Approximately two years ago, when I undertook to act as curator for the exhibition of the Costakis Collection, I immediately realized that there was a risk of succumbing to two temptations: that of presenting the Collection either as an encyclopedia of the Russian avant-garde or as a glossary of Russian avant-garde artists. This danger was made still greater by the fact that the exhibition would, for the first time anywhere in the world, contain works from both the large and central sections of a collection which is among the most important of the twentieth century: that is, the section which Costakis donated to the Tretiakov Gallery in Moscow in 1977, and that which he brought to the West with him. The number of works involved, the host of artists, and the degree of representativeness of the various movements would favor such an approach.

Kazimir Malevich: Portrait of M.V. Matiushin Liubov Popova: Study for a Portrait Ivan Kliun: Suprematism
Kazimir Malevich:
Portrait of M.V. Matiushin
Liubov Popova:
Study for a Portrait
Ivan Kliun:

The "encyclopedic" route would lead to a complete overview of the Russian avant-garde, in which case the scope of the exhibition would go beyond the Costakis Collection since any gaps in periods, trends and works would have to be filled. The approach via a glossary of names, on the other hand, would have deprived the works of the specific collection of incorporation into the artistic background which generated them, thus reducing the power of the interpretative approach to them.

Furthermore, any idea of exhibiting only those works conventionally --but in a theoretically questionable manner described as "masterpieces" would conflict with the unique nature of the collection. The policy of collecting which George Costakis implemented for thirty years was the direct opposite of this: as is perfectly obvious when the collection is studied, and as the collector himself repeatedly stated in articles and interviews, he was not interested only in the leaders of the Russian movement, whom he characteristically termed "the generals" (Malevich, Kandinsky, Chagall, Tatlin and others), but also in the second and third-rate artists and all those who worked on what Camilla Gray has called "the great experiment".

As a result, he did not collect only paintings; he also amassed drawings, sketches, notebooks, posters, and documents of all kind (manuscripts, printed matter, state documents, photographs and anything else he thought relevant). Amazing as it may seem, this gifted amateur worked in the zealous and methodical manner one would have expected of an antiquarian or a museum expert. In the mid-Forties, when he decided to sell the works of the Old Masters and, fascinated by the first Modern works he chanced to see, began to build up a new collection, he was working completely in the dark.

Wassily Kandinsky: Moscow, Red Square Marc Chagall: Rain Marc Chagall: Musicians
Wassily Kandinsky:
Moscow, Red Square
Marc Chagall:
Marc Chagall:

At a time when Stalinism was at its height, the Russian avant-garde was not just unknown in the country which had given birth to it: even talking about it was prohibited. Such work - many of them of the greatest importance - as had been bought in the two years immediately after the October Revolution by ΙΖΟ-Narkompros, as part of its courageous visual arts policy to serve as the nuclei of the Museums of Visual Arts Education (in effect the world's first museums of modern art) were now buried in the vaults of galleries in Moscow and the provinces. It was George Costakis who, starting almost from scratch, discovered, unaided, the genesis of a vast and highly fruitful movement and sought out the links in a chain which at that time was far from easy to fit together. The objective he set himself, that of rehabilitating the movement in its full historical dimensions, had a decisive impact on his choices and on his general policy as a collector.

To this end, Costakis displayed the greatest acumen in buying (insofar as this was possible) anything that he judged capable of clarifying the chronological boundaries of the movement and contributing to providing a fuller picture of its polymorphy and individual identity. He thus assembled sets of works which in some cases - such as those of Popova, Kliun, the Matiushin school - were of a level of quantity and quality that would be the envy of many demanding and properly-organized museums. He did not hesitate to acquire large numbers of works by artists who, like Ρορονa, were not particularly well-known at the time but are seen today as leading representatives of the modern movement worldwide. In other cases, his eye was caught by works which might have been thought to be experimental studies and exercises but whose value we are now in a position to appreciate. A typical case is that of the Ender family (Ksenia, Maria, Boris and Yurii), whose production tried out many plastic solutions which were later proposed or completed by artists in the West - Matisse comes to mind, with his "stick-ons", and so do quite a number of the American representatives of post-War color abstraction. Another notable instance is that of Nikritin. The Costakis Collection contains a vast number of his paintings and drawings of the Twenties and Thirties, a study of which today brings out an Expressionist element and an existential profundity which is not only of the greatest topicality today, but also - as can be seen in the work of contemporary Russian scholars - is leading to a new and broader concept of the fortunes and the boundaries of the Russian avant-garde. Costakis, a man of a degree of self-criticism unusual in a collector, was thus wrong to fear that he might have devoted too much attention to what was still seen even in the Eighties as being post-avant-garde rather than the early stages of the movement.

Vladimir Tatlin: Painterly Relief Liubov Popova: Spatial Force Construction Aleksandr Roddchenko: Composition No 125
Vladimir Tatlin:
Painterly Relief
Liubov Popova:
Spatial Force Construction
Aleksandr Roddchenko:
Composition No 125

If there are gaps - and there are gaps - or if entire sections are missing (such as Malevich's Suprematist period, the Russian period of Kandinsky, or Rayonism), this is the result both of general and of more specific factors. Costakis can be blamed for this to the extent that one would blame almost any private or even museum collection in whose assembly personal judgment and aesthetic taste had not been the only factor. In this particular case, however, we must not overlook the practical difficulties or the adverse political conditions in which Costakis assembled his collection. We must not forget that the official state suppressed and denounced the subject of his collection, and thus after a certain date the cultural institutions (exhibitions, critical and theoretical discourse) by which the criteria for evaluation and selection are molded were no longer functioning. It would be no exaggeration to say that the collector himself took on all those roles, and he did so not only intuitively, as was the case in his early years as a collector, but with knowledge, good judgment and a spirit of inquiry. There is no other explanation for the fact that his collection is adorned by more than a few of the greatest works of the Russian avant-garde, very many works without which our knowledge of entire periods in the production of significant artists would be incomplete, and works which are of crucial importance for the theoretical thinking of the movement and its internal mutations. Among the surprises is the survival of the file of Inkhuk drafts concerning the debate on "Composition and Construction", a document unique in the history of modern art for its blend of theory and artistic practice - a blend which was the quintessence of the Russian movement. It is in instances such as this that George Costakis transcends the traditional definitions and emerges as a true pioneer in the history of collecting during the twentieth century.

El Lissitzky: Untitled Kazimir Malevich: Landscape near Kiev
El Lissitzky:
Kazimir Malevich:
Landscape near Kiev

The historical and truly museological character which Costakis gave his collection lies not only in his wide-ranging yet specialized choices, of the rescuing and preservation of material which was fragmented, inaccessible and menaced by destruction even in the early days: it was also bound up with the lifelong campaign that Costakis undertook to disseminate and promote the Russian avant-garde. He was assisted in that campaign by his faith in the value of the phenomenon as art; he believed, quite rightly, as it turned out, that one day the avant-garde would be the pride of artistic Russia. It would be no exaggeration to say that for decades the Costakis family apartment in Moscow functioned as a museum whose visitors included Russian and Western artists, art-lovers, and scholars wishing to acquaint themselves with painters who would otherwise have been doomed to silence, neglect and ultimate disappearance. Costakis repeatedly lent works to exhibitions in Europe and America before the first major exhibition of a large part of the collection, held at the Museum of Art in Dϋsseldorf in 1977. Of decisive importance in this respect was Costakis' meeting with Tom Messer, then Director of the Guggenheim Museum of New York - a meeting which led to an agreement that the part of the collection that remained after the donation to the Tretiakov Museum in Moscow would be moved to the United States. The Guggenheim Museum undertook the task of restoring the collection, of studying it, publishing it, presenting it and publicizing it around the world, and assigned this enormous mission to the curators Margit Rowell and Angelica Rudenstine. In 1981 came the second major exhibition of the collection and two very important publications, Russian Avant Garde Art. The George Costakis Collection (Abrams, New York 1981, ed. A. Rudenstine) and Art of the Avant-Garde in Russia: Selections from the George Costakis Collection (Guggenheim Museum 1981, ed. Μ. Rowell and A. Rudenstine), which were landmarks in the way the Russian avant-garde is viewed. Accentuation of the triple historical role of this rich and multifaceted collection (discovery/formation, preservation, dissemination: a role which is tantamount to the identity of the collection and determines its history) has been the central guideline in the planning of this exhibition and its catalogue. My main concern was to respect the individual physiognomy and collector's spirit of George Costakis, and that accounts for the range and representativeness of the exhibits. We have planned the exhibition and structured the material of the catalogue along a dual guideline: the belief that neither the history of the Russian avant-garde, as an object of historical study, nor its reception can be fully understood without the major contribution made by the Costakis Collection, and the conviction that the Costakis Collection cannot be seen correctly in isolation from the history of the Russian avant-garde.

The distribution of the exhibits across ten units by movement and thematic portfolio was dictated by the material) itself and the nuclei inherent in it as well as by the need to outline an adequate interpretative framework for the works themselves. This objective would have been impossible to attain unless the catalogue were designed so as to bring out the reciprocal and indissoluble bond between technical practice and theory in the Russian avant-garde as it projects itself on the horizon of the international Modern movement. The first volume deals with artistic production and contains all the necessary historical information and aesthetic analysis. The second contains documents and texts of theory and criticism, some of which, originating in the Costakis Collection or other archives, have never been published before.

In parallel, we have attempted to expand the documentation of the exhibition by including reconstructions or representations of works which are connected with the material of the collection (drawings and photographs). Here our purpose was educational, and took particular account of the fact that unfortunately - the Greek public, at least, has not had the opportunity to visit general exhibitions of modern art, far less, to the present day, of the avant-garde.

For the necessary texts, we addressed ourselves to internationally eminent expert scholars of the Russian avant-garde, many of whom will be taking part in the conference in memory of George Costakis planned to be held at Delphi in the spring of 1996.

If the Greek origins of this great and pioneering collector are a source of pride for all us Greeks, then allow me to conclude by referring to the joy which Ι feel Ι have shared with all my predecessors in the study of the Costakis Collection and with those who are sure to follow me.

Dr Anna Kafetsi

Curator of the National Gallery

© ART TOPOS, 1998
Last updated: 10/12/1998
With the kind support of
The J. F. Costopoulos Foundation