In September 1988, I found myself in the back of a Moscow taxi with a gallery owner from London, now dead. ‘Taxi’, in those days, was a contingent term in the Soviet Union. Ours was a private Lada, the gallerist having done a deal with its driver. He was good at deals. Handsomely coiffed (he had been a hairdresser in a former life), the gallerist was known for spotting early gaps in the market and making money from them. Now he was on the scent of Soviet art.
‘I went to see the widow Tatlin this morning,’ he said, in a patrician drawl not his own. ‘She’s been hiding her husband’s work under the linoleum of her bedroom all these years.’ He examined his buffed nails. ‘I gave her five thou for the lot.’ Vladimir Tatlin, the great Soviet Constructivist, had died in 1953, months after his tormentor, Joseph Stalin. Stalinism had not died with the Dear Leader. For the next four decades, Tatlin’s widow, Aleksandra Nikolaevna Korsakova, had secreted her late husband’s work in their flat, aware that the revelation of its existence might lead to its destruction, and her own. Now eighty-four, she had been seduced by hard currency and the promise of securing her husband’s legacy in the West. Each of the works bought by the London gallerist would fetch very much more than the sum he had paid her for all of them. Korsakova died eighteen months later.
This story might serve as a coda to James Birch’s engaging new book, Bacon in Moscow. Both the manicured gallerist and I were in the Soviet Union for the opening of an exhibition of paintings by Francis Bacon at the Central House of Artists, the first involving a living Westerner in the USSR since 1917. It was Birch’s brainchild; this book is his memoir of staging it.
Birch, too, was a gallerist, although of a different stripe from the one in the Moscow cab. His early galleries had shown work by an eclectic mix of people – the cheerily nudist Neo Naturists, the Surrealist Eileen Agar – united only by Birch’s admiration for them. He