The Art Restorer Ivan Kreitor and Konstantin Korovin's Heritage
The title of chapter six of "My Life in Paris" from the memoir of Ivan Mozalevsky, a well-known artist and draughtsman (the original is kept in the Manuscript Department of the Tretyakov Gallery) tells the story of the complicated relationship between Korovin and Ivan Kreitor. The excerpt published here describes dramatic events in the life of the outstanding Russian artist Konstantin Korovin, including the loss of his works that he had specifically selected for a personal exhibition1 at a time when his life in immigration was difficult both financially and emotionally.
Ivan Mozalevsky (1890-1975) was a student of Ivan Bilibin and Vasily Mathe (Mate), and in the 1910s an active participant in such publications as "Apollo", "Argus", "Lukomorie", as well as the "World of Art" exhibitions. In 1914 Mozalevsky's works were exhibited at the World Fair of Book Illustrations and Printing in Leipzig. World War I and subsequent events brought an abrupt change to the artist's life. He was drafted into the army in 1915; in 1918, accompanied by his wife and student Valentina Rozova, he left for Vienna, then went to Berlin, Prague, and in 1926 to Paris, where he lived till 1947, when he returned to the Soviet Union. He became well known in France as a primitivist under the assumed name of "Jean Allais". He tried his hand at creating costumes for the theatre and worked in the perfume industry designing bottles for fragrances, but in spite of all his efforts, he did not achieve financial success. Looking for a way to return to his motherland, he actively cooperated with Soviet institutions in Paris, and it was through this cooperation that he met Ivan Kreitor. They first got to know each other in the 1920s, before all Soviet institutions in France closed in 1929; their acquaintance was renewed after the end of World War II, and continued up until Mozalevsky's return to the Soviet Union. Both were members of the Society of Art Professionals — Soviet Citizens at the Union of USSR Citizens. It was then that Kreitor showed the author his art collection, including numerous works by Konstantin Korovin, which Mozalevsky found amazing. He first met the famous artist in the 1920s, when Mozalevsky was friends with Bilibin, whom he often saw in the company of his good friends Korovin and the poet Sasha Cherny.
Ivan Kondratievich Kreitor (18801957) was an art collector, restorer and dealer who also organised art exhibitions and acted as Korovin's agent. In the 1910s he was the director of the Lemercier Gallery It must have been at that time that he became close to Korovin and many other famous artists and art experts. Ilya Repin painted Kreitor's portrait, and Igor Grabar valued the opinions of this professional art restorer; Kreitor's sister Anna (also an art restorer) was a long-time friend and associate of Igor Grabar. After the revolution, Kreitor held a prominent post at the People's Commissariat for Education of the Russian Federation, in charge of acquisitions for the Museum Fund.
With Kreitor's active participation and under the auspices of the Chief Political and Educational Committee, Korovin's personal exhibition was organized in December 1921-January 1922. Korovin handed over to his agent all his works which were selected for the exhibition. There were 70 paintings altogether, 53 of them dating back to 1917-1921. These are the works experts refer to when they talk about "Korovin's oeuvre" in Kreitor's possession. In 1923, Kreitor left on a business trip abroad with this priceless "luggage" — Korovin's paintings that the artist entrusted to "my dear Kondratievich" to organize the exhibition. Most of his collection of Russian and foreign artists' works Kreitor had left in Moscow in care of his wife, Sofia Doka-Kreitor and his sisters, Anna and Sofia: "My only request to you, as well as Anya and Sonya [nicknames for Anna and Sofia], is to live in friendship and harmony, and resist putting your trust into any speculators who will deceive and steal from you — this is my appeal to you all, and my legacy."2
The relationship between Korovin and Kreitor was not an easy one during those years abroad. In 1927, the artist wrote to their mutual friend Pyotr Suvorov in Moscow: "I have not seen Kreitor for two years. As to my paintings that he has, I do not know of their location."3 In the same year, in a conversation with the artist and member of the Tretyakov Gallery staff Viktor Midler, who was in Paris on business, Korovin said that "Kreitor has my paintings from that exhibition <...> and I do not know where Kreitor is."4
In the mid-1920s Kreitor settled in Holland, and it appears that there were no communications between him and Korovin.5 He visited France in the 1930s and, according to Mozalevsky, met with Korovin. Kreitor settled in Paris for good after the end of World War II. He lived at 20 rue Saulnier, alone and in failing health; he occupied a large three-room apartment, which also housed his art collection. "Everyone turns away from me when they learn that I am a Soviet [citizen]; also, after Anya's departure nobody visits me anymore,"6 he wrote to his sisters in Moscow.7 "My ability to work has significantly diminished. It takes me ten or 20 times more time to do things, and all by myself <...> the furnace, the kitchen, the cleaning, etc. The only hope is that one of mine will come and take back some of the best pieces from my collection, otherwise all will be lost," he lamented in a letter to Grabar.8 After Kreitor's death on December 19 1957, his apartment was sealed; his funeral was arranged by his landlady, Madame Fredericks.9 Litigation over the inheritance dragged on for ten years.10 In 1965, part of the collection was returned to the Soviet Union, to Kreitor's widow Doka-Kreitor and his sisters Anna Kreitor and Sofia Kreitor-Pkhakadze.11 In 1968, the Tretyakov Gallery purchased Korovin's still-life "Fish" from Sofia Kreitor-Pkhakadze for 1,000 rubles. 12 This is the only painting in the collection of the Tretyakov Gallery that comes from the so-called "Korovin oeuvre" — the paintings Kreitor took for the exhibition he organized in 1921 and carried away to Paris in 1925.
In 1947 Ivan Mozalevsky was allowed to return to the Soviet Union. He wanted to settle in Moscow, but was forced to do odd jobs to make a living, and ended up "destitute".13 He moved to Simferopol in 1953; there, he took a job as a research fellow at the local art gallery, worked on his drawings, published articles on art, and taught. In 1963, his personal exhibition was held in Moscow under the auspices of the Union of Artists. Mozalevsky started working on his memoirs in the 1950s, describing the life of Russian artists in emigration, and in 1973 the "Soviet Artist" publishing house agreed to publish them. Even though the author emphasized the negative aspects of the life of Russian emigre artists — the absence of professional work, excessive drinking, and poverty — the book was banned and the manuscript shelved. This is the first publication of a short excerpt from Mozalevsky's extensive and fascinating memoir "My Life in Paris", or "Looking Back", as the author preferred to call his book.
The text is reproduced in accordance with current spelling and punctuation norms; an effort was made to preserve the peculiarities of the author's style. Obvious slips of the pen and typing errors were corrected without notations. The text was prepared for publication by Natalya Iljina, research fellow at the Manuscript Department of the Tretyakov Gallery <...>I saw him as I first came into the studio at Porte d'Orleans — he sat on a daybed leaning over the round pillow, with a carpet in the background, just as Valentin Serov had painted him. But the carpet was not the same, not as exuberant as the one in the painting, and Korovin himself was no longer that stately Muscovite, a sturdy man with a merry gaze, with a kind of languor in his figure and face. The Korovin sitting in front of me was wide, puffy and old. His face was set in an expression of discontent with life and with himself, and complete bewilderment in the face of the towering question: What is to be done? How to live? His pose was similar to the lines in Serov's portrait, but how much despair had life jammed into this living "painting", into this pose, once so carefree!
Korovin joked, laughed, chatted merrily, recalling the past, the old times, but did not mention the present, as if afraid to do so.<...> For a long time I failed to understand why he would not return to his Motherland, if he was so homesick? His "Russianness", which he feared was slipping away, would have been quickly restored there, and everything would have fallen into place. I saw Korovin often — out, in restaurants and bistros (we would call them "eateries"). He was always uneasy and restless, as if out of his bearings. Sometimes he would walk by without recognizing me, as if sleepwalking.
I could not begin to understand the reason for this "existence" in Paris. It was only when I met a certain Ivan Kondratievich Kreitor, an art restorer, that I learned the financial circumstances fundamental to the tragedy that was the life of Konstantin Korovin.
Before I tell the reader about it, I feel I need to describe the personality of Ivan Kreitor. Once upon a time, Ilya Repin himself painted his portrait. As an art restorer, he also had a close relationship with Igor Grabar. His sister Anna Kondratievna is still working at the USSR Academy of Sciences at the Art Theory Research Institute, where Grabar is the director.
When I met him, Kreitor was already decrepit, in poor health, and obsessed with the idea of the end of this world and the self-destruction of humankind. In his own words, he himself was not opposed to assisting in the destruction of "at least" part of the human race. For that purpose, he was studying some "Tibetan manuscript about slow-acting poisons". In his snappy, hoarse, hissy voice, like the ancient Pythia, as if delirious, he proclaimed his "prophesies"... This, however, did not get in the way of his being a fraudster and money trader, of the Shylock kind.
I met him in his capacity as a member of artists' section of the Society of Art Professionals — Soviet Citizens at the Union of USSR Citizens. I was the chairman of the section, and a member of the Society's presidium. When I was delivering my regular report "On the Commercialization of Western European Art", Kreitor behaved in a way that was more than unacceptable for a Soviet citizen — he kept interrupting me and trying to make a serious presentation into cheery farce, with a touch of pornography More than once I had to call him to order. After my report, I wanted to talk to him as a friend, to convince him to be serious and civil at future meetings of the section's members. Naturally, he agreed, and quickly moved to his favourite topic of humankind's self-destruction. When we were saying good-bye at the entrance to the metro, he insisted that my wife and I visit his apartment and view the collection of Konstantin Korovin's art he had "assembled".
I had always liked and respected this great Russian master of decorative art, so as an art professional, this invitation could not leave me uninterested. I accepted and visited Kreitor a few days later. I do not regret it; I discovered the location of "Korovin's oeuvre", in the full sense of the word.
It turned out that Korovin and Kreitor shared a strong connection — to put it plainly, in Korovin's own words that I was to learn later, Kreitor had "robbed him". I learned what the opponents, both Korovin and Kreitor, thought of each other, so it was not hard for me to form an impartial, balanced opinion of the "Dutch fraud" carried out by Kreitor.
It happened at the beginning of immigration, in the 1920s. When Korovin arrived in Paris, Kreitor offered to organize his personal exhibition in Holland. He convinced the artist that the Dutch gulden was far superior to the French franc, and if Korovin sold his paintings for guldens, he would be able to live and work comfortably in Paris for a long time. Trusting by nature and struggling financially, Korovin gave Kreitor all his best works. The exhibition took place; a catalogue was issued, and there was press coverage. However, when the exhibition closed, the artist Korovin did not get his paintings back — nor did he receive the Dutch guldens. He was paid a small sum in francs and was promised payment for all the paintings that had allegedly been bought from the exhibition. At first Kreitor cited the dishonesty of the gallery's Dutch owner, who had supposedly promised to return some of the paintings, and pay for some. Then Korovin was told that there was nothing coming from Holland, but he (Kreitor) was going to pay him back for the value of all the paintings from the exhibition in small instalments. Kreitor, in fact, did make those "payments", but they were so infrequent and pitiful that the artist was living in poverty. Such "success" drew Korovin to drink; Kreitor took advantage of the artist's disease and inability to take care of his affairs by giving him sums of money "in lieu of the exhibition" without any accounting or receipts.
Actually, it turned out that Korovin's works from the Dutch exhibition ended up migrating from Holland to Paris, and into Kreitor's enormous apartment, which looked very much like an art storehouse. On top of that, this modern-day Shylock, with the help of the owners of Russian restaurants and bars, where the increasingly unbalanced Korovin was a regular, took to swapping the artist's latest works for an unbelievably low price — two or three bottles of house wine!
It was a time when the public's interest in Russian art was low, in part because of the economic crisis; people were also apprehensive of Soviet artists, and bored with the immigrant ones. It was this uncharacteristically challenging art market that Kreitor took advantage of.
I visited this money trader's apartment when Korovin had already passed away. I carefully examined "Korovin's oeuvre", and was told by Kreitor that he was hoping I would help him arrange the purchase of his entire collection for museums in the USSR through our embassy. He wanted me to suggest it personally to Ambassador Bogomolov that he should purchase those paintings by the renowned Russian artist. He even cynically offered to pay me an "agent's fee" should I be able to help him sell the entire collection "for a good price". To sell the collection that cost poor Korovin his life! Disgusted, I declined this mission, as I was fully aware of the fraud Kreitor had engaged in to obtain this "museum of Korovin". However, I do not in the least regret having taken the chance to see so many of the best paintings by Korovin by agreeing to visit Kreitor, who had swindled him. Kreitor's entire, enormous apartment was literally piled up with Korovin's splendid canvases. Every single one of them (I won't deny it!) I contemplated with fervent admiration. What ravishing colours! What impeccable style! These were genuinely Korovin's masterpieces. Most of the paintings and studies dated back to the time when Korovin was enthusiastically trying to resolve the issues of light in decorative painting.
I had seen many of Korovin's works, both in museums and private collections, painted in impressionist and smooth-stroke techniques. They were his favourite Paris boulevards at night, and the studies of his Moscow period. To tell the truth, never and nowhere before had I seen such beautiful paintings as in the "collection" of this Shylock-Kreitor. I remember especially well one large canvas, painted in a sweeping decorative manner, with slightly subdued colours of the night; it created the illusion of such tangibility that could not be found in the works of any other Russian artist of the time. Indeed, paintings of the decorative style are as a rule somewhat flat, constrained. And here one could see the genuine, intense, Rembrandt-like realism... A veranda in lamp light, the view of the sea from the window, captured so well you could hear the waves. A young woman in an everyday dress sits at the table, pensively picking the strings of her guitar... An ordinary scene, simple and unaffected, but how much life there is in it, how much tenderness for the artist's homeland, for his native Black Sea! I had never seen a more enchanting painting by Konstantin Korovin.
Back then, Kreitor was already suffering from old age and frailty that bordered on dementia; he was unstable, irritable, and even a bit psychotic. As I was staring at Korovin's spectacular canvases, he assured me that "the human race will soon deplete the Earth's resources; oil, coal and metal ores will disappear. The land will be barren. Darkness, hunger and cold will follow. People will not have enough space to live because there will be too many of them." The only way to save humankind as a whole, Kreitor tried to convince me, was the artificial destruction of a part of the human race through the use of slow-acting poisons. This possessed misanthrope was showing me manuscripts, roots, boiling flasks. Such obscurantism transformed his enormous, dimlylit apartment into the laboratory of a medieval alchemist set on poisoning people. The effect Korovin's marvellous paintings had on me could not help but become mixed with the grim impression from the words of this possessed "prophet" of mankind's doom.14
Only when my wife and I stepped into the fresh evening air of the wide Paris streets did we realize that what had happened was not a nightmare but a visit to Ivan Kondratievich Kreitor, an art restorer, an elderly man of about 80. I thought that he should not be a member of our Soviet Society of Art Professionals but rather a patient in a hospital for the dangerously demented. Yet still, to this day I remember the joy of viewing Korovin's paintings; this recollection has proven stronger than the grumbling of an old man obsessed with misanthropic ideas.
Everything I saw and heard led me to the conclusion that Korovin would have returned to his native land if it had not been for Kreitor, who betrayed him so skilfully that the artist was afraid to even think about going back to the USSR. I know the story behind his fear: Korovin wrote two letters, one addressed to a Moscow artist, in which he scolded and criticized Lunacharsky and Shternberg15, and many others at the helm of Soviet art; the other letter was to Lunacharsky himself, requesting assistance in returning to his Motherland. Kreitor took it upon himself to deliver these letters to Moscow, but mixed up the addressees. Whether he did so on purpose or not is hard to establish, but Korovin's letter criticizing Anatoly Lunacharsky ended up in Lunacharsky's own hands, who was so enraged that he wrote an equally scolding answer advising Korovin to not even think about returning. Kreitor claimed that this ill-fated "delivery" was an unfortunate accident; Korovin thought that Kreitor had done it on purpose, to prevent him from ever returning to his native land. I believe that Korovin's guess rings true, since it was to Kreitor's advantage to have Korovin remain in Paris, where it was easier to secure a grip on the artist's oeuvre.
So Korovin continued his hard drinking and told Bilibin, also an artist and his drinking partner, that he was desperately afraid to lose his "Russian face". He was constantly and irresistibly drawn to his Motherland, but the fateful letter delivered to the wrong address kept him from meeting with the Soviet ambassador to request Soviet citizenship. All his friends, including me, told him that it was high time to forget it all, that both Lunacharsky and Shternberg had both passed away... Korovin, however, was unable to overcome that abnormal, elemental fear of his and discard the old story with the letter. He was homesick and poured his love for his native country on the pages of immigrant newspapers and magazines.16 His recollections of Moscow, of his nanny Tanya, of his first "patrons" (the poor Moscow clerks) were all filled with such boundless, touching love towards everything that had to do with Russia, that it was both painful and hard for me to read them. I was witnessing the demise of a great Russian artist, a man who loved his country, as he was succumbing to a fear somebody had installed in him. He lived in poverty and kept exchanging his wonderful paintings for a bottle of wine, enriching Kreitor, who, like a predator, was snatching his paintings and studies one after another, for almost nothing. Kreitor was confident that this brutal robbery was profitable.
As I was leaving Paris for the USSR, Kreitor gave me an envelope with a letter to Grabar requesting permission for his sister Anna to come to Paris to be present during surgery he had to undergo; he needed a relative to be there in case he did not survive it. He feared that in the case of his death, his neighbours would loot his art collection.
I personally handed this letter to Grabar upon my arrival in Moscow at the beginning of 1948. Soon after that I learnt from a letter from my friends, artists who were still in Paris, that Anna Kreitor had gone to Paris, was there during her brother's surgery, and when it became clear that there was no longer any danger to his life, returned to Moscow.
I was afraid that I would be responsible for the fate of "Korovin's oeuvre" if I did not inform the Soviet artistic community about it (should Kreitor scatter, or even destroy it in a fit of misanthropy), so I wrote about everything I knew to the "Sovetskaya Kultura" (Soviet Culture) newspaper. I even made a recommendation that an urgent effort should be made to prevent the dispersal of the valuable collection of paintings by this brilliant Russian artist. The editorial board let me know that measures were taken against such a dispersal of "Korovin's oeuvre".
For a long time I heard nothing of Kreitor. As I was finishing my memoirs, I had a letter from Kurilov, a journalist who had just returned from Paris, telling me that Kreitor was quite unwell: he alternated between senile exhaustion and pestering our Soviet institutions and citizens with various fabrications. He went so far as to "demand" that the Soviet government, as represented by the ambassador in France, pay his "travel allowance" starting from the 1920s, based on his claim that he had been sent "to handle the issues of Russian art abroad" by none other than Vladimir Lenin himself! People began to avoid him and refused to receive him — everyone was so annoyed by his fantasies. Even his former friend Igor Grabar got his share, as Kreitor publicly accused him of having allegedly "robbed" him by stealing Kreitor's techniques of restoring paintings, which earned Grabar the title of an Academician, while Kreitor was passed over!
Soviet citizens living in Paris appealed to Kreitor's sister to take him away from there, or at least find him a place at a home for the elderly. On the eve of 1958 Kreitor's acquaintances found him lying unconscious in the Rue de Rivoli. He had had a heart attack, and his life was in danger. However, it was "Korovin's oeuvre" that was in even greater danger: in the event of Kreitor's sudden death, the collection would be auctioned off at the Hotel Drouot.171 could not find out anything else about Kreitor or his collection.
Post-scriptum. I found out later that someone had seen Korovin's paintings in Moscow I approached Igor Grabar for an explanation; he answered me with an irritated letter, requesting not to denigrate the memory of such a man as Kreitor. He wrote angrily that he did not even know my name (which was written on the envelope!), and finished his letter by asking me to never write to him again.
Tretyakov Gallery Manuscript Department. F 60. Item 729. Pp. 108-118. Original.
- Konstantin Korovin's exhibition was displayed K.I. Mikhailova's art gallery from Dcember 1921 through January 1922 in Moscow (11 Bolshaya Dmitrovka street).
- Excerpt from a letter from I. Kreitor to Sofia Doka-Kreitor. Tretyakov Gallery Manuscript Department. F. 230. Item 151, p. 1. It follows from the text of the letter that Kreitor had obtained permission to "travel on business" for an indefinite time, and did not plan to come back. It is worth noting that he was able to retain his Soviet citizenship, which allowed some of his estate to be returned to the Soviet Union after his death.
- Tretyakov Gallery Manuscript Department. F. 97. Item 2, p. 1.
- Tretyakov Gallery Manuscript Department. F. 97. Item 114, p. 8.
- In his book "Konstantin Korovin. 150th Anniversary", Alexander Kiselev published a letter from Korovin to Kreitor, which the author believes was written in the 1930s. It is the author's opinion that this letter proves that at that time Korovin was still using his agent's services. "You came to see me, and then wrote to me from Holland regarding the exhibition. I wrote back to you; did you get my reply? It was indeed long ago, and I have not heard a word from you since.' "Konstantin Korovin. 150th Anniversary". by A.Kiselev. 2011, p. 138. One can assume that Korovin is talking about the exhibition of Russian art in Holland in May-June 1925 — 22 works by Korovin were shown there, including some from the 1921 Moscow exhibition. We think that this letter was written either at the end of the 1920s, or at the beginning of the 1930s. If Kiselev's assumption is right, however, it still serves as yet another confirmation that regular and trusting contact between Korovin and Kreitor was cut off.
- Tretyakov Gallery Manuscript Department. F. 230. Item 172, p. 2, reverse. [May 1949]
- Anna Kreitor (1902-1967) made two trips to Paris: in 1947-1948 and in 1954.
- Tretyakov Gallery Manuscript Department. F. 108. Item 6518, p. 5, reverse. March 17th, 1951.
- Today, there is no detailed information on Mme. Fredericks; according to some unreliable sources, she was able to remove some of the art collection from Kreitor's apartment before it was sealed.
- Tretyakov Gallery Manuscript Department. F. 230. Item 141, pp. 1-53.
- 26 works of art, including paintings by Korovin, were returned. Kreitor's nephew Alexei Kreitor, who was living in the USA, inherited another 23 works from the collection, including nine paintings by Korovin.
- Konstantin Korovin, "Fish". 1917, Tretyakov Gallery. F. 230. Item 155, p. 1.
- Tretyakov Gallery Manuscript Department. F. 60. Item 41, p. 6, reverse.
- The author is not exaggerating: Kreitor also wrote to Grabar regarding his theory of "the ruin of mankind." See Tretyakov Gallery Manuscript Department. F. 106. Item 6516, 6518.
- The author refers to David Shterenberg (1881-1948), an artist. In 1918 Shterenberg was the Petrograd government Commissar on Art; later — the head of the Department of Fine Arts at the People's Commissariat of Education in Moscow, where Kreitor worked.
- The newspaper "Vozrojdenie" [La Renaissance] was the one that published most of Konstantin Korovin's short stories. For more on Korovin the writer: K.A. Korovin, "It was long ago...over there, in Russia": memoirs, stories, letters. Volumes I and II. Moscow, 2011.
- Hotel Drouot is one of the largest auction houses in Europe known for fine art and antiques.