by Regina Khidekel, PhD
Lazar Khidekel (1904 – 1986) classified himself as an “artist-architect,” later adding the moniker “fantasist” in reference to one of the central features of his art and architecture: “vision of Suprematist structures floating in space,” which first emerged as space stations of earthlings in his Vitebsk UNOVIS (Affirmers of New Art) works in 1920 – 1921, and the futuristic cities he conceived in the mid-1920s.
Khidekel was initially trained and nurtured as an artist by the best painters of the time. His first teacher, Marc Chagall, counted him as among the most talented painters in his studio. On encountering his former student during his 1973 visit to Russia, Chagall immediately recognized Khidekel and expressed astonishment that one of his best students had become an architect rather than a painter. With Chagall’s encouragement, fifteen-year-old Khidekel – who attended art school for less than a year – was exhibited alongside luminaries of modern art, including Chagall, Vassily Kandinsky, and Kazimir Malevich. Khidekel went on to become, in the words of his friend and fellow member of UNOVIS Ilya Chashnik, the only truly “revolutionary Suprematist.”
Although a few other members of UNOVIS organically absorbed the Suprematist system, most never managed to cross the threshold of abstraction, as did Khidekel. As stated in his completed UNOVIS questionnaire, Khidekel studied with Malevich himself – the only student taking Malevich’s course on Dynamics.
Khidekel’s gifts as an architect were recognized early on, beginning with his widely acclaimed workers’ club of 1926, which has come down in history as the world’s first Suprematist architectural design. In fact, starting with his work with El Lissitzky on the transition from planar to three-dimensional Suprematism, Khidekel became not just the first but indeed the only Suprematist architect. In his view, avant-garde architecture was derived from that modern pictorial system.
The study and publication of Khidekel’s Suprematist legacy followed several decades of Stalinist prohibition, coinciding with the gradual rediscovery of the Russian avant-garde and its creators during the Khrushchev thaw. This process, which began in the late 1960s, was the result of the efforts of a group of Soviet and international scholars, two of whom were especially important: Larissa Zhadova and Selim Khan-Magomedov.
Zhadova asserted that “Khidekel was Malevich’s principal assistant in his architectural experiments of 1924–25,” an assertion that today is fully corroborated by documents from the GINKhUK and GIII (State Institute of Art History) archives – many appearing in print for the first time in Irina Karasik’s contribution to “Lazar Khidekel and Suprematism” (Prestel Publishing, 2014).
For Khan-Magomedov, meeting Khidekel was one of the highlights of his scholarly career. By Khan-Magomedov’s own account, in the course of working on his landmark volume “Pioneers of Soviet Architecture,” for which he explored more than 150 institutional and private archives, the second shock, after being introduced to El Lissitzky’s Prouns, was his realization of “Khidekel’s works’ relevance to the breakthrough of Suprematism to architecture.”
Searching for the transitional elements between planar Suprematism and its implementation in the architectural arsenal of the 1920s, Khan-Magomedov found the vital missing links in the Khidekel archive. Khidekel’s “axonometric views based on Suprematist compositions” that inspired his series of cosmic dwellings (1920 – 21) and developed into works related to the Aero-Club (1922 – 23) were, in Khan-Magomedov’s words, “virtually the first truly architectural compositions based on Suprematism.”
Khan-Magomedov notes that, unlike Malevich’s paintings of 1915 – 18, Khidekel’s works, along with those of several others who passed through Lissitzky’s class on projection drawing, “consisted not of colored geometric figures freely floating in the white space but of extended rectangles joined in a rigid cross-like composition.” Khidekel regarded these graphic compositions as his contribution to the structural transformation of Suprematism.
Khan-Magomedov also noted in Khidekel’s work the presence of “extremely minimal structures . . . where a cross and a square intricately interacted: for instance, a square split by a cross,” in addition to such motifs as the yellow cross and echoes of Malevich’s white on white series – iconic images that determined Khidekel’s subsequent development of Suprematism.
Describing this chain of influence – Malevich–Lissitzky–Khidekel–Nikolsky – enabled Khan-Magomedov to define Khidekel’s role and influence on his professors as well as his architectural collaborations with Nikolsky and Simonov in the mid-1920s. Their jointly realized works significantly contributed to the emergence of a distinctive type of Suprematist Constructivism that characterized the work of the Leningrad avant-garde and “helped to consolidate the process of Soviet architects’ creative experimentation.”
In the section of his volume entitled “Experimental Urban Planning Designs,” Khan-Magomedov explores Khidekel’s different futuristic cities, such as the Aero-City, Garden City, City over Water, Floating City, and Flying City, which for Khan-Magomedov manifested the evolution of Khidekel’s cosmic habitats hovering above the Earth, “to the idea of mechanically raising an entire city above the earth.”
Khidekel’s legacy would never have been resurrected without the pioneering work of Khan-Magomedov, whose scholarly integrity and absence of any political or commercial vested interests made him unique. He did what he deeply believed. This is what makes especially meaningful his inclusion of ten of Khidekel’s designs in his 2005 book “Sto shedevrov sovetskogo architekturnogo avangarda” (100 Masterpieces of Soviet Avant-Garde Architecture).
It is important to note that publications about Khidekel, including a monographic study by Khan-Magomedov, were solely focused on Khidekel’s early experimental works of the 1920s. Like many scholars in the 1970s, Khan-Magomedov was interested only in experimental works, firmly refusing to consider anything created later than 1932, which was widely considered the endpoint of the Soviet avant-garde.
Creating his spatial-pictorial fantasies in the mid-1950s through 1960s, Khidekel predicted the spectacular enlargement in the size of contemporary paintings. Khidekel said that a person of the nineteenth century was a pedestrian who could grasp minutiae, but that in the quickened pace of the twentieth century, volumes are all that could be discerned from automobiles and planes and, as a reflection of visible space, the size of canvases would increase accordingly with time.
There are many accounts of the visceral impact of Khidekel’s work when examined up-close. One of the most passionate was penned by the critic J. Bowyer Bell, who encountered Khidekel’s Yellow Cross, the 1923 painting featured on the jacket of “Lazar Khidekel and Suprematism” (Prestel Publishing, 2014), at a 1997 exhibition in New York. Bell recounts that he was walking from one gallery in the show to the next, spending “too much time looking and no longer seeing anything. And a single peek down a corridor . . . was a work so compelling, so majestic that I was reeled in – or down – the corridor like a caught creature. There from fifty feet was a yellow cross that grew only more complex, more compelling the closer I came, obviously a constructivist work, as good as any Malevich, but not Malevich, unknown and sensational . . .
To make a masterpiece in one age, amid the clatter of the times and the fashion of the moment, is accomplishment enough. For the work to truly be a masterpiece it must travel. And so to make a work that seventy years later, in another country, another time, which can still command, still hold the viewer nor by name or fame or fashion, but on quality alone, is a truly marvelous achievement. What more can an artist desire than to stop the viewer in flight, haul the critic down the corridor, induce awe and admiration. Live again and still on a wall in an alien country in another time? The Khidekel – the painting – creates within the Fuller building a marker and monument – art in action. It is a painting that needs no brand recognition to critic’s accolade, no patron or shift in fashion. Khidekel will be remembered as long as there are those seeking an intensity of image, who can be moved across time and place by great painting. And would that the Yellow Cross end up where all can feel the zing across the years, end in a public space.”
This exhibition,“Lazar Khidekel and Suprematism”, was prepared by Regina Khidekel, PhD, and Dmitry Borshch.