Indian & South Asian Modern & Contemporary Art

Helen Barbier on Her Love of India and Its Artists

By Helen Barbier
The single-owner sale Coups de Coeur: The Guy and Helen Barbier Family Collection will take place in London on 10 June. The sale features an exciting and diverse selection of works by some of the most important and avant-garde artists from South Asia. Here, Helen Barbier discusses her family's love for India and the creation of their exceptional collection.

T he Barbier Family Collection began with Guy Barbier’s first visit to India in 1978 when he set up Arthur Andersen & Co. It was a journey that introduced him and later me, and then our children, along with all those who were welcomed to our home, to our collective love of the country – in all its myriad manifestations – and in particular to India’s modern and contemporary art.

It was a 'Coup de Coeur' which translates as ‘love at first sight’ or a stroke of passion.

Guy and Helen Barbier at Coups de Coeur, Geneva, 1987. Image courtesy Barbier Family Archive.

Our collection was a privilege beyond measure that represented India for my husband, children and me; and surely for the many who visited our home and gazed at the textural richness of composition, colour, application and themes of these largely figurative works. It was an exceptional opportunity to live our everyday lives, within the context of viewing, passing by and zoning; surrounded and awakened by the majesty, introspection and wonder, inspired by these pictures; a 'Coup de Coeur' – a love affair with all that this 'expression' could and did inspire.

India was a place we knew, initially, only through books, stories, media, and our own dreams and imagination. For each of us, the revelation and discovery of the Subcontinent is inextricably related to its artists and their works; and the friendships initiated and nurtured within this context and environment. India became and remains a passion; an emotional, philosophical and intellectual journey. A place unlike any other – and this, too, was reflected and manifested by the works we collected, housed and cherished and grew to know differently, each and every day, over four decades.

Our family, each of us in our turn, were enchanted with the country; from its vistas to the vivacity of its villages; from its surging, urban intensity to its spiritual engagement; from its dazzling spectacle of vibrant colour and intricate form to its symbolism; from the splendor of its monuments, shrines and temples to the animation and vitality of the people – the heartfelt welcomes and the sincere extensions of friendship, from all whom we met, many of whom became beloved and cherished friends. Our friendships were nurtured with conversations over tea, dinner and concerts; with discussions on art, literature, film, politics, politicians and personalities, socio-economic changes, cultural icons, emerging technologies, architecture, myth, cuisine, industry and enterprise. India was on the move; and this was represented by her artists and their pictures; and in every aspect of cultural life; in every fiber of her people, as they moved 'round the world.

As guests within the country, nowhere could or did we engage in more ardent or erudite discussion. Nowhere were hosts more generous, cordial or welcoming. Nowhere were friends more actively engaged to meet and greet and share with one another.

The Barbier Family Collection began with curiosity and passion as a journey of inquiry that extended to cherished friendships, over the past four decades with collectors, artists, gallery owners, professional critics, museum curators, writers and poets. Many of whom today, have left this world though all remain in memory, spirit and legacy; this too, is a 'Coup de Coeur'.

Helen Barbier, Guy Barbier, Krishen Khanna and Ram Kumar (left to right). Image courtesy Barbier Family Archives.

Jeroo Mango, a long-standing collector, and Krishen Khanna, artist and collector, were the primary mentors to Guy Barbier and then to me. Both instantly became and to this day – remain friends. Both were instrumental to our introductions across the artistic community spanning at the time from Bombay to New Delhi, Calcutta, Goa, Bangalore and the various artists' colonies and schools of art.

Jeroo and Krishen shared with us their collections, their impressions, their discoveries, their families and their community. They introduced us to their friends; artists, collectors, gallery owners such as Kali Pundole and Kekoo and Khorshed Gandhy of Chemould Gallery. We met the cross-section of India’s world of modern and contemporary art: the museum professionals, critics, scholars, political and social dignitaries. Their vivacious personalities in a then emerging world were poised to take their place in the international arena. This, too, was a 'Coup de Coeur'.

From these early introductions we deepened our friendships with Sunanda and Ashok Birla; Kailash and Indu Chandaria; Jehangir Nicholson; Pheroza Godrej; Pauline and Roy Rohatgi; Kamal and Prakash Hinduja; and Chester and Devi Herwitz. At first, we knew of our fellow collectors by repute; we were competitive with one another; to be the first to see, learn, know, share and ultimately to acquire. It was a moveable feast – a treasure hunt; a 'chasse des treasors'. We were passionate about art; and particularly, about India's unique cultural expression. We witnessed from our Geneva perch, India and her leading artists and academics emerging as both a national and international force, readying to take their place within the international art scene. However, at the time there were no exhibitions or venues to see the currents of contemporary art. There was practically nothing.

Maqbool Fida Husain, Marathi Women. Estimate £75,000–100,000.

Each trip we made to India and in-between, was defined, orchestrated and characterised by hand-written correspondence between collectors, artists, and gallery professionals whether to arrange transport, share slides, or to be informed of a new work, or a new artist upon the scene. These communiqués sparked and cemented friendships; enthusiasm was shared and extended to one another through these special bonds of shared interest and passion which were also, a 'Coup de Coeur'.

Ultimately, the spirit of 'Coup de Coeur,' evolved into an exhibition, under the auspices of the Festival of India, Switzerland/Geneva in 1987. Coups de Coeur was inspired by a dinner conversation where we lamented that within the narrative of the Festival, there was to be no expression of contemporary art. Guy Barbier objected to this and the result was upon his arrival home, to announce that he had volunteered me, to organise a contemporary art exhibit from a collector's point of view – to open in six months, coinciding with the other events under the umbrella of the Festival of India. It was a daunting proclamation and a challenging assignment for a non-professional, with no experience in gallery exhibition. I was a recent resident to Geneva, a homemaker with two young children, ages one and three, and one who was still working, diligently to perfect, if not cope, with the French language.

The timeline demanded an expedient and strategic plan to find a venue; identify a list of artists; find collectors who would be willing to lend their works and participate in an as yet unnamed venue. Additionally we needed to find a publisher, writers, photographers and a graphic artist to produce a museum standard catalogue – worthy of the artists, the collectors and the Festival. And, finally we needed funding within the community, to pay for the exhibition, the catalogue, venue, and transport. It was a harrowing but very exciting experience for me.

If the above was not sufficiently challenging, the other caveat was to persuade the greatest and reputedly most difficult of all collectors, to participate. The general consensus amongst the Indian art community was that without Chester and Davida Herwitz, the exhibition would not be valid as a collector's interpretation. At that point, I had not yet met the Herwitzes and our 'friendly' competition was such, that no one was certain we wanted to meet one another.

The power of Coup de Coeur prevailed, the Herwitzes were incredibly supportive and we worked like champions to achieve a bold and coherent exhibition with an accompanying catalogue to please all, with twenty-two artists and twenty-two collectors represented. Amongst them were Krishna Riboud, Howard Hodgkin, John Kasmin and Gurcharan Das. An ideal world would have doubled everything, more artists, more works. Through this enterprise the Herwitzes became dear and beloved friends. We were in competition in our own small way but luckily our tastes diverged. It was overwhelming for any collector to outflank Chester and sometimes speed and expedience worked in our favour. It was probably good for the artists and the art community to have Indian art spread far and wide, so we were fortunate.

GUY AND HELEN BARBIER. IMAGE COURTESY BARBIER FAMILY ARCHIVES.

Such is the circle of life; and after our family's engagement and passion we are now passing the baton; the works have been removed from our home, and will soon be the responsibility of others; my family and I part with the memories and experiences that is our legacy, the wealth of our experience as custodians of these very special pictures.

The legacy of the Barbier Family Collection is our tribute to India and the brilliance of her culture and the people; in particular to the artists. This collection serves a document for posterity, to a time when there were so few international opportunities for showing India’s then Contemporary artists. I am grateful for it and will treasure the role my family engaged in each chapter of Coups de Coeur. It was our love affair with a place and time and culture.

I wish to thank everyone who over these many years, introduced and nurtured our family's passion; our unbridled enjoyment to participate as collector, steward, and friend.

With my children, and in the memory of their father, we thank all those who helped assure and foster our engagement in this grand adventure; and to those who extended this privilege, to share friendship with each and every person who has been a part of the story of Coups de Coeur ... yesterday, today and tomorrow.

We wish every joy and happiness to those who take the baton of this cherished collection.

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