The avant-garde collection of Greta Garbo’s Modern Art will go under the hammer at Christie’s NY, in its Evening Sale of Impressionist and Modern Art. The collection includes major examples from artists including Jan Alexej Von Jawlensky, Chaim Soutine and Robert Delaunay. In the history of cinema, few individuals remain as enigmatic and iconic as the actress Greta Garbo. “Of all the stars who have ever fired the imaginations of audiences,” film historian Ephraim Katz wrote, “none has quite projected a magnetism and a mystique equal to [hers].”
“When we talk about Garbo we call her the first ‘modern woman”
Derek Reisfield, Greta Garbo’s great nephew, remarked: “Greta Garbo had a real love of art and paintings, and she was very passionate about certain artists and pictures. She was particularly enamoured with these three canvases, which offer a particularly modern representation of women, especially for their time. This was a concept that that really resonated with her. Another factor that drove her collecting tastes was colour. She was absolutely entranced by the vibrancy of the Delaunay. It was the central focal point of her living room in New York, and all of the furniture that she chose to surround the canvas played into its incredible colours. In essence, when we talk about Garbo we call her the first ‘modern woman,’ and I think that these three works speak to both her fundamental strength and striking aesthetic.”
Much of the public’s fascination with Garbo stemmed from the actress’s successful evasion of the Hollywood publicity machine. From her earliest years in the film to her death in 1990, Garbo granted few interviews, declined to sign autographs, and avoided public functions such as the Academy Awards. After retiring from the cinema at just thirty-five years old, the actress transitioned to a life dedicated to fine art, scholarship, and the many friends she held dear. From the 1940s, Garbo began to assemble a remarkable private collection of painting, sculpture, works on paper, and decorative art. For those fortunate enough to be welcomed into the actress’s wood-paneled Manhattan residence, the ‘real’ Garbo would be revealed: a vivacious, quick-witted woman who lived each day surrounded by beauty.
Through both personal erudition and friendships with luminaries such as the Barnes Foundation’s visionary founder Albert Barnes and Alfred Barr, the Museum of Modern Art’s first director, Garbo steadily acquired works by a range of artists. Dynamically composed in brilliant hues, the collection was largely hidden from public view—a treasure to be absorbed through intimate contemplation and conversation.
The evening sale of Impressionist and Modern art will encompass three canvases that exemplify Garbo’s sophisticated taste and proclivity for dazzling colour. These works include Robert Delaunay’s La femme à l’ombrelle ou La Parisienne, 1913 (estimate: $4-7million), Chaïm Soutine’s Femme à la poupée, 1923-1924 (estimate: $3.5-4.5million), and Alexej von Jawlensky’s Das blasse Mädchen mit Grauen Zopfen, 1916 (estimate $1-1.5million).
Garbo’s grandniece, Gray Reisfield Horan, recalled her aunt’s profound love for the collection. “What are they talking about?” she would ask visitors about the pictures. “What do they say to each other?” It was a tremendously personal assemblage, one the actress arranged and re-hung with each new purchase. Horan described the image Garbo sitting each night in front of her favourite paintings, “enjoying her evening scotch and a Nat Sherman cigarettello… held so elegantly with her gemstone encrusted Van Cleef & Arpels holder.”
In many ways, the collection both reflected and rebutted Garbo’s illustrious career: suffused with undeniable visual power, its boldness of colour stood in contrast with the argent mystique of early Hollywood. “Colour,” Horan recalled of her aunt’s acquisitions, “was always the essential component…. The works meshed and flowed in a wondrous explosion of enveloping hues…. Nothing was black and white.” Garbo herself, mesmerised by Delaunay’s vibrant La femme à l’ombrelle, would often remark of the canvas, “It makes a dour Swede happy.” If Garbo managed to enchant audiences via movement and gaze, so did the artists in her collection similarly capture the viewer through their pioneering use of brushwork and palette. “Color,” she enthused, “is just the starting point. There is so much more.”
On May 15, 2017 Christie’s will offer Property from the Collection of Greta Garbo in its Evening Sale of Impressionist and Modern Art