Provenance issues in the work of Moissey Kogan

Moissey Kogan, The Last Supper

Provenance issues in the work of Moissey Kogan

One of the prime concerns for an editor of a catalogue raisonné is to establish which works purported to be by the artist are, in fact, lifetime works. There are various ways of doing this, some more technical than others, depending on the medium in question. The ideal situation is to be able to identify works that one can seamlessly trace back to the artist’s studio, that is, works with an unbroken chain of ownership with no gaps in the provenance.

Moissey Kogan‘s oeuvre, both sculptural and otherwise, has been subject to so many different complicating factors that it is especially important to be particularly scrupulous in analysing works and thoroughly checking the information associated with them.

During his lifetime, many of Kogan‘s sculptures, prints and drawings were removed from German museums as part of the Nazi Degenerate Art campaign of 1937. Some were destroyed, but others entered the international art market in questionable circumstances, as did works by the artist in the ownership of fellow Jews, which were systematically plundered by the National Socialist regime, whilst their owners fled or were killed in the Holocaust. Kogan‘s main dealer in Germany, Alfred Flechtheim, a fellow Jew, was dispossessed of his private collection, in which Kogan was represented, and of his gallery stock in Berlin and Düsseldorf, which included a considerable number of works by the artist. The businesses of other Jewish dealers met similar fates and Kogan‘s work was often bound up in the resultant sequestrations.

We do not know if Kogan kept a list of his works, their date of production and whereabouts. When he failed to return after the war, his family did not immediately know what had happened to him, but Maryla, his long-term partner, made her best efforts to find homes for his work in museums, in part successfully. However, on her untimely death in 1955, Kogan‘s estate passed into the hands of a succession of art dealers and his documentary estate was inexplicably destroyed, leaving no useful point of reference for the catalogue raisonné compiler.

Kogan was an artist who saw himself as an internationalist. Throughout his career, he worked enormously hard to establish and maintain an exhibiting presence in France, Germany and the Netherlands simultaneously, with forays into Switzerland and the United Kingdom. In fact, it was on his return to Paris from London in 1939, a return meant to be temporary, at a time when he was starting to gain a foothold in the British capital and had sold a sculpture to Kenneth Clark, the director of the National Gallery and Surveyor of the King’s Pictures, that he found himself cut off from much of his work.

Travelling as he did from country to country, Kogan was in the habit of leaving his work, sculptural moulds and woodcut blocks for safe-keeping in the studios of fellow artists. By late 1939, he had already been prevented for over six years from accessing what he had left in studios in Germany. He attempted to get a visa for the Netherlands, perhaps with the aim of retrieving much of his work there, including the many terracottas he had had fired in the country. However, as a Jew of what was now Romanian extraction, his application was refused. With his latest work inaccessible to him in London and Amsterdam, and with the Nazis starting their rampage across the continent, he had no option but to remain in Paris. On June 14, 1940, as the Nazis invaded the French city, Kogan‘s career was effectively over and he could do nothing to protect his oeuvre, dispersed as it was across Europe. All of this presents an enormous challenge for the catalogue raisonné editor, particularly since it has left the door open to unscrupulous people.

It is, therefore, particularly gratifying to be able to illustrate the case here, on Kogan’s 141st birthday, of a work, which we can unquestionably attribute to the artist.

Moissey Kogan-The Last Supper
Moissey Kogan, The Last Supper (Het Laatste Avondmaal), concrete relief, 21 x 35 x 10.5 cm, 1922 or before (© Museum Catharijneconvent, Utrecht)

The Museum Catharijneconvent dates this work to 1934(?). It was in that year that the precursor to the Museum, the Museum van Nieuwe Religieuse Kunst, part of the Aartsbisschoppelijk Museum of Utrecht, started accepting gifts in the run up to its opening in 1935. There is no mention of Kogan‘s gift to the Museum of this concave relief in their donation lists dating to 1934 or 1935, and the Museum no longer holds, if it ever did, an accompanying letter from Kogan. However, it does record that the work was donated by the artist himself in 1934.

The relief was not published during Kogan‘s lifetime. However, a short passage in a journal article, written by a fellow artist in 1936, which mentions the placement of the work with the Museum, refers to the relief as an early work by Kogan. This certainly accords with the work stylistically and in terms of its use of material.

In the Christmas 1922 edition of Der Querschnitt, Alfred Flechtheim‘s flagship arts and society feuilleton, a similar, now apparently lost, relief was illustrated. A slight variant of it was featured again in the journal in 1925. An image of the same relief (below) was sent in 1921 to the art historian, Kineton Parkes, who was compiling a third volume, never published, for his series entitled Sculpture of Today.

Moissey Kogan, Relief, 1922 or before
Moissey Kogan, concrete relief, dimensions unknown, 1921 or before, photo © Victoria and Albert Museum London (Kineton Parkes bequest). Whereabouts unknown.

Between 1918 and 1922, Kogan was based in Switzerland, where he had gone with his family to finally escape the war and, undoubtedly, the outbreak of Spanish flu. He had spent much of the war working in a factory and for a printers in Paris, unable to concentrate on his own work. During this brief period of his career in Switzerland, he started again to focus, amongst other things, on figurative relief schemes, which, before the war, he had termed his ‘temple pictures‘. In fact, he had produced numerous works in relief prior to, and after, his successful, large-scale, intervention for the Model Factory building designed by Walter Gropius and Adolf Meyer for the 1914 Werkbund Exhibition in Cologne.

Moissey Kogan, reliefs for Gropius's Model Factory
Moissey Kogan, part of relief scheme in artificial stone for stairwell of office building, Model Factory complex designed by Walter Gropius and Adolf Meyer for the 1914 Werkbund Exhibition, Cologne (destroyed).

His reliefs of this type generally depicted temple dancers reminiscent of various non-European cultic traditions. The Last Supper remains unique in Kogan‘s oeuvre in its representation of Christian imagery (aside from a minor relief depicting what might be the kneeling figure of a saint with halo around her head), and it remains to be discovered why he chose such subject matter. Nonetheless, the figural forms and relief scheme as a whole fit within the development of Kogan‘s work of this period. The use of concrete or, in some cases, artificial stone in these works continues the artist’s preoccupation with the possibilities of siting his work within architectural surrounds or projects conceived as Gesamtkunstwerke.

We know Kogan was based in the Netherlands for some considerable time in 1934 and 1935. Two further copies of The Last Supper are known to exist. Both stem from the estate of Hildo Krop, a fellow sculptor, in whose studio Kogan is known to have worked and to have left his moulds. Krop is documented as having produced work from moulds by Kogan posthumously and as having reworked other designs by the artist. Care must, therefore, be taken in ascribing any particular status to such works, until further research is undertaken. Due diligence, as ever, is a must.

Featured image: detail from Moissey Kogan, The Last Supper (Het Laatste Avondmaal), concrete relief, 21 x 35 x 10.5 cm, 1922 or before, gift of the artist in 1934 to the Museum van Nieuwe Religieuse Kunst (now the Museum Catharijneconvent, Utrecht).

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