‘Iliazd is one of the greatest figures of the 20th century’ Collector Boris Friedman explains how the livre d’artiste changed 20th-century art — and how the genre brought Picasso together with the futurist Ilia Zdanevich
With support from the Pushkin Museum, Pablo Picasso’s house museum in Málaga, Spain, has opened an exhibit called Iliazd and Picasso. The exhibit, which will remain open until June 23, sheds light on a collaborative project by Picasso and Ilia Zdanevich, a leading thinker of the Russian avant-garde. In 1972, the two artists created a series of livres d’artiste, or handmade books with original prints. The French art dealer Ambroise Vollard invented the livre d’artiste style when he commissioned a book with lithographs created directly by rising artists, and the books ultimately became a signature 20th-century genre. The curator of the Málaga exhibit is the entrepreneur and collector Boris Friedman. We asked journalist and television host Vladimir Rayevsky to travel to Málaga, where he spoke with Friedman about 20th-century art — and about how the founder of the first IT company in the USSR found a second life as a collector.
You never studied formally as an art historian, and you have never been employed by a museum. Your primary profession is something entirely different. How did it happen that you became one of the biggest collectors of livres d’artiste in the whole country and an exhibition curator for major museums?
I think that collecting, or gathering, is a kind of natural gift, though “gift” is a strong word. Collecting is an internal human state that blends, let’s say, not just hoarding in the positive sense of the word, but also expertise, an urge to know an entire subject very well. Simply acquiring things and putting them on a shelf is hoarding and not collection, in my understanding.
You graduated from a high school in Gomel [Belarus]. What did you do next?
In 1965, I enrolled in the Gubkin Institute for Petroleum Chemistry and Gas Manufacturing in Moscow. I was a radioelectronics major. But collection in the broad sense of the word was always a part of me, it seems. As a child, I put together my first collection of sorts: I collected matchboxes. Then, I started collecting stamps. I went to the institute, and that’s where my interest in books and in the illustrated book as a concept got going.
So you were studying at a petroleum institute, and all of a sudden you start collecting picture books?
There was an excellent antique book store next to the institute. I started talking to the booksellers there, they told me a few things, and I got super interested. I was just buying illustrated books. It was a total surprise for me when it turned out that the illustrations in books have an original illustration. It was an incredible feeling.
What did you do after graduation?
I wasn’t given the assignment I wanted because they didn’t take people of my ethnicity. I wanted to work in a very serious radio institute, a “mailbox.” But I was assigned to the Gas Equipment Bureau, where I worked on telemechanic systems for a while.
And at the same time…
I started collecting. I started going to museums — it was a real period of growth and learning for me. Then, my interests shifted to the sixties.
[Edward] Shteinberg, [Anatoly] Zverev, [Dmitry] Krasnopevtsev— they seemed unique even in the 1980s?
Yes. I met all of them. I have six magnetic cassette tapes, for example, where I recorded conversations with [Vladimir] Nemukhin. I visited him in Priluki, where he was living, near Tarusa. We sat on the veranda, just the two of us, he was wearing a beret for some reason, he put a piece of paper and a pencil in front of him. When he had to clarify something, he drew it, showed it to me. They were wonderful conversations.
At the same time, I was also interested in book illustration, but at some point, even I didn’t really know what I was collecting. That’s the most dangerous thing, the worst thing in collecting, I think — when you can’t say what you collect in two or three words. As a rule, if someone starts off with a list: “You know, I’m interested in this or that kind of poster, and I’ve got really good furniture, and great porcelain that I bought over there; Western painting is really a favorite, but then there’s the sixties, and contemporary art…” To me, that’s not collecting.
When did you realize you had fallen into that trap?
In the mid-1990s, I started to feel like I was at a bit of a loss.
And what were you doing at that point?
By that point, I was already a quote-unquote “major” entrepreneur because in 1988, I helped found the company Mikroinform. Strangely enough, the company still exists. Now, it’s the oldest IT company in the country. At the time, you could only create private businesses as joint enterprises. We made the company, and the asset contribution from the Hungarians was a handful of computers. My institute freed up some space for us. And that was that — we got to work.
So it’s the mid-1990s, you’re a successful entrepreneur, but as a collector, you’re in crisis. What do you do?
I didn’t do much. I was interested in illustrated books, I wanted to have some kind of original work, and the guys from the sixties still wouldn’t let me live. At one of the exhibits I attended, I saw a livre d’artiste edition of [Nikolai Gogol’s] Dead Souls with etchings by Chagall. Suddenly, I felt an incredible urge — I just had to have that book. It wasn’t as insanely expensive as it is now, but it still wasn’t cheap back then. I looked for it for a long time, and finally, this here fool’s dream came true. It was an incredible feeling. The format was a book, the text was there, but inside were 96 original Chagall etchings.
I had caught the bug. I looked around me and saw an enormous ocean. Everything came together: the desire to own the original and the book and the history behind them both. It was a hard time because by then, I had already befriended a whole army of artists — [Leonid] Tishkov, everybody. I started buying from them here and there, but I stopped everything with the others [from the sixties] and focused entirely on livres d’artiste. Some of them — not in an obvious way — but they were offended. They told me, “Well, aren’t you a hotshot now!”
All right then. What’s a livre d’artiste?
It’s an edition with original printed graphics — so etchings, photographs, or woodcuts. There’s text, but the text and the images don’t have to be related. These are artworks made in a very limited print run and signed by the artists and authors. The edition is made in a special format, in a sheath or a box. It is never recreated or reprinted.
Do I understand correctly that in the 20th century, almost all the great artists managed to have a go at this genre?
Not almost, just all. Picasso, Dali, and Miró did a lot. Cézanne, Kandinsky, Matisse. And also all of the sculptors, just all of them — Rodin, Maillol, Calder, and even Le Corbusier.
How did that happen?
There was a man named Ambroise Vollard, the greatest marchand of the 20th century. An art dealer, a publisher, the person who made Cézanne, the author of the first monograph on Renoir. And he made the first edition for marketing purposes only. He had to popularize his artists’ work. It wasn’t easy. There was no television, no marketing agencies. Everyone would come to the gallery: they would take a look, click their tongues, and say, “Yes, how interesting, we’ll be back”; naturally, they would not be back. And he thought, why don’t these artists make me some lithographs and etchings?
That is, you buy a book with the illustrations inside, and if you like, you can buy something else from the same artists?
He picked a text that was well known at the time and put in works by his artists. He took Rodin and tossed him in, people like that. Even if there are a hundred copies, the books still pull your hands toward them. People bought the books. And that’s it — if there’s a picture by Rodin, people learn that there’s a guy named Rodin, and things go on from there.
So it’s a media product.
Yes. He called it livre d’artiste. He made one, two, three, 10 editions like that, became a major dealer, and then he didn’t have to do it anymore. In principle, it should have died out over time. But then, something amazing happened. At the beginning of the century, a unique situation that had never existed before and will never exist again in human history arose in Paris. In a single city, on the same streets, in the same cafés, you had brilliant artists, brilliant poets, brilliant printers, and brilliant publishers from all over the world sitting and chatting around a bottle of wine. Imagine: you go into some Rotunda, and there’s Picasso having a drink with [Georges] Braque. Vollard walks by, Modigliani comes in, and [Tristan] Tzara and Chagall are sitting around that same table. And, of course, they want to do something together. And, without knowing he was doing it, Vollard was giving them something to do. It became a space for their creative communication to take shape, and what happened was an incredible explosion of the genre.
What does your collection look like after 25 years of work? I understand that of the big names we’ve listed, you have them all.
Of course, and I don’t see anything unique in that. Anyone could do this if they were interested and had a certain amount of resources. And believe me, not an insane amount. Say, starting at $7,000. And probably with a ceiling of around $150,000.
Yeah, nothing insane to buy Picasso, I bet.
I’m telling you, nothing insane. That’s why it’s a shame that [the genre] doesn’t attract attention from people who don’t find those amounts of money to be insane.
Because they could create a marvelous collection. And all this won’t be around forever.
There’s a problem with these editions: galleries take them apart. The world’s leading galleries seek them out and sell the illustrations separately. If a book has 30 images, they’re sold as 30 items. And the book doesn’t exist if you sell even one little page.
What’s your reasoning for taking on the role of a curator yourself and making exhibitions?
A well-made collection is a polished, curated exhibition project. You just add a few finishing touches, and there you go, it’s finished. There’s a fundamental difference between museum curators and my own approach. Museum curators work under difficult conditions. Today they’re doing Rembrandt, but tomorrow, they have to do Giotto. They remember something or other from university, they read a bit more, the make the exhibit, and they forget about it (though, of course, there are all kinds of curators). I can’t imagine that kind of task when you’re acting as a collector. With the knowledge that this is what’s demanded of you. Why do I do this? Because when I look at the volume of this material, to be honest, I get uncomfortable on a human level. I want to streamline all this and show it to everyone.
This isn’t the first time you’ve turned to the figure of Ilia Zdanevich. You had a big exhibition about him in the Pushkin Museum, and now the Iliazd and Picasso exhibit is open in Málaga. Who was Iliazd, and why do you work on him?
Iliazd is one of the greatest figures of the 20th century, though I associate him with the Renaissance even more than the 20th century. You can’t name a single other person in the 20th century who, without specialized training, worked in various fields — and reached absolute perfection in every single one. He worked with [Mikhail] Le Dentu to discover [the Georgian artist] Niko Pirosmani for the world. He made prints for Coco Chanel. He did research on the cathedrals of Georgia, Armenia, and Spain, and he presented at a world congress of Byzantologists. He was a major, major futurist; he was the inventor of zaum. He was a poet — all of his collections were published. He was an inventor who had a patent for a knitting machine that was ultimately purchased by Chanel. He was a typographer. And finally, he was a great publisher of livres d’artiste.
Why is Ilia Zdanevich barely known in his own homeland?
Well, first of all, he left his homeland. And then, in Paris, he lived in poverty and did various odd things. He wasn’t an artist, so not a single dealer would work with him. At the same time, the whole world knew him. He was odd, he was not of his time.
What connected Ilia Zdanevich and Picasso?
A friendship of many years. It began because they were like two identical personalities; they were drawn to each other like magnets. One was born in Georgia, and the other was born here, in Spain. Each of them destroyed everything around him: one destroyed the Russian language, and the other made art into the most frightening thing you could possibly make. Then, they both ended up in Paris: fate kicked them out of their own countries. But their primary achievement [together] was the livre d’artiste. They designed seven finished editions and two that remain unfinished.
Take Pirosmani. This fantastic livre d’artiste story began in 1914. Zdanevich published his first substantial article about Pirosmani in the newspaper Vostok in Tbilisi. He was 20 years old, and the article is truly great. It’s just two columns, and one begins, of course, outrageously, as befits a futurist of the time: “You, the bastards of Europe, have overlooked an artist of such stature that all your poets, writers, and artists aren’t worth a centimeter of his oilcloth.” And that was followed by a perfectly normal explanation of who Pirosmani was: Zdanevich was the only one who had met him at that point. Later on, Iliazd came to Paris and met Picasso.
In 1969, Pirosmani’s work was brought to the Louvre. It was a collection of Iliazd’s that he’d had to leave behind in Tbilisi. Zdanevich wasn’t even invited to the opening. He bought a ticket himself and went with his wife to look at all this art that used to belong to him. It seems like that’s what pushed him toward the idea. He went to Picasso, brought him a copper plate, and asked him to do a portrait of Pirosmani. At the time, Iliazd was very ill, and he was on the border between life and death for two months. When, by some miracle, he stayed alive, he immediately went to Picasso, who gave him a finished plate with a portrait of Pirosmani. Iliazd spent the entire summer of 1972 translating his own article [from 1914]. In December, Picasso signed everything, and four months later, he died. Pirosmanishvili 1914 is the last book Picasso signed. It contains a single paragraph and a single etching: the artist standing by an easel.
Your exhibit’s visitors have included Marina Loshak, the director of the Pushkin Museum; Dmitry Bak, the director of the Literary Museum; the mayor of Málaga; Iliazd’s adopted son; and Pablo Picasso’s grandson, who probably doesn’t go to every one of his grandfather’s exhibits. It seems that you’ve really made a name for yourself in the world of culture and museums even though you have never quite belonged to it.
Yes, it’s a strange situation.
Translation by Hilah Kohen