An exhibition of art and architecture by the Russian artist and architect Lazar Khidekel is currently on view at the Judah L. Magnes Museum. It is entitled “Surviving Suprematism” and the drawings, watercolors, sketches and photographs of Khidekel’s buildings are indeed examples of survival.
When Khidekel was 16 he began his studies at the art school in Vitebsk where Marc Chagall and Kasimir Malevich were members of an astounding faculty. The young Khidekel was more attracted to the radical vanguard position of Malevich, the founder of Suprematism.
Suprematism was the first movement in art, which reduced—or advanced—painting to pure geometric abstraction. It originated in Russia just prior to World War I, at a time when Russian art—Cubo-Futurism, Rayonism, Suprematism, and Constructivism—were at the forefront of innovative explorations in art.
The most renowned works by Malevich were his “White on White” series of 1917-1920 in which not only the depiction of objects, but even color and space were eliminated in order to achieve the purest form in painting. To enter the “pure realm of sensation,” Malevich asserted, all references to reality as we know it, were rejected. It was an art in which conceptual and cerebral concerns, reaching for the spiritual, were of prime import. Malevich, did, however, make suggestions for a utopian architecture, and produced models which had an important impact on the Bauhaus, and eventually, on modernist architecture.
Lazar Khidekel was among the young artists for whom Malevich was the paradigmatic figure. The exhibition at the Magnes presents a number of splendid drawings, which he made between 1920 and 1922. They are small and show that large ideas do not need to be expressed in big format. They were done in the early days of the Soviet Union when the progressive politics of socialism and avant-garde art were for a short time in partnership. Khidekel then went on to study architecture and became a successful practitioner.
The Soviet Union, after a brief time of enlightened support for new artistic expression, labeled modernist art “antihumanistic, pathological and decadent” and suppressed the art of the Suprematists and Constructivists, restricting art to propagandist Socialist Realism.
Khidekel’s work as a successful architect in Stalinist Russia can be seen as a parallel to Shostakovich’s survival as an avant-garde composer in the Soviet Union. Khidekel managed to retain Suprematist concepts in some of the architectural sketches in the exhibition. His ideas of a Futurist city remind us of the projects by the Italian Futurist Antonio San ’Elia and Le Courbusier’s city plans.
As seen in sketches and photographs in the exhibition, Khidekel built electric power plants, lumber mills, workers’ housing projects and schools. His proposal for a Tchaikovsky Museum, which appears to float above the ground, retains Suprematist concepts. His 1959 design for a Stalin Pantheon is a far remove from his progressive ideas. Khidekel was a finalist for this project, which, fortunately, was never built.
But it was not only Suprematism which survived in a good many of his architectural designs, but it was Lazar Khidekel himself, a Jew in the anti-Semitic milieu of the Soviet Union, who managed to survive as a successful architect. He persevered in his utopian visions, as seen in his late watercolors, which clearly hark back to his early ideas. Daniel Libeskind was able to see beyond the facades of Khidekel’s official buildings when he expressed admiration for his architectural concepts.
The nearly 80 objects in the exhibition, which celebrates the 100th anniversary of Khidekel’s birth are on loan from his family. His son Mark Khidekel, also an architect, and his daughter-in-law Regina Khidekel spoke at a symposium about his work at the Museum on Dec. 5. The exhibition will remain on view until March 20.
Peter Selz is the founding director of the Berkeley Art Museum and a former curator of New York’s Museum of Modern Art.
The Magnes Museum is open 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Sundays through Wednesdays, and 11 a.m.-8 p.m. ; Thursdays, except Dec. 23 and Dec. 30 when it will close at 4 p.m.
2911 Russell St. 549-6950.