Andrei Sarabyanov on the suppression and resurgence of early 20th-century Russian art.                         

INTERVIEW Serafim Orekhanov 


Art historian Andrei Sarabyanov is considered one of the foremost experts on the Russian avant-garde. During perestroika, after stumbling upon unique archival documents, he began traveling across the country looking for early 20th-century Russian art in provincial museums. Here, he discusses George Costakis’ unique collection, the reception of avant-garde art during the Soviet years, its forgery, and nonsensical pricing.

SO:     Your family played an important role in the Russian avant-garde changing from an effectively banned and half-forgotten art form into Russia’s main cultural export. How did this start?

AS:     I have to make it clear: my family didn’t have anything to do with making Russian avant-garde a subject of cultural export. This task was set and accomplished by the government when it realized that this art had cultural and financial value. My family went about its own business studying the avant-garde.

It started with my father. A few years ago, my colleague Vassily Rakitin (1939-2017) and I had the idea of publishing an “Encyclopedia of the Russian Avant-garde.” In it, we decided to include not only artists, but also collectors, researchers and so on. But we decided straight away to only include people who were deceased, so as to avoid unnecessary debates.

The first volume was released in 2013, and a few months later, my father died. I understood that the best obituary I could write for him would be an encyclopedia entry. That required me to dig deep into my family history and, at the same time, into the rediscovery of Russian avant-garde art in the late Soviet period.

Its research started with such people as my father, Evgeny Kovtun, Alla Povelikhina, Vassily Rakitin, Gleb Pospelov, Nikolai Khardzhiev. Slowly, they fought for their right to study the avant-garde and gradually the restrictions were lifted. Theoretical works started to be published – first articles, then monographs, dedicated to Russian avant-garde artists. Then paintings started leaving the vaults of the museums for the exhibit halls. This process took decades.

It just so happened that my family had inherited several paintings by the artist Lyubov Popova, and these paintings were hanging on the walls of our apartment.

SO:     Popova is now seen as one of the most important figures of the Russian avant-garde art. Her paintings are in St. Petersburg’s State Russian Museum, New York’s Guggenheim Museum, and Madrid’s Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum. What did your family and the wider public think of her in the 1960s?

AS:     Of course, we loved her. At the time, almost no one in the Soviet Union suspected the existence of a Russian avant-garde. The term didn’t even exist, but in the small circle of Moscow and St. Petersburg bohemia, the artistic experiments at the start of the century were remembered and valued. This bohemia was unique – it was fairly poor, drank heavily, but preserved the cultural memory that was simply ignored at the official level.

It was in this circle and at the beginning of the “Thaw” period of Soviet history that my parents met George Costakis, the biggest collector of Russian avant-garde art. He became a close friend of the family: first of my parents, then me. Costakis was of Greek heritage but was born and raised in Russia. He worked at the Greek Embassy, then the Canadian Embassy – but the main focus of his life was Russian art of the early 20th century. He simply idolized Popova. I think that Costakis himself initiated the relationship with my parents. He probably came to our apartment to look at her paintings.

SO:     Was the rediscovery of Russian avant-garde art thanks to Costakis?

AS:     To a large degree. When guests gathered in his apartment, everyone linked to the unofficial art of the 1960s or the banned art of the start of the century would be there. Costakis was technically a diplomat, after all, and by Soviet standards, he earned a lot. Finally, he bought two apartments on Leninsky Prospekt, combined them and turned them into a museum. All the walls were covered from floor to ceiling with paintings.

He bought new works whenever he could, from relatives of avant-garde artists and accidental owners. In addition to everything else, he bought a large collection of Popova’s work and her archive. My father, who until then had mainly worked with 19th century Russian art, used this resource to start studying her art seriously. He also had access to the storerooms of the Tretyakov Gallery.

Left: George Kostakis seated in front of a painting by Lyubov Popova. Photo from Andrei Sarabyanov's personal archives Right: “Orange picturesque architectonics” by Lyubov Popova (1918). Image via the Jewish Museum

SO:    So all Russian avant-garde artwork was in storerooms?

AS:    Yes. And it was very difficult to get into them. The storerooms were then located in the Church of St. Nicholas in Tolmachy, adjoining the Tretyakov building on Lavrushinsky Lane. Imagine an ancient Orthodox church covered from top to bottom with avant-garde art. Using our collection, Costakis’ collection, and his access to this incredible place, my father wrote the first academic work about Popova. It was taken to France and published in French and English. I’m now working on getting it published in Russian for the first time. 

SO:    Why, even during the Thaw, after the 20th Party Congress and the condemnation of the cult of personality, in the era of the rehabilitation of those who had been repressed, did the government’s attitude toward the Russian avant-garde not change? Solzhenitsyn was published but academic work on Popova wasn’t – isn’t that ludicrous?

AS:     In the first years of Soviet power, the avant-garde had an unusual opportunity to build a new cultural sphere. But when Stalin came to power and clamped down on everything, the avant-garde was,    in a way, in the same boat as Trotsky: it was better not to mention it at all.

There was a bitter irony in this because there were few people more enthusiastic to take part in the Socialist experiment than the avant-garde artists. The scariest thing is that the avant-garde was suppressed not by the NKVD or the Central Committee, but by the artists themselves. The Academy of Arts played a leading role in this. The people in charge there were sinister figures who simply condemned everything that wasn’t socialist realism. Censorship was extremely harsh. It was impossible to publish a single book – I’m talking about completely academic, art history publications – without the permission of the censor.

Even in the 1980s, I myself, while working for the publisher “The Soviet Artist,” took a proof of every publication to a separate room, where some unknown woman was sitting. She either read it or didn’t – I don’t know, but she would either stamp the proof with “allowed,” or wouldn’t stamp it. When that happened, the whole print run would be pulped.

We knew that we couldn’t put Malevich on a book cover without the whole print run being destroyed. It was the end of the 1980s, perestroika was already taking place, and we were hiding Malevich inside books and putting the surnames of more loyal artists on the covers. Nowadays it’s difficult to imagine the ban on the Russian avant-garde.

SO:    How did the process of dissembling this ban take place? Suddenly one day everything was allowed?

AS:    No, it happened gradually – starting from the moment Khrushchev came to power and until the collapse of the USSR, the limits were pushed back little by little. The first monograph on Robert Falk was written by my father, but it was published in the German Democratic Republic (GDR), not the USSR.

So at first you can’t speak about Falk, then you can publish a book about him in the GDR, and then you’re allowed to mention Falk, since a book was published about him in the GDR. Then you can write an article about him in the Soviet press, but not yet in the central press.

SO:    What happened to the avant-garde artists who lived into the 1950s and 1960s?

AS:    In the 1930s, the avant-garde experiments wound down, but by the 1960s they had simply been forgotten. For example, Tatlin, who had outlived all the other avant-garde artists, survived in his final years on some accidental theater earnings. He died in 1953 in abject poverty.

Even Natalia Goncharova and Mikhail Larionov, who lived in France, didn’t receive any attention and were completely penniless. Even after 50 years, they still mingled in Russian circles in which they didn’t need to speak French. They sold some work, of course, but very little and mainly early works. That’s why Larionov often dated his works as 10-15 years older than they actually were. However, they were very patriotic, and bequeathed all their works to the USSR.

After their death, these works sat for many years in the Soviet Embassy in Paris because of France’s high inheritance tax. At that time, in the mid-1960s, the French already understood how valuable that collection was. In the end they evaluated the works and collected the tax in the form of paintings – now in the Centre Pompidou. The remaining works were sent to the Tretyakov Gallery, but many decades passed before they entered the permanent exhibition.

SO:     What was the fate of Russian avant-garde art in the West? Has it always enjoyed the same status it does today, or was it completely ignored, as in the USSR?

AS:     For some time, no one was interested, since most of the paintings and monuments of the avant-garde were hidden away in Russia and people simply didn’t have access to them. The first was researcher Camilla Gray, who in 1962 published the book “The Great Experiment: Russian Art 1863-1922.”

A big role, of course, was played by Costakis, who, in those years, was allowed to travel abroad as a diplomat. He even took parts of his collection with him, gave lectures, sold certain pieces to other diplomats and foreign journalists. Thanks to this, Russian art was rediscovered in Europe and in the United States.

In the second half of the 1980s, the authorities took the avant-garde to task. The link between avant-garde art and the 1917 Revolution was trumped up and sold abroad as a package deal: 1917 Revolution + avant-garde. A series of exhibitions took place in some large Western galleries with names like “Art of the Revolution” and “Revolutionary Art.”

SO:     Which leader of the USSR had the idea of using avant-garde art as a propaganda tool instead of repressing it?

AS:     I can’t say exactly, but there was, for example, a high-ranking diplomat called Semyonov, deputy minister of foreign affairs. He had a splendid collection of avant-garde art. And through him this art apparently reached the highest echelons of power, where there were some more-or-less cultured people. And this easily played into the idea of socialism with a human face.

In fact, at one point, Semyonov helped Costakis leave the country when he found himself in a difficult situation because of his collection. The authorities had started persecuting him, they burned down his dacha, telephoned him with threats, and blackmailed him. He understood what was being demanded of him: his departure. He didn’t want to move away – he wanted to open a landmark museum of avant-garde art here in Russia. In the end, Semyonov helped him: somewhere in the higher circles it was agreed that he would be allowed to leave if he gave part of his collection to Russia.

It would have made sense for Costakis to have been upset that more than half of his collection, which he had been putting together for decades, was being taken away from him. But nothing of the sort! He gave away the best works and even spent a long time trying to persuade the Tretyakov to take more. Despite his generosity, when the Tretyakov Gallery held an exhibition of these paintings, they didn’t even invite Costakis to view it. He left in 1979, and after this short exhibition, his collection ended up in storerooms, like the rest of the avant-garde art, for another ten years.

SO:    You worked as a copy editor in a publishing house. How did you end up working with Russian avant-garde art?

AS:    I worked for “The Soviet Artist” publishing house. The head of our editorial office was Yuri Maximovich Ovsyannikov, a wonderful person and publisher. During perestroika, Ovsyannikov asked me: “How would you like to do a book about Russian avant-garde art?” At the time, I was writing a dissertation about Franco-Flemish miniatures of the early 15th century. But I had discovered that, in the Russian State Archive of Literature and Art, there were documents about the distribution of Russian avant-garde art in regional museums in 1919-1920. No one had ever consulted these documents, and I decided to take a look at them.

I went to the archive, had a look, and found that there were hundreds of works scattered in over 40 towns. That’s how I got the idea to travel through those cities, find the paintings, and publish an album of obscure avant-garde art. Ovsyannikov got the assignment trips past the publishing house executives. Next thing you know, the Soviet Union is falling apart at the seams, everything is collapsing, the country is in chaos, and I’m traveling across the country from the Baltics to Central Asia, visiting provincial museums. You can imagine the state everything was in. However, I did find an enormous amount of avant-garde art, often lying there without so much as an inventory number, and in awful conditions.

SO:    So none of it has ever been exhibited?

AS:    No, only in the storerooms. An abstractionist painting would be lying there rolled up. Whose is it? When was it painted? I became wrapped up in this work. It resulted in the book “Unknown Russian Avant-garde Art in Museums and Private Collections.” I’ve been working on the topic ever since. At the end of March, a second exhibition of avant-garde art from provincial museums will open at the Jewish Museum. It’s an interesting experience traveling around, gathering material. For example, last summer, I went to Kirov where the local museum has an amazing avant-garde art collection. I went to arrange for them to donate some of their paintings to the exhibition.

And there I met a guy from the local culture department. I was leaving the next day, and that evening, over a cup of coffee, I hear him saying: “You need to go to city X. You won’t regret it. I’ll ring them and tell them you’re coming.” I was inspired, found a car and set off the next morning. It was 200 kilometers from Kirov, deep in the provinces – a merchant town that had once been affluent but was now a penniless and dusty town. The director of the regional museum awaited me, on his best behavior, and I could see the fear in everyone’s eyes.

The museum was a single-story merchant’s house. The first room contained a glass cabinet holding a stuffed crow sitting atop a dried birch tree. There were some moth-eaten rabbits and squirrels, and a bear to one side. The next room: a rhinoceros skull, a mammoth tusk, flint-tipped arrows. The third room was filled with children’s drawings, the fourth room exhibited work by local photographers.

However, the storeroom contained a stunning collection of invaluable Russian avant-garde art – Rodchenko, Kandinsky, Bubnova, Stepanova, Udaltsova.

Left: “Lines on Green №92” by Alexander Rodchenko (1919). Right: “Black on Black №82” by Alexander Rodchenko (1918). Images via the Jewish Museum

SO:    Why is all this still in storerooms? Don’t they want to display it?

AS:    Above a stuffed bear? There isn’t a room for fine arts there. Now they’ve taken their Kandinsky to Moscow to be restored. How did this collection end up in city X, where none of the artists had ever been? I’m starting to work it out. It turns out that in 1921 an art enthusiast, who was mixing with the artistic circles of Moscow, somehow ended up in Kirov (Vyatka at the time). And he, out of sheer enthusiasm, created a traveling exhibition of local and Muscovite artists – some 320 works.

He took this exhibition around the Vyatky region on carts, in autumn, along terrible country roads. It all ended up in city X. because the road simply ran out, and it was impossible to go back because winter had begun. This Medvedev fellow later left Vyatka and the USSR completely – traces of him disappear in Europe somewhere. Only a tenth of the paintings, thank God, remained there. The rest were stolen, thrown away, or damaged by bad storage conditions. I had no idea that such discoveries could be made nowadays.

SO:    Let’s go back to the moment when your first book was published and the Soviet Union collapsed. At what point did everyone understand how much Russian avant-garde art was worth?

AS:    I think it happened thanks to Costakis. He sold some things to Western collectors. And this became the launching pad from which the prices of avant-garde art grew. At a certain point, they reached completely mind-boggling heights. And then they gradually fell. Now they’re going up again slightly.

SO:    When did the prices fall?

AS:    Prices were highest in the 1990s. Then, in the 2000s, there was a huge wave of forgeries. Some forgeries were sold through respected auction houses, and the scandals and lawsuits started.

The forgery was very bad, artisanal, in the case of the nearly 400 fake works by Goncharova. For example, there’s a painting by Goncharova called “The Cyclist.” The forgers made two more cyclists riding in the opposite direction, or three motorcyclists, and so on – even forming a catalogue of works. The discovery of the forgeries caused a huge scandal. Everyone was horrified and prices for Russian avant-garde art immediately fell and became the normal price which, really, avant-garde art deserves.

It was nonsense when a Picasso cost $40 million to $50 million. The wonderful 17th-century Flemish painters cost $50,000 to $60,000. The school of Leonardo da Vinci could be bought for $100,000. Meanwhile, any Kandinsky or Goncharova automatically cost ten times more.

SO:    Shouldn’t you be defending your fosterlings? After all, the prices reflect the level of interest in them.

AS:    I’m all for the world taking an interest in 20th-century art, but I’m against madness. This is one of those crazy things that exist in our world, and you have to accept it. The price of works by Picasso is the same madness that can be seen in the salaries of footballers.

SO:    Who bought Russian avant-garde art when the prices rocketed in the 1990s?

AS:    It was the so-called “New Russians.” It was seen as a good investment. They weren’t even particularly interested in whether or not the pieces were authentic. I was called to give my expert opinion several times. I would identify the pieces as fakes and the owners would be annoyed. On the other hand, people often understand that they have God-know- what hanging on their wall, and say: “I like it, let it stay. Whether it’s an Aristarkh Lentulov, a Malevich or some fake doesn’t really bother me.”

SO:    What is the situation with forgeries now?

AS:    There are fewer now than in the 2000s. But there’s a new trend: forgers create entire collections. In my view, you don’t have to be an art historian to see past the big signatures: Malevich, Tatlin, Popova, Rodchenko, etc. Forgers also have to come up with a viable provenance story.

For example, I heard this one: a certain general of the KGB, during the time when avant-garde artists were being persecuted, rescued these works and formed a collection. Then they appeared somewhere in Central Asia because he had been exiled there. They stayed there for many years, and now his heirs want to sell.

SO:    And what’s the situation with Russian avant-garde art in general?

AS:    It’s finally being studied properly. There is serious research going on. Over the past 15 years a very good art history school, focusing on avant-garde art, has come together. It’s well-developed and thriving. And not only in Russia. There are a many talented researchers and lots of work is being in done in museums around the world. For example, there’s a wonderful collection in the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam – it has one of the best Malevich collections.

And the aforementioned “Encyclopedia of the Russian Avant-garde” was made possible thanks to the work of nearly 200 art historians from all over the world. In a sense, it was the result of avant-garde scientific research.

SO:    How did one of the best Malevich collections wind up in Holland?

AS:    For a time Malevich lived in Germany. But when he was due for his return to USSR, he left all the works he had brought to Europe to his friend. That friend stored the collection in his home for many years, hiding it from the Nazis. If they had found it, they would most likely have destroyed it as “degenerate art.” Later, the collection found its way to the Stedelijk Museum, but it didn’t have any legal ownership rights. For this reason, a lawyer managed to bring Malevich’s heirs together and, in their name, demand that all his works be returned. As a result, an agreement was reached wherein the museum has to give the heirs five paintings.

SO:    You mentioned that you have recently witnessed a surge of interest in Russian avant-garde art.

AS:    Yes, I judge it by how many young people have started to take an interest in it.

SO:    Don’t you get the feeling that, for many people, the avant-garde experiment is still outrageous? For example, Malevich’s “Black Square” remains the subject of endless discussions.

AS: “Black Square” is not only a great piece of art, but it’s also such a bugbear and will always be like that. It will never become the Sistine Madonna. Never. It will also bring out the most diverse emotions. And this is one of the reasons it’s so ingenious. Avant-garde art itself was shocking. When it was alive, when it was taking place, its aim was to shock. Yes, a century has passed, but that’s not long enough for it to become recognized as classic art. Everything happens very slowly here in Russia.