ART PASSIONS

Article: 
COLLECTORS AND COLLECTIONS
Magazine issue: 
#1 2010 (26)

Collecting artwork is a passion - one which can develop in many different ways. Private collections become themed collections, then later part of a museum or museum holding. Thus, the Tretyakov Gallery was initially the private collection of Pavel Mikhailovich and Sergei Mikhailovich Tretyakov; equally, the holdings of the Museum of Private Collections originated from several private collections put together by famous individuals. Valery Dudakov, one of the most influential Russian collectors - respectfully called “Patriarch” by his fellow art lovers - has plans to transfer his collection to this museum. Employed as an expert by the auction houses such as Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Phillips, he has written two books and dozens of articles about both artists of the first third of the 20th century and nonconformist artists, and made five films.

Valery Alexandrovich, you are an artist and an art scholar and historian. How did you come to be a collector, what brought about this “malady” — how did it all begin?

It all started in my childhood, in a children’s summer camp I went to; it seems it was all fore-ordained. My eagerness to pursue a course of life different from that determined by my background either attracted opportunities to me, or made me find them. At 15, I happened to meet artists from Lev Nusberg’s group “Dvizhenie” — Francisco Infante, Slava Koleichuk, Misha Dorokhov, Viktor Stepanov. That was at the beginning of the 1960s, a fairly liberal period. We would meet in Volodya Galkin’s basement. In 1960 I became a student at a printing college and became a professional book designer. During my first year at the college I learned about a Young Art Scholars’ Club at the Museum of Fine Arts; I joined it, to discover very good teachers, the cream of the learned society. The three years at the club gave me a great deal, not only by way of learning the history of Western European art, but also by way of seeing true art; I remember spending two and a half hours at a time in the museum’s rooms contemplating the works of Gauguin, Van Gogh, Cezanne, Picasso. And there were also travels across Russia, too — our teachers brought us to the old Russian cities, told us about the history of Russian art. That was the prelude to the story. Because to start collecting, you needed a certain state of mind, certain knowledge and, most importantly, finances.

So where did you get the money?

After finishing college, I started to work as a book designer at different publishing houses and at the same time studied at Moscow University. That was how it all turned out, all the stumbling blocks in my life notwithstanding. I began to earn good money. And I met the so-called “unofficial artists” — Volodya Nemukhin, Slava Kalinin, Kolya Vechtomov (I called them by first name although they were not very young), then [Dmitry] Krasnopevtsev, [Vladimir] Weisberg, [Eduard] Shteinberg, [Ilya] Kabakov, Oscar Rabin. These artists loaned me their works “as wall pieces” — in 1969 I inherited from my father a big one-room apartment. And the artists would tell me: “Our walls are all hung with stuff but yours are empty — why don’t you hang the pictures on the walls; you receive visitors, some of them art scholars, maybe they’ll get interested” — I did not own the pieces but sort of could hold them. Fast forward to 1970... I was already teaching at the printing college and made my first purchase — a piece by Weisberg. So it was then that I got “entrapped”, and I started buying.

I collected for many years pieces by artists whom I knew personally. And soon I became richer — I took a job as chief artist at the Soviet recording company Melodiya. I was a part of a circle of cronies passing on to each other lucrative commissions and jobs. And, not to mince words, we were earning a lot, we were more than wealthy by Soviet standards: we did not exploit anyone, in most cases we sat up until three or four in the morning, and toiled over our sketches applying our “wizardry of hands” — that was how we made the money.

Back then second-hand stores were selling artwork that some museums would be happy to get hold of today...

Since I was making a good living, quite naturally, I was buying up pieces by artists whose works were on sale at secondhand stores — that was one of the sources for my collection: the “Union of Russian Artists”, “World of Art”. In the 1970s such artwork was priced cheaply, say, a work of [Leonard] Turzhansky or [Stanislav] Zhukovsky or [Sergei] Vinogradov would cost about 300 rubles. Well, a Korovin went for, say, 2,000 rubles, and Ivan Aivazovsky or Ilya Repin had much bigger price tags. Gradually I became focused mostly on the artists from the “World of Art”, “Jack of Diamonds” and “Blue Rose” groups. I started collecting “Blue Rose” pieces when museums did not want to hear about it, considering the pictures distasteful and decadent.

True collectors are a cliquey lot, a sort of exclusive club, a secret order. How did you become a part of it?

At a “Portrait and Self-portrait” show at the Union of Artists’ exhibition hall on Usievich Street, I met Yakov Yevseevich Rubinstein, one of Moscow’s leading collectors, and this marked a milestone in my life. He was an experienced collector, knew artists from St. Petersburg and Moscow way back in the 1930s, and arranged traveling exhibitions across Russia. The man had a great impact on me. I wrote articles for his shows, helped him to mount paintings on the walls and to publish catalogues, and he taught me “collector’s tricks”, as he called it, the “sleight and swap” tricks that every collector has to use, and he introduced me to all the prominent collectors in Moscow.

What these people were like?

On the official side, there was a Collectors’ Club, created by Vladimir Ivanovich Kostin: it existed from 1968 to 1974, and I was not a member because I was too young. But there was also an unofficial circle of contacts, where I occupied a certain position. The position of a junior but fairly respected collector, albeit a beginner. We would get together, eat, talk about our finds and share information about heirs, the subject of paramount interest to us. The circle of associates included a president of the Academy of Medical Sciences Nikolai Nikolaevich Blokhin; Aram Yakovlevich Abramyan, the chief urologist, who treated Brezhnev and Shchelokov; Abram Filippovich Chudnovsky, one of the best collectors — I think that in Russia his collection was second only to Kostaki’s; Yury Sergeevich Torsuev, one of the biggest black-marketeers or, as we call them today, dealers in Moscow; Yevgeny Anatolievich Gunst, an admirable collector of the “Blue Rose” and “World of Art” pieces; Solomon Abramovich Shuster, Iosif Moiseevich Ezrakh, Boris Andreevich Denisov, Vladimir Yakovlevich Andreev, Anatoly Vladimirovich Smolianinov — a large company of well-established, respectable collectors, with a collecting experience far lengthier than mine; they were seasoned pros, I became acquainted with everyone, and everyone trusted me. Many of these friendships lasted for years. They too taught me their “tricks” — they knew quite a lot of them — and they also sold me artwork and introduced me to heirs, which was a fascinating experience. Since I was a very dynamic person with money, I use to be a magnet for many people.

What artists’ heirs did you know, from whom did you buy artwork?

I bought from heirs and from collectors. This is how I became acquainted with Aristarkh Lentulov’s daughter Marianna Lentulova, with Robert Falk’s last wife Angelina Vasilievna Falk, Lev Fyodorovich Zhegin’s widow Varvara Tikhonovna Zonova-Zhegina, the Rodchenko family, the Drevin family, the Miturich-Khlebnikov family, [Nikolai] Sinezubov’s heirs. And these people trusted me because I was a reliable person (I followed up on my promises) and creditworthy, and because I was one of them, a fellow art researcher and artist, it was much easier for them to deal with me than with other collectors. I guess it was more agreeable. I knew how to listen. It was essential to conceal your eagerness about the goal of your visit, and to listen attentively. All this was interesting to me not in a small part because I am an art scholar by nature — I graduated from Moscow State University, and the topic of my thesis was synthesis in Russian Modernist art, and this interested me nearly as much as the art trade.

That was how I joined the club and stayed there until I achieved my strange little vain goal of entering the “top ten” of Russian collectors. This happened by the end of the 1980s — by then I was already tired from my job at Melodiya, that was how things turned out, and I saw the limits of my potential as an artist. I focused on my collection, which by that time already numbered about 300 items, mostly paintings. There were three major sections: paintings from the 1900s-1930s, starting with the “World of Art” and all the way up to the left non-figurative art; of course, the unofficial artists, with whom I had stayed in touch all the time; third, some objects of applied art, including pottery from Abramtsevo. Since the collection was quite large already, I started thinking about its future.

In the 1980s the artistic community was keen on the idea of establishing a museum of modern art.

Indeed, that was in the air. We had social gatherings — Lenya Bazhanov, William Meiland, Volodya Petrov, Oleg Loginov and many others, we talked about modern art, how it should be represented, what sort of museum would be the best. So I made a visit to the Soviet Culture Fund, which was headed by Dmitry Sergeevich Likhachev then. At the Fund I was to talk with a deputy chairman, Georgy Vasilievich Myasnikov, a wonderful person who supported many good initiatives. He listened to me carefully, frowned at me, started calling me by my first name and asked what I did. When he learned that I was not only an artist and art scholar but also a collector, he asked me to arrange a meeting of all the collectors from Moscow and St. Petersburg and proposed to them to establish a guild. It took me a month to arrange the meeting where everyone would be present, and in May 1987 the Collectors’ Club was founded under the auspices of the Soviet Culture Fund, uniting more than 100 of the choicest, most famous, most deserving Russian collectors, each of whom owned over 300 pieces. Soon I was hired to head the section of international exhibiting and private collections, and then we had an extension — the Modern Art Museum, because we decided to follow through on this idea.

What did the Collectors’ Club do?

First, we rehabilitated the word itself — previously “collector” was synonymous with a black marketeer, a clandestine subversive, a malcontent, a rogue who profits from other people’s misery, a hustler from a crime movie. We started organizing shows of private collections — first in Russia, then abroad as well. 140 shows in Russia and 23 internationally — all over seven years! In London in 1989 it was not the Tretyakov Gallery or the Russian Museum but we, the Soviet Culture Fund, who drew a line under the past century organizing the exhibition “100 Years of Russian Art 1889-1989”. The artists on display ran the whole gamut from Isaac Levitan to Ilya Kabakov and Vadim Zakharov, and the show was a smashing success. This kind of activity was very important during the perestroika era — it showed that there was private property and people such as collectors who owned it. The Culture Fund showed us off as the new type of Soviet person — owners of private property on the one hand, and community activists on the other. Well, they were wrong about that one, because when true capitalism arrived, in its initial phase, only a few of us collectors became heads of picture galleries or art market movers or dealers.

What is the difference between collectors and dealers, and why cannot a collector become a dealer?

There is a very big difference. First, any collecting is based on love for collected objects. You simply cannot offer to a collector a sum big enough to make him sell that which he dearly loves. He treasures his favourites like family relics — they are the only ones of their kind. Second, you not only collect these pictures — you become deeply involved with them; buying a piece, you fathom very well its place in the artistic landscape, its uniqueness, its rarity. And of course you get used to reading up about the artists whose works you collect. This becomes a part of your soul, takes deep root in your life. Sure enough, we sell, because you simply have to sell or buy if you are a collector, but you minimize the selling — you sell only when it’s absolutely necessary. Normally the sellers are heirs who not only do not treasure the stuff but worse still had to live, when the collector was alive, in a cramped space and anathemized him (or her) for that. There have been many cases like this, when after a collector’s death his heirs sold off his stuff in no time. Third, collecting is not pivoted around commerce. Because the collector is the director of his museum as well as its accountant, and the investigator who traces the collectibles, and the custodian, and often the renovator, because we all know how objects should be kept and taken care of. So, every collector is tantamount to a little fully-staffed museum. Collecting is not at all a commercial venture. Buying and selling is an auxiliary activity, not the goal.

What is a dealer?

A dealer, above all, is a person who can very well size up an object’s financial value, the profit to be made from its purchase and subsequent sale or re-sale. And if you hike up the price two-, three- or even five-fold, he will sell his own mother! His goal is different: reaping a profit, not collecting. Besides, the dealer is a multi-disciplinary connoisseur or pseudo-connoisseur of his wares. Unfortunately, many of our dealers are not very knowledgeable, this is the trouble with our art market. Quite often they are not even aware what kind of stuff they are holding and what they are selling. It does not matter to them what sort of items they trade in — stones, silver, icons, furniture, applied art or paintings, graphic art, sculpture. Dealers are only concerned about turnover. And usually they do not try to understand the essence of the objects they get hold of. Therefore, collectors and dealers are two different things. Sometimes a dealer can have a little personal collection of choice objects, but this collection would be an accessory, a slag. Meanwhile, for us collectors the pieces we collect are the basis, the essence. As for old-time collectors, each of them knew everything about every item in his possession. They were connoisseurs, they knew about their artwork much more than any museum researcher, nearly all of them were reasonably knowledgeable in the field in which their collecting was focused.

Do collectors and dealers keep in touch, interact?

Certainly. Because collectors often buy from dealers or sell through them. But their contacts are marked by — how should I say? — not by a lack of interest but by a certain caution. Because whatever you may say, dealers are plebeians.

What do you think about the present situation when art in Russia became a business, when artwork is something that is immune to deflation of value, but in a mean, rather than exalted, sense of the phrase. Art is “His Majesty”, a soaring of a soul. And suddenly it becomes a tradeable commodity, a lucrative object. When did we start to have this attitude? And how do you feel about it?

First, the antiquities market has been around all along, in Russia — since time immemorial, and it existed even during the most oppressive period of Soviet rule: things were bought and sold. The free market ideas started to be promoted in the 1970s-1980s; during the stagnation period the market was developing quite steadily because we had those “tsekhovikis” (illegal manufacturing workshop owners), illegal foreign currency traders — although they did not become collectors, they brought in the fresh money. The period saw the emergence of re-sellers-cum-black-marketeers, because a market for Russian art was materializing in the West; in 1985 the auction houses Christie’s and Sotheby’s began to trade in Russian items, and bringing artwork from Russia became a lucrative venture. Previously, this was the province of diplomats, journalists, filmmakers and other Westerners, who hoped to get rich in this “trade”, because in Russia the prices were dozens of times lower than in the West.

And all that period, especially starting from the mid-1970s, was marked by smuggling. After the famed show “Paris— Moscow” people started to seriously pay attention to Russian avant-garde art which brought handsome profits; people did not even care whether this or that piece was authentic — what mattered was its connection with the Russian avant-garde. So there was a market in place. Another matter is that when we said we were moving to a market state operating under the laws of capitalistism, everything became commodified in no time, and art itself became primarily a commodity for those new dealers, new collectors, new gallery owners who took over the reins. The old guard were dying off.

Strangely, at the turn of the 1990s one generation of collectors replaced another. The old-timers simply were out of the running on account of their age. A new generation stepped in — for them any art object had a material value first of all. It does not mean that some of them did not love art, but they were a minority. Whereas all the majority cared about was converting art into banknotes. Because Russian art sales grew in numbers and prices skyrocketed, the valuations of some artists grew a hundredfold — I’m talking about Boris Grigoriev and Zinaida Serebryakova, not to mention Kazimir Malevich, Marc Chagall, Robert Falk, Wassily Kandinsky and so on; sure enough, it became a good investment above all. And collectors started to view artwork as valuables above all, rather than art objects and, accordingly, they had no idea of what they were collecting and did not understand very well their artistic value. But they were very well aware of their material value.

Lately we’ve seen many shoddily-made pieces, not fakes but rubbish — rubbish catering for the tastes of the emerging middle class.

You know, I can’t even call it art or visual art. This is a theatrical performance including hoax, deceit, advertising, PR and a whole lot of maneuvers far outside the limits of pictorial art. Normally there is nothing pictorial there. There is a desire to astonish, to knock you out with a pageant, a spectacle. I am talking here not only about performances but also about many works of Kabakov, or [Eric] Bulatov whom I respect but whose paintings I don’t like, and many other conceptual artists. These works do not always include elements of performance, often they are based on images, a narrative and have a message, but still it’s pageantry.

I believe that it happened because the dissent pivotal for art under Soviet rule ran out of ideological steam, and a need was felt for something universally meaningful irrespective of ethnic or religious or whatever other affiliation, and at the same time as exciting as pop music. Universally mean ingful for all ages and all minds. Just in response to this demand this art appeared, especially since people with money felt happy, viewing it as yet another amusement and starting to encourage it. How big is their influence on it? I think, in Russia it’s not very big; in the West it’s bigger. The West creates fashion. The West creates names. The West dictates prices for the artwork. I am talking about Russian, not Western, art. And when Kabakov’s “The Beetle” is sold for six million, it does not mean the picture really costs that much. It means that someone at this particular time at this particular auction hyped the piece up to present it as worth six million. But this does not mean that at the next auction it will be priced at least one million. There is a good example with Krasnopevtsev, when a Russian dealer living in Germany paid nearly one million for a Krasnopevtsev, on an order from a certain client. I do not know whether the client — a fairly well-established Russian collector and a top manager at a bank — was happy. Six months on (Russian sales take place every six months) in London — this is the main venue for trade in Russian art (Christie’s, Sotheby’s, Bonhams, McDougall), although sometimes New York too — well, in six months only, an almost similar picture of a similar quality goes for just 120,000.

What is the logic behind it?

There is no logic. And that’s what makes auctions such a roller-coaster. Because a lot of situational factors come in. There is a very big element of chance in these operations. Why? Because in essence the market that we formed involves people who do not know about or understand artistic quality, and whose knowledge is mainly focused on money; second, this is a very small circle, much smaller than under Soviet rule, a period marked by an unflagging interest: I’ve mentioned that the Collectors’ Club united more than 100 people, and at the first Club — under Kostin, in 1968-1974 — there were even more members. Even my Club, the third one, which has been around since 1997 — the Club of Visual Art Collectors, of which I am the chairman, has 65 members, all of them traditional collectors who almost never buy so-called “topical” art; their interest does not stretch beyond Soviet unofficial art.

And what happened to the Modern Art Museum that you founded under the auspices of the Soviet Culture Fund?

At the Modern Art Museum we energetically set about putting together the collection and amassed about 500 works — many of them gifts, and we also did a lot of buying: the Socialist Realist artists, Soviet unofficial artists, forgotten artists of the 1930s. The Museum is a thing of the past now, and these 500 pieces are being kept somewhere. This museum was discontinued. The museum was my dream. And this is the story of how it did not come to be. There are moves underway to set up a modern art museum, but I am not involved in it.

However, now we have a Museum of Private Collections affiliated with the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts. Of course this is not the same thing. But it’s unique.

I met Ilya Samoilovich Zilbershtein at the Culture Fund, I liked his idea at once because I’d seen so many private collections fall apart after their owners’ death! Lydia Ruslanova’s collection vanished, Yekaterina Geltser’s and Leonid Utesov’s collections dematerialized, and so did the collection of the little known but truly remarkable collector Kaverznev; now the collection of Chudnovsky, the collector who was second only to Kostaki, is practically gone; gone too are the collections of Alexander Leonidovich Myasnikov and Nikolai Nikolaevich Blokhin.

Somehow or other I’ve happened to know each of the collectors, and I have taken close to heart what was going on in their lives and what was happening with their collections. And I welcomed the establishment of the Museum of Private Collections as the right move — it would preserve not only the collection itself but also the collector’s personality with all his affections, passions, affinities, etc. Then it came to my mind that the Museum would make a good final refuge for my own collection. So, when an idea was brought in to organize a show of our collection in 2006 at the Museum of Private Collections, I agreed instantly although I was very ill then. But we enjoyed mounting the exhibition and presented one of the paintings to the museum. We are thinking about transferring the most significant items — I don’t know how and on what conditions — to the Museum of Private Collections.

Collecting is a passion for you. Do you share it with others?

Certainly. Collecting has an element of education, it is a live history of art, you popularize insufficiently well-known layers of Russian art through your collection. In the past we invited visitors to our home for a tour of the collection showing them works of those artists whom the Soviets drove into a tight corner or even killed, and memories of whom they tried to erase: Alexander Drevin, Gustavs Klucis, Mikhail Larionov, Natalya Goncharova, Mikhail Matyushin, Kazimir Malevich, Boris Grigoriev, Alexander Rodchenko, Olga Rozanova, Mikhail Sokolov and dozens of others who received recognition and started to be displayed in museums later. Along with the “firsts”, we also showed off works of persecuted unofficial artists, especially pieces from the collections of Yevgeny Nutovich, Leonid Talochkin, Alexander Glezer.

You live among art objects. Essentially they lord over your household. What does it mean for you?

This is first of all the necessity of daily contact with art. Then, it is a tuning-fork for my essays on art (I compare my feelings and emotions). And further, this is the biggest part of my life not only as a collector but also, thank God, as a person who united, albeit not for long, Russian collectors, who takes care of them and who, as a token of recognition, is nicknamed “Patriarch” — I owe this moniker, not only because it pays tribute to my age; I was also the first to present lectures on collecting in Russia.

What do you think goes on today in our culture in general, and in visual art in particular?

Briefly and simply, I would call it “degradation”, the invasion of a great number of people who are alien to this culture but cramming cultural services down the throat, a great number of strangers; this happens everywhere.

You mean, spiritually or commercially?

Of course spiritually, in terms of content and message. All fields of cultural activity are now invaded by people who have no moral rights to it whatsoever. This happens in literature and in music as well, especially in popular music; the same goes on in visual art. We’ve seen various developments in artistic culture, in visual art which do not in fact belong to culture as such.

And why does this happen? Globalization?

I think this happens first of all because we’ve joined this process of globalization and experience the same developments as the Western world. Second, it’s the opportunities opened up for the upper, so-called managerial class (not the elite) who are getting rich very quickly — this class includes public officials, bankers, industrialists; they have become consumers of this culture, and their standards, even if not forced down the throat, invariably become reflected in it. It is simply an inevitable process. I think that the third component is very important to us — the dictatorship of money, the dictatorship of financial interest — an element which never played a great role or had any influence in Soviet times.

And what are the prospects?

Culture cannot disappear by itself. Self-help in survival — this is our prospect. And sometimes high pressure leads to most surprising developments. You should never lose hope.

And how about the loss of national identity?

For me this is quite a complicated question. I am all for remaining grounded in the national soil while staying tuned in to modernity.

Interview by Tatyana Pynina

Illustrations

Nathan ALTMAN. Still-Life with Blue Decanter. 1912
Nathan ALTMAN. Still-Life with Blue Decanter. 1912
Oil on canvas. 75.5 × 61 cm
Kazimir MALEVICH. Three Figures in a Field. 1913–1928
Kazimir MALEVICH. Three Figures in a Field. 1913–1928
Oil on canvas. 37 × 27 cm
Mikhail VRUBEL. Demon. 1890s
Mikhail VRUBEL. Demon. 1890s
Oil on plywood. 31.5 × 47 cm
Kuzma PETROV-VODKIN. Woman with Child against a City. 1924
Kuzma PETROV-VODKIN. Woman with Child against a City. 1924
110 × 142 cm
Sergei SUDEIKIN. My Life. 1916
Sergei SUDEIKIN. My Life. 1916
Tempera on cardboard. 45 × 70 cm
Martiros SARYAN. Red Horse. 1919
Martiros SARYAN. Red Horse. 1919
Oil on canvas. 106 × 142 cm
David BURLIUK. Woman Reaper. 1914
David BURLIUK. Woman Reaper. 1914
Oil on canvas, collage. 52 × 63 cm
Alexander BOGOMAZOV. Tram. 1914
Alexander BOGOMAZOV. Tram. 1914
Oil on canvas. 142 × 74 cm
Dmitry STELLETSKY. Dawn. 1910
Dmitry STELLETSKY. Dawn. 1910
Tempera on canvas. 74.5 × 58.5 cm
Aristarkh LENTULOV. The Crucifixion. 1910
Aristarkh LENTULOV. The Crucifixion. 1910
Oil on canvas. 71 × 53 cm
Nikolai SAPUNOV. Still-life with Self-portrait. 1910–1911
Nikolai SAPUNOV. Still-life with Self-portrait. 1910–1911
Tempera on cardboard. 78 × 97.5 cm
Alexei von JAWLENSKY. Landscape. Murnau. 1907
Alexei von JAWLENSKY. Landscape. Murnau. 1907
Oil on cardboard. 50 × 55 cm
Mikhail SOKOLOV. Golgotha. 1925
Mikhail SOKOLOV. Golgotha. 1925
Oil on canvas. 72 × 72 cm
Jean POUGNY. Still-life with Bottle and Pears. 1923
Jean POUGNY. Still-life with Bottle and Pears. 1923
Oil on canvas. 64 × 44 cm
Eduard STEINBERG. Composition. 1973
Eduard STEINBERG. Composition. 1973
Oil on canvas. 110 × 110 cm
Dmitry KRASNOPEVTSEV. Still-life with a Book. 1980
Dmitry KRASNOPEVTSEV. Still-life with a Book. 1980
Tempera on cardboard. 59 × 56 cm

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