When Stalin Got Real, Costakis Started Collecting

What would artists be without collectors? The members of the Russian avantgarde movement should ask George Costakis. He scouted and glorified the work of the creative minds who made art during the Stalinist regime.

That spirit can be grasped within The Greek State Museum of Contemporary Art in Thessaloniki that, after twenty years of activity, has opened a new page in its history. The Museum, directed by Maria Tsantsanoglou, re-exhibited the magnificent Costakis collection through a different museological approach, under the guidance of a development committee headed by Kristina Krasnyanskaya, founder of the Heritage Art Foundation.


The exhibition Restart (29 June — 16 September 2018) showcased the phantasmagorical collection that George Costakis assembled in the Soviet Union during the second half of the last century. This extraordinary exhibit displayed a wide variety of artistic styles, such as Pre-Avant-Garde, Cubo-Futurism, Suprematism and Non-Objective Art, The School of Organic Culture, Analytic Art, Constructivism, Art in Production, Cosmism and Electro-Organism, Post-Avant-Garde.

Restart was curated in great detail by Natalia Avtonomova and Alla Lukanova, beautifully encapsulated in the exhibition catalogue of Dmitry Mordvintsev (ABS Design). The works on display included the oeuvres by the likes of Kazimir Malevich, Vladimir Tatlin, Alexander Rodchenko, Klutsis, Lyubov Popova, Ivan Kliun, Mikhail Matyushin, Pavel Filonov, Solomon Nikritin, Alexander Drevin, Nadezhda Udaltsova, Olga Rozanova, El Lissitzky, Pavel Mansurov and Vasily Kandinsky.

This grand exhibit newly connected the Russian-born collector with his Hellenic heritage, since both his parents were Greek, his first work experiences were as a driver for the Greek embassy, and he later moved to Athens where he spent the rest of his life.

Costakis’ interest in Russian Modernism began in 1946, when he was shown a painting by the abstract artist Olga Rozanova, as he later said in an interview: “I brought it home to my flat, with the silver, the carpets and so forth, and I realized that I had lived until then with closed windows.” Since that epiphany, Costakis embarked upon a quest to acquire and preserve the avant-garde art that had been scorned by Stalinist proponents of Socialist Realism and relegated to obscurity.

In his new home in Athens, Costakis took up painting himself and began lending works for exhibitions at museums throughout the world. The most prominent one is a 1981 show at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. But the 2018 Restart exhibition at The Greek State Museum of Contemporary Art in Thessaloniki, besides showing his outstanding collection, truly provides a sense of George Costakis’ prismatic personality. This is by virtue of the document archive that the Museum holds of George Costakis.

This pioneering collector did not align with the zeitgeist of his time — that depreciated the Russian avantgarde movement. He had the clairvoyance to expect that one day people would have acknowledged the worth of Russian avantgarde, which is what actually happened.

George Costakis’ role towards the artists he so strongly sustained was not of a mere investor, but a supporter of their vision. There are examples of patrons of the arts that go all the way back to the Renaissance. But if the Medici Family could dispose of great opulence, through the centuries collectors did not necessarily have such ease in disposing of their capital. However, they all believed in the value of the artwork they collected. As George Costakis once said: “A real collector must feel like a millionaire even when he is penniless. If he understands and loves the work and is sure of himself, he must not be afraid to buy it. A work of high artistic quality is literally priceless to the collector. For such a work he will always find that he has paid less than it is worth. This I affirm from personal experience without exaggeration.