwhelming that they had to be uninstalled and Catherine de Zegher, director of the museum, lost her job. Earlier this year, the Toporowskij were arrested by Belgian police for trafficking in stolen goods, fraud and money laundering.

During the conference, Friederike Gräfin von Brühl, lawyer specializing in forgeries in art, reminded us of the question of knowing what a forgery means for a painting. If it is not the art object and rather its “aura” that provokes our admiration, “Original and Fake” offers an acid test for contemporary notions of authenticity, exposing how much we still cling to the fatherhood as a guarantor of value, and how quickly, and totally, it can become obscured by doubt.

Translated from the German by Diana Reese.

Noemi Smolik is a reviewer based in Bonn, Germany, and Prague, Czech Republic.

Correction and update [January 20, 2020]: Of the eighty-one paintings in the Ludwig Museum that come from the Gmurzynska Gallery, thirty-nine have been analyzed by the museum so far. The Ludwig disputed the authenticity of twelve of these works, not three, as originally stated. Gmurzynska Gallery retains authenticity from Ludwig’s painting attributed as that of Lyubov Popova Pictorial architectonic, citing “a thorough technical analysis” which “clearly indicates that the pigments and the canvas date from the 1920s”.

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