You may well ask. I did, when I first came across his name – in Mantua last February, where I was reporting on a controversial exhibition ostensibly devoted to the Russian Avant-Garde.
Khidekel was described as the author of a blue cross on a psychedelic geometrical background entitled Supremus and dated 1923.
It was a fake, I was assured by the world’s leading Khidekel authority: his daughter-in law Regina Khidekel, Executive Director of New York’s Russian-American Cultural Center and President of the Lazar Khidekel Society.
This ‘ugly piece’ was ‘not even close to any of Lazar Khidekel’s works, and has nothing to do with him or Suprematism’ she sniffed. It was ‘one of various interpretations’ of Khidekel’s 1923 painting Yellow Cross that have appeared since the 1970s, all ‘united by their lack of knowledge of Lazar Khidekel’s subtle, refined colours.’
But how had a Suprematist worth faking vanished into art historical obscurity?
The answer is straightforward: although a committed Suprematist, Khidekel never sold his works and left behind hardly any paintings. Forgers filled the gap.
Like Marc Chagall, Lazar Khidekel was born in Vitebsk – a sleepy little city in north-east Belarus, whose picturesque hilltop setting above the River Vitba once prompted Repin to compare it with Toledo.
A century ago Vitebsk was a largely Jewish boom-town, halfway along the St Petersburg-Kiev railroad. Lazar’s father was a stonemason. Lazar himself would become not an artist, but an architect – despite being among the initial intake at Chagall’s revolutionary People’s Art School, when it opened in Vitebsk in early 1919. Khidekel was just 14.
Khidekel was a teenage prodigy: a regular prize-winner during his three years at the school (sadly none of his award-winning pictures appear to have survived). Along the way he switched allegiance from Chagall to Malevich, who arrived in Vitebsk as a teacher in November 1919 and swiftly set about supplanting Chagall as the school’s leading light. Khidekel also studied architecture under El Lissitzky – to such effect that he was appointed head of the Architecture Department when only 17, after El Lissitzky’s departure to Moscow.
Khidekel is a constant presence – usually frowning at the end of a row (seated far right, above) – in surviving school photographs, alongside fellow-pupils like Ilya Chashnik and Nikolai Suetin, and an all-star teaching-staff that included Mstislav Dobuzhinsky, Ivan Puni, El Lissitzky, Nina Kogan, Robert Falk, David Yakerson and Vera Ermolayeva… as well as the warring Chagall and Malevich (standing second from left, above). According to Regina Khidekel, Lazar tried to make peace between the two, and to prevent Chagall’s departure from Vitebsk in June 1920. Chagall later declared himself grateful to Khidekel for defending him ‘against that bandit Malevich.’
The majority of the works shown at Pushkin House date from these Vitebsk years. They are small (seldom more than postcard-sized) and mostly colourless. Their decorative appeal is limited, their ‘wall-power’ non-existent. Khidekel would have baulked at such concepts: he viewed Suprematism as a complex of art, science and philosophy, says Regina Khidekel, who terms these austere works ‘revolutionary – each representing another step in developing a new visual language and a new understanding of space and form.’
In 1922 Khidekel followed Malevich to Petrograd where (bar an enforced exile to the Russian hinterland during World War II) he would spend the rest of his life as first a pupil, then Professor of Architecture, at the Institute of Civil Engineering.
Yellow Cross – his only surviving canvas of any size (albeit a modest 53 x 62cm) – dates from 1923, and has never left Lazar Khidekel’s family. Should it ever appear on the market it will whoosh him to global fame. This mesmerizing work offers a subtle, powerful reinterpretation of Malevich’s off-centre Black Cross (painted, like Black Square, in 1915) – with the cross transformed into the italicized ground-plan of a lurching, mustard-coloured cathedral, deposited amidst a warren of diagonal side-streets enclosing blocks of pink and vanilla.
Yellow Cross duly adorns the cover of the magnificent, just-published, 224-page Lazar Khidekel & Suprematism,* edited by Regina Khidekel: the first book written in English devoted exclusively to Lazar Khidekel. Its 180 illustrations (including 115 colour plates) provide a comprehensive overview of his graphic œuvre, accompanied by short essays assessing his role as a Suprematist, relationship with Malevich, career as an architect, and the stylistic ‘resonance’ between Khidekel and other artists and architects (spanning Robert Delaunay to Zaha Hadid via Kenneth Noland – perhaps Mikhail Matyushin and František Kupka could have been added).
The overwhelming influences on Khidekel, however, were El Lissitzky and Malevich, with whom he collaborated for several years after his arrival in what was soon Leningrad. As early as 1923 Khidekel worked with Malevich on architectons (Suprematist architectural models), then provided his own take on architectural Suprematism in designs for an Aeroclub (1923) and a Workers’ Club (1926, below left) – shown to acclaim at the inaugural O.S.A. (Contemporary Architects’ Union) exhibition in Moscow in 1927. Photographs of the vanished sports club Khidekel built in 1927 (below right) show these graphic ideas assuming concrete form amidst cutting-edge Suprematist horizontals and diagonals. Such was Khidekel’s burgeoning reputation that, while still a student, he was admitted to ASNOVA (Association of Avant-Garde Architects), and is credited with introducing Suprematist ideas to his professor at the Institute of Civil Engineers, the renowned Constructivist architect Alexander Nikolsky.
Khidekel graduated from the Engineering Institute in 1929. His earliest buildings to have survived were built 1931-33 and can be admired – in a somewhat dilapidated state – in Kirovsk, 25 miles east of St Petersburg. Originally named Nevdubstroy, this was one of the first examples of a sotsgorod (purpose-built Socialist Town), erected to house workers at a colossal new Power Station by the Neva. Five of Khidekel’s nine residential buildings remain, along with the bread factory, public baths and (somewhat altered) the power station itself.
Nevdubstroy was the sort of utopian project Suprematists dreamed about but in 1932, with Khidekel still only 28, Suprematism – along with Constructivism and all Avant-Garde movements – was officially proscribed. Although he designed several important buildings in 1930s Leningrad, Khidekel was obliged to modify his stylistic approach. As the Purges and ‘Anti-Formalist’ campaign gathered pace (victims would include his former Vitebsk teachers, Vera Ermolayeva and Nina Kogan), this was made clear to him by the Stalinist authorities, for whom Khidekel’s increasingly high profile (and Jewishness) were sources of irritation. On 13 March 1936 he was summoned for a bout of ‘self-criticism’ (самоотчет) by the Union of Architects.
The chilling 71-page typescript of proceedings survives in the Khidekel Family Archives. Khidekel’s pictorial works were banned from public display – something he shrugged off, declaring that ‘there was a tendency to reject painting as it could not satisfy life of that time, which was too dynamic – doing works for museums seemed a thankless task to artists.’ He was, however, allowed to pursue his work as an architect. Khidekel kept his thoughts to himself and paid lip-service to the diktats of the florid neo-Classicism imposed as the architectural equivalent of Socialist Realism. But he was not prepared to jettison the refined minimalism of Suprematist aesthetics altogether.
Subtle compromise – what Khidekel drily dubbed упрощенная классика (‘Simplified Classicism’) – is evident in his Moskva cinema (1937) on St Petersburg’s Staro-Peterhofsky Prospekt (below left). Over and above its pioneering status as the world’s first triplex cinema, the building is an artful stylistic hybrid. The colonnaded portico and sculpted frieze (by Igor Krestovsky) nod to the Stalinist love of pompous decor; the giant columns, deprived of plinths or capitals, are in minimalist contrast, while the clean-cut angles and subtle volumes display Suprematist sophistication.
Khidekel’s even sleeker design for a Café-Restaurant for the USSR Pavilion at the 1937 Paris World Fair (below right) was ditched at the last minute, reputedly after Stalin declared he did not want exiled Dashnaks (Armenian nationalists) dining on Soviet caviar. Plans to build it in Moscow, instead, also came to nothing after Stalin – paranoically suspicious of Soviet citizens who came into contact with the West – had all the Pavilion staff executed after their return from France.
Khidekel’s architectural career was mired in unhappy circumstance. In June 1941, just after the Nazi invasion of Russia, he was dispatched to Sverdlovsk (now Ekaterinburg) to design urgently needed armament factories – a host of metallurgical plants in the Urals, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan sprang up as a result. In 1942 he conceived the revolutionary idea of pама-блоки (‘frame-blocks’) made from locally available materials to speed up the construction of industrial complexes during wartime.
With architects in high demand during Leningrad’s frenetic decade of post-war reconstruction, Khidekel escaped the Jewish witch-hunt of Stalin’s final years – designing a Law Faculty, four schools, and a housing complex on Moskovsky Prospect before being re-consigned to the provincial delights of heavy industry. His last buildings, erected around 1960, were cellulose-paper plants in Siberia (Selenginsk and Bratsk) and Russia’s far north (Archangel and Syktyvkar).
A full study of Khidekel’s architectural output does not, unfortunately, fall within the scope of the new book. He continued to teach architecture almost until his death in 1986. As Boris Kirikov & Margarita Shtiglits point out, he was obliged to pursue ‘his forward-thinking architectural ideas in the privacy of his studio’ as he was ‘unable to publicize them.’ His granite tombstone has a Suprematist feel to it, and a Malevich-esque square above his name.
In the opinion of his daughter-in-law, Khidekel’s reputation suffered because ‘few Soviet art or architecture historians were interested in or able to publish about Suprematism,’ which was ‘not understood, and under constant suspicion as a kind of mystical trend.’ Khidekel was also, she believes, neglected by Western scholars because he was a Suprematist. ‘Constructivism – an umbrella definition associated with political and revolutionary ideas – was easier to grasp.’
At the time of his death, no artworks by Khidekel had ever appeared on the market, nor did Soviet museums show or seek to acquire them. His Moskva cinema was closed and, although widely considered Khidekel’s masterpiece (and an officially listed building), remains empty and forlorn.
His reputation was resurrected, slowly, after the collapse of the USSR. First, his artistic works began appearing in group exhibitions – The Great Utopia at the Guggenheim Museum (1992) and Europa, Europa in Bonn (1994) – then in solo shows like Lazar Khidekel: Suprematism & Architecture at New York’s Leonard Hutton Galleries in 1995 and Surviving Suprematism: Lazar Khidekel at the Magnes Collection, Berkeley, in 2004. Selim Khan-Magomedov’s Lazar Khidekel monograph was published (in Russian) in 2008, with an English version appearing two years later.
Things have moved faster since the Khidekel Society was launched in 2010 by Regina Khidekel and her husband Mark (also an architect, and much influenced by his father’s ideas). In 2014, to mark the 110th anniversary of Khidekel’s birth, the Society’s activities have been non-stop – with exhibitions in St Petersburg, New York and San Francisco; the staging of the annual Khidekel Young Architects Award in Baku; Khidekel’s presence in the Aviation & Avant-Garde show at the Moscow Jewish Museum; and a Khidekel & Suprematism section in the Russian Pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale. In 2015 works by Khidekel will feature in a major exhibition devoted to UNOVIS – the ‘Proponents of New Art’ who gathered around Malevich in Vitebsk – to run at the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven, Pompidou Centre in Paris and Russian Museum in St Petersburg.
The Khidekel Society’s ultimate goal is to create a Suprematist Research Centre based on the collection of documents and nearly 5,000 works on paper Lazar Khidekel assembled during his long life, and stubbornly refused to sell (even to as insistent a suitor as George Kostakis); the ensemble constitutes one of the most extensive Russian Avant-Garde archives in existence. To achieve this, admits Regina Khidekel, ‘inevitably we will have to sell – but we have a strategy, and we want to place the most important works in museum collections.’
In her scintillating introduction to the new book, Regina Khidekel reveals that Lazar Khidekel ‘classified himself as an artist, architect – and fantasist.’
Of course, anyone with creative integrity in Communist Russia needed vigorous imagination to withstand the stylistic straitjacket imposed by a totalitarian state. But in Khidekel’s case this imagination took unsuspected form – in a series of drawings and watercolours that have only recently, thanks to the Khidekel Society, come to light.
The earliest is a 1925 ‘experimental project’ for a ‘City on the Water’ (above left). The last date from the 1960s, and take the form of fluid geometric outlines gently suggesting Suprematist cities viewed from the air.
One design is for a ‘flying city,’ another for a city on stilts. The predominant colour is green, reflecting Khidekel’s belief – ahead of his time, and abruptly at odds with Communism’s disdain for ecology – that man should live in harmony with his environment.
Sometimes his long, narrow buildings resemble elegant jet planes; elsewhere layers of pathways and steps, lined with emerald hedges and trees, are dotted with blood-red figures like condensed characters of Chinese script.
These long-lost works, conceived by Khidekel essentially for his own contemplation, bridge Figurativism and Abstraction like those of a man who quit Petrograd just before Khidekel arrived: Nicolas de Staël. But Khidekel fused Figurativism and Abstraction more delicately, almost wistfully – with architecture his constant theme, and Suprematism a persistent bedrock.
In 1973, when Marc Chagall returned to Russia and met Lazar Khidekel for the first time in over 50 years, he expressed astonishment that his old art student should have become an architect.
Regina Khidekel and Maria Kokkori, her fellow-curator at the Pushkin House exhibition, see things slightly differently.
Lazar Khidekel ‘built drawings and drew buildings,’ they say. ‘He always remained an artist.’
Simon Hewitt with Regina & Mark Khidekel – Moscow, August 2014
All artworks courtesy of Lazar Khidekel Family Archive