Heinz Berggruen: the collector who befriended Picasso
Over the course of a long life lived in Europe and the US, Berggruen was an art critic, curator and dealer who ultimately opened a museum for his own collection. Along the way, he amassed more than 100 works by Picasso, a handful of which are offered in London
Having been drafted into the US Army in the early 1940s, Heinz Berggruen headed to Europe as part of its signal corps. Eventually, operations took him back to his native city, Berlin, and he was shocked by what he found: a capital ravaged by Allied bombing, and his old family home reduced to rubble.
‘It was very depressing,’ he said in later life. ‘I didn’t see much hope there.’ After the war, Berggruen settled in Paris, where he befriended artists such as Miró, Giacometti and, most devotedly, Picasso — and started what would become one of the finest private collections of modern art.
Berggruen passed away in 2007, aged 93, but only after one fascinating final twist in his relationship with Berlin.
On 1 March 2022, a selection of works from his collection is being offered at Christie’s as part of the 20th/21st Century: London Evening Sale.
Berggruen was born to middle-class Jewish parents, in the Wilmersdorf district of Berlin, in 1914. His father Ludwig ran an office supply business.
After completing a degree in medieval art history, Heinz pursued a career as a journalist, working for the Frankfurter Zeitung newspaper. As the 1930s progressed, however, he was informed by his bosses that, owing to his Jewish surname, his articles could only be bylined with his initials, ‘HB’.
Sensing which way the political winds in Nazi Germany were blowing, he left for the United States. He studied briefly at the University of California, Berkeley, before taking up a job at the San Francisco Chronicle as an art critic.
‘Modern art was a new world to me. I was very much drawn to it, and it stayed with me all my life’ — Heinz Berggruen
In 1939, he was appointed curator at the recently opened San Francisco Museum of Art (known today as the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art), where he immediately helped stage a drawings exhibition by Diego Rivera.
‘Modern art was a new world to me then,’ he recalled decades later. ‘I was very much drawn to it, and it stayed with me all my life.’
Rivera would introduce Berggruen to his wife and fellow-painter, Frida Kahlo, doing so with the prediction that he’d ‘fall instantly in love with her’. So it proved, with Heinz and Frida embarking on a short but passionate affair.
After taking American citizenship, Berggruen was called up to the US Army in 1942. He joined the signal corps, so as to make the most of his fluency in English, French and German.
Once the war was over, he opted to live in Europe again, accepting a job at the Fine Arts Department of UNESCO in Paris. He soon quit this role, however, to set up as an art dealer.
Berggruen opened his first gallery in 1947, in two small rooms attached to a bookshop on the Ile de la Cité, opposite the home of Marc Chagall’s daughter, Ida. Two years later, he found a new space, 70 rue de l’Université, in the affluent 7th arrondissement, which would remain his gallery for the next three decades.
‘I finally found where my true calling lay, after taking a number of detours,’ Berggruen said of his decision to become a dealer. One of his first transactions was to purchase a suite of Elles lithographs by Toulouse-Lautrec for 6,000 French francs — which he promptly sold for double that figure to Ludwig Charell, an eminent collector of the artist’s works.
‘Picasso was an impressive sight. His wonderful clearly-cut face; his magnificent large magnetic eyes… it was as if he were his own self-created masterpiece’ — Heinz Berggruen
The opening exhibition at 70 rue de l’Université was a show of Picasso drawings previously in the possession of Gertrude Stein. This was visited by Nelson Rockefeller and Alfred Barr, the director of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, among others.
Berggruen soon ranked as one of the best-connected cultural figures in Paris. He met Picasso through the Surrealist poet Tristan Tzara — and, in the words of his son Olivier, ‘the most important chapter of my father’s life’ thereby began.
The Spaniard and Berggruen swiftly became friends, and when the former relocated to the south of France in the 1950s, the latter frequently travelled down to visit him.
‘Picasso was an impressive sight,’ wrote Berggruen in his 1996 autobiography, Highway and Byways. ‘His wonderful clearly-cut face; his magnificent large magnetic eyes; his stocky athletic body — it was as if every part of him had been cast from the same mould, as if he were his own self-created masterpiece.’
In parallel to his activities as a dealer, Berggruen was also a keen collector, and Picasso was his favourite artist, together with Paul Klee, Giacometti and Matisse. (This quartet would end up forming the core of his collection.)
He acquired a large and carefully considered group of Picassos, the sort that could only have been made by someone au fait with the artist’s oeuvre. Berggruen pointed out in Highway and Byways that ‘by consistently and persistently collecting Picasso’s works, I attempted to create an impression of the cosmos of this man, who, like no other, carried within him the lebensgefühl (life-feeling) of an entire century’.
These works came from across Picasso’s career, ranging from his Blue Period at the turn of the 20th century through to paintings completed shortly before his death in 1973.
Among the upcoming lots at Christie’s is a highly sought-after early proof of the famous Blue Period etching, Le repas frugal (1904). It’s one of just a handful produced before the plates for that image were steel-faced (resulting in the loss of a substantial amount of subtlety and texture).
Also being offered is a portrait of one of the most constant women in Picasso's life, his long-serving housekeeper, Inès Sassier. This highly worked drawing from 1954, capturing its sitter in an opulent pattern-filled interior, is instantly reminiscent of the imagery of Matisse — and might well be considered an homage to the Spaniard’s friend. (Matisse would die within a few months of the work’s execution.)
The one lot not by Picasso is the stunning bronze sculpture, Nu debout sur socle cubique, by Giacometti — one of the artist’s iconic post-war figures of a female with long arms stretching down her sides.
In 1980, Berggruen decided to step down as director of his Paris gallery to concentrate on collecting. In 1996, in collaboration with the city of Berlin and the Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz, he agreed to show his collection, including no fewer than 120 Picassos, for 10 years in one of its buildings, the newly renovated Stülerbau, opposite the Charlottenburg Palace.
The museum was so well received that, in 2000, an agreement was made that Berggruen would give the majority of the works at the museum permanently to the Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz. The lots offered at Christie’s on 1 March are among a small number of works that remained within the family, or were acquired with continued passion and energy by Heinz Berggruen after 2000.
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According to Berggruen’s obituary in the Guardian, ‘he was criticised by some who felt that, after the Nazi treatment of the Jews, he should not have opened a gallery in Berlin. But Berggruen felt it was the right thing to do… He had a sentimental attachment to the city of his youth.’
He also had a deep desire to expose the local public to art that had been banned under the Nazis as degenerate. ‘I've been in the position where I can show the Germans again what Picasso and Klee are like,’ he said, ‘and they appreciate it greatly.’