Probing the Mystery of Collecting

Paintings chosen by Jacques and Natasha Gelman show a keen eye but not a developing taste. ART: REVIEW

THE process of private collecting is a mystery to most people, but one motive is surely naked acquisitiveness - the downright enjoyment of ownership. Yet that aspect surely matters far more to the private collector than to an outsider - if it matters to an outsider at all. Nevertheless, something beyond the quality of the works themselves attracts people to a public display of a private collection. The Gelman Collection of modern European art, seen earlier in New York and now on view at the Royal Academy here through July 15, is a case in point. The works, of museum quality, would indeed grace any major museum collection and would merge happily with the other ``important works'' typical of such a setting. But there they would no longer be seen as evidence of personal affluence or taste.

The Gelmans certainly had a keen eye - assisted, of course, by ready funds. But one wonders why they concentrated so largely on art from the School of Paris. There is, to be sure, a tripartite self-portrait by the English painter Francis Bacon (violent, intense), but all told, the catalog assertion that ``boldness'' characterized their collecting is not entirely convincing.

Determination, without doubt, and a keen relish in the chase figured in, but the artists the Gelmans went after have all been sanctified by the Museum of Modern Art in New York and its clones worldwide. However, from a collection chosen by an individual - or in this case a couple: Jacques and Natasha Gelman - one expects something more: the history of a developing taste and sharpening eye, perhaps, apparent in what has not been collected as well as what has. And also, no doubt, a fascination for what others, vastly rich, hang at the top of their stairs.

At one time the Gelmans had a Renoir hanging at the head of their stairs. It was called ``La Loge'' - though it wasn't the famous Renoir of that name belonging to London's Courtauld Collection. The Gelmans' ``La Loge'' was painted much later than the Courtauld one - in 1900. But the Gelmans' Renoir did not remain in their collection. Mrs. Gelman has told how they decided to sell it:

``One day, I came home for lunch in ill humor. Seeing that man's moustache and ironical smile up there, I realized I couldn't face the Renoir any longer.'' She told her husband when he came home. He just said, ``So let's change it.''

What they bought instead was a painting by the then-modern Spanish painter Joan Mir'o. Writing in the exhibition catalog, Pierre Schneider describes it: ``It was a nasty piece, bristling with nails and swarming with bits of string.'' Eventually the Mir'o was also sold, but it symbolized ``the decisive step'' the Gelmans had taken ``toward contemporary art....''

Their collection of modern European paintings had begun in Mexico City soon after their marriage in 1941. Mr. Gelman was a successful film producer. Very successful: He and his wife also formed two other collections, of pre-Hispanic Mexican sculpture and modern Mexican painting.

Today their European collection has almost none of the things, like the Renoir, that they initially collected (though it does still contain a Renoir bronze). In the catalog, Mr. Schneider characterizes the tone of the collection as one of ``intensity'' and ``violence.'' Certainly, as William S. Lieberman puts it in his catalog essay, they ``liked strong pictures.'' And certainly there are some highly intense, undisputably violent works: Max Ernst's horror-film nightmare ``The Barbarians'' for instance, and Picasso's monstrous 1938 ``Man with a Lollipop.''

His wife has recalled that Jacques Gelman, who died four years ago, ``liked red, he liked energy.'' There is ample evidence of this - Fauve paintings by Derain, Vlaminck, and Matisse, energized by vermilion, scarlet, cadmium red; a Chagall with a red table; Mir'os crackling with bright red shapes; a 1920s ``Odalisque'' by Matisse, subtitled ``Harmony in Red''; and Jean Dubuffet's ``View of Paris with Furtive Pedestrians.''

These furtive, childish stick figures are intimidated by the dazzling colors of the buildings and street, in which red again comes into furious conflict with patches of sharp emerald and vivid yellow, orange, and blue. But the collection is an impressively balanced one. After all, it was not formed as a gallery of 20th-century European art. The works were collected to be part of the Gelman home - the one in New York. It would be surprising, then, if the collection didn't have gentler or more lyrical moments.

If the Gelmans sometimes parted with works because - like one of their Rouaults or the Renoir - they found them no longer to their taste, they did have some softer preferences. They were very keen on Braque, and the colors of Braque's paintings were almost always earthy - ochre, umber, sienna, terre verte. Even if his tones were bold contrasts of dark and light, Braque's brush was a pliant intrument, his paint and the forms it describes fluent and rounded rather than dry and angular. The exception, of course, is his Cubist period, when he worked with Picasso.

Notable but not particularly exciting examples of Cubist paintings by both artists entered the Gelman collection in the 1970s. Perhaps they were added with a slight sense of duty rather than love. The catalog, incidentally, has a number of discrepencies. The arrival of these two Cubist masterpieces, for example, is described in Lieberman's rambling reminiscences as acquired ``within a few months'' in 1971. But the provenance of the Braque at the end of the catalog says it was bought in 1979, eight years after the Picasso.

The Gelmans' fondness for Bonnard and Vuillard is also appealing and unexacting: These two painters instilled a domestic or local atmosphere with subtly individual visions. Their work is surely quite as comfortable in a bedroom or above a dining room sideboard as in a gallery, maybe more so. What they have in common with other works in the Gelman collection, though, is an instinctual, untheoretical approach to painting.

That the Gelmans showed no apparent interest in American art is a matter of personal choice. The only works not by internationally acknowledged masters of modern art are by Fran,cois Rouan and Sam Szafran pieces, both French.

It is always fascinating when rather conventional collectors - not unassisted by advisers, not unfriendly with particular dealers - go out on an unexpected limb. Neither Rouan nor Szafran are remotely of the caliber of the rest of the collection, but they might, nevertheless, offer a chink of insight into the Gelman's own unbolstered, unprompted taste. Or perhaps they are evidence of sudden whims. A grand plan can do with a whim or two.

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