GEORGE COSTAKIS, A RUSSIAN citizen of Greek extraction, worked from 1943 to 1978 as a "fixer," gofer, and administrative facilitator at the Canadian embassy in Moscow. In his spare time he hunted out and purchased paintings, drawings, and sculptures by some 50 Russian avant-garde artists who had been officially rejected by Soviet cultural authorities. He eventually not only amassed the largest private collection of Russian modernism in existence, but also saved such art from the oblivion the Russian state desired. In the early stages of his collector's fever, Costakis cared little about the future financial windfall that paintings by Kandinsky, Chagall, Rochenko, Popova, Malevich, etc., might represent; he was only determined to leave the hoard at Moscow's Tratyakov Gallery as both a gift to the Russian people and a monument to his own society. But politics and the KGB forced Costakis out of Russia in 1978, and he left with a good portion of his collection. Much of it was exhibited in 1981 at the Guggenheim Museum and subsequently at four major North American museums, including Ottawa's National Gallery.
In George Costakis: A Russian Life in Art (Carleton University Press, 220 pages, $39.95 cloth) Peter Roberts, himself a former Canadian ambassador to the Soviet Union, has assembled an entertaining, if somewhat chaotic, anecdotal history of this important collector and his equally intriguing milieu. The book is based on archival research and personal interviews with Costakis, who died in Athens in 1990. Although Roberts's largely thematic approach means that chronologies are repetitiously traversed, and jump cuts abound, the cultural history and the leading players are inherently interesting. The 19 rather washed-out colour plates included are inadequate, particularly considering the continuing unfamiliarity of many of the artists Costakis collected; for visual support, readers will have to turn to Russian Avant-Garde Art: The George Costakis Collection, by Harry Abrams, published in 198 1.