Heinz Berggruen - San Francisco 1939

Heinz Berggruen

by Olivier Berggruen

Born in Berlin in 1914, on the brink of the First World War, my father, Heinz Berggruen, spent his life retracing the itinerary of an artistic apprenticeship which changed his life forever: the discovery of the European avant-gardes of his childhood. The essential points of origin of this life, formed by travelling and the ceaselessly renewed discovery of the art of the 20th century, are known: the boring childhood of an only child trying to free himself from his too conventional family, aloof from the extraordinary cultural flourishing of the time – the Berlin of Max Reinhardt and Bertolt Brecht, the experimental cinema of F. W. Murnau and G. W. Pabst, the New Objectivity of the 1920s, a whole world as evoked by Alfred Döblin in his novel-like fresco Berlin Alexanderplatz. This tentacular city, being bohemian as much as commercial, and having entered the 20th century too quickly, gave my father the sense of a life running contrary to the respectability of his assimilated Jewish parents. He went to France to study literature, first in Grenoble and then in Toulouse. When he came back to Berlin a few years later, Germany had fallen under the rule of National Socialism. Faced with a country exposed to new demons much worse than those of the years of the Weimar Republic, he realised that there was no future for him there any longer. He therefore accepted a scholarship for advanced studies at the University of Berkeley in California. Years of isolation, poverty, but also first encounters with artists followed: in 1939 he was offered a job as assistant to the Mexican painter Diego Rivera who had come to San Francisco for the World Fair. This gave Heinz Berggruen the possibility to organise a retrospective of Rivera’s large society frescos at the San Francisco Museum of Art. Shortly after, Berggruen had a passionate liaison with Rivera’s ex-wife, Frida Kahlo – a short-lived liaison after the arrival of the destitute and unsteady couple in New York. He took his first steps as a journalist for the San Francisco Chronicle, then joined the American army and set off to Germany after the victory of the Allied forces as editor of a new journal founded by the Americans. After his demobilisation he settled in Paris, leaving his two young children, John and Helen, from a first marriage with a young heiress from San Francisco in California.

In Paris, my father found a position with the UNESCO, but faced with a too heavy bureaucracy he orientated himself towards the commercial environment and opened an art gallery. It was situated at Place Dauphine – a tiny space which he later left to Simone Signoret and Yves Montand who turned it into their kitchen. In the early 1950s, at 70, Rue de l’Université the gallery had found the address where it would stay for forty years: it acquired and sold illustrated books, prints, drawings and paintings, published limited series of works, and above all held numerous exhibitions, mostly accompanied by a small luxurious booklet, produced by Jacomet and the Union press. At the beginning, my father was interested in the work of Paul Klee who was still little known to the French public, despite being very admired by the Surrealists since René Crevel dedicated him a beautiful text in the 1930s. It was also during this period that he made several important acquaintances: Paul Éluard, André Pieyre de Mandiargues and above all Tristan Tzara who introduced him to Picasso. Quickly, my father got to know the artistic Paris encompassing eccentric people like Douglas Cooper, the great British art critic and collector, Marie-Laure de Noailles, the incomparable patron, or the young American writer James Lord, not to forget the still noisy Surrealist group. The exhibitions of the gallery were dedicated to Miró, Chagall, González, Severini’s work of the futurist years, Marini, Motherwell, Schwitters, Tapiès, Matisse – of whom my father presented the first exhibition of his papiers découpés, his paper cut-outs, shortly before his death – and above all to Picasso.

Heinz Berggruen, Pablo PicassoThe encounter with Picasso led to a collaboration which gave rise to the publication of works in limited edition. One particular image symbolises the development of my father: A photograph shows him crouching next to Picasso while the proofs of Diurnes are spread out on the floor of the studio in Cannes, the work connecting the painter with Jacques Prévert and the young photograph André Villers. Picasso had cut out the silhouettes of playful fauns and farm animals from cardboard, creatures alive due to the light, a world captured by the photographic lens of André Villers – itself essentially a penetration of the light. They can be found in the anthology published by my father accompanied by a text by Prévert. Other works of art and exhibition projects with Picasso were arranged afterwards: among others, two original lithographs for two booklets of the gallery as well as an illustrated book titled Dessins en marge de Buffon (Drawings in the margins of Buffon).

In some privileged cases, the activities of a collector and a dealer are overlapping and interlocking: the passionate collector follows his search to turn it into a profession while the dealer keeps his favourite objects like talismans. One could trace the genealogy of the dealer collector (a species about to disappear given the current wave of speculators) from Paul Guillaume to Thomas Ammann and Eugene V. Thaw. The great collections were often built up through the acquisition of existing collections: it is sufficient to point to the purchase of 215 works from the American actor Edward G. Robinson by Stavros Niarchos, or that of the Duveen property by the Californian Norton Simon. My father did not have such a chance. But his attention was always preferably directed towards objects belonging to knowledgeable collectors (if one believes in the myth of the aesthetic collector at all). Like this he could buy his first works by Picasso from Paul Éluard and Alice Toklas as well as due to Tristan Tzara.

In 1959, my father met my mother Bettina, the daughter of the actor Alessandro Moissi who had performed on all important European stages before the war. After their marriage, my brother Nicolas was born in 1961 and I myself two years later. At this time, my father had already compiled the core of his collection. Aside from some works by Cézanne, he had managed to buy two beautiful studies for Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, L’Arlequin à la guitare (Harlequin with guitar) from 1918, as well as Le cheval de cirque (The circus horse) by Picasso. He was interested in the entire oeuvre of Picasso, the paintings, the papiers collés, the lithographs and etchings, as well as the sculptures and ceramics. His aesthetic vision is in line with the line of ancestors of dealer collectors from the beginning of the century, Wilhelm Uhde and D. H. Kahnweiler. But the central figure for the aesthetic apprenticeship of my father remains that of the art critic and collector Douglas Cooper (1911-1984) whose taste was contrary to the established values of the École de Paris (Bonnard, Vuillard, Rouault, Matisse from his time in Nice). He preferred the “authentic” Cubism, that of Braque and Picasso, Léger and Gris, the alpha and omega of the art of the 20th century – considering Cubism not as a style, but as the means of expression of an artistic generation equally brilliant as the one enabling the flourishing of the Italian Renaissance. Such a vision, even approved more easily by the directors of American museums such as Alfred Barr in New York, remains contradictable, but it has influenced our way to understand modernism without really having been called into question. From Cooper, my father managed to buy strong and severe works of art fitting his unwillingness to compromise aesthetically. Later on, with the increase of the art market, public sales became the scene of indispensable exchange. Wonderful Picassos could be bought on the occasion of the dispersal of the Paul Rosenberg collection in London in 1979. Almost twenty years later, my father bought the Grand nu couché (Large reclining nude) from 1942 at the sale of the Victor and Sally Ganz collection at Christie’s in New York.

In 1984, my father donated 90 works by Paul Klee to the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Some years later, Simon de Pury organised an exhibition of his collection at the Musée d’art et d’histoire in Geneva, followed by the presentation of a large part of the collection at the National Gallery in London, and finally the creation of the Museum Berggruen in Berlin in 1996. Moreover, he made donations to the French state, including thirteen works by Klee, the plaster chandelier by the Giacometti brothers which had decorated the gallery in the Rue de l’Université, and a study for Cézannes Joueurs de cartes (Card players). Later (when the gallery was handed over to Antoine Mendiharat in the late 1970s), my father took up his activities as a journalist again, published his memoirs in 1996 as well as several collections of articles which had appeared in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. These articles are mostly descriptions of encounters and events marking his life on different continents. My father is part of a generation which has lived through the dramatic upheavals of the last century. He has soaked up the extraordinary, effervescent artistic and cultural life of this period of turbulences and of calling everything into question, while the current world still lives from its ashes. And it is one of the key moments of this period to which he has turned his attention, the conquest of modernity by those artists who lived between Cubism and Dadaism – and what remains is a highlight captured by the work of Picasso and his contemporaries.

Translation: Dr. Anke Daemgen First printed in: Picasso/Berggruen. Une collection particulière, Paris, Musée National Picasso, 20 Sept. 2006 – 8 Jan. 2007
© Èditions de la Réunion des musées nationaux, Paris, 2006
© Flammarion, Paris 2006