Franz Marc's Stables, 1913.

BERLIN - Where would great museums be without great collectors? As any museum director will tell you: Nowhere, fast. The best institutions have all been formed by passionate collectors who decided that their art should eventually be public for all to see. This is one of the reasons that the private museum trend gives some in the art world such agita – if every wealthy collector gets Frank Gehry to create a dazzling space for their pictures alone, then there’s no Louvre, no National Gallery, no Art Institute of Chicago where the whole history of art can unfold.


The Deutsche Guggenheim in Berlin has just opened a show, on view until Feb 17, on this very topic: Visions of Modernity: Impressionist and Modern Collections from the Guggenheim Foundation. It’s a new way to slice and dice the permanent collection, basically, but an instructive one, looking at how six risk-taking collectors bought artworks considered radical in their day. Peggy Guggenheim may be the most famous name of the six, for obvious reasons, followed by Justin Thannhauser who has his name plastered on Frank Lloyd Wright’s famous corkscrew-shaped building in New York.

Paul Klee's Flower Bed, 1913.


Lesser known (to me at least) is Karl Nierendorf, but his story is particularly appropriate given the venue. Nierendorf was an acclaimed Berlin dealer in the 1920s and 30s who fled Germany when the Nazis came to power, and he eventually set up shop in New York. In 1948 the Guggenheim bought his entire cache of artworks – a treasure trove indeed that included more than 150 pieces by Paul Klee – for $72,000. Klee’s lovely Flower Bed, 1913, is among the pieces on display in the show, and given that we’re approaching the 100th anniversary of that work, now is a great time to have a look in person.