— What is the main intrigue of the museum?
— The museum’s objective is to bring back to Russia all the names that have been “appropriated” by other countries. For many people it would probably be a revelation to find out that a lot of famous artists that rose to prominence in Europe and America, whose works are the envy of any museum in the world, were in fact our compatriots. At the same time, people in other countries are surprised to discover that their “local heroes” happen to be Jews, and originally from Russia: Chagall, Zadkine, Lipschitz, Delaunay – the elite of the School of Paris. Not to mention Soutine, who asserted a cardinal influence over Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock. Art is more efficient than governmental or public organizations in its impact on the social consciousness, because art appeals directly to the feelings, to something that makes us human. That is why I consider art a powerful instrument for the development of tolerant society.
—Was your idea for the collection clearly conceived from the very beginning?
— Not entirely. I wanted something related to Russia, something very Russian. But at the same time, it had to be something very Jewish, for obvious reasons. And it had to be outstanding no matter what. Then I had limits, since the concept of a wealthy person is relative. Let’s imagine that I formulated my task this way: to collect the best impressionists ever. I would have had to stop collecting after the second or third painting. Or even the best American abstractionists – my resources would have been exhausted on the fifth painting. So I made a decision: the most Russian, most Jewish and most brilliant. This is the sport where I can be a champion with my resources. I literally breathed easier when I came to that realization. I saw that I need to “draw the Mendeleev table.” I needed to make a list of artists, explaining to myself in advance that in addition to being famous they had to have made a fundamental contribution to art history. There were about 200-250 artists who formally met the criteria. Eventually 33 bogatyri were chosen, as in Pushkin’s poem. All of them were pioneers who gave birth to something – like the Russian avant-garde started with Serov, who haunts Petya Aven. And the same story with each of them – Rothko with abstractionism, Lipschitz with cubism in sculpture. Most of these artists are unknown in Russia and in the rest of the world they are not known as Russian artists. They were people from nowhere, phantoms who came out of nowhere and nobody knew how they got there. But as a matter of fact the Jewish tradition has a word for this. Pharaoh calls Joseph a “young ivry,” which means “nowhere man who passed by.” This term is a prototype for the word “Jew.” It turns out that the collection is a portrait of the Diaspora.
— So are all the artists in MAGMA’s collection immigrants?
— Yes, all of them were more or less immigrants. And some of them, Chagall, for example, immigrated several times: he went from Russia to Paris, then came back, then moved to America, then to Israel. The collection corresponds totheir spirit and lifestyle. I believe that the success of these artists, who met with competition from their local peers, who were some of the best artists in the world, is the best example of tolerance. The School of Paris, for instance, the phenomena of the beginning of the 20th century up to the 1930s. The School of Paris name is nominal: there were artists from Latin America (Diego Rivera), Japan (Leonard Foujita), certainly Russians – all but 80%. And all these artists fulfilled their potential thanks to the spirit of free creativity and competition which reigned in Paris. It was solely due to the School of Paris that the city was transformed into the art capital of the world, and these artists became its heroes. Later, after gaining their wings, they flew to America or came back to Russia, already acknowledged men of genius. And I have a feeling that in this regard our collection has tremendous educational importance, crossing the bounds of private collecting. That is why we registered the Museum of Avant-Garde Mastery (MAGMA) with the Ministry of Cultural Affairs.
— What is tolerance for you?
— Tolerance is one of the most complicated fields of science known to humankind. The tolerant environment is a fertile ground for fundamental advances in the arts and vice versa. I will tell you a story. I knew that Chaim Soutine had died in Paris in 1943, and I decided to find his grave. I read on the Internet that he was buried in Cimetière du Montparnasse. I’m following the signs, like playing the “hot and cold” game. It seems sort of hot but I can’t find the grave. Then I realized that there were only dates and a cross on the grave. The dates matched, but what did the cross have to do with Chaim Soutine, who was, as you know, a Jewish painter? And I understood one very important thing – that was another demonstration of the fundamental nature of the idea of tolerance. It was clear that he was buried by his non-Jewish friends. Chaim Soutine died of an ulcer when no hospital would accept him in 1943. We know that Picasso, who highly appreciated Soutine, spoke soulfully at his grave. His words corresponded to what Modigliani told his friends when passing away. He said “You should not be sad, as my friend Chaim Soutine, whose talent is much greater than mine, will stay with you.” Picasso inverted Modigliani’s message saying “We who are left are nothing compared with the one who has gone.”
These people defended their friend from future mockery even after his death. They only inscribed his date of death and put a cross on his grave. Amazing how an instantaneous dialogue can help prevent tactlessness between people.
There is another example. A few years ago a catalogue raisonné of the sculptor Ossip Zadkine was issued. The artist is not widely known in Russia, but he is a hero in France. The then-mayor of Paris, Jacques Chirac, inaugurated as many monuments by Zadkine as Moscow mayor Luzhkov did works by Zurab Tsereteli. Chirac wrote an introduction to the catalogue where he noted that the outstanding French sculptor was born in Smolensk. Would the Smolensk governor know who Zadkine was? Is there an Ossip Zadkine museum in Smolensk? I wish there were. I wish that not only the governor but the Russian president were proud of our outstanding compatriot.
— Do you have any plans to change the formula of your collection?
— The original formula “very Russian, very Jewish and brilliant” works well. In fact, we have one of the world’s best collections of works by Chaim Soutine – all of his best pieces. We have the best works by Alexander Tyshler, Sonia Delaunay, Ossip Zadkine and Jaques Lipchitz, along with excellent paintings by Chagall. There are some gaps in the Mendeleev table we formed a decade ago. Formally, all the cells are occupied, but I would change the works in some of them for better ones. I see a couple of cells where I would dramatically improve the quality. I have been thinking of expanding the collection formula, making a transition from Russian Jewish artists to European Jewish artists of the 20th century. This would be a logical and clear evolution of the concept. After that I can embrace America. Still, we will stay within the concept of the Euro-Atlantic civilization.
— Will these artists have some relation to Russia?
— Not necessarily. Though I have an inkling that everything in this world has some relation to Russia. Russia was an empire ruling over Poland and Finland. Speaking of the population of Western Europe and America, only a small part of it has roots other than in Russia. Thus, the collection will be a direct development of the concept.
When the formula is clear, you just have to adhere to the principles. The principle that each artefact is ingenious was essential, though hard to comply with. We were not after a large collection of each artist’s works, but sought to get at least one of his/her masterpieces. To fit various tastes, it should have special artefacts. The principle of continuity is very important in this context. A collection inconsistent in its quality will produce an inharmonious effect, which is very bad. When people come to a museum or see a thoroughly selected collection they should realize that each artefact is another angle on an overall perception of the world rather than a random selection. This requires constant control, which calls for great effort and stress.
— What kind of effort?
— Nobody wants to sell art, even under financial pressure. I mean an artist’s heirs. The connection is very strong, much stronger than it can seem at first. The reason is that these people grow up side by side with these works, like family members. Each purchase is a serious psychological exercise which can last for years. For instance, it took me seven years to convince the owner of Chagall’s “Dream. Self-portrait with Muse” to sell it to me. Sadly, I was only able to buy it after his death. This person, who never sold the painting himself, instructed his heirs to sell it to Mr. Kantor and no one else, and even specified some details of the deal. I was shocked by the man’s decency and honesty.
— Would you be able to give that painting away if you had to?
— Never say never, but for me it is extremely hard to part with any of my paintings. Some paintings in the collection were purchased outside the concept. Once I decided to give one of these as a gift to my friend. Even that was painful. So I decided to stay with my collection. If they decide to give something away, let them do it after I am gone.
— How do you know that you need to buy one particular painting and not any other for your collection?
— When I see a piece of art which is fascinating, shocking, vital for me. I have my criteria of distinction. If, after seeing it for a few seconds, I can remember it for days that tells me the work is brilliant. Often you forget formally ingenious works as soon as you turn away.
How do I “try on” a painting to avoid risk and not rely on my intuition alone? I take a picture of the piece and pin it up all over the house. I look at it in the bathroom when I shave, in my bedroom, in the living room, everywhere. And I make a decision about whether I can get along without it or not. If I clearly understand that I should have it I start devising a way to get it.
— How do your business and collecting co-exist?
— Politics, economy and art is a continuous space in our lives. I call it harmonization of life. I live in a continuity where spending and earning money occur simultaneously. I feel I have several missions which I am happy to carry. My first priority is being a good father. I have three children, which is a lot by today’s standards. My second priority is my family in the broader sense, which needs to be taken care of. Then comes my Jewish family, for which I am responsible as well – nearly three million people throughout Europe. I have a rather large social responsibility associated with the business in which I have been engaged for more than 15 years. I am not ashamed of any of the steps I have taken in business.
— Did you often overpay for the works in your collection?
— My mother says that you can’t buy what you really want without paying too much.