A Family Vision: The Collection of H.S.H. Princess “Titi” von Fürstenberg
Offered in New York this May, an exceptional collection of 20th-century art which includes works by Picasso, Derain, Rothko, Nolde, Ernst, Arp and other greats of the era
On 13 May Christie’s will present a dedicated selection of 15 works from A Family Vision: The Collection of H.S.H. Princess “Titi” on Fürstenberg in the Impressionist and Modern Art Evening Sale. The collection spans the 20th century, and includes works by Picasso, Rothko, Derain, Nolde, Fontana, Renoir, Dubuffet, Ernst and Arp, among others. Further works will be offered in the Impressionist and Modern Art Day Sale on 14 May.
‘H.S.H. Princess “Titi” von Fürstenberg (1919-2006) was a passionate collector of the “contemporary art” of her time. Her collection was tirelessly put together with great flair in the 1950s, and ranged from a monumental Rothko to a rare 1956 Dubuffet collage painting, from Ernst to Fontana,’ says Adrien Meyer, Co-Chairman of Impressionist and Modern Art at Christie’s. ‘This collection will appear on the market for the first time, allowing Christie’s to pay tribute to Princess Fürstenberg’s remarkable eye.’
Princess Cecil Amelia von Fürstenberg was born Cecil Amelia Blaffer in Houston in 1919, the descendant of two of Texas’s most prominent families. Titi’s father, Robert Lee Blaffer was a founder of Humble Oil which is now Exxon Mobile; her maternal grandfather, William Thomas Campbell, was among the founders of The Texas Company know today as Texaco.
The Blaffer family’s philanthropic and cultural efforts made a lasting impact across the state of Texas. Titi’s mother, Sarah ‘Sadie’ Campbell, was one of the state’s most ardent supporters of the arts as well as being a collector and connoisseur of paintings, a passion she passed on to her daughter.
In 1975, Titi married Prince Tassilo von Fürstenberg. At the Von Fürstenbergs’ residences in Europe, the Bahamas and the United States, she earned a reputation as a consummate hostess.
She was also renowned for her dedication to philanthropy. During her lifetime she provided significant financial donations and personal leadership to institutions including the Houston Symphony Orchestra; the Houston Grand Opera; the Wagner Opera Festival in Bayreuth, Germany; the American Cathedral in Paris and St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Houston, among many others.
Leading the selection is Picasso’s La Lettre (La Réponse), one of a trio of portraits of his wife, the Russian-born ballerina Olga Khokhlova, which was completed in the early months of 1923.
Picasso and Olga had first met in Rome in February 1917 — she was rehearsing for Serge Diaghilev’s premiere production of the ballet Parade; he was designing costumes and the set for the production. They married the following year and took an apartment in Paris on the fashionable rue la Boétie.
Thereafter, Olga assumed a variety of guises in her husband’s art. Often, he transformed her into a Greco-Roman goddess, her body and features exaggerated to mythological proportions; elsewhere, she is portrayed as an Italianate Madonna, a Spanish matron in a lace mantilla, or most tenderly, a new mother, in scenes inspired by the birth of their sole child — a son, Paulo — in 1921.
La Lettre (La Réponse) was one of 16 pictures by Picasso to feature in the artist’s first solo showing in America
In La Lettre (La Réponse) Olga has paused in a moment of reverie, pen in hand and inkwell before her on the desk; her private thoughts are a mystery to us, and probably to Picasso as well, but she shares them here with some unknown confidante. The tactile sensuality of her blue dress contrasts with her ethereal beauty and distant, dignified mien, which seems to mask an inner sadness.
By the time Picasso painted La Lettre (La Réponse), intimations of unease had become evident in their relationship. The change in Picasso’s attitude toward his wife is reflected in his portraits from this period, where Olga is not an object of heated erotic desire, but rather of coolly detached pride and admiration — tinged, in La Lettre (La Réponse), with a certain nostalgic tenderness.
This canvas was one of 16 pictures by Picasso to feature in a landmark exhibition in New York and Chicago — the artist’s first solo showing in America — during the winter of 1923-1924. The impresario of the exhibition was the dealer Paul Rosenberg, who had represented Picasso since 1918.
Another highlight of the selection is Andre Derain’s Les voles rouges. In the spring of 1906, Derain embarked for London on an important painting campaign. The results were a radical reimagining of the cityscape in a unique series of paintings that are filled with bold passages of bright, saturated colour that transformed familiar landmarks of the English capital into Fauvist visions.
Emil Nolde’s Herbstmeer XVII is part of a sequence of 20 seascapes — Herbstmeer I-XIX, plus one unnumbered example — that he painted on the island of Als during two consecutive autumn campaigns in 1910 and 1911. Eight of these are now in museum collections, five have been lost or destroyed, and seven remain in private hands.
For Nolde, the eternal proximity of the ocean, in all its elemental and indomitable force, held a mystical, almost pantheistic significance. Working from a wooden hut that he erected directly on the beach, with an unobstructed view over the churning ocean, the artist came as close as he ever would in this series to non-representational art.
Also offered from The Collection of H.S.H. Princess “Titi’’ on Fürstenberg is Mark Rothko’s No.16/No.12 (Mauve Intersection), an early example of the enigmatic and colourful floating planes of colour that would come to distinguish the artist’s entire oeuvre.
One of the most accomplished of his ‘Multiforms’, this evocative painting marks the moment when Rothko finally began to relinquish the figurative paintings that had proliferated during the early part of his career, and condense the enigmatic shapes into forms that would become his main and enduring artistic expression.
Before being acquired by Titi von Fürstenberg, No.16/No.12 (Mauve Intersection) was part of the internationally important collection of Rothko’s paintings at The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C., for more than a decade between 1957 and 1971.
The work of another of the 20th century’s great art theorists is represented by A la nage by Max Ernst, painted in 1950 — the year in which the artist first returned to Paris after spending the war years in the United States.
Divided into three distinct, horizontal planes, the composition is immediately reminiscent of a landscape. In the upper third of the painting, the gently undulating forms appear like the mountains near the remote town of Sedona, Arizona, where Ernst and his wife Dorothea Tanning had been living since 1946. A verdant green plane, filled with the fantastical patterns created with Ernst’s decalcomania technique, serves as the central register of the canvas, while the terracotta-coloured lower section could read as the space below the earth’s surface.
A single, strange, flattened anthropomorphic figure presides over this otherworldly scene. Most likely the ‘swimmer’ of the title, this form recalls Ernst’s abiding interest in the theme of swimming that had existed throughout his career.
Just over a decade after Ernst painted A la nage, Jean Arp — who together with Ernst and Alfred Grünwald had established the Cologne Dada group in 1920 — conceived of Entitée ailée. The undulating form, entirely smooth and restricted to essential features only, was carved from black granite in 1963, and acquired by Titi von Fürstenberg three years later.
Anchored in a taut, rounded mass that evokes the hips of a feminine torso or the bulb of a flowering plant, the sculpture tapers sensuously at mid-section before swelling outward once again. The flowing contours terminate at the top in two burgeoning buds that paraphrase the shape of a head and a raised shoulder — or lifted wing.
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About to take flight, this ‘winged entity’ may be avian or angelic, perhaps a mere seed-pod borne on the wind, or simply an idea which suggests numerous other possibilities.
Additional highlights from the collection read like a who’s who of 20th-century art, and include works by Munch, Kirchner, Léger, Beckmann, De Staël and Albers. Jean Dubuffet is represented by Paysage aux Petits Météores, from 1956, a work combining elements of painting and collage, while Renoir’s sensuous Vase de Roses (1906) stands in stark contrast to Lucio Fontana’s black, slashed canvas, Concetto spaziale, Attese, executed in 1960.