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theartsdesk in Moscow: Remembering George Costakis | reviews, news & interviews

theartsdesk in Moscow: Remembering George Costakis

theartsdesk in Moscow: Remembering George Costakis

Moscow pays tribute to the great Greek collector of the Russian avant-garde

Oleg Tselkov's 1976 'Portrait of George Costakis'Property of Inna Dymova Costakis; other painting images, courtesy Tretyakov Gallery

Russia’s national gallery, the Tretyakov, bears the name of its founder Pavel Tretyakov, the 19th-century merchant who bequeathed his huge collection of Russian art to the city of Moscow in 1892. His bust stands proudly overseeing the entrance to the gallery’s old building, a fine, purpose-built example of early Russian 20th-century architecture.

But the Tretyakov has a new wing, dating from the mid-1980s and less architecturally august, that is far less known (and much less visited), which houses its collection of Russian and Soviet art of the 20th century. If any figure deserved a memorial statue there, it would surely be George Costakis, the pre-eminent collector of the Russian avant-garde and Soviet non-conformism, who bequeathed the greater part of an extraordinary collection to the Soviet state in 1977. His name and virtual presence, however, has been dominating that space for the last two months, with crowds flocking to a memorial exhibition subtitled “Departure from the USSR”, alluding to the circumstances that preceded the Costakis donation. 

'I had the impression that I had been living in a dungeon with closed windows, and now the windows opened, and the sun poured in'

It’s no exaggeration to put the name of the Greek collector, who was born in Moscow and lived there for the greater part of his life, on a level with that of Tretyakov. The regular display in the museum’s new building is comprised of three main directions: there’s Socialist Realism of course, the official style of those decades when artistic style and propaganda were controlled by the Communist Party, and there are works of contemporary artists who have emerged after perestroika. But the lion’s share – in terms of their hypothetical auction value, any comparison would be monumental – of the work there is based on what Costakis bequeathed.

Russia has of course had other notable collectors over the last century, most notably the Moscow industrialists Sergei Shchukin and Ivan Morozov, who were among the earliest collectors of Picasso and Matisse in Paris, but it wasn’t philanthropy that saw their collections passed into public hands after the Revolution, rather appropriation. Divided now between different institutions, prime among them Moscow’s Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts and St Petersburg’s Hermitage, it’s harder to see any trace of the individual hand of the original collector involved. (There’s also a very attractive small wing of the Pushkin devoted to private collections, amassed by both artists and 20th-century private collectors, that opened there in the 1990s.)

But if Pavel Tretyakov’s name has been a legend for well over a century, that of George Costakis has not: a significant achievement of “Departure from the USSR” was to introduce him, and the world he inhabited, to the wider public. Huge gallery dividing-walls displayed photographic images of Costakis in his celebrated Moscow apartment, where he kept his collection for many years, in the company of his contemporaries, both artists (Oleg Tselkov’s portrait of Costakis, main picture), and a variety of eminent Russian and international visitors, from diplomats to Edward Kennedy, Andrzej Wajda and Michelangelo Antonioni.

The circumstances of Costakis’ life remain little-known in Russia, and it was a biography that would hardly lead you to expect that his legacy would be as one of the great collectors of the 20th century. Born in Moscow in 1913 (the centenary of that date saw the opening of a room devoted to the collector at the Tretyakov, of which this wider exhibition was a continuation) into a family of prosperous Greek merchants, the Costakis family world was rocked by the Revolution, but they never contemplated emigration. His father, Dionysius – George Costakis is known locally by the Russian combination of name and patronymic, Georgy Dionyisivich – eventually found work with the Greek Embassy in Moscow, and his sons followed him in that employment. In 1932 the young George married his Russian bride Zinaida, with whom he would have three daughters and a son: he managed to keep his Greek nationality, and holding that passport would later play a key role in his life, while his family were Soviet citizens. At the end of the 1930s members of his family would be imprisoned, though thankfully only briefly.

After the Molotov-Ribentrop pact in 1939, the Greek Embassy in Moscow was closed, and though Costakis himself was offered relocation to Canada, he chose to stay with his family in the USSR. After the uncertainly of the early war years, in 1944 he found a job as a superintendant at the Canadian Embassy, remaining there for many years and eventually assuming responsibility for all local staff. That post also, crucially, gave him diplomatic immunity, and a salary paid in hard currency.

As part of those early roles he would often escort diplomats around Moscow’s antique shops, and slowly Costakis started collecting himself. The fields with which he began included porcelain, Russian silver, Dutch painting and textiles – very different from the one that would make his name. Then there was an epochal encounter with the work of the avant-garde artists (in particular, a 1917 work Green Band by Olga Rozanova, of which the collector would later recall, “the feel of modernism in this picture is something extraordinary: in the US, it could only have been painted in the Seventies”). As Costakis wrote in his memoir My Avant-garde: “I bought the works of the avant-garde artists, brought them home, and hung them next to the Dutch [painters]. I had the impression that I had been living in a dungeon with closed windows, and now the windows opened, and the sun poured in. My heart soared with joy. From that moment I decided to leave behind everything I had done before, and collect only the avant-garde.”

It was a time when the avant-garde was not only out of favour, but outlawed by the Stalinist regime: only in 1986 would any of the artists concerned be finally re-exhibited in Soviet museums. The paradox of the Russian avant-garde, of course, was that for brief years following the Revolution the young Soviet state actively engaged with revolutionary ideas in art, and encouraged the radical. The title of the landmark exhibition, “The Great Utopia: The Russian and Soviet Avant-Garde, 1915-1932”, which came to the Tretyakov back in 1993 (as part of a much wider international tour), most accurately defines the movement’s timeline, though such distinctions are inevitably loose. 1915 is generally taken as the year in which a distinctive Russian direction emerged from under the shadow of the European movements, Cubism primarily, that had nurtured it; 1932 saw the final exhibition, at Moscow’s Historical Museum, that showed works by Kazimir Malevich, Lyubov Popova, Ivan Kliun, Alexander Rodchenko and others under any form of official patronage. By the mid-1940s, the period when Costakis was beginning to collect the avant-garde, such official disapproval had heightened, with the publication of a celebrated open letter from bureaucrat Andrei Zhdanov which specifically criticized the work of writers Mikhail Zoshchenko and Anna Akhmatova, and by extension any art that was deemed as remote from the people.

The new direction that Costakis had chosen was not only risky, but one that few believed would ever bring any result. Admitting his inexperience in the first couple of years of his collecting, Costakis sought advice from others in the country’s artistic community. “You know, it’s all very interesting, but it’s a lost cause. The avant-garde is of no use to anyone, it’s over. From 1932 it’s been forbidden art, the museums won’t show it any more, any interest has died, and it’s been buried,” were the warning words he received from one such contact. Gradually, however, Costakis gained his own expertise in the field, as well as the trust of the artists – and no less often, of their surviving relatives – to expand his collection.

No question of purchase with that one – first Costakis had to find a piece of replacement plywood to stop the rain coming in

Thus, he found the brother of Popova, who was happy to sell him a number of canvases, suggesting that others might belong to another family member. Costakis duly located the latter in the countryside outside Moscow: there was another work there, being used to block up a shed window. No question of purchase with that one – first Costakis had to find a piece of replacement plywood to stop the rain coming in.

In the same way he found the widow of Kliment Redko, and asked to see any of her late husband’s surviving works from the 1920s. Various were duly brought down from the loft: Redko’s widow asked whether Costakis liked them, explaining that the artist himself had thought his later works more successful. “Well, if you like them, take them all,” she said. “Take them? I will buy them!” Costakis insisted. “Well, you can make a little payment then,” he was told. Then as they were parting she remembered that there was one more work, hidden away behind a wardrobe, Redko’s Revolt (pictured, top image in artcicle). “An absolutely amazing piece,” Costakis would later write. “In the centre of the composition were depicted members of the Soviet government, including Trotsky, Lenin, Bukharin… Around them war went on, with machine-guns, troops. In the background – houses glowing in flames. The picture gave the impression that if you approached it closer, you would be blazed by the heat. I was astonished! And of course I bought the work.” A more significant point for the period was that Stalin was depicted only in the rear of the picture, among the secondary figures of Party officials. Solomon Nikritin's 1934 People's Court (see, Gallery, below), also acquired from that artist's widow, has a similar level of social unease for its time.

In such a way Costakis built his collection. At the end of the 1960s he moved with his family to a larger apartment in a newly-built block at Prospekt Verndasky, 59, which offered at least modest space to display the works: the atmosphere there is conveyed outstandingly in photographs by Henri Cartier-Bresson (above and below, © Magnum Photos) who came there on his working visit to the Soviet Union in 1972. The testimony of one visitor, an Italian journalist, describes the experience atmospherically: “The external appearance of the building was in no way remarkable, it was one of the many modern buildings, almost on the edges of Moscow. You go up to the 15th floor, and find a wooden door, no nameplate, and the usual Russian double-lock. The door was opened by a somewhat chubby, slow-moving man of about 60, wearing heavy glasses in thick frames. ‘Welcome,’ he says, in perfect English, ‘Come in’. We take a few steps in the dark hallway and then suddenly encounter one of the most remarkable sights of our lives… The walls are completely hung with the works of the Russian avant-garde. The far wall displays Chagall. Above the sofa hangs the famous Kandinsky. Opposite, a little apart, are some of the best-known Malevich and Popova. After the two-hour excursion, when his home stands behind us once again, the bright colours of Chagall and Popova remain before our eyes: we have a strange feeling, that we have been somewhere in a dream. Among this grey Soviet decoration, the personality of Costakis simply does not fit in with reality.” The collection had expanded by then well beyond the older Russian avant-garde to included the non-conformists of the 1950s and 1960s, among them Anatoly Zverev, Vladimir Veysberg, Oscar Rabin, Oleg Tselkov and Dmitry Krasnopevtsev (that artist is a particular favourite from that loose group for this writer: Krasnopevtsev pictured bottom left with Costakis, by Igor Palmin)

But such international fame had begun to attract the wrong kind of attention from the KGB. An unexplained fire at the other Costakis home, their dacha outside Moscow, destroyed a part of his collection of those same non-conformist artists that was held there, while two break-ins at the Moscow apartment were carefully, and symbolically, staged: no indication of locks broken, with the theft of missing archive works discovered only later. The collector discussed his predicament with friends, and came to the conclusion that he would offer the larger part of his collection to the Soviet state (even though ideologically it would hardly seem keen to accept such a gift), in return for permission for his family to emigrate, taking a specified list of artworks with them. Such was the gist of the letter, only recently declassified, that he sent to the Soviet Ministry of Culture at the end of October 1976: the initiative came from Costakis himself.

It took some months of nervous discussion among the higher echelons of the Soviet cultural bureaucracy to reach a decision, but their positive response came on March 16 1977: “The Ministry of Culture of the USSR expresses its heartfelt gratitude in response to your noble deed.” Other declassified documents give an indication of just what had inspired such a decision: “It can be safely assumed that the acceptance of Costakis’ gift and his departure with a portion of his collection will show us in a favourable light politically.”

Costakis’ daughter Alika and son Alexander left the USSR in autumn 1977, taking with them part of his collection: soon after they arrived in Dusseldorf, it went on to display there, the first event in a wider international tour that would include London’s Royal Academy. George Costakis and his wife Zinaida followed in January 1978; at the end of 1979 Costakis auctioned part of his collection at Sotheby’s. The greater part was later acquired by the Greek government, now forming a significant part of the Thessalonika Museum of Contemporary Art.

Costakis had made various stipulations about the future of the works he had donated, including that the collection should not be broken up, and should be shown with attributions to its collector. Most were followed, but when some pieces appeared abroad for the first time, in France as part of the seminal 1979 “Paris-Moscow” exhibition, there was no indication of their provenance. That was a gesture that injured. Costakis would return to Moscow for a final time in 1986 for an exhibition at the Tretyakov in which 10 pictures from his collection were included, with a modest few lines of information about their donor.

Despite such a history, the mood at the Tretyakov exhibition’s closing ceremony last weekend was celebratory, as if Costakis had finally been given the recognition he deserved from the country where he had spent most of his life. There was a specially Greek atmosphere to the event: the Greek ambassador spoke alongside the collector’s relations (a niece is today director of Moscow’s Museum of Oriental Art), and other Greek-Russian friends who shared personal memories. One of the Tretyakov curators, Irina Pronina, has written movingly of how Costakis, who died on March 9 1990, is buried in an Athens cemetery not far from the tomb of Heinrich Schliemann, the discoverer of Troy: “At the end of his life Costakis understood that the donation of his treasure, his discovered ‘Troy’ of the Russian avant-garde, to the people with whom he had shared the trials and tribulations of revolution, persecution, war and ruin, was the pivotal action of his life.”

One of the closing suggestions of that rather special Greek day was that a memorial plaque might be erected on that otherwise standard apartment building on Moscow’s Prospekt Vernadsky where the Costakis family and collection had had their home. Russian memorials tend to be more ambitious than the British Blue Plaque variety. George Costakis, as the country’s art-lovers have been reminded, deserves a more than lavish one than most. Though I’m not sure he, a modest man in life, would have much time for the levels of pomp that might come with it.

Gallery: Paintings from the collection of George Costakis in the Tretyakov Gallery

At the end of his life Costakis understood that the donation of his treasure to the people with whom he had shared the trials and tribulations of revolution, persecution, war and ruin, was the pivotal action of his life

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When Costakis paid a visit Popova's family home in the 1960s, he was shocked to see one of her paintings on plywood being used to board up a broken window. That's a story that is still being told.

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