‘There are few things more difficult than to appraise the work of a man suddenly dead in his youth,’ Ezra Pound wrote in his book about Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, the sculptor killed in the trenches at 23 whose work Pound had tirelessly helped to promote. Gaudier was mercurial, and many found him difficult to fathom: one friend wrote that he was ‘more like a dagger in the midst of us’; another that ‘it would need but little to set him murdering instead of hugging me.’ He found a protector in Pound, who described him on first meeting as a ‘soft-moving bright-eyed wild thing’.
‘Collectors,’ the collector George Costakis observed, ‘are like madmen.’ Costakis was the son of Greek emigrants who settled in Moscow at the turn of the 20th century and grew wealthy on tobacco. He made himself indispensable — as chauffeur and general factotum — to various embassies, who paid their staff in hard currency rather than worthless roubles. At first his madness took familiar forms: opulent carpets, Russian silver, Old Masters by the dozen. But the outbreak of war disrupted his livelihood, and the bibelots were sold off. It was just as well: tired of still lifes (which, he found, all ‘faded to a grey-brown blur’) and piqued by a chance encounter with a different sort of painting, a carcass of riotous colour and disjointed form, Costakis changed tack. He devoted the rest of his life to unearthing masterworks of the Russian avant-garde.
There is a story about Mustafa Kemal Atatürk practising his signature in the Latin alphabet. The image is incongruous: the most powerful man in Turkey sits frowning over his own name, breaking in the unfamiliar strokes like a schoolboy. He had decreed in 1928 that Turkish would now be written in Latin rather than Arabic script – severing ties with the Ottoman past and making a generation of readers illiterate. In 1934 he passed a law requiring everyone to adopt a surname: Turks at the time tended to go by titles, patronymics or the name of their profession. It’s unclear how Kemal came by his name (he tacked on ‘Father of the Turks’ after 1934; it’s still illegal for anyone else to use it), but as for romanising his initials, the story goes that he tried spelling it first with a Q, then with a K – and deciding that he preferred the latter, banned the letter Q from the alphabet. The story is apocryphal; Kemal’s signature (now one of the most popular tattoos in Turkey) was designed by Hagop Çerçiyan, an Armenian calligrapher. And while it’s true that the letter Q was outlawed for 85 years, from 1928 until last month, the reason for the ban had little to do with aesthetic bias or onomastic whim.