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Contemporary Art

In Paris, A Legendary Collector Revealed

Great art collections need great art, but they also need great collectors. On show in Paris from September 11 to 17 at the Grand Palais, the 29th edition of the Biennale des Antiquaires (rechristened La Paris Biennale) turns its guest of honour spotlight on not one, but five collections put together over 110 years by the singular Swiss Barbier-Mueller family.

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MASK BEETE (PEBOOD) GABON, KWELE. 19TH CENTURY WOOD, PAINT. MUSÉE BARBIER-MUELLER. PHOTO CREDIT: STUDIO FERRAZZINI BOUCHET

The exhibition of personal family acquisitions celebrates the 40th anniversary of the Barbier-Mueller Museum in Geneva, the world’s largest and most important collection of Primitive and Tribal art. It also pays tribute to the museum’s founder, Jean-Paul Barbier-Mueller, who died last year.

The family’s interest in Primitive Art, which began in the 1930s, not only saved these underestimated works, it was also instrumental in changing the status of Tribal “artefacts” into appreciated “art.” And then on to recognition as acclaimed masterpieces.

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STATUE-PILON DU PORO, IVORY COAST, SÉNOUFO, VILLAGE OF LATAHA 19TH CENTURY. MUSÉE BARBIER-MUELLER. PHOTO CREDIT: STUDIO FERRAZZINI BOUCHET

The Barbier-Mueller lessons for collectors, whether they are experienced or just contemplating taking the plunge, are reassuring and simple: You don’t have to be one of the billionaires roaming the Biennale’s aisles. It’s all about passion and opening your eyes.

The family’s ongoing 110-year love affair with art began with Josef Mueller, whose ascension to patriarch of this dynasty of immense collectors might have seemed as problematical as winning the lottery when he was born in the small Swiss town of Solothurn in 1887.

The town was provincial but beautiful with Baroque architecture that is a Swiss heritage site today. Did growing up in an aesthetic landscape develop his artistic sensibility?

His daughter, Monique Barbier-Mueller, tells the tale. “As a child, I wondered,” she says, “How did he come to understand that the art at that time was fantastic?”

When her father’s parents died, she says, “he and my aunt were young children, educated by a governess. Although he had a real curiosity, there was no surrounding of art at all.  (The town’s museum was opened only in  1903.)

“My father had an excellent eye, yes, but he had to see something,” she explains, “the new art.”  

That “something” (starring a Picasso Rose period portrait) turned up when he was 14. “He was invited to a school friend’s home and he discovered the collection of the boy’s father, a German collector who had already bought Picasso at the beginning of the 20th century,” she says.

“My father rarely spoke about art, but he told me that was when he realized for the first time that there was something different from postal calendar art one could hang on a wall. He understood you could live with art and that it changed your attitude to life. It was an absolute revelation.”

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CUNO AMIET, YOUNG GIRL WITH NASTURTIUM, 1907. COLLECTION MONIQUE BARBIER-MUELLER INV. 100/244. PHOTO CREDIT: MAURICE AESCHIMANN

And soon, it was a passion, beginning with the 1907 purchase of his first painting, Young Girl with Nasturtium, by avant-garde Solothurn artist, Cuno Amiet. “He was still a student, but he was overcome by that work of art,” she says. Along with Swiss painter Ferdinand Holder, Amiet was part of the revolutionary Viennese Secession and this colourful canvas is a highlight of their Biennale show.

Josef Mueller went on to a dazzling accumulation of works by Cezanne, Renoir, Matisse, Picasso and Braque. “My father had very good taste,” she says.  “He wanted to buy only the best and he could recognize the best. He knew by books and their reputations that these artists’ prices were going higher,” she notes.  “He thought he had to buy quickly. “

Mueller was young, “a boy from a provincial town, but he knew how to handle it,” she continues. “He decided to buy the best painter, so he went to Vollard, the great art dealer in Paris, to buy a Cezanne portrait, his first purchase.”

“And you know what was exceptional,” she adds, “two or three years later he went to America, working as an engineer, and discovered Kandinsky. He was not yet 30 and did not have a large fortune so it wasn’t easy, but he bought a great amount of works of art.”

The 1930s brought the Depression.  “He could not go on buying at this standard with the rising prices,” she says. “So he went into antiques and Primitive Art. Few people could understand the art, but he could. I asked how he did it.  He said, ‘I didn’t know what it was, but I knew it was something important.’  He understood what the artists in the African culture were trying to express.”  

When she married, her husband, Jean-Paul Barbier, collaborated with his father-in-law “to reinforce the already fine Primitive art collection,” later adding the Tribal Art masterworks of his \own phenomenal trove.

“I’m a lover of Mali and all those fantastic places now out of reach because of the danger,“ she says  “I knew there was a difference in language, but I could see there was not a difference of existence because we had similar reactions.

“When we started the museum in 1977, people thought the art was clumsy, something to be made fun of,” she says. “Today, we can see a difference of attitude in the crowds who come to visit and are surprised and admire and discover another part of humanity.”

The Barbier-Mueller’s Tribal art seems to have wrought a peaceful revolution: Even objects that may not be understood or appreciated have a value of things to be discovered and to be respected. It is what she hopes from the Biennale.

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LOOM PULLEY ATTRIBUTED TO THE MASTER OF BOUAFLÉ, IVORY COAST, GOURO 19TH  CENTURY WOOD. MUSÉE BARBIER-MUELLER. PHOTO CREDIT: STUDIO FERRAZZINI BOUCHET

To such primitive art highlights as an iconic sculptural “loom pulley” from the Ivory Coast, and a jaunty Malagan figure (being devoured) that feature in their Biennale exhibition, Monique and her three sons have added their own independently minded acquisitions. “Each of us has his own wall,” she says. Artworks range from her own amusing Jeff Koons, Woman in a tub, a painted porcelain statue of a mostly headless, naked bather agog at an intruder’s presence revealed by a diving mask popping from the bubbles, to those of her sons.

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JEFF KOONS, WOMAN IN TUB, 1988. MONIQUE BARBIER-MUELLER COLLECTION PHOTO CREDIT: STUDIO FERRAZZINI BOUCHET

Gabriel’s world-class collection of Japanese Samurai armor stars an exotic shell-shaped helmet.

Thierry’s early collecting choice, Die Schwarze Sängerin (The Black Singer) by Georges Baselitz positions the subject upside down , while after his early passion for portraits of the Russian czars, Stephane’s new discovery, Lady Hamilton as Sybille de Cumes is by Marie-Antoinette’s favourite portraitist, Elisabeth Vigée-Le Brun.

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CASQUE KAWARI, JAPAN, EDO PERIOD, 17TH CENTURY. COLLECTION GABRIEL BARBIER-MUELLER, DALLAS. PHOTO CREDIT: STUDIO FERRAZZINI BOUCHET

The secret to these treasures: “Art is a language,” Monique explains. “People need the feeling and understanding of that language.  My father didn’t want me to study art, and I did not, but I have been looking at it all my life. Now I’m an old lady and I know how to look and I get answers.”

She believes budding collectors could learn how to look as well.

 “I am appalled by the way people visit a museum,” she says.  “They do not stand there in front of a work and look at it in silence.  They have to be told what it is. No one can do the learning for you,” she affirms.  It takes time, patience and experience.  You have to open a dialogue with the work of art,” she maintains.  “All the works are full of the expression of the artist and you can just stand there.  You drink this in; you eat this up by looking at it and you are nourished.”  “For us,” she adds, “art is the spice of life.”

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ELISABETH VIGÉE-LE BRUN 1791-1792, LADY HAMILTON AS SYBILLE OF CUMES. STÉPHANE BARBIER-MUELLER COLLECTION PHOTO CREDIT: LUIS LOURENÇO

Having learned to look, new collectors choosing from the diversity of Biennale treasures may find an Old Master, an irresistible Picasso, or a striking Tribal Art mask to spark their own passion.

From historical tapestries woven in gold to reversible yellow and white diamond necklaces and René Magritte’s surrealist riffs of blue skies and fluffy clouds, the Biennale will be offering plenty of temptations.

Under the new leadership of 45-year old Mathias Ary Jan, the 19th century paintings dealer who was recently elected president of France’s SNA (National Syndicate of Antique Dealers, the newly annual La Paris Biennale is focusing on a fascinating future.  In league with the city’s major museum collections, the grand ambition is to reestablish September in Paris as the not-to-be-missed international cultural rendezvous.

La Biennale Paris is at the Grand Palais in Paris from 11–17 September.

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