Vladimir Paleev: “My father was a fan of Falk, was friends with Lebedev, and went fishing with Altman”
The heir to the last Petersburg “professorial collection” Vladimir Paleev is a unique example of a man who kept his father’s collection in its original form. The Art Newspaper Russia has published an interview with Paleev which you can read here in full in Russian, meanwhile the RA Gallery is offering the English translation of the interview for our non-Russian speakers.

Наследник последней петербургской «профессорской коллекции» Владимир Палеев — уникальный пример человека, сохранившего собрание отца в первозданном виде. «Art Newspaper Russia» опубликовала интервью с Палеевым, которое вы можете прочитать на русском языке перейдя по ссылке , в то время как RA Gallery предлагает перевод интервью на английский язык для наших не говорящих по-русски читателей. 

Кузьма Петров-Водкин. «Изгнание из рая». 1917. Фото: Собрание Палеевых


The exhibition titled “Three St. Petersburg Collections” held this spring at State Russian Museum featured the private collections of Ilya Paleyev, Vladimir Berezovsky, Kirill and Yulia Naumov. Among those, the collection of painting and graphics by Ilya Paleyev, a physicist and professor at the Polytechnic Institute, is the earliest and is a so-called professorial collection, which have practically disappeared today. The current owner of the collection, Vladimir Ilyich Paleyev, spoke about how his father collected the collection, was friends with artists, and saved the masterpieces from imminent ruin.

The exhibition “Three Collections” is the rarest phenomenon in museum practice. How did you manage to do it?
VP: For this you need to have the talent of Berezovsky! He agreed with the Russian Museum a few years ago, but the story broke out with Elena Basner, and the exhibition was postponed. Prior to this, the Culture Foundation did several exhibitions from private collections in the 1990s in Argentina, Spain, Italy — about 30 works were borrowed from me. At the end of the 1980s, an exhibition of paintings from private collections took place in “Manezh”, almost all Leningrad collectors participated. There was also a posthumous exhibition of the collection of Solomon Schuster.

Was work from your father’s collection exhibited during his life?
VP: A long time ago there was an exhibition at the Academy of Arts; it seems that it was called "Russian graphics from private collections." Usually after the death of the collector, the heirs sold everything.

How come was your collection miraculously preserved ?
VP: After the death of my father, we all, mother, my wife and I, decided that we would keep the collection of a person who was loved and respected. But about five or six pictures were sold when an urgent operation was required for his wife. They were selected very carefully. If I have 24 works of Robert Falk, then I can sell one.

What was your father basing his decisions on when collecting works?
VP: He tried to represent all aspects of the artist's work, all genres. Especially if he really liked the artist’s work. Father was a fan of Falk — here all the aspects of his career are represented, from the earliest works to the last ones. Same goes for Petrov-Vodkin. Father has his “Head of a scientist”, the last portrait of Kuzma Sergeevich, it was taken off the easel in the studio after the artist’s death. There is his "Model in the workshop of Serov," one of the earliest. Vladimir Lebedev is represented starting from early works too. His 1916 drawing is hanging right over there.

They were friends with Lebedev?
VP: Many years. The first time we came to Lebedev was when I was a first year student. Lebedev's last wife was Sergey Lazo Ada's daughter. Although it is difficult to say which is the third official, but he was very fond of all his models, said: “If you don’t love a woman, why draw her?”

Your father was a physicist. What can a thermal physicist and an artist talk about?
VP: In one of the first conversations, Lebedev asked: “Here you are working with heat. How can I warm up the workshop? It is cold in winter, my models are cold and their breasts are changing.” My 17-year-old ears were burning from such conversations! Lebedev and my father began to discuss, and it seems, agreed on some kind of fan with warm air. Lebedev was in spirit a very free man. He calmly told me, a Komsomol member, how he listened to Trotsky's speeches in the 1920s. He laughed at Soviet reality and said: “We are flying into space, but we cannot put asphalt on the road!”.

With Altman, my father talked about fishing. They were both avid fishermen, fond of spinning.

Did Nathan Altman talk about painting Lenin?
VP: He did. Anatoly Lunacharsky was very good to Altman. When Uritzky was killed, Lunacharsky ordered his bust from Altman, it stood in a corner in Lenin's office. Later Lunacharsky brought Altman to Lenin: "Here, this is the very young sculptor." Lenin asked him: "Please sign, whose bust this is, otherwise the old Bolsheviks will not recognize it." Altman also liked to talk about how the bust of the leader was made. First, it was made in plaster — and the plaster needs to be watered so that it does not crack. Altman told Lenin. The next day, Ilyich said to his secretary, Elena Stasova: "Elena Dmitrievna, water my head, please." Stasova gasped: "Why?" Lenin to her: "Not mine, the plaster!”

How many years was your father building the collection?
VP: From 1953 to 1970. He dreamed about it from his youth, but before the war there were no means and the limited space of a communal apartment did not allow it. Despite, he always paid attention to beautiful or unusual things. Once he bought a large porcelain vase, saying that it struck him with a discrepancy between form and content. The vase is amazing: the base was made in the 19th century, and it was painted in the 20s—30s of the 20th century, similar to Zinaida Kobyletskaya. We moved to the professorial building of the Polytechnic Institute two weeks before the war, after the father defended his doctoral thesis. The vase survived the war, although a bomb exploded right under the windows.

After the war, your father headed the department at the Polytech, he began to earn good money and realized his dream of a collection?
VP: Not immediately. Times were not right for it. Father had a good understanding of his situation: a Jew, non-partisan — today he works, tomorrow he could be arrested. But there were many collectors around. For example, Igor D. Afanasyev, assistant to Sergo Ordzhonikidze. After the death of the People's Commissar, many were jailed, including Afanasyev, their property was confiscated — and he owned the collection. Then he was released, he put together a second collection, after the war. He was afraid of confiscation, kept things with friends. Father was acquainted with him and later traded his work “Divination” by Pavel Kuznetsov for several paintings, including Petrov-Vodkin.

Our neighbor was Professor Lev Gerasimovich Loitsyansky, who had a magnificent collection: Boris Kustodiyev, Zinaida Serebryakova ... They were friends, but father began to collect only after the death of "the leader of all nations." And he is not alone, the famous collection of Abram Filippovich Chudnovsky began at the same time.

Did your father say why he was drawn to collecting art?
VP: It is generally quite difficult to explain. He parted with many of the original things: his tastes and views changed. At first he collected the late Wanderers, then moved on to the “Mir iskusstva” artists. Grigory Samoilovich Bloch (father attended his lectures) greatly influenced his taste. Bloch sold him some things too. Father generally had no time to go looking for work: he had the department, scientific work, lectures ...

How did he assemble such a luxurious collection?
VP: At first there were commission shops, then brokers. They knew the tastes of all collectors: what to offer Chudnovsky, Schuster, to Paleev or Alexander Naumovich Ranma. Art critics also helped, such as Yevgeny Rusakov. They were also interested in the work being accumulated in large collections, rather than spread out among random grandmas.

Some of the art historians prompted us to purchase the “Head of Christ” by Petrov-Vodkin. Then they were afraid to call this work the “Head of Christ” — we didn’t have any religious art! When at the beginning of Perestroika I was asked to give it to Hungary for an exhibition of Soviet art, I said: "I’ll lend, if you exhibit it as the head of Christ." The organizers agreed.

Was it an expensive treat?
VP: Prices for paintings and drawings were modest then, I could buy a drawing or two with my scholarship money. Once Ilya Solomonovich Zilberstein brought Ida Markovna Chagall, the artist's daughter, to Leningrad. I called my father, we went to see them. My father had a work, presumably, by Chagall. The daughter confirmed that it was Chagall, and said that in Europe, a fake Chagall is worth more than a genuine one in the Soviet Union. Because in Russia the work of the artist is not appreciated.

Did work end up in the hands of your father in any unexpected ways?
VP: Yes, an excellent portrait of Empress Maria Feodorovna, the wife of Paul I, by an unknown artist was given to father for half a liter by local janitors.

Or “Exile from Paradise” by Petrov-Vodkin! This painting is a real martyr. It stood in the artist's studio. After the artist’s death, his widow and daughter were moved to a communal flat. And where do you put the big picture? Some professor at the conservatory took it in. When he died, new tenants were moved into the apartment. The widow was forced to sell the furniture, and the canvas was put in the corridor. Residents started repairs, asked her to remove the picture. But it was not accepted by the museum because of the religious subject. The picture was then covered with rags, the ceilings were whitewashed.

The widow had several other works by Petrov-Vodkin. Friends called father, he came and bought them. When he was leaving the room, he saw a corner of the frame in the corridor. The woman says: "This is Petrov-Vodkin, it’s “Exile from Paradise””. And father recognized it from the photo in the Apollon in 1915! He ran his finger along the canvas and saw that the whitewash had not yet penetrated into the paint layer. He says: “I’ll take it!”. He stopped a bread-van on the street, persuaded the driver and took the picture to us. It looked terrible: all white, as if in a fog. Father urgently called a familiar conservator, and saved the masterpiece.

Has your father had to deal with fakes?
VP: When he first started, more experienced fellow collectors tried to sell him fakes several times. Brokers did not allow this though.

Did he ask for the money back?
VP: He tolerated it, that was the custom of this environment.

Never been afraid of being robbed?
VP: It was attempted once, but the neighbors scared them off. The thieves knew that the doors were guarded, so they climbed through the window. Mom called the police. Two people in uniform showed no interest in the paintings, but carefully began to examine the crystal glasses and vases in the sideboard. Then, significantly, they said: “Yes, there is stuff to take!”.

That is why you should to make a collection catalog.
VP: I will definitely not do this. Back in the 1990s, the famous John Stuart, the founder of the Russian department of Sotheby’s, came to us. He inspected the collection, asked permission to photograph everything. He told ya: “There is no doubt that they will rob and kill you. The main point is that the stolen goods should not end up with us!”

What will happen to your collection next? Will you donate to the museum?
VP: I am a fatalist. Nikita Lobanov-Rostovsky once told me that those who have no children and grandchildren donate to the museum. I have a son and a granddaughter. If they donate to the museum, I won’t know about it anymore, and if the need arises to sell, then so be it. Could Morozov and Schukin imagine what would happen to their collections? They could not have dreamed it in a nightmare!