Thursday, 10 December 2009

The Beginning of the Series "The Russian Avant-garde"

Where did the series about the Russian Avant-garde begin, is a question I am asked from time to time. I had been working as a consultant for a documentary film company in Russia advising them about foreign distribution for their films. It was during this time especially that I learnt about making films in Russia. I had worked on feature films in Russia before, for instance "Grushko" in St Petersburg, and two other films in Moscow, ending with "The Stringer" Participating in these projects gave me some rich experiences and significant insights into film making in Russia. The work with the documentary film company, however, gave me some real hands on experience of working in Russian studios and some good contacts which encouraged me to start making my own films. I wasn't sure at first what to make films about, which subjects to tackle so to speak and then by chance I heard about an exhibition of the Costakis collection in Moscow. Costakis collected paintings and works of art from avant-garde artists of the 20s and 30s who largely left Russia and tried to eke out an existence in the various capitals of Europe. After the war Costakis travelled around Russia and Europe collecting these paintings, sometimes picking them up for 50 dollars or a bottle of wine or so legend would have it. In a word he singlehandedly rescued hundreds and hundreds of paintings to amass what became a priceless collection of avant-garde works which he donated to the Russian State.

In the beginning Costakis collected the Masters of the Dutch School of Landscape Painters but modernist works by Picasso and Matisse soon fell within his field of vision. In 1946 he came across three paintings in a Moscow studio by Olga Rozanova . He described how, in the dark days after the war these brightly coloured paintings of the lost Avant-Garde: "were signals to me. I did not care what it was... but nobody knew what anything was in those days".So struck by the powerful visual effect of the strong colour and bold geometric design which spoke directly to the senses, that he became determined to rediscover the Suprematist and Constructivist art which had been lost and forgotten in the attics, studios and basements of Moscow and Leningrad. He hunted for pictures which had been 'lost', some that were rolled up and covered with dust. He met Vladimir Tatlin and befriended Varvara Stepanova. He tracked down friends of Kasimir Malevich and bought works by Lubov Popova and Ivan Kliun. He particularly admired Anatoly Zverev, Russian expressionist whom he met in the 50's. Costakis said about Zverev "it was a source of great happiness for me to come into contact with this wonderful artist, and I believe him to be one of the most talented artists in Soviet Russia."

By the 1960 George Costakis' apartment in Moscow had become a place for international art collectors and art lovers in general to meet and exchange ideas and opinions, as some called it, Russia's unofficial Museum of Modern Art. The same year Costakis, with his family, left the Soviet Union and moved to Greece , but he agreed that he should leave 50 per cent of his collection in the State Tretyakov Gallery of Moscow. In 1997 the Greek State bought the 1275 works and they are now part of the permanent collection of the State Museum of Contemporary Art, in Thessaloniki, Greece.

It was this story which first inspired me to make a film. The passionate quest of Costakis, I believed, would make an excellent documentary film. I became even more convinced after I saw the exhibition of his collection in Moscow some time in 1998. It seemed to me that there was something unique and intriguing in the geomtrical and abstract colours and shapes. They seemed to have a dynamism and energy which I had not encountered anywhere else or in any other artistic tradition. However the logistics for the film failed to gain any traction. All the same I still continued to research the subject of the Russian Avant-garde and as part of these researches I came across Alexander Rodchenko, the painter and photographer. People often asked me why in particular Rodchenko became the first film I made. “Why Rodchenko?” they would say. There were two basic reasons which attracted me to the idea of making a film about Rodchenko. Firstly Rodchenko abandoned painting altogether to take up photography. Easel painting is dead he maintained, only the camera can reflect the social and visual realities which were emerging at that time. It was this idea of a painter almost violently going against his own art which I thought would make a good film. The second reason is that Rodchenko’s experiments in art and photography helps establish a working visual grammar for anybody undertaking a film especially if it is ones first serious film. "The visually coherent "look" which the film has was already present in Rodchenko photographs. His understanding of the compositional values in any image, such as volume, contrast, depth, balance, proportion etc is a perfect introduction to any film maker. One other point which is worth making is that Rodchenko saw Moscow not as a place to live and work but as a territory for study, that is a space exploring new visual and aesthetic frontiers. He would walk around Moscow photographing the new buildings and objects appearing on the streets, finding new angles and perspectives to illuminate the mundane and make the spectacular commonplace. As I followed in his footsteps, literally, I got an excellent "feel" for the material. Moscow no longer remained a bleak, cold and alien environment I had experienced when I first arrived but a city with immense visual and creative possibilities.