We don’t know who he is, but we know so much about him. One of the finest private contemporary art collections in Europe is on view in Lausanne at the Hermitage Foundation. The owner wants to remain anonymous, but his stunning selection is so personal that he might as well be standing in each of the rooms.
Basquiat, Dubuffet, Soulages, a private collection showcases museum-quality pieces from the post-war era of the 20th century often acquired before the artists had attained fame. The major art mouvements are all present with fine examples from American Expressionism, Minimalist and Conceptual art, COBRA, Neo-Expressionism and Arte Povera.
The hanging proposed by the Hermitage is remarkable because themes and associations between the works of art fill the sun-lit rooms of the 19th century mansion with a complete disregard to chronology, styles and labels.
The effect is striking because it says so much about Mr. Anonymous and the legendary galerists who guided him, Jeanne Buchet, Yvon Lambert and the Lausanne-based Alice Pauli, to name only a few. He wasn’t looking for investments (like most collectors today) he was looking to be surprised, although a little money did help.
The entertaining interview by radio presenter Florence Grivel that serves as the audioguide (it is also a free App) reveals the moments of illumination when the collector felt the imperative, sometimes reckless, need to acquire a work. It is an absolute must for French-speakers.
Death and danger
Several works painted feverishly just before his death at the age of 84 by French artist Jean Dubuffet open the exhition. Dubuffet is also known as the founder of the legendary Art Brut collection in Lausanne.
“One of these paintings hangs in my bedroom, because I like the presence of death by my bed, it represents the chaos that exists before the beginning of life.”
They are followed by seminal works by Chris Burden, including a black and white photograph of the legendary 1971 performance Shoot, where the artist is shot in his left arm.
About the Burden, he says: “When I arrived in the gallery, I immediately sensed the power of the work, the presence of the possibility of death. It’s existentialist, it’s fascinating!”
But the ensemble is anything but maudlin or tragic. There is a wild optimism in the selection, the jubilitory belief that art can also contribute to the essence of life, just as it can conjure death. The youthful Mr. Anonymous is said to be past ninty.
The first unlikely association that makes this show so interesting is between Louise Bourgeois and Giuseppe Penone. The phenomenal French feminist’s obsession with spiders encounters Italy’s Arte Povera icone and his gentle sway between nature and the traces of man.
Another fortuitous association is between a bold Rosemarie Trockel tapestry and the despairingly bland, but beautiful squares on white canvas by Niele Toroni. Both artists are very present in the collection, for reasons that only the collector’s intuition can explain.
The power of colors
“Black became a colour thanks to Pierre Soulage,” says Mr. Anonymous affectionately of the many paintings he holds by the French artist. “It’s amazing how black can capture light.”
Of the Jean-Michel Basquiat ‘Lobo’, by the New York artist of Haitian descent who died too young and that he bought very early on, he is still rapturous about the “fabulous blue” and admits that the Renaissance frame he chose for the painting was more expensive than the canvas itself.
From Asger Jorn, the Danish founding member of the avant-garde movement COBRA, explosive colours are presented alongside the black and white serpentine figures of Louis Souter presented in the same room. The geometric austerity of Sol LeWitt and Robert Barry take on an unsuspected sensuality besides two charming 19th century busts by Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux.
What makes this collection special
For someone who makes us believe that he doesn’t believe in the afterlife, Mr. Anonymous has presented us with a invaluable legacy. And BTW, he is also fascinated by the art and furniture of the 18th century, which he collects as well.