In my life I have walked into an art exhibition exactly twice and been gobsmackingly awestruck. While I hope there are many more instances to come ,so far they have been rare ,but when they do happen, my world is completely rocked.
The first was a Jeff Koons exhibition in 2012 at the Liebieghaus Skulpturensammlung in Frankfurt; the other, For Your Eyes Only, just last month at the Peggy Guggenheim Museum in beautiful Venezia.
In For Your Eyes Only, for the first time, we see an exhibition that curates a personal art collection ,in this case the collection of Richard and Ulla Dreyfus-Best from their home in Basel.
It is also the first time I have seen an exhibition of a personal collection curated both chronologically and by genre, that seamlessly combines artworks that are vastly different but manages to create a succinct whole.
The collection features one hundred and twenty works of art that are, in my opinion, the best grouping of works the world has ever seen. The collection is quirky, and undoubtedly courageous, and turns our historical perception of the art collector being conservative and boring, on its head – what an achievement!
Crossing every conceivable genre while skimming 500 years of chronology , this collection leaps from postmodern art to religious art to erotic art and back to Baroque and Renaissance masterworks. The collection is brave and beautiful and reminds me of how art helps us understand life and the human condition.
Here are a few of my favourites from the collection in brief:
Vanity Portrait of a Lady
Austrian Master ,18th Century,
Vanity Portrait of a Lady shows a beautifully robed and highly attractive 18th century noblewoman beginning to decay and disappear on one side of her body. It symbolizes the inability to avoid death ,and while the theme of the face turning into a skull harks back centuries , this particular oil on copper piece ,apparently created by a Bohemian or Viennese artist around the time of Johan Kupezky ( 1666-1740) , is deeply contemporary, with the message of the inevitability of death .The piece is as striking a message today as when it was first painted.
How brave of the Dreyfus-Bests to choose a confronting piece like this for their collection, to walk by it every day in their sitting room, to share it with their guests who visit their home, and to exhibit it as part of this collection.
Rene Magritte (1898-1967)
Le Modele rouge/ The Red Model (1947 or 1948)
The famous surrealist Margitte has a few pieces in this exhibition, this one my favourite. The Dreyfus- Best collection spends much time, thematically , on works that are mystical, dreamlike and esoteric. This piece works with the surrealist concept of meshing dreams with reality.
Margitte has done several versions of this piece and describes it as an example of how barbaric things ,through habit ,can become considered quite acceptable (ref 1) .The example here is feet in shoes; that by combining human feet with leather to form a new object we are expressing and demonstrating hybridization and monstrosity.
Angelo Caroselli (1585-1652)
The exhibition includes many traditional pieces of art including renaissance and baroque works, but often even these ‘traditional’ works are unusual choices. Angleo Caroselli was a Roman Baroque painter who was considered to have an eclectic style , and influenced by Caravaggio and Artemisia Gentileschi.
His painting ‘Witchcraft’ depicts a woman observed ,half-dressed ,with a book. The artist has taken a unconventional approach to the construction of the scene. Look in the mirror where the artists face appears , observing the woman, who tries to look away . Behind the woman we see a witch’s face looking in the mirror right at us .We also see reflected in the mirror Diana and Actaeon on the wall above.
The main scene, the supernatural, is played out as a picture within a picture, a reflection of a reflection. The picture leaves us, the viewer, unsettled, as we feel we are ourselves sitting beside the sitter ,and imagine the witch and artist are eerily lingering behind us.
The collection includes a range of works from Pieter Brueghel the Elder, Andy Warhol, Max Ernst, Salvador Dalí, Man Ray and René Magritte amongst a host of others, and unlike so many art collections of today that are about pleasing the eye of the buyer only, this collection inspires because it educates the broader community – about art and about life.
Ulla Dreyfuss- Basel comments that no one really owns art, at best one can loan it for a lifetime. I hope this show goes on and many more of us can share in these borrowed works for a short time.
- For Your Eyes Only Exhibiton Catalogue-kunstmuseum basel/Peggy Guggenheim Collection published by Hatje Cantz