By Margarita Pournara
“It was midnight on October 5, 1998, when the truck containing the famed art collection amassed by George Costakis arrived at the Lazariston Monastery in Thessaloniki. The truck was accompanied by fire engines and police cars. Armed policemen surrounded the area. When the customs officers gave the order to open the truck’s heavy doors, the view was so simple and so ordinary: Inside were 72 large cardboard boxes, as well as wooden crates and trunks.”
The above is the description given by Miltiades Papanikolaou, then director of Thessaloniki’s State Museum of Contemporary Art, of the day that the Costakis collection arrived in Greece. The museum had been in lengthy negotiations with the family of the collector, who died in 1990, as to what was to happen to his large trove of artworks. The Greek state eventually brokered a deal with the heirs and the Thessaloniki museum got the collection.
This year, on the centennial of the collector’s birth, the museum is hosting an ambitious tribute that will not only reveal aspects of the collector’s life and personality, but will also chart the evolution of Cubo-Futurism, Suprematism and Constructivism in the first half of the 20th century.
So, who was George Costakis, the man who worked as a driver for the Greek Embassy in Moscow until 1939 and then as head of personnel for the Canadian Embassy? How did he manage, without any formal education or training, to discern the true value of artworks doomed to extinction by the Soviet regime, which saw the artists themselves either destroying their works or hiding them? Alexander Rodchenko, for example, used one of his canvases as a surface for chopping meat. A painting by Lyubov Popova, found in a home outside Moscow, was being used to cover a hole in a wall. Costakis wanted the piece and ordered a carpenter to cut a piece of wood of the same size so the owners would sell him the painting. All the pieces Costakis acquired have similarly fascinating stories behind them, as the Russian Avant-Garde (1910-1930) fell out of favor and was seen as an affront to communist ideals.
Costakis was the son of a merchant from the Ionian island of Zakynthos. He was born in Moscow in 1913 and spent most of his life there. In his late teens he got a job as a driver at the Greek Embassy, where he was able to meet diplomats who had an interest in old collectibles and objets d’art. Driving them to antique shops, Costakis started to feel the first stirrings of the art collector as he gazed upon expensive carpets, antique furniture, jewelry and fine porcelains. He began buying, using the privilege of being able to pay in foreign currencies to clinch better deals. He bought the first item of his collection in 1931: a porcelain figurine of Napoleon. His interest then turned to the Flemish painters, to carpets and woven items, and silver and gold objects.
In 1946 Costakis saw his first piece by Olga Rozanova. He bought it and hung it next to his Flemish painters. The contrast, he once said, made him feel as though he had been living in darkness and the sun had finally entered his home. The bright colors that define so many Russian Avant-Garde works had an electrifying effect on him. He tried to buy more pieces from that period, encountering all sorts of obstacles along the way as the regime had marginalized the movement and persecuted its proponents. But Costakis was not about to give up and with great persistence he tracked down the artists themselves or their relatives and began building his collection piece by piece, guided by his infallible instinct, which told him which works belonged and which did not.
“To this day I am in awe of Costakis’s instinct,” Maria Tsantsanoglou, the current director of the State Museum of Contemporary Art, told Kathimerini. Tsantsanoglou is also the curator of an exhibition of a large part of the collection currently on display at the museum’s Lazariston Monastery venue through December 19. “We wanted to emphasize his special way of looking at things through archival material but also by reviving the entire era with testimonials and documentation,” she said of the exhibition.
Along with works of the Russian Avant-Garde, Costakis also collected Russian religious icons from the 15th and 17th centuries, sensing a link between Byzantine and Russian Orthodox iconography and the radical movement that was born before the October Revolution.
He kept all of his treasures in his Moscow apartment, hanging the paintings on the walls in rows of three or even four. Word of the collection soon crossed Russian borders and some great personalities visiting Moscow would make a point of visiting Costakis’s home. His daughter Aliki, remembers John D. Rockefeller peering over her feverish head one day when she was in bed with the flu to peer at one of the paintings. Presidents, prime ministers, Western museum directors and collectors all paraded through the two small rooms that comprised the five-member family’s apartment, agog at the collection.
Costakis decided to leave the Soviet Union in the late 1970s and used his collection as his strongest bargaining chip to achieve this. His liberty in 1977 came at a price, though, and he had to leave 80 percent of his collection – 144 paintings, 656 drawings and all of his Russian icons – to the Tretyakov State Gallery.
The part of the collection that was eventually acquired by the Greek state comprises 1,277 pieces (paintings, drawings, constructions and porcelains). It contains works from some of the leading artists of the Russian Avant-Garde, whose real contribution has only started coming to light in the past few years. Among them, as well as Popova, Rozanova and Rodchenko, are Solomon Nikritin, Ivan Kliun and Gustav Klutsis. The collection further contains a few works by Wassily Kandinsky and Kazimir Malevich. The Costakis family archive also came with the collection.
Works from the collection were first formally exhibited in 1979 at the Pompidou Center in Paris, and many more exhibitions followed in Europe and the United States.
In Greece it was first shown in 1995 at the National Gallery in Athens, in an exhibition curated by Anna Kafetzi, current director of the Athens-based National Museum of Contemporary Art.
“There are plans for a more comprehensive exhibition that will reunite the pieces from the collections of the State Museum of Contemporary Art and the Tretyakov, possibly in 2016, which is planned as a year to celebrate Russian-Greek ties,” said Tsantsanoglou.
“The Costakis Collection and the Russian Avant-Garde: 100 Years Since the Collector’s Birth” runs through December 9 and includes a plethora of educational activities and programs. It is on at the Lazariston Monastery (21 Kolokotroni, Stavroupoli, tel 2310.589.140), Tuesdays through Sundays from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. General admission costs 3 euros.