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Contemporary Art

Mario Testino Shakes It Up

Works from the Mario Testino Collection will be offered in London on 13 and 14 September and Online from 1–15 September. 

When I sit down with photographer Mario Testino to talk about his career and his life as a collector of contemporary art, he is a man not looking back but pushing forward. We meet in the run-up to Sotheby’s auctions of more than 350 works from his collection to be sold in September to establish an endowment for Museo Mario Testino (MATE), the museum he founded in 2012 in his native Peru. As we begin discussing the upcoming sales, a member of his team interrupts with some good news about one of his many ongoing creative projects. “Amazing!” exclaims the photographer with characteristic exuberance. “You’re amazing! Thank you! But what’s next?” Standing still is not something Mario Testino does.

Testino is a chronicler of icons whose best work can be correctly labelled iconic, an overused and frequently unearned description. His is a unique and well-developed eye. And it is his eye, whether taking in models or works of art, that has secured Testino’s place as one of the great tastemakers and zeitgeist-definers of his generation. Such inspired focus elevates his work beyond fashion into the realm of art.

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WORKS FROM TESTINO’S COLLECTION INCLUDE ALBERT OEHLEN’S | 28, 2011

This is the fully resolved artist we know now, working in a constantly evolving visual vocabulary that is entirely his own. Scanning fashion magazines from the 1980s, with their contradictory styles of punk and power dressing, we can identify Testino’s classroom and testing ground. We can trace the gradual ascendency of a photographer who, when hefound his own voice, forever changed the business of fashion and fashion photography.

Among other forces, it was his discovery of art and vintage photography that informed his own practice, eventually leading to the creator we know today. “It was in the 1980s that I started buying photography,” he says. “At a gallery in Covent Garden, I found prints by Angus McBean and Cecil Beaton. The moment I had some money I started buying things, and
I haven’t really stopped since.”

For the young Testino, those images were a gateway into what other photographers had done, as well as an orientation in British aesthetics and society. “Those photographs were a toolbox for me,” he says. It was by living with the works and fully knowing what had come before him that Testino was able to define and eventually dictate what would come after. The works still hang in his West London home, forming a classical foundation on which rests a hugely significant holding of contemporary art.

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WORKS FROM TESTINO’S COLLECTION INCLUDE MICHAËL BORREMANS’S TWO, 2004.

Just as Testino was not satisfied to be simply a fashion photographer, he could not be just a photographs collector. In the 1990s, he met the London gallerist Sadie Coles, and his collection went from being restricted to photography to “having no limits,” as Testino puts it. “Sadie changed everything for me. She opened my eyes,” he says. Coles introduced him to artists that form the core of his collection, including Richard Prince, Urs Fischer and Ugo Rondinone.

“I am at a point now where I want to give back, and i know that for every work I put in the sale I can help someone,” says Testino.

To look at the works offered at Sotheby’s is to trace the journey that Testino has taken as a collector, from photography to sculpture and painting, as well as the geographic journeys that are a part of his working and private life. “I used to call Sadie when I was in a new city, and she’d tell me what to see – and that’s one of the reasons why the collection is so international,” Testino explains. Artists from Latin America, Germany, the US and the UK – Testino has called the latter home for more than 30 years – come together to form a coherent but daring amalgamation of the photographer’s varied interests and passions.

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WORKS FROM TESTINO’S COLLECTION INCLUDE RICHARD PRINCE'S UNTITLED, 2012.

As his collection has grown, Testino has become a regular lender to museum exhibitions around the world. “I’m always happy to loan work because I think it helps the artist,” he says. “And for me, collecting is partly a selfish act – I love the art that I buy – but it’s also about helping other artists, especially younger ones.”

This desire to support talent and to return to the world what has been given to him in the form of inspiration led Testino to establish MATE five years ago. “Peru has such an amazing historic art culture. We have Machu Picchu! But I felt the country was lacking the now,” he says. In Lima, MATE is an ambitious showcase that brings international contemporary art to Peru, much of it for the first time. Recent exhibitions have included an interactive installation by Warsaw-based artist Pawel Althamer, Andy Warhol: Film Portraits (in collaboration with The Andy Warhol Museum) and Somos Libres, curated by Neville Wakefield and featuring works by artists such as Dan Colen, Sarah Lucas, Thomas Houseago and Chris Levine. It is also MATE’s mission to introduce Peruvian artists to the world.

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MUSEO MATE, THE MUSEUM THE PHOTOGRAPHER FOUNDED IN 2012 IN LIMA, PERU.

Earlier this year, Testino published 77 Contemporary Peruvian Artists a book that – through its international distribution – brings the country’s creative voices to a wider audience. “Even though I left Peru a long time ago, part of me never left,” he says. “I find myself thinking about Peru and the people there more and more, and about what I can do to inspire and elevate them.”

This is the first time Testino is selling any part of his collection because, he says, it’s the first time he has had a reason to. The impulse to transition from collector to patron was inescapable. Still, the photographer admits it has not been easy to part with the works. “I am at a point now where I want to give back, and I know that for every work I put in the sale I can help someone,” he says. “Also, perhaps these works that I have loved can now have a new life with someone else, which is amazing!” Testino, of course, continues to collect, and he is keeping far more than he is selling. “To stop now would be impossible, I keep meeting new artists and finding new works. No collection is ever complete. It’s a journey.”

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MUSEO MATE, THE MUSEUM THE PHOTOGRAPHER FOUNDED IN 2012 IN LIMA, PERU.

The art itself is not “easy.” “Sometimes I would find a work and I felt it was difficult,” he says. “But then I’d come back to it after some time and I’d understand it and love it.” Testino has resisted the familiar collectors’ adage “buy what you love.” Instead, as in his own daring photography practice, Testino takes us to a highly charged place that is almost uncomfortable, but guides us with artistry to make us recognise and embrace the destination as entirely new.

To understand that is to understand Testino. In his collection we can chart his journey from Peru to London to the world and back again. Shake It Up! is the latest moment in his evolution, and through it we get to see with his singular eye. This philanthropic and game-changing endeavour begs the question frequently asked by Testino himself: “what’s next?”


LEAD IMAGE: MARIO TESTINO, PHOTOGRAPHED IN LONDON BY ALEX WALTL, WITH ADRIANA VAREJÃO’S BLUE SAUNA, 2003.

Oscar Humphries is a journalist and Contemporary Art and Design curator. He was formerly Editor and Publisher of Apollo.

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