By: CHRIS GRAEME
THE JOE Berardo Museum Collection is special – special because it is Lisbon’s first institution devoted to the exhibition of modern and contemporary art.
Since its fanfare international opening in June this year, 100,000 visitors have walked through the turn styles, 30,000 in the first 10 days of opening alone.
The 862 piece collection, formed by the multimillionaire Portuguese business impresario, on display at a wing of the Belém Cultural Centre (CCB), ended years of indecision and wrangling between the Portuguese government and the collector.
Apparently, Mr Berardo, frustrated at excessive red tape which caused lengthy delays to the project, had threatened to send the works to France.
It was decided in April 2006 to create a permanent home for the collection in Lisbon, which contains works by 505 artists, in the vast CCB building designed by the architects Vittorio Gregotti and Manuel Salgado and built in 1993.
The museum exhibits the collection’s core artworks as well as putting on a number of temporary exhibitions, although only 20 per cent of the collection’s 4,000 odd pieces is displayed at any one time.
The collection has a logic and cohesion, in that it displays some of the most interesting artistic tendencies of the 20th and early 21st centuries including: Suprematism, Surrealism, New Figures, Pop Art, Minimalism, Post Modernism, Abstract Expressionism, De Stijl, Neo Dada, Plasticism, Op Art, Photography and Video Art.
“It’s ideal in that this collection of modern art continues on from where the Gulbenkian Collection of art leaves off in the 1920s,” says Berardo Museum Director Jean-Francois Chougnet.
“This collection is, for Joe Berardo, not an investment in capital terms, although Christie’s valued it at over 300 million euros, it’s more of a social and cultural investment,” he said.
The British artist Francis Bacon once said: “Hardly anyone really feels about painting: they read things into it, even the most intelligent people think they understand it, but very few people are genuinely aesthetically touched by painting.”
“I think Joe Berardo is one of those rare people who actually really does love art for how it speaks to him personally. When I propose a purchase, he says either ‘yes’ or ‘no’, not just because of the cost, but because he either likes it or doesn’t, feels it will fit in with the rest of the collection, or won’t,” he adds.
Joe Berardo is not an art historian, he’s a businessman, but he knows what he likes and he has sensibility. He has always been the same man who likes art for art’s sake from a very instinctive and organic point of view.
But what’s interesting about this collection is that it’s small enough to appreciate an overview and not have your senses murdered by too many paintings. It’s cohesive and yet you can start anywhere on the museum’s three floors.
“We don’t have representative collections of movements, for example, we only have one Picasso, and that’s not Cubism really, and there’s no Matisse or Modigliani, but we have a starting point, a core, from which to widen our scope in the coming years,” says Jean-Francois Chougnet.
Of course Chougnet has his own particular favourites and has a budget of around a million Euros or two with which to purchase new acquisitions for the collection.
“I’d like to see more Portuguese contemporary art from the 1950s and 1960s, simply because it’s so underrepresented here in Lisbon because of the Salazar dictatorship,” he said.
At the moment there are really three collections: the first and most important or main one is Joe Berardo’s initial collection, the second is the collection belonging to the new private Foundation funded by both the Portuguese state and the Berardo family. The third is Joe Berardo’s recent acquisitions.
“This gives us two possibilities to purchase works, and of course we always have something in mind. If someone gave me carte blanche and enough cash to buy a painting right this minute, I might also consider South American contemporary art, particularly Brazilian, because that has a particular reference for Portugal, I think,” said Chougnet.
“The Tate Modern has begun collecting it and it’s in vogue and not yet too expensive,” he said.
New Media and Video Art is another area in which the collection could be expanded, simply because Joe Berardo never collected it.
But how does one find such pieces? “Sometimes purchases just come up in auction or from private sales from collections where the owners or curators feel a particular piece no longer fits in with the direction a collection is going. They might appear in exclusive galleries, you never know when an opportunity will come along.”
Is there a piece that Jean-Francois Chougnet particularly likes in the collection?
“I like the Paula Rego, painting The Barn. It’s disturbing and ugly, yet comic at the same time. It’s a joke really. What I particularly like in her work are the mixture of Portuguese themes and the inspiration she’s clearly taken from English painters like Stanley Spencer,” he says.
“I don’t like all that she does: but she is unusual, perverse, distorted and symbolic without being surreal. There’s something quite strange and impossible to understand in her work and narration,” he adds thoughtfully.
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