PRINT Summer 1982


Russian Avant-Garde Art

LET US SAY FIRST and quickly that this book is a bargain. With 527 glossy, heavy stock pages displaying almost 1200 reproductions, more than half of them in good color, and dozens of documentary photographs, it retails at only $60.00. In this era of excessive prices for books in general, and especially for art books, Abrams is to be congratulated for making such “elite” material available to the art-loving proletariat. They have proved that it can be done.

And what do we get for this investment? The most comprehensive and accurate look at early Russian modern painting yet seen anywhere. For the Western specialist in 20th century art, no less than for the general reader, the number of artists represented in this volume (65) and the variety of their artistic styles must come as a revelation. Well-known Russians—Kasimir Malevich, Vladimir Tatlin, El Lissitzky––are there, of course, but also dozens of others. There are major compilations of the work of Ivan Kliun and Liubov’ Popova. By itself, and especially in combination with selections from the George Costakis collection exhibited recently at the Guggenheim Museum, the book should reasonably be expected to trigger a major rewriting of the history of artistic modernism.

This is not to say that the catalogue under review is either a balanced or historically definitive survey of the work of the Russian avant-garde. It is not. A personal collection seldom is, and, as in this case—a collection made under circumstances not usual to Western Europe or North America—could not hope to be. The ravages of two World Wars, two revolutions, four years of Civil War, and staggering sieges of political terror and universal starvation have inevitably taken their toll on what has survived from this brilliant period. The Costakis collection is more clearly than most a result of chance, the disposition of artists’ families, the luck of the collector. Furthermore, although the book does reproduce over 100 major works donated by Costakis to Moscow’s Tretiakov Gallery upon his emigration from Moscow to Athens, this is far from the complete donation. For now, the remainder of the collection, and hence its true proportions, remains undocumented. This situation leaves the book with some curious lacunae. It is not possible to believe, for example, that David Burliuk or Nikolai Kulbin were not represented in the collection of Costakis before it was divided, but they do not appear in the present catalogue.

Still, it seems possible to say that this collection, curiously, is without the most common characteristic of private collections: the “point of view” of the collector, the desire to make a historical or philosophical point. Whatever other intentions he may have had, Costakis plainly functioned as a keeper of the record. He offered shelter and safety to works of all stylistic schools and artistic philosophies. It is precisely such wholesale protective custody that helps us today to put together an accurate picture of a time otherwise so difficult of access.

There is no question that it is the documentary value of this volume that is primary: the photographs of the works; the cataloguing of media, dimensions, and provenances (this latter is a particularly rare item of information in this field). Now, when it seems that the Western portion of the collection is to be dispersed through gifts and sales, this book will remain its most accessible record. For this reason one is tempted to wish for even more documentation: photographs of the reverse of major canvases, for example, details of signatures, and a clear explanation of how dates were determined for the works which lack them—some seem very curious indeed.

In general, and in spite of obvious editorial care, there is no feeling either of the hand of the scholar or the connoisseur behind this volume. And one wonders, ultimately, what audience the publishers had in mind. The exhaustive photo-documentation of sketches, doodles, and postcards seems to argue for a specialized readership, while S. Frederick Starr’s introduction presents a socio-historical discussion of life in Russia suitable primarily for a very general audience. George Costakis’ recollections in his essay “Collecting Art of the Avant-Garde” are charming, sometimes justly critical, and always fascinating. But it is puzzling that nowhere in a book of this nature is there any explanation of the history, meaning, or relevance of the work presented. In a one-page preface and list of acknowledgments, Angelica Rudenstine pleads a lack of time for analysis, but the Guggenheim Museum has had the collection in their possession since 1977—time enough, it would seem, to formulate at least a general art-historical discussion which would be helpful for any reader. (Similarly, the exhibition of selections from the Costakis collection, recently at the Guggenheim Museum, offered little historical guidance to the public.) To cite just one example of this pervasive lack of scholarly responsibility, the catalogue makes a major grouping of Mikhail Matiushin and his students, the four Ender siblings. But although dozens of their colorful works are reproduced, there is no coherent explanation of the programmatic artistic problems the artists had set for themselves, nor any discussion of the various solutions that the depicted works represent. This is not a matter of lack of information; many bibliographical sources for Matiushin are listed. The occasional comment that has been added to the factual data about a work seems to be addressed to no one at all. Does anyone really need to be told that one work resembles another when both are in the book, or even that a preparatory sketch varies from a finished work, when both appear on the same page?

Perhaps what is really wrong is that the book appears to have been written by committee, rather than by any one controlling sensibility. And the committee membership seems somewhat arbitrary. In her preface Rudenstine offers the usual acknowledgments to a bevy of translators and other helpers, including the Russian art historian Vasilii Rakitin, who “wrote the biographies of the artists and provided a basic checklist of many of the works in the collection; information supplied by him has been incorporated in many of the captions to the illustrations.” And indeed, throughout the book Rakitin is repeatedly cited as a source for attributions and historical data. His contribution appears to be a major and valuable portion of the book. Why, therefore, was not Rakitin, along with Rudenstine, Starr, and Costakis, considered on the title page as one of the “authors” of this work?

As to the collection itself and its division, some critics have complained that Costakis left in the Soviet Union most of the major works by better-known artists. But is this not where they belong? Done mostly by artists devoted to their country as well as to their art, such works now constitute a national treasure, something that should never leave home for good.

But there is another aspect of “our share” of the Costakis collection for which we should be thankful. As this book makes clear, the portion brought to the West consists precisely of those materials that would have been most difficult to gain access to through the bureaucratic labyrinths of the Soviet archival system. Inevitably the masterpieces left behind will be circulated in exhibitions and amply reproduced. But the preparatory studies, manuscripts, daybooks, and sketchbooks documented by the catalogue might have disappeared for a long time. And these artifacts are crucial to definitive studies of an artist or historical period. It is to be hoped that in the end this part of George Costakis’ magnificent collection will remain accessible to all students everywhere,for the sake of scholarship and the old dreams. The Abrams catalogue helps to ensure just this.

Charlotte Douglas


Russian Avant-Garde Art: The George Costakis Collection, general editor, Angelica Zander Rudenstine, introduction by S. Frederick Starr, essay by George Costakis (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc.), 527 pages, 1,188 illustrations, 635 in color.