Nestled into the hillside of a picturesque community just outside Geneva sits the home of Moshe Kantor. The expensive villa, like others in the quiet, exclusive neighborhood, offers breathtaking views of a Swiss lake. But in this case, most visitors aren’t interested in the formidable architecture, scenery, or history of the home itself. No, in this case, it’s what’s on the inside that counts.
Kantor’s villa is home to the Museum of Avant-Garde Mastery, or MAGMA: the world largest collection of 20th-century art by Russian Jewish artist. From Chagalls to Modiglianis, masterpieces and emerging artists alike like the walls in Kantor’s home taking up any and all free space. The collection is so large, that parts of it are kept separately in Switzerland, Moscow, and Israel.
Almost a decade ago Kantor embarked on a quest—bring to light the Jewish identities of some of Eastern Europe’s most esteemed painters, sculptors and photographers.
He compiled a list of artists, and then systematically collected their work.
When a piece became available, the 55-year-old snapped it up. And if a piece wasn’t for sale, he bided his time, waiting patiently until it could be added to the collection.
And so it went for seven years until Kantor compiled more than 300 pieces by some 30 artists, creating MAGMA.
“It took a long time to create the concept behind the museum, but in the end, all the preparation resulted in a very harmonious collection of works,” says the Russian-born billionaire, who compares the concept behind the collection to the periodic table. “I have been working on the collection for seven years…. the accuracy of its formula helped to do the work very quickly. There was no ‘buy or don’t buy, ‘like or dislike.’ We knew exactly the names [of artists] we were looking for.”
MAGMA boasts the largest and best private collection of works by Chaim Soutine, the Expressionist painter from Belarus who helped pave the way for the Abstract Expressionism movement and was a close friend of Amedeo Modigliani, whose paintings are also part of the collection.
“When I started to be interested in Russian painting of the early 20th century, I was struck by the enormity of the contribution made to it by Jewish artists. The whole world now knows the names: Natan Altman, Marc Chagall, David Shterenberg, Alexander Tyshler, Anton Pevsner, and Sonia Delaunay,” says Kantor, an unlikely gallerist.
Kantor was born in Moscow in 1953. He received a Ph.D. in technical sciences from the Moscow Aviation University, and after graduation began working in the space and aviation industry. In 1993 he took the helm at Acron, an agrochemical company, and has since become a widely known public figure, philanthropist, and entrepreneur. In 2004, the father of three received an honorary doctorate from Tel-Aviv University and has received a number of Russian and international government awards.
Kantor’s community involvement and his commitment to revitalizing Jewish life in Europe has manifested itself, in part, through MAGMA. It is a love for his country and his people that led Kantor to discover the artists that make up MAGMA. As Kantor delved into the world of avant-garde, it became more obvious that Jewish artists played a critical role in the development of art in the 20th-century.
A number of quintessential figures in Dutch, German, and French art from the end of the 19th-century to the early 20th-century were of Jewish descent, and Jewish artists played key roles in the birth and development of every tendency and school pursued by Russia and Europe’s avant-garde artists, including Cubism, Expressionism, Primitivism, Abstraction, and Surrealism.
As Kantor explains in My People Is the World!, a 260-page companion book to the MAGMA collection, traditional Judaism bars all depictions of God, and there is no tradition of religious paintings. Among observant Jews in the early 20th century, “painting was regarded as a purely applied art, and among the crafts, not even one of the most prestigious,” Kantor writes. “Yet here we find ourselves facing an extraordinary spiritual change, in essence an explosion, a riot, a revolution.”
That revolution was the formation of Jewish avant-garde art. After Post-Impressionism, art was “shaped and sharpened. A new language of graphic metaphor, association, suggestion, grotesquerie, and hyperbole — the basics of art underwent an essential alteration.” Eventually, avant-garde germinated and spread across Russia and the European art world through some of the emerging Jewish talents: Altman, Delaunay, and Modigliani, to name a few.
“All of them belonged to one and the same generation, with birth dates ranging from 1881 (Shterenberg) and 1898 (Tyshler), and all were the children of families of modest means, living in the small towns and provincial cities of Ukraine, Belorussia, and Western Russia. One can dispute whether they make up a single tendency or school of art and what the nature of that school might be,” says Kantor. “At all events, all of them, like members of a single orchestra following the baton of a conductor visible only to them, produced a unique great piece, an entity — a special world of art.”
Like a proud father, Kantor can describe the history of each piece in the collection — the artist who created it, their motivation, and how it came to be a part of MAGMA. Walking through his home in Cologny, Switzerland, one is taken aback by the overwhelming nature of MAGMA. There is no theme, genre, or focal point, but an eclectic mix of art. Hanging on any wall in the Musem of Avant-Garde Mastery is not one famous masterpiece but several, all equally important to Kantor, as is evidenced by his passion for the work, and all equally impressive. While each piece had its own unique path to follow before becoming part of the collection, they were all brought together for one purpose.
“The concept of the collection lies more in education than in art history. The point, among other things, is to show that Russia is not only a source of oil and gas but also makes important spiritual and cultural contributions,” says Kantor.
MAGMA is an integral part of breaking down the stereotypes Kantor encounters every day. He’s an initiator and supporter of many programs across Europe aimed at counteracting the escalation of xenophobia, antisemitism, and neo-Nazism through education, culture, and religion. One such program is the Jewish Positioning System (JPS), which was created to highlight Jewish contributions to society and fight assimilation.
“These are outstanding Russian Jewish artists who are the pride of Russia, while also being recognized as geniuses all over the world,” says Kantor. “The main point of this collection is that these artists are recognized everywhere, but in Russia, people often do not even know it.”
However, the Russian art world has been changing rapidly. As Russian art is finding its niche, Russian buyers are developing and expanding their tastes. Late last year, Christie’s International in London held the highest grossing Russian art auction, raising $81 million, just surpassing Sotheby’s Russian art sale of $80 million at an auction the week before. Many predict prices will go higher in the coming years, as the prices for Russian art have increased at least 750 percent in the last decade alone, according to one report. The majority of buyers, close to 90 percent, are from Russia and the former Soviet Union, said a spokesperson from Christie’s. Escalating prices for Russian art are directly correlated to the country’s increasing wealth — as wealth increases in the former Soviet Union, a good deal of the money is making its way into the international art market. Sales of Russian art at Christie’s rose from $27 million in 2004 to $79 million in 2006, and results from recent auctions indicate that prices will continue to rise.
One of the most prominent and expensive artists in the United States today, Mark Rothko, an artist born in Daugavpils, Latvia, is a favorite of Kantor’s. MAGMA contains only one of his paintings, the Portrait of Joe Liss, created in 1939, shortly before the Abstract Expressionist painter began his work with what would become his trademark: large-format canvases filled with undefined rectangles and color, or “multiforms.”
“Top-level artists have a unique, personal language,” says Kantor. “The most popular representative of modern art is definitely Mark Rothko… he invented the language of communication between a human being and the Almighty, leaving out any figurative images. Of course, many artists set this task themselves. But of course, he found the minimal, most concise, and expressible language.”
Like Rothko, other MAGMA artists had their own unique language of expression. Alexander Tyshler stands out in his ability to create a unique world in each of his paintings, echoing the works of Goya, Rembrandt, and Chagall — who is often referred to as one of the “founding fathers” of the Jewish art movement. Modigliani, with his simple portraiture, reflected the vivid “aristocratic spirit, its egocentricity, neuroses, tribulations, joys, and sorrows” that was representative of the Europe he knew. Sonia Delaunay, along with her husband, ushered in the abstract movement of Orphism. In the 1950s, artists such as Mikhail Schwartzman and Erik Bulatov ushered in a second avant-garde movement.
In the coming years, Kantor is set on expanding the collection at MAGMA. He will continue with the formula of collecting, focusing on artists already in the MAGMA fold, and increasing the repertoire to include emerging talents. The only concern is whether he’ll have enough wall space to accommodate his passion.