Viatcheslav Kantor President of the museum

The Museum of Avant-Garde Mastery, MAGMA, was formed on the basis of the private collection of the well-known public figure, businessman, philanthropist and patron Viatcheslav Moshe Kantor. It is MAGMA’s special concept that makes it different from other museums and private collections of 20th- and 21st-century art. The Museum sees its mission as showing the contribution that artists of Jewish extraction who were born in Russia made to the world’s avant-garde, modernist and post-modernist art: in other words to the art of the 20th century.

Viatcheslav Moshe Kantor

My very first encounters with art were pretty superficial. The strongest impressions came from the obligatory school visit to the Tretyakov Gallery. I thought that the works I saw there were created by heavenly beings, since an ordinary person was incapable of such things. For me it was a journey into the heavens. When I heard that pictures could take 20 years to paint, such as Alexander Ivanov’s The Appearance of Christ to the People, for instance, it just reinforced my conviction that an artist was not an ordinary person, but a demigod. Who else could devote 20 years of his life to painting a picture?

You did not often come into contact with art in everyday Soviet life. Even less so good art. Of course there were the enclosed world of collectors and one or two places, the second-hand shops, where you could buy something. Neither I nor my family were part of this world. My dad did not understand anything about art, although through the influence of a friend, Semyon Igol, who had served at the front, my father sometimes bought something or other, and pictures began to appear in our home. That is how we got an early work by Korovin. It was confiscated when my dad was arrested. After my father’s death, when his case was closed, all the pictures that had been taken from us came back home – including those held in the Tretyakovka. When the curator handed back the Korovin, she said that it was the first time that anything had been returned. That is how I still have the Korovin.

The Iron Curtain came down, and in 1989 I travelled abroad for the first time, to America. I was 37. A childhood friend of mine, Yuri Traisman, lived in America, and I was struck more than anything else by the pictures in his house. It was like carpeting: from floor to ceiling, from toilet to attic, it was completely hung with pictures. That was the first time I had come across such a large ‘private’ collection and it was also my first encounter with the so-called post-war Russian avant-garde. It produced a powerful impression.

That was when I first got the idea of my own collection. I wanted to fill the walls of my home with pictures in the same way. But at the time there was no prospect either of my own home or my own walls.

My first real acquisition was a painting by Eugene de Blaas, The Grape Picker. It was a late-19th-century picture that was being sold by auction, and this was the first time that I experienced the taste and excitement of an auction. But I also realised that to set up a collection I needed a well-thought-out, systematic approach, an artistic ‘algorithm’. Moreover, it had to be my own – and original.

At that decisive moment I had three people with me who helped me to achieve this: the famous human rights lawyer and my neighbour in Geneva, Alexander Tikhonov, the artist Grisha Bruskin and the critic Yevgeny Barabanov. Jumping ahead a bit, I can say that I am indebted to the latter for introducing me to Iraida Shvartsman, who did not want to sell anything from her husband’s legacy. Barabanov said to Iraida: ‘Sell Kantor everything that he wants,’ and that is what she did. The result is that, as one of my assistants commented, I have a ‘majority share’ in Shvartsman.

Grisha Bruskin is a highly educated, intelligent person, and a talented artist. Later on his works occupied their place in my collection. I bought his immense Logias. Part 1 at an auction in America, and I got it in a merciless battle with the Zimmerli Art Museum of New Jersey, in the presence of the artist himself.

It was probably in my conversations with Bruskin that the main idea of my collection of Russian and Jewish art began to appear. It coincided with another process: that was when my direction in public life began to take shape. Collecting is also a means of self-expression. I am convinced that ‘presenting yourself’ and ‘expressing yourself’ are diametrically opposed. Expressing yourself and understanding your personal world and your system of values and preferences is a much more accurate way of defining the aim of a collector, as I understand it. It is a question that you ask yourself.

My first acquisition after the concept of the collection had taken shape was a painting by Valentin Serov, The Rape of Europa. Naturally, it was a dramatic moment. During a visit to the Tretyakov Gallery we came to the Serov Room. We were moving from one picture to the next, when I was suddenly taken to one of Serov’s most important paintings and told: ‘In principle, theoretically, you could buy this picture, but that’s almost impossible because, on the one hand it belongs to the family, and on the other hand the state wants to buy it, but they just cannot agree on a price.’ The picture’s scale, its colours, its composition and the subject itself shook me! I found the idea of starting my collection with such a landmark work really gripping.

As soon as my mind had accepted the plan, or not even the plan but the idea, of making this work one of the key points of the collection, I suddenly remembered that someone had told me shortly before that he was a relative of Serov. After racking my brains for a bit I remembered that it was Dmitry Zhilinsky who had mentioned that he was distantly related to Serov. Zhilinsky confirmed this: ‘Yes, I certainly know Katya Serova, the current owner, and the artist’s great-great-great-granddaughter, and I can speak to her.’ That same evening we were drinking tea with Katya Serova and agreeing on a price; she received a deposit and signed a contract.

The first thing that I thought afterwards was that this masterpiece deserved a more significant location than even the most important private collection. It was a museum item and it should be in a museum. That is how, thanks to this great painting, the idea of the museum came about.

The name for the museum was born at the same time: the Museum of Avant-Garde Mastery, MAGMA. The museum is now ten years old. We are celebrating the date as the guests of a museum that recently celebrated ten times that age: 100 years. For me this is also a unique sign, a symbol of how peoples’ fates and art are interwoven.

I live with a constant personal awareness of the dramatic life of our people. Its uniqueness, its ‘chosenness’. In my future collection I wanted to show yet another dimension to this chosenness. To show, not in words but through a choice of pictures, the genuine contribution that Jewish artists have made to world, European and Russian culture. How many trends, what new possibilities in art did Soutine, Sonia Delaunay, Modigliani, Chagall, Gabo and Pevsner, Rothko, Kabakov, Bulatov, Shvartsman and Yakovlev reveal? All the artists, both living and dead, that make up the MAGMA collection are pioneers of the avant-garde. I am convinced that art provides us with a clear example: as soon as it is a question of genuinely important matters, there is no contradiction between a person’s self-realisation in art and a nation’s interest, and even more so between being faithful to the traditions of one’s people and universal values. It is about that that I think more and more nowadays.

For me our museum is not just a source of pride. It is also a school and it certainly does not teach the history of art in an academic sense. When I look at these works and read and re-read the words of classic Jewish literature I never cease to be amazed by the paradox: while surviving in the mincing-machine of social revolutions and world wars, and putting up with the destructive humiliation of the Pale of Settlement and urban ghettos, the Jew suffers above all from unrequited love. In other words not from the drama of life, but from the drama of feelings. It is not hurt pride or social protest that has created everything that our museum can be proud of. It was all created by love, which I see as the greatest of human talents. It is love that opens up life to us and allows us to realise our dreams. It is love that gives us the strength to talk yet again, and with unflagging insistence, about what concerns us.

Someone in the collection who is above all a mirror of this dream is Marc Chagall. Chagall has very many fine, high-quality works, especially in his late period, but he created his brilliant works in his youth. The years 1910 to 1917 were his masterpiece years. I was lucky enough to acquire one of these masterpieces, Apparition. Self-portrait with Muse of 1917–18. The picture shows the artist sitting at his easel before an open window in the darkness of the night, and an angel is flying down to him. The angel has the face of Bella Rosenfeld, his first wife. It is a programme work that reveals the metaphysical basis of Chagall’s art.

Contact with the artist can add another, additional dimension: time. By looking at a picture and at the same time talking to the artist you have the chance to look both forwards and backwards, into the past and into the future. For me this unique possibility outweighs all the psychological difficulties that arise when talking to contemporary artists. Our contemporaries – Kabakov, Bulatov and Pivovarov – have gained immense recognition during their lives, but the process of recognition is endless, and they still have a long road ahead of them.

Erik Bulatov was the starting point for my collection of modern art. Personal acquaintance with him gradually grew into a friendship that I cherish. It was Bulatov who first revealed to me the deep, basic productivity of combining painting and text. In his case this combination is extremely organic and generates an outburst of perceptive energy. The same principle of combining text and image, which later became the trademark of what was called the Moscow Conceptualist School, is also characteristic of the works of Kabakov and Pivovarov. But there are also significant differences between them. Ilya Kabakov is a harsh, and often sarcastic, critic of Soviet life and Soviet totalitarian consciousness. Erik Bulatov, as a heavenly being, is himself aloof in his description of this type of consciousness, like an astronomer describing a far-off star or planet. This aloofness, this transcendence, is present in the finest verse of my favourite poet, Joseph Brodsky. Viktor Pivovarov is very close to me. He is close in that there is always an existential dimension present in his works; it is not just a conceptual, but also a personal emotional dimension. Viktor is a genius of irony and self-irony.

Naturally, there are gaps in the collection. It is not money that limits my collecting, but the absence of significant works on the market. For example, I have a small early painting by Rothko, of a boy wearing a yarmulke and reciting a Kiddush. But a real Rothko appears gigantic and dramatic when you realise that by using abstract symbols and immense coloured surfaces, this person is talking directly to God or expressing human passions without depicting anything specific. Unfortunately, over the last five to seven years I have not seen a single work by Rothko on the market that I could have said definitely was the one for me. That is the main gap in my collection. A couple of my latest acquisitions – and I am very proud of them – are two portraits by Lucian Freud, the grandson of Sigmund Freud. I think that their appearance in my collection can provide a new turning point in the future development of MAGMA.

I often ask myself the question: in what way is MAGMA different from other museums? In New York there is, for instance, the Museum of Jewish Art. MAGMA does not exhibit just Jewish art. And what’s more, it is difficult to give a definition of Jewish art. The three-in-one formula of our museum’s collection is: This art is very Russian, very Jewish and very exceptional!