The lifelong Muscovite

It was the Greek collector, George Costakis, who saved Russian underground art from Stalin

Revolution and art tend to go hand-in-hand. From France under the Directoire to China in the throes of the Cultural Revolution, the artist has been repeatedly cast as forerunner, handmaiden and ultimately victim of social upheaval. During the Russian Revolution, this narrative would play out on a grand scale as artists sought a decisive break with the past. Between 1917 and 1925, wrote the late art critic Robert Hughes, ‘the promise of communism was new and the newness of art fused with it’.

One of the most original of this generation of artists was Kazimir Malevich, whose iconic Black Square is widely acknowledged as pivotal in the development of an art of pure abstraction. Malevich’s work is currently the subject of a major exhibition at the Tate Modern in London. The Guardian’s review claims that the exhibition, curated by Achim Borchardt-Hume, “reaches tragedy as no other exhibition in the history of Tate Modern”.

That many of the works on display are on loan from Thessaloniki’s State Museum of Contemporary Art – specifically, from its Costakis Collection – might seem incongruous. It is, however, just the latest loan from a collection in perpetual demand. The story of how these works were assembled centres on one unlikely collector. It also says much about creativity and repression in a time of flux.

George Costakis was born in Moscow in 1913 (the year to which Malevich controversially dated his Black Square). His father, a Zakynthian, was a tobacco trader who had moved to Moscow in 1905. Both father and son worked for the Greek embassy there, with the younger Costakis later working as an administrator at the Canadian mission for 37 years.

The thousands of works amassed by this embassy functionary represented one of the more improbable collections of modern art, including major avant-garde figures like Malevich, Kandinsky, Chagall, Tatlin, Lissitzky and Rodchenko. (Rodchenko would presumably object to his status as one of the artists that distinguished Costakis’ collection; he once declared that “art has no place in modern life … every cultured modern man must wage war against art, as against opium”.)

Collectively, these artists represented the crowning achievements of the Russian avant-garde, including the Constructivist and Suprematist movements.

Crammed with the works of these artists, Costakis’ modest apartment became a must-see destination for western ambassadors, journalists and visiting politicians (“David Rockefeller once turned the page of the guest book so he wouldn’t have to sign right under Ted Kennedy”, People magazine records).

“I collected them because I liked them,” Costakis told People in 1979.

“It isn’t my fault that today this junk is worth millions.”

Peter Roberts, a former Canadian ambassador in Moscow, thought that his embassy clerk’s “years as an altar boy surrounded by incense-blackened icons had something to do with this enthusiasm”.

Costakis acquired his art cheap because, under Stalin, abstract works stood officially condemned as ‘bourgeois formalism’. This meant that the artists were often poor and the market for their works decidedly niche. Gerald Janacek, the critic, wrote that Costakis was “lucky to be collecting by his own lights what no one else at the time had any interest in; and he went about it with perfect devotion, sacrificing every available Canadian dollar and kopeck”.
Costakis described himself as a “collector-patron-detective” of Russian avant-garde art.

With a 1925 resolution of the Central Committee, education commissar Anatoly Lunacharsky’s earlier promotion of avant-garde art had been swept aside. Works of Socialist Realism were now what the party required. The abstract artists either went underground, risking persecution, or conformed.

This coerced turn to Socialist Realism lends a doomed quality to the radical declarations artists had made in the early revolutionary years. Natan Altman had railed against the “pernicious intelligibility” of poster art. Malevich had written in 1915 that “no torture-chambers of the academies will withstand the days to come … it is absurd to force our age into the old forms of a bygone age”.

Malevich went back to painting figures but, as the Tate Modern exhibition demonstrates, he never completely got with the Stalinist program. In otherwise familiar rural scenes, peasants’ faces are left blank. Works were signed with a black square. With these gestures, Malevich asserted a vestige of artistic freedom and undermined the Socialist Realist uniformity.

Having presided over his collection for decades, why did Costakis eventually leave Moscow? He told People that “the apartment was no longer a home, but a museum”, adding: “Russia is like my mother. I don’t want people saying bad things about her.”

But Peter Roberts writes in his memoirs that Costakis’ famous visitors had attracted the suspicion of the KGB, which ultimately decided to get rid of him. According to Roberts, Costakis “was sad to go”. He agreed to leave most of his collection behind, including Malevich’s Black Square, which now resides in Moscow’s Tretyakov Gallery.

When Costakis arrived in Greece with what remained of his collection in 1979, the colonels’ junta was only five years gone. On the Greek side of the Stalin-Churchill ‘percentages agreement’, Russia was predominantly seen through the prism of the Cold War.

In Costa-Gavras’ masterpiece Z, the list of things supposedly banned by the junta included ‘apprendre le russe’, ‘briser les verres à la russe’, and ‘Gorki (et tous les Russes)’. Exhibitions of Costakis’ art in Greece, western Europe and the United States would help to broaden and deepen western understanding of Soviet-era culture.

Malevich died in 1935 and would not be exhibited in Russia again until 1988. Costakis died in 1990 in Athens. Roberts, the Canadian diplomat, wrote a book about him, interviewing Costakis from his Stockholm hospital bed for the purpose (“he trusted Greek hospitals no more than Soviet ones”, Roberts recalled).
The Greek government bought Costakis’ collection in 2000 at great expense. As the art academic Panagiota Papanikolaou noted in a recent issue of the International Journal of Humanities and Social Science, this purchase was a significant act of ambition by the Greek state – the first such acquisition that went beyond Greece’s own direct cultural history.

Without ever meaning to, Costakis had found a place in the story of the long, complicated relationship between Russia and Greece. The lifelong Muscovite had brought Russian underground art home to a newly established Greek democracy. The works he kept safe in his apartment until post-Stalin officials finally saw their value to Russia constitute arguably the greater legacy.

*Stephen Minas is currently working on a doctorate on transnational law and climate change at King’s College London. He was previously an adviser in the office of the Premier of Victoria, Australia, and also worked for members of the Australian parliament and as a journalist.