signed in Cyrillic l.l.
oil on board laid on canvas
102 by 70cm, 40¼ by 27½in.
Executed in the first half of the 1920s
The artist's board has been laid down on canvas. The canvas is securely attached to a keyed wooden stretcher. There are a few minor undulations and distortions including running along the left edge. These are stable and the work appears structurally sound. There are intermittent holes with associated deformations which have been filled and inpainted along the extreme edges of the composition. These appear to pertain to the board having been previously pinned to an auxiliary wooden framework.
The paint surface has an even varnish layer. The paint surface appears entirely stable. Inspection under ultraviolet light shows scattered retouchings throughout the composition, including:
1) retouchings running along the extreme edges, including corresponding to the old pinholes mentioned above, and some slightly larger retouchings in the extreme corners.
2) Scattered retouchings within the main body of the composition including a vertical line running up from the left part of the lower edge and two parallel horizontal lines to the left of the sphere in the lower centre of the composition.
Several of these retouchings are visible in natural light and a number of them appear to extend over the original paint film, particularly those situated on the extreme edges of the composition.
The painting would therefore appear to be in very good and stable condition when compared to similar paintings from this period/movement.
This lot is offered for sale subject to Sotheby's Conditions of Business, which are available on request and printed in Sotheby's sale catalogues. The independent reports contained in this document are provided for prospective bidders' information only and without warranty by Sotheby's or the Seller.
George Costakis, Moscow and Athens, acquired directly from the artist's daughter Serafima
Sotheby's London, Impressionist and Modern Paintings and Sculpture Part I, 6 December 1983, lot 49
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner
Exhibition catalogue OST (Obshchestva stankovistov): katalog pervoi vystavki, Moscow, 1925, pp.5-6, no.99-101, listed as Works According to the Light-Colour Principle
Exhibition catalogue Werke aus der Sammlung Costakis: Russische Avantgarde 1910-1930, Düsseldorf, 1977, p.40, no.48 listed
Exhibition catalogue Art of the Avant-Garde in Russia: Selections from the George Costakis Collection, New York: The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, 1981, p.136, no.99 illustrated b/w and listed
A.Z. Rudenstine, The George Costakis Collection: Russian Avant-Garde Art, New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1981, p.160, no.195 illustrated; p.58 visible in the photograph of Costakis's Moscow apartment
I.V. Kliun, Moi put' v iskusstve. Vospominaniya, stat'i, dnevniki, Moscow: RA, 1999, no.210, p.341 illustrated b/w, p.542 listed
Probably, Moscow, Museum of Artistic Culture, Pervaya vystavka Obshchestva stankovistov (OST), May 1925
Düsseldorf, Kunstmuseum, Werke aus der Sammlung Costakis, Russische Avantgarde 1910-1930, September-October 1977, no.48
New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Art of the Avant-Garde in Russia: Selections from the George Costakis Collection, 1981, no.99
Of exceptional provenance, this painting belonged to the fabled collector of the Russian avant-garde, George Costakis. It was largely through Costakis’s efforts that Kliun and many other artists of this seismic period in art history were not consigned to obscurity.
Kliun was a leading light of the Russian avant-garde, friend of Malevich and pioneer of non-objective art. This artist ‘who started out closely allied to the orbit of Malevich’s Suprematism, eventually sought entirely new directions of his own. His spherical constructions, severely criticized by Malevich as a step backward, were years ahead of their time’ (G.Costakis, The Costakis Collection, 1981, p.65). Rivals, equals, combatants, close friends, Kliun and Malevich maintained a weekly correspondence for decades up until Malevich’s death.
According 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.
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 (fig.1). 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 in these rooms in 1983. Spherical Suprematism is still the most important work by the artist to ever have appeared at auction and quite possibly the only oil by the artist to remain in private hands.
An Appreciation by Aleksandra Shatskikh
It was Ivan Vasilievich Kliun who actively helped the provincial Kazimir Malevich (1879-1935), freshly arrived from Kursk, in his early Moscow days. Being both older and more experienced than Malevich, at the beginning it was Kliun who was the leader. The situation changed a few years later and Kliun became one of the earliest followers and practitioners of Suprematism – geometric abstractionism, – the movement created by his young friend in 1915.
At the 1916 Jack of Diamonds exhibition Kliun exhibited several works with expressive titles, among them On a Red Background, The Movement of Colour Masses, Relative Density of the Colour Effect, In a White Circle, Colour Decentralisation, White-Black-Crown-Green, and others since lost. These paintings testify to his unwavering attention to the problem of colour in painting. The problem of colour as a fundamental problem of painting is central to the experiments of most of the Russian avant-garde. The liberation of colour from its role of describing objective reality was seen as a direct route for the development of a new art.
Kliun proclaimed: ‘Colour, Paint as key elements … liberated from their centuries-old bondage serving Nature, started to live their own lives, to develop independently and manifest themselves in the New Art of Colour, and our compositions were then only subordinate to the laws of colour, and not the laws of nature’. The study of these laws was for many years the subject of Kliun’s life work; in his colouring, Malevich’s associate sought to establish a set of visual rules that would define the complex relationship between colour and form. Kliun the Suprematist stood for the purity of colour perception: a perception unclouded by psychology, physiology or preconceived ideas.
In the early 1920s the artist struck out on his own original path in non-objective painting, a path unexplored by Malevich’s Suprematism. Kliun embarked upon the theoretical and practical exploration of light in abstract art. In his Credo, written around 1921, he explained: ‘At present I am interested in a new element in the art of painting – light, and I am painting according to the light-colour principle and their interrelationship’.
The fruition of Kliun’s individual experiments is embodied in two representative canvases; the present lot, Spherical Suprematism and Spherical Non-Objective Composition, 1922-1925, (101.8 by 70.7cm) in the George Costakis collection at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Thessaloniki, Greece (fig.5). These works, executed in oil and of practically identical dimensions, are the largest of Kliun’s paintings to survive. The artist painted them over the course of several years in the first half of the 1920s; both are central to the oeuvre of the Russian avant-gardist and represent the pinnacle of his artistic achievement.
Spherical Suprematism is a clear embodiment of the painter’s chief axiom: ‘There is no colour without light. And light is a means to intensify colour.’ The figurative narrative of the painting unfolds from the upper left corner, where Kliun fixes the initial light surface which forms the basis of the entire composition. To this he adds clearly outlined geometrical elements of varying colours in consecutive layers: the regular shapes appear to be shot-through with light and it is from this that they derive their lightness, weightlessness and transparency.
Rectangles, trapezoids, cones and circles shine through one another and the colouration of the same element varies within its boundaries according to the density and hue of the layers overlapping it. Thus the top large circle of a reddish hue is superimposed on a greyish rectangle, which in turn is laid on a dark, wide diagonal stripe. The colour of the circle at the points of interaction with the underlying shapes changes in tone and intensity. All the other transparent and semi-transparent shapes that interact with one another undergo a similar transformation in light and colour.
Regular elements are layered in a particular order, so that the viewer who attempts to follow this process through the changes in colouration is inevitably immersed in the complex structure of the painting. Untangling the sequence of the overlapping transparent forms and analysing the changes in colour and light demands concentration and time and getting to grips with Spherical Suprematism becomes a sort of meditation, which results in a clarification of the interrelation of colour and light – fundamental phenomena of our physical reality.
Kliun emphasises the general widespread appeal of a purely abstract composition in an unexpectedly plastic way: a small three-dimensional sphere protrudes through the feather-light whitish circle lying in the foreground, contrasting with the flat shapes. The artist masterfully combines its three-dimensionality with the flatness of the transparent elements.
Light falls onto the sphere from the right-hand side, turning the illuminated edge into a sort of crescent moon. The image of a spherical globe with a half-mooned side inevitably gives rise to associations with celestial bodies, the earth or moon, lit by the sun’s rays and floating weightlessly in space.
In his spherical non-objective compositions, Kliun worked with pure plastic entities: colour, light, regular geometrical forms, that is, with the basic elements of man’s existence in the world and his links with nature and the cosmos.
As the Russian avant-gardist confidently proclaimed: ‘the perfect thing is the thing constructed of pure elements’. Kliun's masterpiece, Spherical Suprematism, is a persuasive embodiment of this artistic declaration.
We are grateful to Dr Aleksandra Shatskikh for providing this catalogue note.
 I.Kliun, ‘Kazimir Severinovich Malevich. Vospominaniya’, published in I.V.Kliun. Moi put’ v iskusstve, Vospominaniya, stat’i, dnevniki, Moscow: RA, 1999.
 Exhibition catalogue 10th State Exhibition. Non-Objective Creation and Suprematism, Moscow, 1919, pp.14-15.
 I.Kliun, ‘Credo’ published in I.V.Kliun. Moi put’ v iskusstve, Vospominaniya, stat’i, dnevniki, Moscow: RA, 1999, p.440.
 I.Kliun, ‘Non-Objective Art. General Remarks’ (mid-1920s), ibid. pp.274-275
What the Materials Tell Us About Kliun’s Masterpiece
Scientific analysis of Ivan Kliun’s Spherical Suprematism offers fascinating insights into the artist’s working methods as well as the subsequent history of the work.
The infrared reflectogram of the painting reveals an earlier signature by the artist, as well as a date in the lower left, both later overpainted and replaced with the now visible signature (fig.8). Written in block capitals, the earlier signature closely resembles the style of signature Kliun used at the time, such as on Spherical Nonobjective Composition, the closely related work of identical dimensions now at the State Museum of Modern Art in Thessaloniki (fig.5); as well as Composition, 1920, formerly in the Costakis collection and now at the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow (fig.6) and Nonobjective Painting According to the Light-Colour Principle, 1921, (fig.7) acquired directly from the artist by the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow.
While not all of the overpainted date is decipherable, it appears to consist of the month in Roman numerals and the year in Latin, much like the dating on Spherical Construction (fig.9). That Kliun overpainted both the earlier signature and date can be explained by the fact that he worked on Spherical Suprematism as well as its counterpart in Thessaloniki over several years. Spherical Nonobjective Composition has traditionally been dated in the literature to 1922-25, whereas the present painting was thought to have been created between 1923 and 1925. Since the overpainted date appears to read VI/1922, it can be assumed that Kliun started working on the painting earlier than previously thought.
Macro x-ray fluorescence (MA-XRF) map for calcium shows extensive underdrawing (fig.10). The most common such calcium drawing media 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 and signature over the extensive time of its creation.
The same calcium maps reveal repairs to small holes along the edges, which relate to the subsequent history of the painting. The board which Kliun used would initially have been nailed onto a stretcher, and only later laid down on canvas. Interestingly, all of the artist’s known surviving oils from this period are executed on board, no doubt a result of the paucity of canvas and artist’s materials at the time. It is unclear when exactly this would have happened, most likely when already in Costakis’s collection, and in any case before the work left the Soviet Union in 1977, the same year it was first exhibited in the West at the Costakis exhibition in Düsseldorf. The current stretcher still bears a Soviet export permit stamp, applied to those works Costakis was allowed to take with him when he left Russia.