George Costakis and the survival of Russian art

We owe the obsessive self-taught collector, George Costakis, our gratitude for two great exhibitions of Russian art of the early 20th century now on view in Paris and London. The Maillol Museum on the left bank in Paris is home to the exhibit The George Costakis Collection of the Russian Avant Garde. The exhibit Rodchenko and Popova: Defining Constructivism, now on display at the Tate Modern in London, owes much to Costakis as well.

Costakis was born in and raised in Russia. Born in 1913, he was too young to participate in the avant garde movement. Rather, he discovered his love of panting and collecting as a teenager and began seriously collecting the Constructivists in the 1950s and 1960s. During his time as the director of personnel at the Canadian embassy, he amassed the world's largest collection of early 20th century Russian artists. His small Moscow apartment, literally stuffed with their work, became a Mecca for visiting scholars. He left for Greece in 1974, taking half his collection with him. The remainder was donated to the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow. In 1997, more than 1250 of these works were purchased by the Greek government. They are now part of the permanent collection of the State Museum of Contemporary Art in Thessalonica.

The exhibit at the Maillol Museum is a feast for the eye. This collection is about art for art's sake; political narrative is absent. The curator, Yves Koby, presents the depth, breadth, and complexity of the Russian avant garde movement, arranging more than 100 beautiful canvases and drawings in roughly chronological order. More than 20 artists are represented, many unknown to the non-specialist. 


In the exhibit's materials, Kassimir Malevitch, Lioubov Popova, and Ivan Klioune are credited with pioneering Russia's avant garde style, joined later by Alexander Rodchenko, Vladimir Tatlin, and El Lissitzsky. Abstract themes and bold, clear colors define theses artists' work. Geometry, order, and space are all given equal importance. Works by Mikhail Matuochine and Boris Ender represent Organicism, while Electro-Organicism is defined by Clement Redko. Not surprisingly, these canvasses and drawings include more fluid shapes, seemingly borrowed from nature. The more abstract works of Pavel Filonov and Vzevolod Soulimo-Samouilo are said to comprise the Analytic Movement. Other artists such as Solomon Nikritine and Alexei Morgounov are classified as figurative. Some of the artists are clearly influenced by contemporary movements in the west: Cubism informs the work of Nadiejda Oudaltsova, Vera Pestel, Evguenia Magaril, and Varvara Steyaert, while Aristarkh Lentulov draws inspiration from the Blue Rider movement and Ivan Koudriachov from Futurism.

There are some real surprises. Ivan Klioune emerges as a talent equal to that of Popova and Rodchenko. His inventive canvases combine strong form with delicate shadings uncommon among his contemporaries. Nikritine large figures in black and grey serve as powerful expressions of angst and agony. A large 1943 painting by Rodchenko could be mistaken for a later Jackson Pollack drip painting.

The exhibit at the Tate Modern is also a blockbuster, a comprehensive summation of the works of two exceptional artists. Popova and Rodchenko were great friends and colleagues who worked closely together to form the core of the avant garde movement. Together with Rodchenko's wife, Varvara Stepanova, they established an intellectual, creative, and social focus for the movement. The exhibit, which is housed in spacious galleries, can be viewed as symphony with two interweaving themes: the simple, abstract forms of Rodchenko and the lyrical curves, colors, and textures of Popova. Rodchenko uses a limited range of pure color on flat surfaces. Popova's works are hard edged, and geometrical--he works with a range of subtle color, adding granularity with marble powder and sometimes emphasizing the texture of a raw plywood surface. Both are interested in reinventing painting, a goal this is nowhere more explicit than in three Rodchenko canvasses hung side by side in pure blue, red, and yellow. The artist himself described these works as the end of painting.

As at the Maillol, the backbone of the Tate exhibit is drawn from Costakis' collection. The majority of the works are either on loan from the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow or the Modern Museum in Thessalonica. Nonetheless, the Tate curators, working with their Russian counterparts, have made what appear to be heroic efforts to locate and place on view works that have been tucked away in obscure provincial galleries. Paintings are credited to the Iaroslasvl State Art Museum, Ivanovo Regional Art Museum, The Museum of Fine Arts: Tula, and the Vasnelsova Regional Art Museum. Viewing all of these works side by side, one is struck by Costakis' foresight and care. The paintings and drawing credited to the Costakis collection are in excellent condition, contrasting with the relatively poor state of most of those from the Russian museums. 

Both of these exhibits highlight the creative energy unleashed by the Russian Revolution, a force that redefined modern art design. Art in the first half of the 20th century was powerfully shaped by Constructivism and Supremicism in the East and by Cubism, Futurism, and Surrealism in the West. But it is with a sense of shock that we recognize the impact of the early Russian painting on postwar American art--including Abstract Art, Abstract Expressionism, and Minimalism.

The exhibits are also a chilling reminder of the repressive political forces that emerged with Stalin's rise to power in 1925 and snuffed out this bright creative flame. Before 1925, creativity in Russian art was exuberant. After 1925, those artists who survived either fled to the west, worked as propagandists for the state, adopted the style of Social Realism, or stopped working altogether. We must thank the memory of George Costakis for preserving this fragile flower of the human spirit.
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William Haseltine is a former professor at Harvard Medical School, where he researched cancer and HIV/AIDS. He is the founder of Human Genome Sciences, where he served as chairman and CEO, and the president of the William A Haseltine Foundation for Medical Sciences and the Arts. He lives in Washington, D.C.

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