The Collection of Hélène Rochas
Christie’s, Paris, France
Exhibition: until 26th September, 2012
Sale: 27th September, 2012
Art always was an expensive commodity. In the 21st century it has become an investment of choice/a choice investment. Expressed through a personal art collection, however, character and taste remain invaluable assets. Two French collectors, Hélène Rochas – who died in 2011 – and Marcel Brient, both rich but with very different collections surrounded themselves with pieces that they liked by artists they admired. Next Monday, a substantial part of Brient’s collection will be sold at Sotheby’s, Paris, and just along the road at Christie’s the contents of Rochas’s home go under the hammer on Thursday, 27th September.
On the occasion of the sale of four major works by Zhang Xiaogang and Yue Minjun, In London, in 2008, Saatchi Online’s Corentin Hamel interviewed Marcel Brient and Catherine Thieck, joint manager of the New Galerie de France. Thieck, who was asked by Hamel why she had become interested in Chinese artists in the early 1990s, explained that she had only ever worked with five Chinese artists and that Marcel Brient had become intrigued by their work but took his time to choose what to buy: ‘There was no Marcel Brient takeover bid for Chinese artists,’ she said. ‘He has never been to China. There was nothing exotic or strategic about his interest. And I was not that good at explaining the sociological or cultural context. Brient would reflect, then make his choice, at home or in the gallery, with just his eye and mind.’
When he did decide to buy, Brient told the Saatchi interviewer: ‘My first choice was Zhang Xiaogang. I was struck by the beauty of his work, his great intelligence and powerful political impact. With him, China seemed to be taking off, so to speak. So this was a strong, historic opportunity. These very nice, very gentle paintings were clearly denouncing something harsher. A new chapter was about to be written. To me, this way of expressing historical change recalled the painting of the Renaissance.’
Brient’s acquiring art has always been more of a personal adventure than a commercial undertaking. He likes to discover works by chance, rather than specifically seeking them out, and via the close relationships he developed with, among others, Louis Clayeux, Director of Galerie Maeght in Paris from 1948-65, who took him to visit Alberto Giacometti in his studio; Galerie Durand-Dessert; the dealers Claude Bernard and Yvon Lambert, and the aforementioned, Galerie de France. But, it is Brient’s own taste that ultimately leads him to the artists he admires. As with the interest he later developed in Chinese contemporary artists, Brient had been one of the first to purchase works by John Currin, Sigmar Polke, Jeff Koons, Kara Walker and Felix Gonzales-Torres.
Around 100 items from Brient’s collection will be sold. Collectively – if you can excuse the pun – they provide a rich overview of artistic creativity in France during the 1960s and reflect the career of this intuitive acquisitor who discreetly amassed one of the largest agglomerations of contemporary art in France.
In West Berlin on 18th February, 1968, 10,000 people had demonstrated against the Vietnam War. Among the paintings by Michel Parmentier included in the sale is the powerful 18 Février 1968. Important works by the Nouveaux Réalistes are also featured, among them Poussette empaquetée /Packed stroller , 1962, by Christo, who, having previously produced abstract paintings had begun to wrap objects in canvas or plastic. Seita, 1966/7, is an oversized matchbox by Raymond Hains, whose aim was to construct bridges between banal everyday life and the world of creation. Hungarian-born Simon Hantaï, later a leader of the Support/Surface movement, is represented by several canvases that were first folded, crumpled and soaked in colour before being un-folded, these include the delicate Etude, 1969.
Brient lives in a modest apartment with unadorned walls. He rarely gives interviews and never attends social events. These pieces he picked out and handed over to Sotheby’s for the sale are a didactic selection intended to fire up others to be inspired, as he was, by the work of the artists he supported through the acquisitions he made in France in the sixties.
In 1944 on the eve of French liberation, 42-year-old Marcel Rochas, already a famous French fashion designer, who had founded a successful perfume business in 1925, and whose early work had been supported by Jean Cocteau, Paul Poiret and Christian Berard, had just married a young woman, Hélène, who he met on the metro in 1941. The couple chose the ground floor of a 19th century hôtel particulier (rather grand townhouse or inn) at 40, rue de Barbet de Jouy, in Paris’s plush 7th arrondissement, as their new home. Only 11 years later, Marcel died. Hélène Rochas, suddenly a rich widow, was to live in the apartment for the rest of her life, over time furnishing each room with the collection of contemporary paintings, classical furniture and Chinese porcelains she assembled with a seamless unity.
In his touching introduction to Christie’s extensive 216-page sale catalogue, Frédéric Mitterrand, France’s Former Minister of Culture and Communication tells us of how, in their tributes to her after her death, New York celebrated Hélène Rochas as France’s wonder woman. But he claims that they and others in the fashion business gave only part of the truth, without revealing her essential grace. ‘ Madame Rochas’s exquisite manners,’ Mitterand informs us, expressed her profound respect for all people; and, ‘through extraordinarily free, refined taste, she paid tribute to the best artists, known or unknown, from times long past and from her own era.’
This polite, graceful lady had catholic tastes. Alongside her friends Yves Saint-Laurent and Pierre Bergé, Hélène Rochas was one of the first to start an important Art Deco collection and in 1974, she commissioned four portraits of herself from Andy Warhol. The same year, she acquired Ben Nicholson’s 1933 abstract painting Violon et guitare. She hung the Nicholson facing a striking neoclassical sofa, flanking it with a pair of ormulu-mounted neo-classical vases from Harewood Castle in England. A life-size Portrait of Lucien Guitry by Edouard Vuillard dominated the entrance hall. The living room, which overlooked a pretty green and white garden, was presided over by Braunes Schweigen, a 1925 oil painting by Wassily Kandinsky, hung above a sofa. On one of a pair of neoclassical side tables in the same room stood a large 1954 terracotta vase by Picasso. A massive Balthus painting, Japanese woman with red table, 1967-76, covered one entire wall of the petit salon where Madame Rochas hosted friends and guests. Important examples of classical furniture and European objets d’art, as well as old master and 19th century paintings and drawings could be found throughout the apartment.
Hélène Rochas counted herself as very lucky for having had the chance to encounter some of the 20th century’s most creative minds in the arts, literature and painting as well as music and show business. She enjoyed the opportunity of frequenting the salons of aristocrats and great patrons, but as much as anything it was her own curiosity, her appetite for discovery and keen sense of aesthetics, that fashioned her taste. As her experience grew, her ideas changed and shifted, she followed new directions but her quest was always quality. Her collection reflects the rich and varied international milieu in which she appears to have so naturally shone. Her collection is estimated to realise €8m ($10.5m,£6.5m).
Works from top
Peinture no.10, 1965
Glycero painting on canvas
Estimate €30,000 – 40,000
Poussette empaquetée/Packed stroller, 1962
Plastic and string
Estimate €120,000 – 180,000
Portrait de Hélène Rochas, fond vert tendre, 1974
Acrylic and silk screen ink on canvas
Jean Lambert & Jean Dunand
Deux masques, circa 1925
Lacquered eggshell on oak