After she retired from making films in 1941, at the age of 36, Greta Garbo moved to New York, where she began to collect art in earnest. Her collecting was thoroughly modern, just as Garbo was herself.
Garbo loved music, literature and art. She was a close friend of composer Arnold Schoenberg and had a romantic relationship with the conductor Leopold Stokowski. She associated with writers such as Thomas Mann, Noel Coward, Irwin Shaw and John Gunther. She also had a wide number of friends who were artists, collectors, gallery owners and museum directors.
When she began in earnest to collect paintings she initiated her collection with two Renoirs and a Bonnard, purchased within the space of a breathtaking two weeks in 1942.
As she proceeded to acquire Expressionist and Abstract works, Garbo was advised by some of the world’s most renowned collectors, including Albert Coombs Barnes and Alfred H Barr Jr, founding director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. But her choices were always bold and hers alone. She was ahead of her time in her appreciation of Robert Delaunay, Chaim Soutine, and in particular, Alexej von Jawlensky.
Colour was key — Garbo loved greens and pinks, and wanted to be surrounded by vibrancy and life. But there were other threads in her collection, too. One is the depiction of the modern woman — a persona Garbo herself had immortalised on screen in her 28 films.
Das Blasse Madchen mit Grauen Zapfen (c. 1916) by Alexej von Jawlensky, hanging in Greta Garbo’s New York apartment
Three powerful examples are offered at Christie’s in New York in May: the dazzling La Femme à l’Ombrelle ou La Parisienne (1913) by Delaunay, the arresting Femme à la Poupée (1923-24) by Soutine, and the dramatic Das Blasse Madchen mit Grauen Zapfen (c. 1916) by von Jawlensky.
‘I remember she had two umbrellas that she held very dear,’ recalls Gray Horan, Greta Garbo’s grandniece. One was made of black silk, and was unfurled not only to protect the actress from inclement weather, but also to shield her from the paparazzi who skulked near her East 52nd Street home. The other beloved umbrella had appeared in a painting by Robert Delaunay that has been called variously La Femme à L’Ombrelle (Woman with Umbrella) or Parisienne prisme electrique. By the time Garbo purchased it in the mid-1960s, it was called Woman with Parasol. The painting previously belonged to Delaunay’s wife Sonia, and is reputed to be a portrait of her.
Garbo told her grandniece that it was her favourite painting. ‘It makes a dour Swede happy,’ she said. Horan remembers her great aunt sitting across from the painting that dominated the panelled wall of her grand living room overlooking the East River, ‘while enjoying her evening scotch and a Nat Sherman cigarettello that she held so elegantly with her gemstone-encrusted Van Cleef & Arpels holder.’
Garbo purchased the 1913 painting from the Knoedler Gallery in 1964 for the then handsome sum of $30,000. It has occupied the same spot in the luxurious Manhattan apartment she once inhabited for 53 years, its whereabouts having been a mystery for much of that time.
Greta Garbo also bought a number of works by von Jawlensky, most of which were produced before and during the First World War, when the artist was at the height of his artistic powers. Das Blasse Madchen mit Grauen Zapfen is an example from one of his major series of works. A rare large-format painting with a striking composition, its abstract colour fields are offset by the outline of the subject’s dark pleated braids and hair. It is a muscular and strikingly modern portrait, especially so when considered in the context of its time.
Garbo had seen Expressionist paintings in the homes of many of her friends during her career in Hollywood. Her friend, the actress and screenwriter Salka Viertel, ran a noted salon for the German/Austrian expatriate community. Through the salon Garbo would have crossed paths with Galka Scheyer, von Jawlensky’s agent in California, who moved in the same expat circles. Several notable Hollywood collections, including that of Billy Wilder — who worked with Garbo as the screenwriter for her film Ninotchka — owned works by von Jawlensky and other leading Expressionists.
‘What are they talking about? What do they say to each other?’ Garbo would invariably ask her young relations when they looked at her paintings. It wasn’t just the surface she wanted to know about; often she would point to Chaim Soutine’s La Femme à la Poupée and ask, ‘Look at her hands. What do they tell you?’
Garbo loved the layered texture and the vibrant green hues that Soutine achieved in this composition. She also loved the intrigue of the painting and its distorted perspective, a precursor to Francis Bacon’s portraits a half century later. ‘Things aren’t so black and white,’ she used to murmur with a sigh while looking at her Soutine.
Greta Garbo’s quest to discover new paintings never stopped, and she visited galleries and auction houses avidly. ‘You have to look, and look, and look,’ she would say in her languid, husky voice. ‘That way, when you see something extraordinary, you just know.’