Monthly Archives: March 2013

George Costakis (A Russian Life in Art) THE TURN OF THE WHEEL (Part 3)

THE TURN OF THE WHEEL

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Solomon Borisovich Nikritin. Man and Cloud. Oil on canvas. 1930.

The message the ambassador had to deliver was incredible in more than one way. First, there was to be an exhibition, to mark the opening of the new Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, of private collections donated to the Soviet state. Costakis’ collection, the collection of madmen’s scribbles and obscenities, would be represented by twenty works, most of them from the avant-garde. And as if that was not enough, the minister of culture of the USSR wished to invite Mr. and Mrs. Costakis to come to Moscow as his honoured guests to attend the opening. Costakis, who not so many years before had left the country in terror of the KGB, officially branded a traitor, could not believe what he was hearing. Art which for fifty years had been non-art to open the most prestigious museum in Russia, and a collector who was a traitor to be present as the minister’s guest?

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Solomon Borisovich Nikritin. People’s Court. Fragment. Oil on canvas. 1933.

His incredulity did not prevent his taking the next plane for Moscow. Zina was unwell and stayed in Athens. In Moscow, Costakis said, they did not actually put out a red carpet, but they did everything else. Official greeting at the airport, car and driver for as long as he wanted them, suite in Moscow’s most elegant old hotel, “with fruit and champagne on the table, and 130 roubles a week for expenses.” The next day, Costakis was received by the deputy minister of culture (who apologized for the absence of the minister), to whom he explained what the avant-garde was all about “and the mistakes they had made and so on.” This apparently went down well, because the deputy minister ended the meeting by saying, “Anytime you want to come, you will be our dear guest and we will do all we can to help you.” Costakis was dazed by it all; he recalled: “I went to the Beryezka [special shop for foreigners with foreign currency] and I bought lots of food, sturgeon, and caviar … and I invited about fifty of my old friends, painters and critics and photographers … and I did a wonderful reception. We finished about forty bottles of vodka, and it was just wonderful. And I found the boys very happy. And I went to the Canadian embassy and the charge d’affaires invited me to lunch, and there were Pierre Trudeau and Bernard Lamarre and some other people.”

Peter Roberts

George Costakis (A Russian Life in Art) THE TURN OF THE WHEEL (Part 2)

THE TURN OF THE WHEEL

p1 George Costakis (A Russian Life in Art) THE TURN OF THE WHEEL (Part 2)

Olga Vladimirovna Rozanova. Untitled. (Green Stripe). Fragment. Oil on canvas. 1917.

One official agency, however, did not mind admitting its interest. The KGB had come to know all about George Costakis and probably to know more than they cared to admit about the avant-garde. Because if official Russia was indifferent to its own artistic past, the rest of the world was not. Chagall, Kandinsky, Malevich were in 1978, and had been for a long time, household names in every Western country, their works to be seen in every major art museum. As it became known that at the Canadian embassy in Moscow there was a clerk called Costakis who had dozens of works by these artists hanging on his walls, and hundreds of the same school by other artists unheard of and never seen in the West, foreign artists, art historians, curators, museum directors, and curious folk great and small began turning up at Costakis’ door. Before long this “crazy Greek,” this nobody, was one of the most famous people in Russia – as far as foreigners were concerned; among Russians, only the art world had heard of him. It was a situation which did not please the KGB, and which they set out, with their usual zeal, to correct. Their objective was to get rid of him, not necessarily nicely.

They succeeded, in the sense that Costakis got on his plane in 1978, expecting never to return. He did this because he was afraid of them, and with reason. They succeeded in the further sense of having him, for the time being, officially labelled “traitor,” which was how a senior Soviet official described Costakis upon seeing a picture of him in the Canadian embassy. But in a much larger sense they failed.

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Kazimir Severinovich Malevich. Portrait of Matiushin. Fragment. Oil on canvas. 1913.

By 1986 Costakis had been living in Athens for six years, keeping in a kind of touch with his Russian friends through Natasha, the daughter who remained in Moscow. He was devastatingly homesick, having learned the hard way that although he had a Greek name, Greek parents, a Greek passport, Greek skin and eyes, and spoke Greek, he was in fact Russian to the bone. The sense of exile was overwhelming. In his own words: “I was ignored by the Soviet apparatus, and you remember what that senior Soviet official told you about me and so on. So there was not one word about me in the newspapers or magazines, even though I left a big part of my collection to the Russians.” Then the miracle happened. A telephone call from the Soviet ambassador in Athens. Would Costakis come for a cup of tea? He would and did.

Peter Roberts

George Costakis (A Russian Life in Art) THE TURN OF THE WHEEL (Part 1)

THE TURN OF THE WHEEL

In January 1978, Georgii Dionisovich Kostaki, or George Costakis as he is called in the West, boarded a plane at Sheremetyevo airport in Moscow and left Russia
forever, as he thought. He was sixty-six. With him he took his wife Zina, his daughter Lilya, and his son Sasha. And he took twenty percent by value of his collection
of Russian avant-garde art, one of the world’s great modern art collections. With him went also personal memories of every important event of Soviet history:
revolution, civil war, Lenin and Trotsky, Stalin’s rise to power, forced collectivization, terror and the gulag, the second war, the second terror, the death of
Stalin, the moment of hope under Khrushchev, the long dry years after. For him the strongest memories were of art and artists, the search for lost treasures, and the
amassing of the collection. Other memories that went with him concerned years of official indifference turning to hostility and finally active persecution by the KGB,
the Committee of State Security.

photo George Costakis (A Russian Life in Art) THE TURN OF THE WHEEL (Part 1)

Costakis with artist Vasily Sitnikov, Moscow, 1975.

Behind him he left (by her choice) another daughter, Natasha, many Russian and foreign friends, and eighty percent of his collection. The value of the collection, both
what he took with him and what stayed in Russia, has yet to be determined in the art market. Certainly it will be a very large sum.

George Costakis was a Russian patriot, even a Soviet patriot, and he boarded his plane with tears in his eyes, feeling, rightly, that he was being driven from his own
country guilty of nothing but having given it a priceless gift.

When Costakis left Russia, the art he had collected was regarded by Soviet officialdom as worthless junk, the scribblings of lunatics. Soviet art historians and museum
curators of course knew better, but they also knew better than to say so out loud. Costakis himself, although officials had their thick files on him, was officially
nobody The Union of Soviet Artists, that high priesthood of socialist realism, wanted nothing to do with him. The ministry of culture had never, it said, heard of him
or his collection. An occasional official, if questioned about the Russian avant-garde, might admit that he had heard of a crazy Greek who was collecting this rubbish.

Peter Roberts