Dijon, France — Something strange is going on in the battlements of the Palace of the Dukes of Bourgogne in Dijon. You know even before you set foot on the wide, slanting, peasant-style staircase to climb up to the rafters. You feel you are being watched. Sure enough, a pair of eyes peers out of a niche in the turret -- greenish metal ones. Over a label that says, instead of a date, "Antique eyes stare at you." Indeed.
Then you set foot on the first wide, crooked step and the drawings hung just above the banisters helpfully light up. You climb and peruse Delacroix and other masters, and as you pass, the lights go out. There is a guard sitting at the top of the stairs, so at least you know you haven't wandered into a haunted gallery. Or at least, you're not alonem in a haunted gallery.
The Donation Granville, in the attic of the Musee des Beaux Arts in Dijon, is not the usual museum collection. And nothing in the rest of the musee quite prepares you for it. It is rich in medieval artifacts -- aside from being housed in a 14th-century ducal palace, the museum boasts the ornately carved tombs of Jean Sans Peur (1443-1470) and Philippe le Hardi (1386-1411) -- their likenesses repose, bigger than life, on top of the tombs, attended by lions at the feet and angels at the heads -- as well as tapestries, paintings, and furniture up to the 18th century.
The surprise comes as you climb the stairs between the flashing drawings. You're not exactly rocketing into the 20th century. It's more a feeling of being led by the hand with a kindly chuckle. But the change is striking. You go from feeling awed by the old religious statues straightforwardly displayed, to feeling as if somehow you had wandered through a secret passage and into some great connoisseur's attic. It has a distinctly homey atmosphere.
Mind you, I can't imagine living in the attic of a 14th- century castle in France. But as I made my way among the whimsically -- and beautifully -- framed drawings and paintings grouped by artist but also close to other paintings that had a common theme or a similar attitude or just the same subject (as in the group of cow representations), and glanced up above them to see old tin shop signs -- a large pair of scissors from an ironmonger, and a six-inch-high, curlicued velocipede -- I kept thinking someonem must live here. The collector of all this must stroll these corridors of an evening, sighing with satisfaction , I thought.
Or if he doesn't, he should. There's such a whimsical, cozy feeling up there it would be a shame not to. Perhaps he would sit down on the tan velvet chaise longue that matches the walls to admire the unicorn in the Claude Domec painting , or just rest on one of the carved African wood chairs and blink at the Matisses among the Ghanaian masks. He would probably let children pat the life-size fiber-glass cow with the landscape painted on it, and perhaps lift up the flaps of protective cloth to show them two cow paintings by other artists hung behind it.
After all, where museums usually soberly list artist, medium, and year, the label in the Donation Granville invitingly reads, "Uncover Lapique . . . and the Dutch cow." There was something so personal about the collection that I felt I knew Pierre Granville before I met him.
But I didn't, or I wouldn't have thought of him as a collector.
"I am not a collector," he says adamantly. First of all, he considers himself a writer. He is an art critic for Le Monde, and also writes "clandestine" novels and poetry.
And besides that, "I don't like that word for me. . . . I don't say anything against anybody who is a collector [but] I have been in contact with so many collections and so many collectors that I have seen behind the collector somebody who is only a speculator." He later settles for the term "amateur" in both senses of the word, a lover of art and a nonprofessional buyer of it.
The Granvilles are not tycoons who have bought art as a hedge against inflation. I interviewed Pierre Granville in the two-room apartment in Paris he has shared with his wife, Kathleen, since 1954. It was a hot day, but still cool up on the seventh floor, on the shady side of the building. The apartment is very restful, painted in a grayish green. It is unpretentious but comfortable. There are several paintings, one displayed on an easel, by a young artist Granville is getting to know and encouraging, as he has so many others.
I sit on an old green velvet chair that turns out to be one of the most comfortable chairs I have ever sat on, not to mention that it was once sat in by Andre Malraux when he was minister of culture and Granville was offering the state his collection.
Pierre Granville is tall and gray-haired, with big eyes that look out behind relaxed lids but give the impression that a lot is going on behind them. He has a soft voice, which can take on such a thoughtful tone that it sounds sad. But when you walk through the collection, you have a feeling of joy in the way the paintings are hung. And when you consider what he has to say, you realize that the thoughtfulness and the joy of the museum all come from a very deep love of the art, and of the people who made it. He is wearing a suede jacket that is, like much of the contents of the apartment, old and still useful looking.
The impression one gets from their place is that everything is cared for and loved, but with great economy. There are books everywhere, but even when they are stacked up, you feel someone knew and cared just what was in the stack.
Small as it is, the apartment has been the scene of important events in many artists' careers. Paintings have changed hands here, and been displayed to new admirers.
"All the artists have been here," Granville says. "If you love the work of somebody, you must know the person, you have to have human relations."
Almost all the art he has gathered together and given to Dijon is painted by friends, whom he knew before the war in Paris; friends like painters De Stael, Lapique, Maria Vieira da Silva and her husband, Arpad Szenes, and the sculptor Hajdu. He calls what he has done a "diffusion" of their work, taking it into the apartment, and at first, selling it to other friends who were interested, then later sending out cards to bunches of people, like a gallery, and finally, giving the best of it away.
Though he had from childhood been interested in art -- he went to the Louvre every Sunday with his mother -- his diffusion didn't start until after World War II. Before that he had considered being a composer, and worked in the movies as an assistant director. Being Jewish, he couldn't find work in occupied France. At first, he farmed so they could survive, and then he was in the French resistance in the Haute Savoie, an Alpine province that the French freed without help from the Allies.
When he and Kathleen came back to PAris, he worked a while in French television, but they were still poor, as were their artist friends. At one point, he had so little money, "I said to my wife, 'I don't know what I'm going to do.' Just by chance I went to see a lady who is a painter. . . . Just like that she asked both of us to come for dinner at her place and she said to me, 'Well, you know, I would like to have some money. Would you know someone who is interested in such and such a painting?'" He wasn't sure exactly how to go about it, but it turned out he did know someone, who bought it and paid him a commission.
So Granville's career began. It's the usual way for a dealer to work, but Granville was more interested in the works than most dealers, and especially in the artists. And there were more and more paintings he felt he couldn't possibly sell. He also did well at auctions -- he has bought a cutrate Cezanne and De La Tour because he realized what they were when no one else did.
His wife, who was born in Boston, is very much a part of this collection, and is especially helpful to him at auctions -- "she sees well from far and I from near," he says.
When you visit the collection, even without knowing Granville's stories, you feel as if you've gotten in on some wonderful friendships. One of the most intriguing items is an ordinary letter box with the Granvilles' address, scrawly but legible, and all sorts of playfully messy "stamps" painted on by Vieira da Silva. Before they gave the collection to Dijon, their mail was delivered in this objet d'art. It was a birthday present from Pierre to Kathleen Granville (the letters of her first name are spelled out in the stamps) because the concierge at their apartment always used to put the mail on the floor outside their door.
Vieira da Silva was delighted, Granville says, when he bought the mailbox and brought it to her to paint. Now, at Dijon, it also serves as a suggestion box. (Unfortunately, the Granvilles' mail is back on the floor again. Such is the life of a donor.)
Another friend, Claud Domec, who Granville says lives unpretentiously and wears wooden peasant's shoes, and who nonetheless "can talk to you in Greek or Latin," refused to have his work shown in a gallery, because he didn't like the snobbism of the art world and couldn't stand to go to a gallery opening.Granville feels the same way, but has a horror of painters' work not being recognized in their lifetimes.
"Domec is an example of somebody who is like Cezanne in 1906. When Cezanne died, who knew Cezanne? You can count them on the fingers of one hand. . . . And now, 'Cezanne Cezanne Cezanne.' Cezanne is a great painter, and thanks to Cezanne there is cubism. But when he died, nobody knew him."
Not accepting this as the way of the world, Granville obligingly moved all the furniture and paintings out of his apartment, hung up Domec's work, and invited people to see it. And that was quite an undertaking at that time, since before they bought the second room when their apartment went cooperative, they lived and showed their art in one room.
"It was an experience, I'll tell you," Granville recalls, "to live in millimeters."
By 1966, when they made their decision to give it all away, the place was chock-full of things they couldn't part with, including a Delacroix painting Granville loves. It is a sketch of the meeting of the French ambassador meeting the sultan of Morocco. It's important historically, he says, and also because Morocco was the beginning of Delacroix's fascination with Orientalism. It also cost so much they had nothing but potatoes to eat for ten days after buying it. Not only was it getting hard to live in the apartment among all the works of art , but also their clients were annoyed with them that they wouldn't sell certain things.
"I think we have enough here to make a sort of museum," he said to his wife, and they wrote to Andre Malraux, then minister of culture, to offer the collection.
Two days later, he had a call from Malraux's secretary. "She told me: 'Mr. Malraux wants to see you immediately. Can you come tomorrow at such and such a time?' I said, 'All right, I will come.' It's not very far from here -- the ministry. It's five minutes on foot," he recounts, bringing all his dealings down to human scale as usual. Malraux thanked him for his gesture.
"I said, 'No, we want to do it because we have a feeling that everything we have united in our home ought to belong to everyone. We don't have any children , but never mind, we prefer to give it, not after our deaths, we prefer to give it during our life and to build it ourself.'"
It took a while to find a museum with enough space. A group from the Louvre trooped up to the seventh floor and reviewed the collection -- favorably. Finally, Dijon was suggested, because it is very rich from the medieval period to the 18th century, but had little from the 19th and 20th centuries. The Granvilles liked it because they saw Dijon as "a city of art," and they had visited the museum on their way back from summer vacations in the mountains, and liked it.
Most important, and the main reason for giving the collection while they were still alive, was the chance to keep it together and to work on the display themselves. Private collections bequeathed to museums tend to be split up and shuffled into the museum's holdings, while Granville thinks his collection "has a unity because they are the choice of a person."
Pierre Georgel, the curator at Dijon, agrees. He says the collection is "typical of what it was possible to collect between 1950 and 1970 for not very rich people. . . . They spent all their money piling up the collection."
The fact that they weren't rich makes the collection all the more interesting , because they made more personal choices than a museum curator might, and, buying what they liked, weren't afraid to take risks. "Officials are shy, and they don't think of buying that kind of stuff," says Georgel.
Granville has strong ideas about money and art. Because his taste is good, he often bought paintings which later became very valuable, so people began to pay attention to his collection.
"Some people came here; they knew that I was looking for new painters, interesting painters.That I had faith in how they were going to develop. Someone asked me, 'Well, do you think the price is going to climb?'"
He pauses dramatically.
"I said, 'My dear man, La Bourse [the stock market in Paris] is ten minutes from here on foot. If you are interested to know if something is going to climb or go down, go to the stock market, but don't ask me.'
"I said, 'That painting is good, it's all that I can say. It is a good painter, it's a wonderful painter. I believe in him, that's all.'"
This attitude is what separates the Granvilles from the speculators and professional curators. It is why he won't be called a collector. Even without knowing this, you catch the sense of fun and friendliness and delight from walking through the exhibition. Some of the paintings are breathtaking and some are silly, but the exhibition gives you a sense of freedom from what's supposed to be important -- important in any sense except in what matters to the Granvilles. And their feelings about their art, which are quite obvious, are not obtrusive, but flattering. You feel they have just recently been laid out for you to see, in the most interesting way possible.
The Granvilles were given the third floor of the museum, which at the time was "only dirt, spider webs, dust and old frames, and completely dark," Granville says.
They set to work with an architect. It was Granville's idea to have lights that go on when you stand in front of the drawing. The problem is that drawings fade, while paintings need light, so it is almost impossible to see both together. And often it is instructive to look at the sketches artists made. Usually, a museum will put all its drawings away in a box.
"So finally . . . I said, 'The drawings must be shown to the public, not put in a box.'" There are various rooms within the gallery rooms where the drawings are protected from the light, their lights going on when you step into them.
And the paintings are displayed alongside objects, such as the signs and the masks.
"It's a collector's display," says Pierre Georgel fondly. "It's not what you'd expect in a museum. You feel like you're in a private house."
Aside from inventing the lighting system, the Granvilles paid for the installation. It also features different chairs in each area, all comfortable, but none quite so inviting as the chaise longue among the Impressionists. One set of stools was made out of Japanese mortars. It took six years to do, and now they are happy with it, and with themselves for having done it.
They don't buy many paintings anymore, just what they can afford on Granville's salary as curator of the collection. They live on the money he makes writing.
"Still, I am taking care of new young painters like Govanatori," who is exhibited at Dijon. A large pink and blue landscape, sunset, mountains and roof , sat next to my extremely comfortable chair in an easel. Granville waved at it. "It's a landscape of a farm. The roof, and in the back you see the Pyrenees. He was interested in the relation between the mountains and the roofs. . . ."
I hadn't thought much about the paintings at the museum, but as Granville talked about them, the roof and mountains took on more meaning. I sat in the green chair and thought about the similarity and difference of forms, the simplicity and the tension. "He lives 800 kilometers from here," said Granville , and I could see how he sold so many paintings, and more important, included so many people in the worlds of his favorite artists.