Viktor Louis: a KGB promoter of Soviet unofficial art
British art critic and art dealer Matthew Bown tells the incredible story of a KGB agent who, in the early 1960s, became a liaison between Moscow’s underground art world and the West.
During the classic period of Soviet unofficial art, which coincides more-or-less with the Brezhnev-Andropov years, Victor Louis was shunned by the independent cultural intelligentsia. His role as disseminator-in-chief of information and disinformation on behalf of the KGB made him persona non grata (although, as a columnist for British newspapers and with an English wife, he was also denigrated as an “English spy”). But evidence suggests that in the late 1950s and early 1960s – roughly, the years of Khrushchev’s Thaw — he played a significant role in the promotion of non-conformist artists. That Louis’ interaction with artists was also a means of their control should not diminish its historical significance: he emerged, effectively, as the Soviet underground’s first art dealer.
Louis’ early years are obscure. Even his real name is in doubt: perhaps it was not Victor Louis (Viktor Lui), but Vitali Levin. After some years in a prison camp, in 1956, at the age of 28, he was released and rehabilitated. He began working as a journalist; he met his English wife, Jennifer Statham, who was a nanny at the British embassy, at that favourite pick-up spot, the Bolshoi Theatre, and married her in 1958 at a church in Bryusov Lane.
In Russia, he established himself at the heart of Moscow bohemia, a small heroic coterie of artists, intrepid foreigners, local black-market entrepreneurs and Western-oriented fashionistas, all of whom hung out regularly at the National hotel. The artist-regulars in this ragged beau monde included Viktor Shchapov (b. 1927), author of a striking series of Yellow Submarine-inspired posters for Moscow taxicabs; Boris Messerer (b. 1933), the famous theatre set designer; and Feliks-Lev Zbarski (1931–2016), son of the celebrated chemist who embalmed Lenin, and so, one of Moscow’s gilded youth. Zbarski, at this time, was married to fashion model Regina Zbarskaya, enchantress of multiple couturiers, feted as the “Kremlin’s Most Beautiful Weapon”; in 1972, at the height of his celebrity, Zbarski left Russia; over the decades, his career as an artist withered and he died a recluse in a New York hospice.
Louis’ contacts with unofficial artists seem to have begun soon after his release from prison. One of the defining shows of the Thaw was the great American National Exhibition held in Sokolniki Park in Moscow in 1959, at which American contemporary art was shown for the first time. Oskar Rabin (1928–2018) remembered: “I knew Victor Louis ... and I asked him to lend me his journalist’s pass to the American exhibition for a day. ‘You can have the pass,’ said Louis magnanimously, ‘but what prevents you artist-geniuses from making your own?’ That was an idea. All that was needed was a bit of technical expertise. We made five passes and were able to spend whole days at the show... I was able to see work by Rauschenberg, Pollock, Rothko...” Subsequently, Louis negotiated Rabin’s 1965 solo exhibition at Eric Estorick’s Grosvenor Gallery in London, at that time the major Western outlet for Soviet unofficial art. The proceeds of the show enabled Rabin to buy a flat and Louis (in one version at least) – a Mercedes. The degree of Louis’s involvement in Rabin’s show was established by Alek Epshtein in his biography of the artist: Estorick visited Moscow 14 or 15 times, but although he bought some 70 works by Rabin, he met him only once: all Rabin’s sales to Estorick were carried out via Louis.
Louis was a constant in artists’ studios, including those of Vladimir Weisberg (1924–1985), Oleg Tselkov (b. 1934), Evgeny Rukhin (1943–1976), Anatoly Zverev (1931–1986), and Ely Belyutin’s (1925–2012) school; he travelled regularly to Lianozovo, where the eponymous group of independent artists included Rabin, Vladimir Nemukhin (1925--2016), Nikolai Vechtomov (1923–2007), Lydia Masterkova (1927–2008) and others. Nemukhin confided to Vitaly Komar (b. 1943) that during the early years of his career Louis was the main conduit of his sales; according to the artist Valentin Vorobyev (b. 1938), Louis became the “organiser of [Dmitri Krasnopevtsev’s] commercial deals”. Louis’ dacha in Bakovka was notable for the owner’s collection of swanky foreign cars and the art that hung inside, including works by Sergei Sudeikin (1882–1946) and Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin (1878–1939) and by a host of unofficial artists; bronzes by Ernst Neizvestny (1925–2016) stood in the garden. This dacha, according to Ilario Fiore, author of the first (decidedly hostile) biography of Louis (1977), functioned as a commercial gallery, where muscovites and foreigners came to buy works by the non-conformists. The official artists had their salons, but for unofficial art there was no comparable establishment. Louis was, of course, not the only person active in Moscow at the time in the field of non-conformist art. George Costakis bought not only the Russian Avant-Garde, but also works by contemporary artists. Private apartment exhibitions began around 1956; and Nina Stevens, the Russian wife of an American correspondent, organised shows in her house on Ryleeva Street: Louis was a regular guest here and collaborator. In the second half of the 1960s, new collector-dealers appeared, among them Alexander Glezer, Leonid Talochkin, Tatiana Kolodzei...
But in those early years Louis’ activity seems to have been the most effective, in terms of logistics, marketing and promotion. If you were a foreigner travelling outside of Moscow –to Lianozovo, or to Belyutin in Abramtsevo — then with Louis, you didn’t need to worry that you might be breaking the terms of your visa. In a dispensation where foreign currency was highly desired, but its possession was a crime, Louis’ privileged position was essential to the functioning of the fledgling market (apparently, Louis also trained his artist-friends in direct-selling technique: meet your foreign buyer in a damp basement studio, dress like a country bumpkin, point meaningfully upward and whisper, “Quiet… KGB.”) And, like nobody else, Louis had access to the foreign press. Thus, thanks to Louis’ contacts, a one-day exhibition on Great Communist Street in Moscow in November 1962, featuring work by Ely Belyutin and his studio and also by Ernst Neizvestny, Vladimir Yankilevsky (1938–2018) and Ulo Sooster (1924–1970), received international TV coverage as “Abstract Art on Communist Street”. To all of which one might add that Louis possessed the essential quality of successful art dealers everywhere: considerable personal charm.