Costakis Exhibition: The Greek Who Saved the Russian Avant-Garde

An exhibition of the George Costakis collection provides a comprehensive look at the Russian avant-garde and the inspiring man who would not let it be erased.

“Thessaloniki. Costakis Collection. Restart.”, an exhibition at the State Museum of Contemporary Art, is perfectly titled. This is a serious collection; it is a historic and intellectual treasure trove of the Russian avant-garde of such proportion and depth that is rare anywhere outside of Russia itself. So it’s time to look at it afresh, to appreciate the enormity of the collection, its scope, and its lasting impact. It’s also time to revisit the story of how it came about.

The museum’s director Maria Tsantsanoglou and the exhibition curators Natalia Antonomova and Alla Lukanova emphasize not just the magnitude of the collection’s significance, but also of the personality behind it, George Costakis. His is a spellbinding tale of passion, boldness, and generosity. “This exhibition is important to us because we focus on the collector, on George Costakis,” Maria Tsantsanoglou says.


The experience begins just as the collection began – with the collector himself. In a space conjuring his living room complete with his own guitar, we are introduced to George Costakis – both through his personal history and through a recreation of the world he fashioned.

By the 1960’s and 1970’s his living room had become a place “connected with the forbidden art of the avant-garde”. It was a combination of an unofficial museum of modern art, and a meeting place – drawing young painters and students, diplomats, famous artists, writers, and musicians.

One can only imagine the conversations that took place in that apartment on Moscow’s Vernadsky Avenue. The visitors’ book gives us a glimpse of the great interest the collection attracted. Young Russian artists were inspired, and considered George Costakis a supporter and friend. Marc Chagall and Igor Stravinsky visited, as did David Rockefeller and Edward Kennedy, Una – the daughter of Kazimir Malevich, and Nina, the wife of Wassily Kandinsky.


We also learn the collector’s own life story. His father had been a merchant from Zakynthos who settled his family in pre-revolutionary Moscow; George Costakis was born there, in 1913. He worked as a driver for the Greek embassy and then, when the Greek Embassy had to close in 1940, he worked at the Canadian Embassy. His work involved accompanying foreign diplomats to galleries, antique stores, and so on, and he began to collect art himself. He had no formal training; this inspired collection is born of what can’t be easily acquired: a very fine eye, good taste, and above all a great passion for art.


[RESTART] [ΞΕΝΑΓΟΥΜΑΣΤΕ] στην έκθεση Thessaloniki_Costakis Collection_Restart στο Κρατικό Μουσείο Σύγχρονης Τέχνης / State Museum of Contemporary Art, από αυτό το Σάββατο 14.07 και κάθε Σάββατο στις 12:00, και από την επόμενη Πέμπτη 19.07 και κάθε Πέμπτη στις 19:00. Η συμμετοχή είναι ανοιχτή για το κοινό. Γενική είσοδος: 4ευρώ. Ισχύουν ατέλειες. Τηλ. επικοινωνίας: 2310 589143. #smca_restart #costakis_collection_restart

Η δημοσίευση κοινοποιήθηκε από το χρήστη Costakis Collection. Restart (@costakis_collection_smca) στις

A documentary – When Chagall was Worth Less Than a Pound of Potatoes – is shown in one of the exhibition’s rooms, setting the mood. Interviews are interspersed with imagery – both of the paintings and of the kinds of visuals that artists were focusing on. In one of these interviews, George Costakis himself elaborates on what it means to be a collector: “Some people think collecting is a hobby. It’s not. It’s a sickness.”

If so, it’s one that united the family. “We all loved art,” his daughter Aliki says, “We were all in this together.” She then recounts going to Leningrad to buy a painting on her father’s behalf; holding a Greek passport, his travel was restricted. 


What moved him to focus on the Russian avant garde? He had begun collecting antiques, and had some Dutch masters. But through his own remarks, quoted in the exhibition’s catalogue, the motivation and extraordinary spirit of the collector is revealed: “I collected old Dutch Masters, porcelain, Russian silver…. But all the time I kept thinking that if I continue in the same vein, I won’t contribute anything to art…. Everything I collected was already shown in the Louvre or the Hermitage… by sticking with it, I could get rich, but nothing more…” 

A chance visit to an apartment where he saw works of the Russian avant-garde for the first time affected him deeply. He bought the works, and hung them beside the Dutch Masters. He recounts the effect the paintings had on him: “I had a feeling I had been living in a room with curtains drawn, and now they were open and sun streamed into the windows. At that time I decided to part with everything I had collected, and started buying nothing but avant-garde….”

This is where the story blossoms from one of mere visionary idealism to heroic subversion. By the middle of the 1930’s, the Stalinist state had begun to condemn and persecute the avant-garde, as socialist realism became the sole acceptable form of artistic expression. Works were tucked away for decades in cupboards and under beds, and Costakis rescued them. (In the words of one man interviewed in the film, “He brought the avant-garde to life as Schliemann unearthed Troy.”)

In the 1960s, modern art and non-conformist artists were under oppression by Khrushchev. Costakis’ support of young non-conformists of the period gave their work a chance to survive. Given his social circle – including many foreign visitors – his views and outspoken defense of art labeled “degenerate” by the authorities, the time eventually came when he was forced to emigrate. That was towards the end of the 1970s. The arrangement was that he would divide his collection, leaving many works to the State Tretyakov Gallery. This was a condition of receiving his exit visa. But his own words reflect no sadness at dividing his collection: “I’m against people having collections for themselves,” he said. He chose the best works to be left behind in Russia.


What we see in this show are those that remained in his private collection, acquired by Greece in 2000, and transferred to the State Museum of Contemporary Art in Thessaloniki. Through this collection, the visitor experiences the complete scope of the Russian avant-garde. Over three floors, 400 works are displayed under optimal conditions, thematically and aesthetically. The exhibition spaces have been reconfigured such that each work is shown in the best possible environment.

Many of the works are domestic in scale, and these tailored spaces provide a suitably intimate environment. Moreover, the architectural elements of the remodel subtly echo the rhythms of works. The stylistic breadth and beauty represented here are matched by the works’ power to engage. The history of the Russian avant-garde is also one of vibrant idealism, different schools of thought, manifestos, and even questionnaires.

“Does a triangle give you the same feeling as a lemon?” probes one of many items on the questionnaire of the UNOVIS school in Vitebsk (UNOVIS being an acronym for a phrase that translates to Affirmers of the New Art). Suprematism, which maintains the supremacy of color and form over all other components of a painting, demands the consideration of questions like this. Kazimir Malevich, the leader of UNOVIS, was a prime proponent of Suprematism (he considered himself a realist, but of a fantastic reality). His 1915 Black Square became emblematic.


George Costakis was a collector of Russian art whose collection became the most representative body of Modern Russian avant-garde art anywhere. In the years surrounding the 1917 revolution, artists in Russia produced the first non-figurative art, which was to become the defining art of the 20th century. Costakis by chance discovered some constructivist paintings in a Moscow studio in 1946, and he went on to search for the revolutionary art which might otherwise have been lost to the world. “Thessaloniki. The Costakis Collection. Restart” – exhibition of legendary George Costakis’ collection of Russian avant-garde art opens on June 29, in The State Museum of Contemporary Art. #costakis_collection_restart #smca_restart

Η δημοσίευση κοινοποιήθηκε από το χρήστη Costakis Collection. Restart (@costakis_collection_smca) στις


Cubofuturism synthesized the fragmentation of form – the viewing from different angles simultaneously of French cubism – with the dynamic sense of motion of Italian futurism. These ideas were expressed through both painting and poetry, and the poets among them issued a manifesto A Slap in the Face to Public Taste announcing a complete departure from traditional aesthetics. Futurist books linked the arts, illustrating the texts and conveying meaning though graphics and typeface.

Constructivism, much as it sounds, sought to introduce art of a constructive value, introducing an aesthetic based on functional forms and constructions. This was a politicized movement, not inconsistent with Marxist ideology. Other movements are also explored; Projectionism, as it sounds, explored works meant to transcend the canvas or sheet of paper, to become realized fully in the mind of the viewer. Cosmism was the result of artist Ivan Krudiaschev’s visits to the laboratory of an engineer of space rockets. The resulting “space paintings” have luminescence, speed, dynamism, and majestic cosmic imagery.


Paintings are joined by graphics and textile design. Fascinating too is the Agit porcelain; the fine porcelain factory that had formerly served the Romanovs and the Imperial court exclusively was nationalized in the revolutionary cause. This resulted in objects like an exquisitely delicate dinner plate with stirring revolutionary imagery and the words “Proletarians of all Countries – United Struggle Creates Heroes.”

Further filling out the picture of mass produced art are also Lubok woodcuts, part of Russian art since the 16th C. Artists of the avant-garde revisited the medium, creating patriotic scenes inspired by the Crimean War, WWI, and the Russo-Japanese War. One of Kazimir Malevich’s WWI images is evocatively and aptly captioned: “An Austrian went to Radziwill, But ended up on a peasant woman’s pitchfork.” He’s writhing; she’s smiling.


Fully annotated and arranged chronologically and thematically, the exhibition in its breadth serves as a visual encyclopedia: “After this exhibition,” says the Museum’s director Maria Tsantsanoglou, “a visitor not only knows what the Russian avant-garde is, which movements, artists and groups are singled out, he or she also understands the importance of the contribution of the collector, who saved this collection from disappearance and oblivion.”


“Thessaloniki. Costakis Collection. Restart”

Through September 16th, 2018


State Museum of Contemporary Art

Kolokotroni 21, Moni Lazariston, Stavroupoli, Thessaloniki

Open: Tuesday-Sunday 10:00-18:00 (Thurdays 10:00-22:00). Closed Mondays.

Admission: €4, €2 reduced

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