Costakis Collection has been steadily attracting keen interest of major European and US museums.

Costakis Collection

The World Treasure of Russian Modernism in Thessaloniki

Text: Chryssa Nanou

A world treasure has been on display for the past two decades at the State Museum of Contemporary Art in Thessaloniki: The famed Costakis Collection, the most significant compilation of Russian avant-garde art outside Russia. 

The collection encompasses works manifesting all the currents and trends of what is probably the most groundbreaking and captivating era in world art, one that flourished in Russia during the early 20th century and which come-of-lately has been steadily attracting the keen interest of major museums throughout Europe and the United States.

We will explain why in a series of seven questions and answers:

  1. Who was George Costakis and how did he acquire the acumen to build his collection?

George Costakis was born in 1913 in Moscow to Greek parents. He worked as a driver at the Greek Embassy of Moscow. Even though he lacked a particular artistic cultivation, he did possess a rare predilection and an infallible instinct.  Costakis started by buying religious icons, folk-art objects and paintings of 18th century Dutch artists. His interest in collecting Russian avant-garde art was sparked in 1946 when he encountered a painting by Olga Rozanova. During the Stalin era, modernist art was banned and was being sold at ridiculously low prices, with the artists either being scorned or no longer alive.  For a period of about thirty years and up until the mid-70s, Costakis amassed a mammoth collection of Russian avant-garde art, the largest in the world, believing that «people will come to need it and will learn to value it someday», as he often said, thereby saving these works from certain oblivion and destruction.  He had hoped to build a museum in Moscow in order to house his art collection, but his dream never materialized.  In 1977 he left the Soviet Union and settled in Greece, having donated the bulk of his collection to the Tretyakov Gallery, while he acquired an exportation permit and transported the remainder of the art works to Europe. He died in Athens, the year of 1990.  

  1. When did the West discover the Russian avant-garde?

Up until 1970s, the Russian avant-garde was barely known in the West. The only exception was a book by the British author Camilla Gray «The Russian Experiment in Art», published in 1969 in the English language, and occasional exhibitions involving works by artists who had defected to the West from the Soviet Union (Wassily Kandinsky, Marc Chagall, Natalia Goncharova, Michael Larionov, and others). In 1977 Costakis managed to retrieve part of his collection left in the Soviet Union, following an agreement with the Ministry of Culture of the USSR. Then, the body of art works started being exhibited throughout the world. The first stop was Düsseldorf, followed by exhibits in the United States, Canada, England, Germany and Sweden. Yet, the greatest recognition of the collection took place in 1981 with the exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum in New York.

  1. And how did the collection finally end up in Thessaloniki?

When George Costakis left the Soviet Union in the late ‘70s he settled in Athens, taking part of his collection with him. In 1995 the first exhibition of the works was organized at the National Gallery in Athens, curated by Anna Kafetsi. In 1998 the Hellenic Ministry of Culture undertook the bold decision to buy the Collection. In 2000 the Collection was purchased by the Ministry of Culture with a loan from the National Bank. The loan was paid off in 2010, and that was when the Collection came under the proprietorship of the Greek state. With the collaboration of Aliki Costakis, daughter of the collector, the works were acquired by the Museum, along with the collector’s archives which were given as a donation. Ever since, selected works from the Collection are being presented at periodical exhibitions held at Thessaloniki State Museum of Contemporary Art, or in other venues in Greece and abroad.

  1. What does the Collection include?

The Costakis Collection at the State Museum of Contemporary Art comprises 1277 works of art (paintings, drawings, constructions, ceramics, etc.) by acclaimed Russian avant-garde artists, among them Kazimir Malevich,  Liubov Popova, Vladimir Tatlin, Alexander Rodchenko, Ivan Kliun, Gustav Klutsis, Solomon Nikritin, Olga Rozanova, Varvara Stepanova, Nadezhda Udaltsova, Mikhail Matyushin and Pavel Filonov. It is considered to encompass all the trends and currents of the Russian avant-garde movement.

  1. What are the highlights?

There are over 200 works by Liubov Popova, fully spanning the development of the various styles expressed by this remarkable artist.

A large number of works by Solomon Nikritin, artist of the second avant-garde generation and founder of the projectionist group (most of his work is currently being shared by Moscow’s Tretyakov Art Gallery and Thessaloniki’s SMCA).

Approximately 80 rare works by Gustav Klutsis, a Latvian artist who was executed by the Stalin regime in 1938. Very few of his works have survived, with the majority of them being in Thessaloniki and the Latvian National Museum of Art in Riga.

A large number of drawings by Ivan Kliun, which allow us to reconstruct many of the artist’s lost works.
Works by the Ender siblings (two sisters and two brothers, all students of Mikhail Matiushin).

Collection of paintings and drawings by Aleksandr Rodchenko dated prior to 1921 (afterwards the artist renounced painting and turned to photography).
Collection of porcelain objects by artists such as Wassily Kandinsky, Nathan Altman, Nikolai Suetin and others.

  1. What is so special about Russian modernism?

Russian modernism is a term that surfaced in the western world in order to describe the artistic, visual, literary, modernist movements that emerged in Russia from 1905 to the mid-1930s. The artists at that time came into conflict with the earlier trends of realism and symbolism and sought a new language of expression. One cannot see this form of art separated from the need for revolutionary changes in society in pre-revolutionary Russia. And it is precisely this revolutionary way of thinking that was characterized as dangerous and was banned in the ‘30s during Stalin’s rise. The formerly prominent artists of the Russian Modernism movement were cast away by the Stalinist regime, fiercely persecuted and in some cases executed in order to give room to the representatives of socialist realism.

  1. How is the Costakis Collection promoted?

In the recent years the Collection has been constantly travelling both in Greece and abroad. Works from the State Museum of Contemporary Art have been hosted at exhibitions at MOMA, Guggenheim, Tate Modern, Royal Academy of Arts, Martin Gropius Bau, MUMOK, Maillol Museum, Reina Sofia, La CaixaForum and elsewhere.

There is also a lot of activity in the research field, which is particularly important as in recent years a new generation of researchers of Russian modernism has contributed with new approaches and discoveries to the study of this great aesthetic phenomenon. The ultimate goal is to render the Museum a vital center of research and creativity, as well as a forum for discussing and promoting theoretical issues.

[Many of the data on the contents and route of the Costakis Collection were provided by Maria Tsantsanoglou, director, State Museum of Contemporary Art – Costakis collection.]

Works