Tuesday, June 17, 2008

When Malevich came to Wellington

In the mid-1990s, the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam had two problems common to many venerable cultural institutions: a leaky roof, and no money to fix it. But they had one great asset; a collection which included some of the world's great 20th century works of art. A world tour for some of the highlights of the collection was duly arranged, and the fees paid for the Stedelijk show went into bricks and mortar back home. The grouping of works, which included paintings by Cezanne, Chagall, Braque, Max Beckmann, Jean Dubuffet, Jackson Pollock, Philip Guston, Brice Marden and Roy Lichtenstein, as well as sculptures by Donald Judd and Jeff Koons, was on the road for a couple of years, and at the end of the Asian leg of the tour, came to Wellington where it was shown at the City Gallery. (Ironically, the City Gallery had to get its own leaky roof fixed prior to the arrival of the show. Not a good look to drip on a Mondrian.)

Three major paintings by the Russian suprematist Kazimir Malevich were included, and along with the Koons and the Beckmann, were probably the works which made the strongest impact on me when I saw them in Wellington in 1998. Interesting, then to note that the dispute in which the Stedelijk and Malevich's heirs have been involved for the past 15 or so years has recently been settled with the transfer of five works by Malevich to the Estate, including the wonderful Mystic Suprematism (black cross on red oval), (1920-22), pictured above, which was shown in Wellington.

Malevich left several works behind in Berlin with friends when he returned to the Soviet Union in 1927. The Stedelijk Museum has always contended that it acquired the works legimately from their owners. Years after Malevich's death, they were lent by private individuals to the Stedelijk for a show in 1956, and were acquired by the Museum for its collection a couple of years later. When the works were lent by the Stedelijk for an exhibition in America several decades later, 35 of Malevich's heirs attempted to sue the City of Amsterdam for their recovery. As usual with international disputes involving the ownership of cultural property, the issues are labyrinthine. You can read a short article about some of the legal aspects here, and what the Stedelijk had to say about the settlement here.

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