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George COSTAKIS – excerpt from memoirs (1993)

Costakis Collection

When, having given up my old collection, I switched to collecting the avant-garde, I soon sensed that alongside the avant-garde, I must collect Russian icons. For between these two arts, on first glance so seemingly different, there exists a close connection.

Having come into close contact with the Russian icon, I began to discover in it elements of Suprematism, abstract painting, and all manner of symbols. I remember visiting the restoration workshops of the Tretyakov Gallery and gazing for a long time at icons from the 14th century with images of saints. Their garments were painted in a rayonist manner, resembling the works of Larionov. You could have easily sawn these portions out of the whole and hung them like a work by Mikhail Larionov! High quality 15th– and 16th-century Russian icons are typically painted with bright local colors that are very similar to those seen in avant-garde painting.

I managed to amass a large collection of icons: I had in my possession around 150 panels painted between the 15th and the 17th centuries.

Later, in the 1950s, alongside my interest in the avant-garde and Russian icons, I discovered a passion for the work of young Russian artists. There was a relatively small group in the 1950s – around 10-12 people – all very talented: Rabin, Krasnopevtsev, Plavinsky, Veisberg, and many others. For several years, I would purchase one or two things from each one of these artists every year. Many of them gave me gifts of works. This is how the collection was assembled.

We developed very close and amiable relationships. They would often visit me to look at paintings or to show me their own works. And I frequently called on them at their studios. This lasted until around 1960: you might say that I performed the role of a kind of father-patron. After all, nobody was interested in the youth back then.

[…] the group of talented youth grew – to around twenty names! Each considered himself the best, and when I refused one or told another that it was necessary to wait a little bit, they would feel aggrieved and get angry. In short, I began to feel somewhat uncomfortable. And, to tell the truth, it had become financially prohibitive to maintain all three lines, the avant-garde, the icon, and the younger artists. Nevertheless, I did not break definitively with those with whom I had become particularly close – Anatoly Zverev, Dmitri Plavinsky, and most of all, Dmitri Krasnopevtsev. I would occasionally buy something from them and they visited me.


Every day, I would go either to some exhibition or to visit friends. Something was always happening – the life of a collector abounds with impressions.


In the mid-1960s, an exhibition of modern art was organized in Moscow. Some of Falk’s works from the Jack of Diamonds exhibition were on view. I was asked to give two or three Kandinskys, a Popova, Malevich’s Portrait of Matiushin, and something else. In all, I gave 10-15 works. The exhibition was organized in the old MOSKh space on Patriarshie Prudy. It lasted two or three days and was a great success. It drew great crowds. And the authorities, of course, came to see it as well. My things were all situated in one place and created a great effect. The next day, I received a call from the Ministry of Culture asking if I would be willing to sell a Kandinsky and Van Dongen’s Spanish Woman to the Pushkin Museum. At one time, the museum had wanted to purchase them but got greedy and offered the owner too little, and so the works ended up with me. This time, the offer to me was 8,000 rubles for each painting. “Let’s begin with the fact,” I said, “that I myself paid over 8,000 for the Van Dongen. As for the Kandinsky, if somebody offered me his work for 8,000 tomorrow, I would sell my last pair of pants! Therefore, there is nothing to discuss. But there is something else we could do. I would gladly give the Kandinsky to the Tretyakov Gallery and the Van Dongen to the Pushkin Museum as gifts on the condition that the works be hung immediately and that the label say “gift of George Dionisovich Costakis.” “Wonderful!,” exclaimed the ministry workers.

After some time, however, I was told that unfortunately the Tretyakov could not hang the Kandinsky in the galleries, and that the painting would be kept in the store-rooms for the time being. I said, “No, my paintings have grown accustomed to the light, they are my children, and I will not hand the Kandinsky over to your prison.” I refused them.

In this way, I donated the Van Dongen to the Pushkin Museum, but the Tretyakov did not get the Kandinsky. But still the Ministry of Culture was very grateful.

It was a strange time on the whole. Works were allowed to be taken out of the country freely. You want to take out Kandinsky, Popova? Simply pay the customs fee. I remember one day trying to send a work by Puni to an exhibition. I brought it to the Ministry of Culture to obtain permission to send it abroad. They asked me: “Are you removing it from the country temporarily or permanently? If permanently, then you must pay the customs fee. What is the cost of the painting?” I said, “I paid 150 rubles for it.” “The customs fee is 100%, so…”

Obtaining permission to export Russian avant-garde paintings was hardly difficult. If something was not allowed out, it was only because it was so-called forbidden art, that is, it was refused on political grounds and not because these things were considered valuable.

The attitude towards art in the country fluctuated. There were periods of thaw when collecting avant-garde art and socializing with young artists did not seem to pose dangers. But then the storm clouds would roll in again, and menacing articles would appear in the newspapers.

Source: Moi avangard: Vospominaniia kollektsionera [My Avant-Garde: Memoirs of a Collector] (Modus Graffiti, Moscow, 1993): 88-90; 101-2.

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