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 long-term 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 the United 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 half-century 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.phillipscollection.org.