The French advertising magnate used his ‘deep knowledge and expertise’ to build a sophisticated collection of portraits and post-war art
French businessman Francis Gross is perhaps best known for revolutionising the world of advertising during the 1980s through the Carat group — the company he created with his brother, Gilbert.
During his career, he assembled not one but two great art collections: one for the company and a private one for him and his family. This collection now comes to auction at Christie’s and displays what Pierre Martin-Vivier, Deputy Chairman, Post-War & Contemporary Art, describes as ‘very European — a collection built on deep knowledge and expertise that reveals a man of great sensibility and sensitivity.’
Gross was part of a ‘Jewish family who arrived in Paris at the beginning of the 20th century,’ explains Martin-Vivier. ‘The first business of the family was furniture and they created one of the first department stores in the city, Galleries Barbès.’
Founded by Gross’s grandfather, the shops became a mainstay of the Barbès-Clignancourt district in Paris. With a turnover of 100 million francs, Galleries Barbès became the largest furniture dealer of the inter-war period. Gross’s father took over and Gross himself joined in the late 1960s. In 1974, he left to enter the world of advertising. He was renowned, in the words of Martin-Vivier, for being, ‘very clever and very attractive.’
It was through his work in advertising that he became interested in art. His collection for his company was more bombastic and typical of the 1980s, with artists such as Jean-Michel Basquiat, Yves Klein and Daniel Buren.
For his personal collection — and Martin-Vivier emphasises that it was very much ‘something for him and his family’ — he made sure that ‘each work was very important’. Each piece represents a high point for that artist. There is a focus on the post-war and especially on Dubuffet, Nicolas de Staël and the Ecole de Paris. Portraits also form an important aspect of the collection.
At the heart of the collection is René Magritte’s La Vengeance, a work from the mid-1930s, when Magritte created many of his career-defining images. There is an extraordinary aptness that Gross collected this work; as Martin-Vivier says, ‘Magritte started in the advertising business. And the thing is, I think Francis clearly understands an image.’
It represents more than a kinship of profession. This work was owned by the Belgian surrealist poet Paul Colinet, who had been at the centre of the group along with Magritte. It had been in the hands of only one American collector before Gross acquired it. Ensuring the quality of the provenance as well as the work is, according to Martin-Vivier, a ‘hallmark of the works Gross collected’.
Giacometti’s Buste d’homme (Lotar II) sits within this collection as both sculpture and portrait. It depicts the photographer Elie Lotar, who came to Paris in the 1920s and was at the heart of the French cinema scene, collaborating with Antonin Artaud, Roger Vitrac, Jean Renoir, René Clair and Luis Buñuel.
Just as La Vengeance represents more than just an example of Magritte’s work, there is something larger than just the work to this sculpture. It was Giacometti’s final sculpture.
For Martin-Vivier, the work that best captures the spirit of the collection is also a portrait. ‘My favourite is clearly the Schiele drawing [The Embrace] — you can follow the pencil, you know, and the paper and you can see the genius of the artist.’
As with the other works, it comes from what Martin-Vivier describes as ‘the best year of the artist’, depicting two anonymous lovers in an embrace. It is a work of subtlety and delicacy, that would be selected by a man seeking out an artist’s artist.
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It is emblematic of the personality that has shaped this collection. As Martin-Vivier says: ‘The public man was a real businessman while the private man was very sophisticated.’