One last look at Switzer­land’s $300 mil­lion view

The Washington Post Sunday - - ARTS & STYLE - BY PHILIP KEN­NI­COTT

In 1967, a fa­tal crash in Nicosia, Cyprus, led to the col­lapse of an air­line com­pany and fi­nan­cial dis­tress for its ma­jor share­holder, a Swiss busi­ness­man whose fa­ther had amassed an im­por­tant col­lec­tion of 20th-cen­tury art. Peter Staeche­lin, son of the col­lec­tor, Ru­dolf Staeche­lin, was forced to sell works by Monet, Cézanne, van Gogh and Al­fred Sis­ley, and was about to off­load two ma­jor Pi­cas­sos as well.

And then the city of Basel, where the Staeche­lin fam­ily col­lec­tion was on longterm loan to the city’s art mu­seum, raised funds (through public sub­sidy and a pop­u­lar street fair) to pur­chase the Pi­cas­sos be­fore they were sold to out­siders. News of the episode, which is promi­nently fea­tured in a new ex­hi­bi­tion at the Phillips Col­lec­tion, reached Pi­casso him­self, who was inspired to send the city four more works, gratis.

“Gau­guin to Pi­casso: Master­works From Switzer­land, the Staeche­lin and Im Ober­steg Col­lec­tions,” doesn’t, alas, fea­ture ei­ther of the two Pi­cas­sos in ques­tion. But it does in­clude many sig­nif­i­cant paint­ings amassed by Ru­dolf Staeche­lin and by Karl Im Ober­steg, another wealthy col­lec­tor, also from Basel, whose col­lec­tion has been in­cor­po­rated into the Kun­st­mu­seum Basel.

The Im Ober­steg trove, which has never been seen in theUnited States, is ar­guably the more im­pres­sive. But the Staeche­lin col­lec­tion, which was shown in the late 1990s at the Kim­bell Art Mu­seum in Fort Worth, fea­tures a paint­ing by Gau­guin that sold ear­lier this year for a re­ported $300 mil­lion. What has been dubbed the “world’s most ex­pen­sive paint­ing” is on view at the Phillips be­fore its new owner takes for­mal pos­ses­sion. It is de­servedly a star of this ex­hi­bi­tion, not for its

price tag but for its in­trin­sic power. To­gether, more than 60 works from the Swiss “sis­ter col­lec­tions” are on tour while a ren­o­va­tion pro­ject pro­ceeds at the Basel mu­seum. The Phillips Col­lec­tion is the only Amer­i­can venue for the show, which in­cludes about half the to­tal works in the two col­lec­tions.

The plane crash episode and the sub­se­quent cam­paign to keep the Staeche­lin Pi­cas­sos in Basel il­lus­trate the vi­cis­si­tudes of main­tain­ing a col­lec­tion in­tact and the of­ten com­pli­cated re­la­tion­ship be­tween pri­vate own­ers and public in­sti­tu­tions that hold or dis­play their work. But it also un­der­scores how quickly art is felt to be a com­mu­nal pos­ses­sion. The public is un­con­cerned with prove­nance, and once it has lived with an art­work for a few years, it right­fully feels that work to be part of the public com­mons. And it is, or it should be. But the as­tro­nom­i­cal price of art to­day is strain­ing the re­la­tions be­tween mu­se­ums and the fam­i­lies of the orig­i­nal col­lec­tors who make these works ac­ces­si­ble. Com­mod­i­fi­ca­tion trumps virtue.

In her cat­a­logue es­say for the ex­hi­bi­tion, Phillips Di­rec­tor Dorothy Kosin­ski dis­cusses the fa­mous Basel Pi­cas­sos episode and asks a rhetor­i­cal ques­tion about the fate of the in­de­pen­dent art mu­seum: “What is its pos­si­ble fu­ture, es­pe­cially in cities that may lack such deeply rooted tra­di­tions of cul­tural phi­lan­thropy as a part of civic pride, re­spon­si­bil­ity, and iden­tity?”

Could she be talk­ing about Washington? Would any­one here fight to keep a ma­jor pri­vate mu­seum, with a 145-year history and a tra­di­tion of bold col­lect­ing, from go­ing out of busi­ness? Would that we had had the same com­mit­ment to the Cor­co­ran as the peo­ple of Basel did to their Pi­cas­sos.

“Gau­guin to Pi­casso” has the strengths and weak­nesses of most trav­el­ing shows of tem­po­rar­ily dis­placed art. There are many mas­ter­pieces, in­clud­ing a mag­nif­i­cent trio of large- for­mat por­traits by Cha­gall, made while he was stuck in Vitebsk, Be­larus, dur­ing the First World War, plus a half- dozen im­por­tant Sou­tines and a sur­vey of works by the un­der­rated Alexej von Jawlen­sky. The Swiss artist Fer­di­nand Hodler, well rep­re­sented in the Staeche­lin col­lec­tion, more than holds his own against more fa­mous and bank­able French and mod­ern mas­ters, and two works by Ge­orges Rouault are a high­light from the Im Ober­steg hold­ings.

Nei­ther col­lec­tor was given to the most rad­i­cal cur­rents of the day, and both avoided the thornier side of artists such as Pi­casso, whose cu­bist works held lit­tle ap­peal to them. Fig­u­ra­tive work abounds, and one senses a long­ing for tra­di­tion just un­der the sur­face of their oth­er­wise ad­mirable com­mit­ment to the art of the 20th cen­tury. The re­cently auc­tioned Gau­guin from the Staeche­lin col­lec­tion, the 1892 “NAFEA faaipoipo ( When Will You Marry?),” is one of the artist’s bold­est works, made dur­ing his first stay in Tahiti. But more typ­i­cal of the Staeche­lin sen­si­bil­ity is an 1885 Gau­guin land­scape, dis­played nearby, which feels like a nos­tal­gia ex­er­cise for the Bar­bizon pain­ters.

The two col­lec­tors also had very dif­fer­ent styles of ac­qui­si­tion. Staeche­lin col­lected for a rel­a­tively short pe­riod of time and was drawn to pow­er­ful sin­gle works, such as the later Gau­guin. Im Ober­steg col­lected through­out his life and was more in­clined to ac­quire mul­ti­ple works by a sin­gle artist. That strat­egy proves more ef­fec­tive in the cur­rent ex­hi­bi­tion, with rooms de­voted in whole or part to in­di­vid­ual pain­ters. It also gives one a bet­ter sense of Im Ober­steg’s sen­si­bil­ity and thus a more co­her­ent sense of the art gath­ered un­der his name.

Two rooms of the mu­seum have been turned over to a small coda to the show, fea­tur­ing works from the Phillips Col­lec­tion that are re­lated to the main dis­play. Dun­can Phillips, who formed the mu­seum, was of the same gen­er­a­tion as Staeche­lin and Im Ober­steg and, in some cases, was drawn to the same artists. He shared a sen­si­bil­ity with them, an at­trac­tion to col­or­ful work, strik­ing de­sign and art that fa­vored in­di­vid­ual ex­pres­sion over pure mod­ernist ex­per­i­men­ta­tion.

When the Staeche­lin Gau­guin was sold in Fe­bru­ary, it was re­port­edly to a buyer in Qatar, one of the few ar­eas of the world where wealth is suf­fi­ciently con­cen­trated to af­ford works in this price range. And so this may be the last time it is on public dis­play in the West. Sadly, $ 300 mil­lion is be­yond any­thing that the peo­ple of Basel could— or should— try to raise, and so the happy end­ing of the Pi­casso episode in 1967 won’t be re­peated a half­cen­tury later.

Gau­guin to Pi­casso: Master­works From Switzer­land, the Staeche­lin and Im Ober­steg

Col­lec­tions is on view at the Phillips Col­lec­tion through Jan. 10. For more in­for­ma­tion visit www.phillip­scol­lec­


“Gau­guin to Pi­casso: Master­works From Switzer­land” fea­tures Paul Gau­guin’s 1892 “NAFEA faaipoipo (When Will You Marry?),” which holds the ti­tle of world’s most ex­pen­sive paint­ing af­ter selling for $300 mil­lion.


Vin­cent van Gogh’s “The Gar­den of Daubigny,” a paint­ing of fel­low artist Charles-François Daubigny’s walled gar­den in Au­vers-sur-Oise, France, was one of the im­pres­sion­ist’s last paint­ings be­fore he took his life in 1890. Swiss col­lec­tor Ru­dolf Staeche­lin ac­quired the work, which found its way to the Kun­st­mu­seum in Basel. The 22-by-40-inch can­vas is part of the “Gau­guin to Pi­casso: Master­works From Switzer­land” ex­hi­bi­tion at the Phillips Col­lec­tion.


Above: Pablo Pi­casso painted “Woman at the Theater” on one side of a can­vas in 1901 and “The Ab­sinthe Drinker” on the other. Part of the Im Ober­steg col­lec­tion from the Kun­st­mu­seum Basel, the art is on dis­play in Washington while the Swiss mu­seum is be­ing ren­o­vated. Above left: Three large por­traits byMarc Cha­gall, in­clud­ing the 393/ -inchby

4 2- inch “Jew in Black and White,” were painted while the artist was stranded in Vitebsk at the start ofWorldWar I. Col­lec­tor Karl Im Ober­steg’s habit of col­lect­ing mul­ti­ple works by a sin­gle artist, in­clud­ing the Cha­galls, serves the Phillips ex­hibit well.


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