Paquita Escofet’s apartment nestles at the far end of a verdant courtyard among the important galleries of the Marais. On entering, you discover a large room whose walls are covered with her most recent exhibition of Russian artists, on the theme of Girls Meet Boys. Her private exhibitions are the outcome of long thought and continual visits to a collection of more than 500 works, which she keeps in Paris, the French provinces and Moscow. On this occasion, the show presents the amusing, biting and political attitude of Mamyshev Monroe and the Elikuka artduo, as well as the superb Land Art installations of Infante Arana.
Paquita Escofet’s collection has a story behind it: her own, that of a young Frenchwoman, an avid lover of art and meeting people, who went to live in Russia, and that of her friends – young, eccentric and curious Russian artists. Her collection is the random result of her encounters with artists, of impulse buys, and of weekends spent in the squats of Leningrad (today renamed St Petersburg). It is above all the outcome of a love affair with Russia that has a beginning but not an end.
From Malevich to Afrika
It started in 1979 when the young Paquita Escofet, a student of Russian at Inalco in Paris, won a study grant and left for Moscow. At the time Leonid Brezhnev was the president of the Soviet Union. She fell in love with the country and a young student collector, whom she married. “He collected children’s books illustrated by avant-garde artists like Rodchenko and Malevich”, she remembers. “These artists seemed to have no interest for anyone at the time”. Curious to acquaint herself with more contemporary art, Paquita Escofet wanted to meet artists on the Muscovite scene.
So her husband introduced her to non-conformist artists with whom she did not succeed in creating a bond. They were older than her and her status as a privileged young Frenchwoman working at the French Embassy did not facilitate matters; she knew them very little and many of them had been made to suffer greatly. “I wanted to meet people of my own generation”, she says today. Things fell into place by chance when she met the painter Sergei Bougaiev, who called himself Afrika. He explained to her that to feel the pulse of the Russian creative world, she had to go to Leningrad. Each weekend Afrika took her from squat to squat in the city where she discovered a bubbling music and art scene.
“Most of these artists worked at keeping the boilers working in the Russian Museum and elsewhere”, she explains. “It was in the cellars that they would meet, smoke, drink, draw and talk about art. I got to know this very underground group of people”. Literally underground! She began to buy works from her friends with whom she spent the weekends. The photographs that she has of this period show a set of young people with the clothes and hairstyles typical of the New Wave years. “To them I was a link with the West”, Paquita Escofet remembers. “I dressed them and gave them records. They wanted to know what was going on culturally elsewhere in the world. In exchange, they often gave me artworks”.
From Leningrad to Moscow
In the mid-80s, the situation changed in her circle of friends and Paquita turned her attention to what was happening in Moscow. In Leningrad the art scene was “wild and spontaneous”, and the painter Timur Novikov claimed that all anyone needed to be an artist was character. In Moscow, on the other hand, she discovered a world of conceptual artists. From the “crazy figuration” of Leningrad she switched to the works of Kabakov, Monastyrski and Nikita Alexeiev, amongst others. “Luckily, I managed to get close to these artists thanks to the Champions of the World collective. They were much crazier than the other Muscovites!” Pioneers of performance art, they did not hesitate to destroy or to leave on site the works that they had just created.
Pasquita Escofet left Russia in 1986 but she did not turn away from her collection. Over the years she continued to travel to Moscow each month for work. The market began to take an interest in these artists in 1988 when Sotheby’s held a sale of their works. Since then, their standing has risen and fallen with the economic crises the country has experienced. It was particularly harmed by the crisis that hit Russia in 2007. “Even at times when my artists weren’t selling anything, I was there”, she explains. “I felt a duty to support them, particularly when things were hard”. And still today, when she visits their studios, believing in their passion, she will occasionally leave with several works when she should only have bought one. “All the works in my collection have a story behind them”, she says. “It may have been an impulse purchase, a moment of madness, a shared act of resistance with the artist. If the artist is a good friend, and they are all friends, then there won’t be any bad works. That’s why art is so great!” Later art scenes in the country still enthuse her. Today she speaks effusively about the young duo Elikuka, of whom she has hung a photograph in her entrance, and who follow in the puckish and rebellious tradition she is so fond of.
From squats to the Centre Pompidou
With time, she has learned to allow her collection to develop and not just to grow, in particular she is now willing to part with certain works so as to acquire others. Fourteen canvases have thus joined the Centre Pompidou and can be seen in the rooms dedicated to Leningrad and the Champions of the World group. Nine have been acquired by the Vladimir Potanin Foundation and Paquita Escofet has given away another five. When asked if she finds it difficult to part from a work, she smiles: “Of course, but when it is to see them hanging in the Centre Pompidou, I do it without a second thought! You feel you’re doing something important for the artist but also for contemporary Russian art, which is too little known in the West”.
After collecting for 35 years, Paquita Escofet encourages everyone to try it. “Anyone can collect. You shouldn’t be afraid to go and see artists, that’s what they want more than anything! It’s important to support them”. As she has done and will continue to do with the Russian artists who need hers.