The art and science of tolerance

Moshe Kantor’s art collection aims to present the contribution of artists of Jewish origin to Russian culture and to promote tolerance.

Ilya Repin's 'A Parisian Café' depicts bohemian life in 19th-century Paris (photo credit: courtesy)
Ilya Repin's 'A Parisian Café' depicts bohemian life in 19th-century Paris
(photo credit: courtesy)
THE GLITTERATI and intelligentsia are out in force. Outside it is minus six degrees but on a Monday evening in early December they have packed into the White Hall at the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts for the opening of an exhibition of Russian and Western European art of the 19th and 20th centuries from the collection of Jewish businessman Viatcheslav Moshe Kantor.
Art and money stride hand in hand between the museum’s Romanesque marble columns. At a cocktail reception held in the Italian Courtyard, a hall resplendent with reproductions of statues by Renaissance masters - Michelangelo, Donatello, Verrocchio.
Haute couture – men in the finest Italian suits, ladies in de rigueur Chanel outfits – mixes with frumpy intellectualism.
Earlier, at a press conference, Kantor is trailed by legions of journalists and cameramen as he surveys the works on display in the exhibit, titled “My Homeland is Within My Soul.” The name comes from a poem by Marc Chagall. Kantor boasts four pieces by the Belarusian-born artist who was once banned in the Soviet Union.
He describes the collection as a portrait of the Diaspora and says it aims to present the contribution of artists of Jewish origin to Russian culture and to promote tolerance.
Kantor explains that he when he first started collecting – his first acquisition was “The Grape Picker” by the late 19th-century Italian classicist Eugene de Blaas – he desired no more than to accumulate art and was motivated by the excitement of the chase, of winning at auction. He remains, clearly, a determined collector, willing to use his vast fortune, built from his fertilizer business and listed by Forbes at $2.4 billion, to gain his trophy.
“When I see something that truly appeals to me, I realize I cannot live without it,” he says. Later he will tell me how he spent almost eight years negotiating the purchase of one of his Chagall’s, “Vision, Self Portrait with Muse.”
“The story was very dramatic,” Kantor relates. “I got familiar with the owner who was very problematic. He was living in St. Petersburg, I was living in Moscow. All that time we were in communication, I would call him on every holiday, but I hated him because he completely messed with my mind. But slowly, slowly we started to speak about how to sell, how to buy, and at what price. We came very close to the finalization of the sale and then he died. I decided to finish with the story, but to my positive surprise in his will he told his sisters to sell to me, and at an agreed price.”
An engineer by training – he has a PhD in spacecraft automatic control systems – Kantor says he gradually came to understand that he needed an “artistic algorithm,” his own systematic approach. That came to be the acquisition of art that was Russian, Jewish, innovative and revolutionary.
His collection is methodical, the result of his own “Periodic Table” that defined the elements he felt should be included. Eventually, he came up with a list of artistic pioneers – Valentin Serov, Jacques Lipchitz, Mark Rothko, Ilya Kabakov and others – who had made a fundamental contribution to art history.
Meticulously, he tracked down opportunities to acquire their works.
“In the beginning it was just a collection, nothing more,” he tells The Jerusalem Report.
“Now I see that the process of collecting is one of the dimensions of let’s say my bigger business, the business of promoting the concept of tolerance.”
Kantor is the president of the European Jewish Congress and the founder of the European Council on Tolerance and Reconciliation, an NGO that fights xenophobia, extremism and anti-Semitism. He has published a “Manifesto on Secure Tolerance” that aims to balance the values of security and tolerance.
Without tolerance, he says, no development is possible along any line of social activity, be it science, technology, philosophy or art. Yet is unlimited tolerance desirable, he asks. His answer: of course not. “For me tolerance is like an airplane in its flight corridor – it’s dangerous to be very high and it’s dangerous to be very low,” he says.
Tolerance, says Kantor, is a “science” and must be carefully tuned through legislation, through the creation of a “framework.”
“When it comes to art,” he says, “that means the secure framing of the development of art. Every direction in art should have the right to exist and this right should be supported by the community in general, by civil society and by the authorities as a part of civil society.”
THE EXHIBITION opens with Ilya Repin’s “A Parisian Café,” depicting bohemian life in late 19th-century Paris and moves on with more than 100 paintings and sculptures through the course of the 20th century from Valentin Serov and Lev Bakst through to the École de Paris and Soviet nonconformists such as Erik Bulatov and Viktor Pivovarov.
Two portraits by Lucian Freud on display at the exhibit, “Ali” and “Guy Half Asleep,” as well as Amedeo Modigliani’s “Portrait of a Girl in a Black Dress,” may, at first glance, seem out of place with his formula of acquiring art that is “very Jewish, very Russian and very exceptional,” but closer inspection reveals an expansion of Kantor’s formula to include European Jewish art.
“We have to ask ourselves,” says Kantor, “why all these artists used to be so successful, so recognized. They are all pioneers of new directions in art, all of them found their own language of communication.
You see the abstract artist [Mark] Rothko, you immediately understand without any subject written on the canvas what he wants to say. He has his language and every artist has their own language.
This is let’s say the performance index of the collection.
“The level of masterpieces presented proves the main idea that if you want to have positive progress in your country in all dimensions you are obliged yourself to be tolerant,” says Kantor.
I ask him whether he feels his own country, Vladimir Putin’s Russia, meets those criteria.
Here he is clearly uncomfortable and struggles to find an equation. “I don’t say that Russia is a tolerant country, I say that Russia is a rapidly progressing country and I can see it positively progressing. We are of course far from the final result.”