The Secret of Temptation by the Russian avant-garde artist Kazimir Malevich is one of the highlights of the Russian Pictures sale in London on 5 June. 

The rare figurative work on paper, which dates from the artist’s short Symbolist period, was painted while he was working on a series of religious-themed works and is unusual in that it features a pencil portrait of his fellow artist and friend Ivan Kliun on the reverse.

Despite the religious-theme, the painting is far from celestial. In this bright sunny picture we find an expression of his elevated feelings on sex and the sacred nature of man, speaking volumes about the attitude of the young 29-year-old artist. 

Naked women relax in a verdant heavenly landscape, while the figure on the far right appears to a hermaphrodite. Malevich breaks all the ascetic strictures of Christian art. Angels and saints are firmly asexual and to put such carnal characteristics at the heart of a composition is a direct infringement of these rules. 

On the reverse is the pencil portrait by Malevich of Ivan Kliun (1873-1943), an artist with whom he formed a lifelong friendship just at this period when both were turning to Symbolist subjects and were executing works in a similar, ornate style.

The artwork’s impeccable provenance goes back to the writer and collector Nikolai Khardzhiev, who befriended Russian avant-garde pioneers in the late 1920s and amassed an unsurpassed collection of oils and works on paper by Malevich. 

In 1988, the work appeared on the open market for the first-time, when it was offered for sale at Sotheby’s in London. It was consigned by the poet and translator Vadim Kosovoi (1937-1999), who was allowed to leave the Soviet Union for France in 1981. Kosovoi has spent several years in a Soviet camp and after his release in 1963 was supported by the art historian Mikhail Alpatov as well as Khardzhiev.