This lecture delves into the intricate history of falsifying Russian radical modernism of the first half of the 20th century. The reemergence of art, suppressed during the Stalinist anti-modernist purges of the late 1930s, coincided with the onset of Khrushchev’s liberalization. By the 1970s, a multitude of works by Russian modernist artists were clandestinely smuggled out of the USSR and thrust into the Western art market. Subsequently, art dealers popularized the umbrella term "Russian Avant-garde," a label never used during the early 20th century in Imperial Russia or the USSR. Instead, it was adopted from the vernacular of Western art criticism, particularly from the writings of Clement Greenberg. This encompassing term conveniently facilitated the marketing of artworks purportedly linked to Russian/Soviet modernism, despite their often tenuous connections to the avant-garde and their diverse origins, ranging from Ukrainian to Georgian.
The emergence of the "Russian avant-garde" market was largely influenced by the geopolitical realities of the Cold War and the lingering memory of the anti-modernist campaigns under Nazi Germany's regime. The label was embraced by both the Western left, which viewed it as a genuine revolutionary culture suppressed by Stalinist deviations, and the right, who employed the ongoing Soviet war against "formalism" as a pretext for advocating artistic self-expression.
Artworks that arrived in the West from clandestine sources inherently lacked provenance, as disclosing such information risked exposing owners to potential KGB retribution. The combination of the scarcity of comprehensive art historical knowledge of the era and the shadowy origins of these pieces created an ideal breeding ground for counterfeiters. During the 1980s, counterfeit paintings and forged biographies of artists were produced to lend credibility to the hundreds of works flooding the market. European and North American museums inadvertently acquired and showcased these forgeries in their exhibitions, catalogs, and scholarly publications.
The collapse of the Soviet Union initially fostered hope that access to Russian archives and museum collections would help dismantle the proliferation of fakes. Unfortunately, the aftermath yielded an opposite outcome. The post-Soviet economic crisis led to widespread corruption among museum curators and the establishment of counterfeit certification factories, perpetuating the cycle of deceit. Notorious international scandals in Russia, Germany, and Belgium during the 1990s and 2000s brought to light the prevalence of these forgeries, leading to the confiscation of thousands of counterfeit works and the arrest of numerous suspects.
These forgery scandals have shaken the foundations of art-historical and technological expertise within the realm of Russian modernism. Yet, despite the controversies, counterfeit works continue to be peddled on the international art market. Recent developments have seen some museums undertake a reassessment of their "Russian Avant-garde" collections. This lecture will offer a concise survey of the history of forging Russian modernism, exposing the profound implications for the realm of art history.
Konstantin Akinsha is among the foremost scholars and curators of Russian and Ukrainian Art. He studied at the Shevchenko Art School in Kyiv, Ukraine and in in 1986 completed a Masters in Art History at the Moscow State University in Russia. He obtained his Candidate of Art History at the Research Institute of Art History in Moscow in 1990, and started a PhD at the University of St Andrews, Scotland in 2005. Throughout his career, he has been curator at the Kyiv Museum of Western and Oriental Art, Kyiv, Ukraine, Moscow correspondent for ARTnews, contributing editor for ARTnews magazine, New York, as well as a Research Fellow at both the Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nuremberg, Germany and Bremen Kunstverein, East European Institute of Bremen University, Bremen, Germany. From 1999-2000 he was also Deputy Research Director Art and Cultural Property, Presidential Advisory Commission on Holocaust Assets in the United States, Washington, DC. In 2006 he became the European Correspondent for ARTnews magazine in Budapest, and in 2007 he also became a Eugene and Davmel Shklar Fellow at the Ukrainian Research Institute of Harvard University.
Since the start of the war in Ukraine, he has been documenting the destruction of its cultural heritage and has been writing for such publications as The Wall Street Journal and for his own website.