The Russian avant-garde developed within the historical framework and the ideological climate which prepared the way for the Russian Revolution. The artists who called traditional art into question felt themselves to be brothers and fellow travellers with the revolutionaries. Artists were to meet and act in concert on the stage of the Revolution who had different origins and frequently ideologies and aesthetics that were opposed to each other.
World War I brought about a geographical transposition of the dynamic artistic nuclei. The great artistic centers were caught up in the vortex of war. The leading figures in the avant-garde were divided up between the front lines and more secure refuges. New scenes of artistic activity now emerged: Zurich, Amsterdam, New York and Moscow.
The Russian members of the avant-garde, who were in various European capitals, returned to their homeland, such as Kandinsky who went back to Moscow. This concentration of artistic forces, the experiences thus brought to the artistic life of the country and the revolutionary fervour explain the rapid development of the Russian avant-garde.
The Russian artists were well informed of the developments in the large European centers. Not only because they had travelled to them or studied in them but also because they had travelled to them or studied in them but also because large Russian collectors were fanatic friends of the European avant-garde and their collections contained representative works. Sergei Shchukin had 221 paintings in his collection. Among them were 54 works by Picasso and 37 by Matisse, Ivan Morozov had a similar number of works, mainly of the Impressionists. These works today constitute the pride of the state collections at the Pushkin Museum and the Hermitage at St. Petersburg.
Rayonism (a synthesis of rhythm, motion and light which sprang from Cubism, Futurism and Orphism) and Cubofuturism dominated the Russian scene in the years directly after 1910. They were followed, around 1915, by the two great currents of Suprematism and Constructivism working in tandem with other abstract tendencies. A common hallmark of all these currents was a belief in the universality of art which transcended and indirectly denounced the nationalism responsible for the collective slaughter of the war.
Malevich, the high priest of Suprematism, the most Platonic member of the Russian avant-garde, was seeking an absolute language through the use of significant geometric forms and was finally led to the "zero point" of painting with his White Square on White (1918), which both presages and transcends Minimal Art.
In contrast to the purely formal inquiry of Suprematism, the adherents of Constructivism saw the artist acting as a political animal within society itself and putting art at the service of the Revolution and, later on, production. The boundaries between the arts symbolised the various classes and had to be abolished. The artist was called on to give form to the new society, to improve the quality of industrial production, to build the cities of the future and create the prototypes of technology.
Tatlin, the leading figure of the Constructivist movement, compressed all of his theoretical and aesthetic points of view into the Monument to the Third International (1919), an inclined cybernetic tower, a mobile monument which incorporated the dimension of time in its form and its functions, the cube (seat of legislative power), the pyramid (center of executive power) and the cylinder (information center); these were all harmonised together in its spiral shape and would all move with a different rhythm, depending on what their function was (a revolution a year or a month of every twenty-four hours). This monument-symbol of the Revolution was never brought to realisation, like many of the other aims of the Revolution.
The artists of the avant-garde, legendary names today, all those that we will encounter in the exhibition of the Costakis Collection, were mobilised and induced to act together with the leading figures of the Revolution due to the efforts of the Commissar of Public Enlightenment, Anatoli Lunacharskii.
Great members of the avant-garde played their part in the Department of Visual Arts (IZO): Kandinsky, Altman, Puni, Rozanova, who was fated to die the same year. The first concern of IZO was to found museums (36 were founded immediately and 26 more were added in 1921). The museums were characteristically called, "Museums of Artistic Culture" and were initially endowed with two million rubles which were destined in the main for the purchase of avant-garde works. The Constructivist Rodchenko was made the head of the Museun Service.
In 1920 the Institute of Artistic Culture (Inkhuk) was created as a division of IZO. The educational programs, were drawn up by Kandinsky who endeavoured to unify the objective theories of Suprematism (absolute form with a disregard for any application), Constructivism (an emphasis on structure and the introduction of materials for a program of applied art) and his own theory on the intellectual symbolism of the formal elements.
These programs were applied at the Free Studios that operated in St. Petersburg (Svomas) where Malevich, Altman, Puni, Tatlin and others taught, in Moscow at the Higher State Art-Technical Studies (Vkhutemas) where Malevich, Tatlin, Kandinsky, Rozanova, Pevsner and Udaltsova among others spent time, and later at Vitebsk where Chagall, Malevich (Unovis School) and Lissitzky, the creator of Proun (Project for the Affirmation of the New), all taught.
The artists of the avant-garde dressed up the Revolution and made propaganda for it; they staged its festivals, painted its posters, designed platforms for Lenin and created a new language for printing in order to transmit its messages. After it prevailed they were mobilised for production. The revolutionary fervour acted as a stimulus for all the arts rejuvenating them and above all getting them to work together and in co-ordination. The utopian idea of an art which would be identified with life itself seemed for a moment poised on the brink of achieving its historical realisation. Maiakovskii, the representative of Fururism, dreamed of directing symphonies of factory whistles. In 1920 Kandinsky proposed the erection of a monument to the "Great Utopia" because that would ignite the progress of the spirit.
Alas, the vision was destined to remain nothing more than a grand social and artistic utopia. The new economic policy, the death of Lenin, the removal of Lunacharskii, the subjection of art to a doctrinaire, propagandistic program, all constituted repeated blows to the avant-garde movement. The art of the Revolution was succeeded by a rhetorical socialist realism (1934) which betrayed both socialism and realism. The artists went into voluntary exile (Kandinsky, Gabo, Pevsner) or withdrew to the sidelines and grew silent. The ones that left for Europe took their experience with them and stimulated other movements (the Bauhaus).
What occurred on the political, economic and social level with the collapse of the so-called living socialism had been symbolically as well as teleologically presaged by the foundering of the Russian avant-garde.
The Costakis Collection comes to the National Gallery so this epic may live once more. One of its hallmarks is the number of high quality artists revealed to us, which shows the mass character of the phenomenon. Another very moving feature of this collection is the prominent place of women in the movement and the quality of their work; Goncharova, Stepanova, Rozanova, Popova and Ekster will impress one with the artistry and the robustness of their works which display a high level of spirituality.
The Russian avant-garde today holds an eminent position in the history of the twentieth century art. Repeated exhibitions have managed to illuminate the unknown aspects of this so complex and rich artistic harvest. The Costakis Collection and the collector himself played a decisive role in providing us with a deeper knowledge of the Russian avant-garde and established it historically. George Costakis, although in the area of art, had the sensitivity to almost instinctively grasp the incredible expressive force of the works of the Russian avant-garde and established it historically. George Costakis, although self-taught in the area of art, had the sensitivity to almost instinctively grasp the incredible expressive force of the works of the Russian avant-gardist and decided from a sense of love and historical responsibility to save as much as he could. In secret and held in contempt, not only by the Stalinist state and the official aesthetics of Socialist Realism, but frequently by the creators themselves, the works of the Costakis Collection had to be disinterred from chests, closets and attics.
I first heard about this deeply moving and all too often dangerous undertaking, a quest that lasted for so many years, from the lips of the collector himself at the Athens School of Fine Arts where he had been invited to present his collection immediately after he settled in Athens in 1977. The faith, the passion, the profound knowledge derived from his great familiarity with the works, and the apostolic dedication of the collector to the single goal of this art to the ends of the earth, surrounded George Costakis with a mythical aura. He was the hero of a unique adventure. And in truth he achieved his goal with professional sensitivity perseverance and consistency. The Costakis Collection has been presented at the largest museums in the world and has been presented at the largest museums in the world and has been presented at the largest museums in the world and has been reviewed in glowing terms by the international press. Despite his modesty, which led him to deprecate himself to the advantage of his friends the artists and their work, Costakis has become a legendary figure in the contemporary history of collecting.
George Costakis (1913-1990) was born in Russia of wealthy Greek parents and retained his Greek citizenship; he passed through nearly the entire century and came to know all the vicissitudes of history in the Soviet Union. With the advantage of a salary that was paid in hard currency from the Canadian Embassy where he served, Costakis began to collect Old Masters, mainly Dutch, even before World War II, carrying on an old Russian, bourgeois tradition. Immediately after the end of that war, in 1946, he was to see one of the most radical works of Rozanova which revealed to him the simplicity, the brilliance and the "therapeutic power" of this art. Thus he began his hunt for this hidden treasure. The Costakis Collection became unique in wealth, scope and importance. After 1960, the collector' s apartment in Moscow became a place of pilgrimage for specialists and foreign art lovers who were visiting the Soviet capital. When in the end Costakis decided to leave with his family in 1977, he reached an agreement with the Soviet authorities, whereby he left 80% of his collection to the Tretiakov Gallery. As the collector himself confessed he gave the museum "several of the rarest and most important pieces" in his collection because they belonged to the history of art of the Russian people. The finest works from this donation are now come from Moscow to be reunited with the works that Costakis took with him when he left. Greece has been remiss in honouring this great Greek collector. Which is why it is fulfilling its obligation with a magnificent exhibition which surpasses in size and importance any other exhibition that has been staged in the entire world up to now.
The organisational feat was brought to successful completion through the heroic self-denial and profound knowledge of our colleague Anna Kafetsi. I wish to thank her and congratulate her. She was assisted in this endeavour by night long labours of the curator Tonia Yannoudaki, employees of EPMAS, our dear and willing as always, Marika Nezi and Roula Spanoudi, and Chara Skarmea, official of the European Centre of Delphi. Finally, I whole-heartedly thank my tireless assistant Eirini Tselepi for her multifarious help, particularly in her capacity as public relations officer for the Exhibition.
The organisation of such a large exhibition was a risky undertaking from all points of view. The National Gallery and the European Cultural Centre of Delphi ventured to attempt it with the encouragement and the assistance of the Ministry of Culture. I want to offer my particular thanks to the Minister of Culture, Mr Thanos Mikroutsikos, who lent his support to this plan, and the Deputy Minister of Culture, Mr Stavros Benos, who took up the staff and continued to assist us.
Warm thanks are also owed to the chairmen and the members of the administrative councils of the two foundations: Mr Apostolos Botsos, chairman of the Audit Court and of the National Gallery and Alexandros Soutzos Museum, and Mrs Eleni Glykatzi-Arveler, president of the administrative council of the European Cultural Centre of Delphi for their support. My dear friend Mr.Vassilis Karasmanis and I passed some anguished moments in our harmonious co-operative endeavours for the preparation of the exhibition.
But the exhibition could not have been realised without the undivided co-operation of the Costakis family, in particular the daughter of G. Costakis, Aliki, his granddaughter Katerina Stramedova Rousou and her husband Christos Rousos. The Costakis Collection is reunited in the National Gallery exhibition thanks to the generosity of the Tretiakov Gallery of Moscow, which has kindly lent us the most representative pieces in the section of the Collection in its possession. Our cordial thanks to the Director of the Tretiakov, Valentin Rodionov, and to the Deputy Director, Lidia Jovleva. Our grateful thanks also to the museums and collections in Russia, Europe and America which by willingly lending us their treasures ensured that this exhibition would be as complete as possible. Ambassador Valeri Nicolaenko, Russian diplomatic representative in Athens, and Vladimir Mikhailov, Cultural Attache in the Russian Embassy, have supported our efforts and we thank them cordially. In making our arrangements with the Russian museums, we had the assistance of Maria Beikou, who was always efficient and friendly and fully deserves our thanks.
We also owe a debt of gratitude to all the Greek and foreign experts who wrote the texts for the catalogue and to all those-including the translators and copy-editors-who worked hard to complete it. The collaboration of Maria Tsantsanoglou, historian of Russian literature, was particularly valuable.
We have the graphic artist Yorgos Tzilianos to thank for the superb aesthetic appearance of the catalogue. Our highest praises, however, are reserved for Adam Publications and their outstanding associates, who achieved the almost impossible in accomplishing a book-producing feat in next to no time.
The extensive catalogue and the volume of documentation would never have been published at all without the generous sponsorship of the J.F. Costopoulos Foundation. Our most cordial thanks to Annie Costopoulou and John Costopoulos, President of Credit Bank, for supporting our ambitious undertaking.
The Ionian Bank continues to generously support the work of the National Gallery. I extend my warmest thanks to its President, Panayotis Korliras, the vice-president Gerasimos Sapountzoglou and the public relations officer G. Limberis.
We would also like to thank Apostolos Kosonas, President of the National Tourist Organisation of Greece, and Nikos Sifounakis, Minister of Tourism, for their sponsorship. Thanks, too, to Constantine Kananis and Alexandros Holevas, President and General Secretary of the Hellenic-Russian Chamber of Commerce, for their willing assistance.
With the help of the Directorate of the Directorate of Cultural Buildings and Restoration, it proved possible to prepare the exhibition galleries on time to host the Collection. Our thanks for this to Voula Papaniza, Director and member of the Board of Management of EPMAS and associates. Sonia Haralambidou created a "constructivist" set ideal for accentuating the exhibits and recreating the atmosphere of heroic early twentieth-century Modernism. Antonis Lignos and Tasos Vlachonikolos, associates of the National Gallery, executed the drawings for the set with great effectiveness. I would like to thank them all -and the G. Yeorgiou and G. Bakalbasis construction company - for their assistance.
The task of transporting the art-works was undertaken and carried out with his usual professional conscientiousness by Stelios Bergeles. My thanks, lastly, to Michalis Doulgeridis, head of the Restoration Department, Kostas Arvanitakis, head of Administrative Services, chief custodians Ioannis Tsoupras and Georgios Skordilis, and all the unsung heroes of this major undertaking, for their unstinting support.
© ART TOPOS, 1998
Last updated: 10/12/1998
With the kind support of
The J. F. Costopoulos Foundation