Monday, December 12, 2011

The Nahmad Collection at Zurich's Kunsthaus

If you’ve never heard of the Nahmad Collection, don’t worry, you can be forgiven. After all, although it is one of Europe’s most prestigious private art collections, it is not greatly known, never having been exhibited in public. That is, never until now. The exhibition currently showing at the Kunsthaus in Zurich is quite a coup, being the first ever exhibition of a portion (nearly 120 paintings) of this enigmatic collection. Zurich’s Kunsthaus is now firmly on the path of building a reputation for exhibiting the works of private collectors. Beginning with A Feast of Colours in 2006, which featured the Merzbacher-Mayer collection, and continuing with the incredible Buehrle Collection (which has now been donated to the Kunsthaus and will reappear in a permanent exhibition in the new David Chipperfield wing in 2015), the presentation of the Nahmad Collection, entitled Monet, Mattise , Miro, is the third such exhibition in recent years. We picked a Sunday afternoon in late November. The sun radiated unseasonable warmth from a brilliant Japanese winter blue sky. We guessed correctly that most Swiss would strap on their hiking boots or saddle up their mountain bikes and head for the hills and forests on such a beautiful day. It could have been a Monday morning – one could contemplate the seven Modigliani’s in silence, stand before the Toulous- Lautrecs without being elbowed, view the single Bonnard portrait without having to first wait in a line. The exhibition begins with late 19th century Post-Impressionism and then takes us through a selection of highlights from most of the major modernist movements – Fauvism, Cubism, Abstractism, Constructivism and Surrealism. The Monets mostly are southern scenes, for instance of Venice, like this one of The Contarini Palace that evokes the city’s frayed splendor.

One room contains five Kandinskys, all of which are interesting, most of which are abstract, though I must admit my favourite is this still (just about) figurative “Study for Improvisation 3”, though I do find the title an oxymoron – can one have a study for an improvisation?

The Modiglianis are superb and it is a special experience seeing seven of his portraits on one wall, facing a half dozen works of Mattisse. But if seven Modiglianis seems like a lot, the exhibition contains no fewer than 13 Miros, all of them major works and spanning the artists entire career, and 30 Picassos from the early 20th century until the year of the artist's death in 1973, including his famous “Portrait of the Artist’s Son, Paulo, as Harlequin”, a painting that hasn’t been seen in public for decades.

But this is simply the tip of a hidden iceberg. The Nahmads are a Jewish family, originally from Aleppo, Syria. They moved to Beirut in the late forties and to Milan in the late fifties, accumulating fortune of well over 3 billion dollars through art dealing. The family currently resides in Monaco, for tax reasons I suspect, and have art galleries on Madison Avenue in New York and Cork Street in London. The family’s entire private collection consists of about 3,000 paintings and includes hundreds of works of Picasso. They keep their collection hidden away in an underground storage facility in Geneva where it is rarely viewed by any human eye. This might seem obscene to you. Perhaps the exhibition in the Kunsthaus in Zurich can be considered the secretive family’s “coming out”.

The exhibition runs until January 15th when, presumably, all of these fine works disappear again.


  1. You are correct; I have never heard of the Nahmad Collection.

    But I would be thrilled to pieces to see the seven superb Modiglianis (superb is redundant) on one wall, facing a half dozen works of Mattisse on the other *sighs happily*.

    What set Zurich’s Kunsthaus on the path of exhibiting the works of very private collectors? Brilliant idea, but difficult to achieve, I would imagine.

  2. I had never heard of it either, yet it could be, apparently, one of the greatest collections of private art in the world, stored away unseen. This is entirely seperate from what the family have in their galleries, which is just the works that they are willing to sell. The Kunsthaus was allowed to make a choice from the 3,000 pieces. They concluded that over 300 are "masterpieces", and choose just over a hundred of these to exhibit. Wonder what the others are?
    All three collections that the Kunsthaus has exhibited are held in Switzerland - I suppose that is what got them onto this trend. The first two collections were created by wealthy collectors. What is unique about the Nahmad collection is that is has been assembled by a family of art dealers. Alongside the works there is a msall exhibition on the history of collecting and dealing - the Nahmads accumulated their fortune through dealing in art, which is unusual.