A Closer Look at Ivan Kliun's 'Spherical Suprematism'

A Closer Look at Ivan Kliun's 'Spherical Suprematism'

Ivan Kliun was a leading light of the Russian avant-garde, friend of Malevich and pioneer of non-objective art. This painting is the most important work by the artist to ever have appeared at auction, and features in Sotheby's upcoming Russian Pictures sale on 26 November. Of exceptional provenance, this painting belonged to the fabled collector of the Russian avant-garde, George Costakis.
Ivan Kliun was a leading light of the Russian avant-garde, friend of Malevich and pioneer of non-objective art. This painting is the most important work by the artist to ever have appeared at auction, and features in Sotheby's upcoming Russian Pictures sale on 26 November. Of exceptional provenance, this painting belonged to the fabled collector of the Russian avant-garde, George Costakis.

A ccording to the Guggenheim catalogue of the Costakis collection, this painting was one of three oils Kliun exhibited at the 1925 exhibition of the Society of Easel Painters under the heading Works According to the Light-Colour Principle. By the late 1920s however abstraction had fallen out of favour with the Soviet authorities and by 1932 had all but been outlawed with the imposition of Socialist Realism as state policy. Unlike many other artists at the time, Kliun did not turn to figurative art but pursued his experiments in abstraction and purism out of public view. Much of his work was lost during the Second World War when he was evacuated from Moscow and forced to leave the contents of his studio in the careless custodianship of a lodger who used his paintings as firewood.

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  • The IR reflectogram reveals an earlier signature and date under the visible signature. Written in block capitals, this earlier signature closely resembles that found on other works of this period, including two other works formerly in the Costakis collection and now at the State Museum of Thessaloniki and the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, and a third, acquired directly from the artist by the Tretyakov.

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  • The x-ray map for calcium shows extensive underdrawing underneath the paint layer. The most common calcium drawing medium is chalk, suggesting Kliun sketched out the composition before picking up his brush. The underlying drawing differs in places from the finished composition, giving us an idea of the evolution of the painting over the few years of its creation.

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  • A photograph of the painting hanging on the wall of Costakis’ Moscow apartment in 1973, shortly before his departure from the Soviet Union.

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  • Kliun and Malevich were friends from their first meeting in 1907 until Malevich’s death in 1935. Although their artistic paths later diverged, Kliun was an early adopter of Suprematism. The influence of Malevich can be seen in the overlapping geometrical shapes of circles, triangles, trapezoids, but what distinguishes the two artists is Kliun’s interest in light. The practical exploration of light in abstract art is central to his art of the early 1920s and this painting is a clear embodiment of is chief axiom: ‘There is no colour without light. And light is a means to intensify colour.’

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  • After George Costakis was granted permission to leave the USSR, his children Aliki and Alexander were the first to set off for Dusseldorf, taking with them a selection of paintings, including Spherical Suprematism, to be shown at the first public exhibition of part of the Costakis collection at Dusseldorf’s Kunstmuseum in 1977, and in 1981 at the Guggenheim in New York.

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Costakis, who although born in Russia remained a Greek national and therefore had access to hard currency, began to collect works by the all-but-forgotten artists of the avant-garde in the 1950s. He tracked them down in dusty corners of commission shops and from the surviving artists and their descendants. Kliun was one of the artists he admired most, he considered him to be one of the greatest experimenters of his generation and in the 1960s he finally managed to acquire what works remained from the artist’s daughter Serafima. A number of these, including the present lot, are visible hanging on the wall of the collector’s Moscow apartment in a photograph taken in 1973. Shortly afterwards Costakis was granted permission to leave the USSR in return for the donation of the bulk of his collection to the State Tretyakov Gallery; Spherical Suprematism is one of the very few he took with him when he emigrated not to have ended up in the collection of the State Museum of Contemporary Art in Thessaloniki.

It was then exhibited in exhibitions of the Costakis collection in Düsseldorf in 1977 and at the Guggenheim Museum in 1981 before he sold it at Sotheby's in 1983.

Russian Art

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