Statisticians have long been telling us how steeply the life-expectancy curve continues to rise. As a result, receiving an invitation to a one-hundredth birthday party, although surprising, is not necessarily shocking. Indeed, it is to just such an event that many in the worlds of finance, politics, and art were recently summoned. The birthday celebration in question was held in Madrid this mid-October and took the form of a symposium honoring Baron Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza, who was born exactly a century ago but actually died at age eighty-one in 2002. Centenarian or not, Thyssen was certainly a commanding presence during the second half of the last century. He was a grandson of August Thyssen (1842–1926), the diminutive but hugely assiduous and successful steel and coal entrepreneur. August has often been compared to Andrew Carnegie as a quintessential example of the nineteenth-century empire-building industrialist. Besides the famous name, H. H. (“Heini”) Thyssen also sported the title of baron, by way of his father who had dubiously “inherited” the prefix via his first wife’s Hungarian noble descent. Heini nevertheless maintained a keen sense of humor and occasionally quipped: “my family was in iron and steel—my mother ironed and my father stole.”

Vittore Carpaccio, Young Knight in a Landscape, ca. 1505, Oil on canvas, Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid. Photo: © Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza.

Growing up in a post-war Europe that was still beset by deprivation, Heini enjoyed privileges that, at that time, were reserved for the lucky few: private schools, fast cars, and long vacations in St. Moritz and Forte dei Marmi. He spoke fluent German, Italian, French, English, and Dutch, the last because Holland was his earliest home and, later, the center of his business interests. Tall and slender, the young man developed into a supremely elegant and worldly gentleman. Despite this, there was a certain shyness and insecurity in his manner that often complicated communication with others. This, however, never seemed to hinder Heini’s discourse with the opposite sex; he was married five times and sired four children. The man’s immense wealth was surely a factor in this rather confused personal life, but that wealth also contributed mightily to his becoming the most acquisitive, perceptive, and wide-ranging collector of his generation.

Rodin was that moment’s Jeff Koons, universally famous and wildly expensive.

The Thyssen family’s interest in art began, somewhat timidly, with August, “the patriarch,” as he was called. Having already lived a long and rigidly philistine life next to his blast furnaces, amassing a sizeable fortune in the process, August decided it was time to broaden his horizons, become a landed gentleman, and dabble in art. In 1903, he purchased the rather forbidding Schloß Landsberg in the town of Kettwig, near Essen, Germany (never too far from the blast furnaces). Having visited the 1899 Paris Exposition Universelle, he rememberedhow mesmerized he had been by the marbles of Auguste Rodin exhibited there. With the help of Rainer Maria Rilke, Thyssen eventually purchased seven major pieces that were later displayed at Landsberg. They have remained there in what has since become the Thyssen family’s memorial and mausoleum. Of note is the fact that Rodin was that moment’s Jeff Koons, universally famous and wildly expensive.

Of August’s three sons, Friedrich “Fritz” Thyssen (1873–1951) was the eldest, eventually inheriting the steel works that comprised the lion’s share of the estate. He was to be the first establishment industrialist to support Hitler and his National Socialist movement but was also the first, in 1938, to have second thoughts. Fritz even had the temerity to voice these opinions publicly. This headstrong behavior was characteristic of the man and afforded him the rare distinction of having been put behind bars by both the Nazis and the Allies. His only daughter, Anita, immigrated to South America after the war and bequeathed the bulk of her colossal fortune to form the “Thyssen Stiftung,” a foundation that has become Germany’s largest philanthropic undertaking.

Heinrich Thyssen (1875–1947) was the youngest of August’s sons, all of whom grew up detesting each other. Such was the animus that, while Fritz was hobnobbing with Göring, Heinrich, partly to spite his brother, married a Hungarian noblewoman, took on both her title and citizenship, and moved to Lugano, Switzerland. There, in 1931, Heinrich purchased, from the down-at-heel Prince Friedrich Leopold of Prussia, the enchanting Villa Favorita, a lakeside property that extends over a mile and comprises one palatial villa and three only slightly lesser structures. It was a perfect setting in which to indulge the newly minted baron’s ambitions of princely splendor. The obvious adjunct to this construct had to be a notable picture collection. In this, Heinrich’s timing was impeccable. The early 1930s saw a remarkable quantity of masterworks flow onward to a depressed buyers’ market. Aided by the sharp perception of the young German art historian Rudolph Heinemann, Heinrich snapped up in quick succession: the Family Group in a Landscape by Frans Hals (1645–48) and Vittore Carpaccio’s Young Knight in a Landscape (ca. 1505) (both had been owned by Otto Kahn in New York); the Profile Portrait of Giovanna Tornabuoni by Ghirlandaio (1489–90, from the Morgan Library, New York); Christ Among the Doctors by Albrecht Dürer (1506) and St. Catherine of Alexandria by Caravaggio (ca. 1598–99) (both from the Barberini Collection, Rome)—all acknowledged to be capital works by the artists. Perhaps the most significant acquisition in this charmed moment was the addition to the collection of surely its greatest historical relic, the Portrait of Henry VIII by Hans Holbein the Younger (ca. 1537), formerly a star possession of the Earls Spencer (Princess Diana’s family) at Althorp House. Of the many similar likenesses of the king, none other than the Thyssen version is unequivocally recognized as the original prototype. Kenneth Clark, England’s ultimate art czar, upon a visit to the Villa Favorita, remarked that it was the one painting that should never have been allowed out of the country. These works remain to this day the principal identifying icons of the collection. As a footnote to the history of taste, it is interesting to record that Heinrich Thyssen so vehemently lusted after the Dürer that the dealers involved saw it as an opportunity to “unload” the Caravaggio as part of a two-for-one deal. Neither the market at large, nor Thyssen, cared much for the great Baroque genius—a reflection of the powerful influence “Berensonian” criticism had at the time. In a notorious judgment on Caravaggio’s Martyrdom of St. Peter (1601, in Rome at Santa Maria del Popolo), the American sage of I Tatti dismissed the masterpiece as simply a study in the lifting of weights.

Albrecht Dürer, Christ Among the Doctors, 1506, Oil on panel, Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid. Photo: © Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza.

It was a remarkable running start for the baron and, as noted by a venerable Italian proverb: “eating only increases one’s hunger.” Heinrich “ate” with ever-increasing hunger and soon even the spacious Villa Favorita would not do. In 1938, a substantial expansion of the villa was planned. Patterned on Munich’s Alte Pinakothek, “the Gallery” was completed in a grand and severe style vaguely reminiscent of Berlin’s now-destroyed Reich Chancellery, all marble and granite. To our eyes, it appears pompous and cold, but it was sky-lit and, most importantly, very congenial to the paintings. After entering an older structure, visitors arrive at a grand staircase leading up to a long series of large enfilade halls with more intimate adjoining spaces at the sides. Now the baron was able to indulge his hunger by continually enriching the collection, adding choice works of every European school and period, from Italian so-called “primitives” through the French eighteenth century, for a total of more than two hundred items. A Teutonic touch, perhaps, is that not a single English artist was represented. By the time he died in 1947, Baron Heinrich had amassed a collection that was already, by far, the most important private gathering of European Old Master paintings in the world—a statement inevitably followed by the conditional “after the Queen of England’s.” The informal “curator” continued to be Rudolph Heinemann, except during the war years when he prudently retreated to New York. Conservation work was usually performed by William Suhr of the Frick Collection before the paintings were sold. Criticism is still heard occasionally about Suhr’s overly “energetic” interventions. No professional conservator had ever worked on-site until 1964, when this writer was appointed on a part-time basis. There was never a question about the role of “Chief Curator”; that function was always reserved for the Thyssens themselves—the father, Heinrich, and then, after his death in 1947, his son “Heini.”

Caravaggio, St. Catherine of Alexandria, 1598–99, Oil on canvas, Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid. Photo: © Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza. 

Heinrich remained always fanatically protective of his, and his collection’s, privacy. Access to the Villa Favorita was accorded with the greatest reluctance. In the late 1930s, Germany’s foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop happened to be visiting Lugano. As was the custom at the time, he sent his calling card to the villa expecting a gracious invitation to visit the storied precincts of the famed collection. The baron instructed his butler to reply that he didn’t need any more champagne, a sly rebuff playing off the fact that, prior to Ribbentrop becoming a Nazi bigwig, he had worked as a traveling salesman for Henkell Sektkellerei (Germany’s downmarket version of French bubbly). Private and decidedly strait-laced, Baron Heinrich was only tainted by scandal once, when his second wife Maud, a beautiful and frenetic socialite, was involved in a car crash while playing hooky in Spain with her lover, the Georgian “Prince” Alexis Mdivani. The Isotta Fraschini convertible was totaled, the “prince” perished, and the baroness’s priceless pearls disappeared from her luggage. Thereafter, Maud’s title lasted only until divorce papers could be filed. It was also a sad end to one of the glamorous Mdivani brothers, dubbed “the marrying Mdivanis” by the press. Once, an enterprising reporter sought out the young men’s father in Bucharest. To a question about the family, the old man replied: “I am the only father who inherited a title from his sons.”

After Heinrich’s death, his son Heini was faced with significant issues relating to the family business. Although he had already been appointed as principal heir to the estate, including the Villa Favorita and the collection, there were lingering “denazification” questions about interlocking interests with Uncle Fritz’s more suspect holdings. It took several years and endless lawyering to resolve these. Perhaps as a gesture of goodwill, Heini decided to make the collection available to visitors on weekends (for five Swiss francs), a move that father Heinrich would surely not have condoned. Still, the collection remained for years a rather esoteric destination for a smattering of connoisseurs and academics; there was no permanent on-site staff except for a fiercely loyal but unschooled caretaker who had previously served as a stable hand on the Bornemisza estate in Hungary. Then, in 1978, everything changed.

Entirely by chance and through mutual acquaintances, Heini was introduced to a sixty-something lady named Annemarie Pope. Born in Germany and the widow of John Alexander Pope, formerly the director of Washington’s Freer Gallery, she was a relentless and obsessive striver who had gained a prominent niche in the capital’s social and arts milieux. Mrs. Pope’s proudest achievement was the creation of “The International Exhibitions Foundation,” an undertaking that she not only invented but also promoted with unflagging energy. Her D.C. connections proved essential in obtaining government-backed insurance indemnity, a must for traveling exhibitions. It helped to have the friendship and trust of Carter Brown, the director of the National Gallery; this opened endless doors—among others, those to the drawing collections of the Duke of Devonshire and of Vienna’s Albertina—and led to two (among a hundred fifty other) epochal shows that toured numerous major museums in America in the 1960s and ’70s.

Hans Memling, Portrait of a Young Man Prayingca. 1485, Oil on panel, Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid. Photo: © Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza. 

Having met Thyssen, the redoubtable Mrs. Pope would not give up until she secured his promise of a U.S. loan. Heini finally surrendered to the lady’s blandishments and even consented to part temporarily with a number of his most precious possessions—among them, the Van Eyck Annunciation Diptych (ca.1433–35) and the double-sided Portrait of a Young Man Praying by Hans Memling (ca. 1485). Of course, it wasn’t the first time that these treasures had left their home. A similar selection of masterworks had been shown at the National Gallery in London in 1961. Heini’s third wife, the Scottish beauty Fiona Campbell Walter, may have played a part in that decision. Presumably, feminine attraction was not a factor in his agreeing to Mrs. Pope’s 1978 initiative. The American exhibition was accompanied by a handsome catalogue written by the Princeton scholar Allen Rosenbaum on the suggestion of Sir John Pope-Hennessy. Needless to say, the exhibition caused considerable commotion in its three destinations—Washington, Detroit, and Los Angeles. Heini and his wife at the time, Denise, graciously played “host” at the openings. It was too good to be true for the locals: rarely seen great art and a chance to patter with glamorous and titled international celebrities. What could be better?

Surprisingly, the normally shy and somewhat introverted baron enjoyed every minute of the spotlight. He happily posed for photographs, gave interviews, and delivered amusing remarks at the inaugural dinners. It was all a resounding success while, at the same time, revealing the necessity for more dedicated and professional stewardship of what had now become a quite public institution. A friend of the baron suggested that he meet Simon de Pury, a young assistant in Sotheby’s Geneva office. Simon fit the task to a T: he was smart, worldly, and ambitious and took to the job with gusto. The timing was also propitious. Heini’s business interests had begun to focus on the Soviet Union. On one of his visits to Leningrad, he had met Boris Piotrovsky, the director of the State Hermitage Museum. Eager for better liaisons in the West, the enterprising Piotrovsky suggested a loan exhibition at the Villa Favorita. It was an ideal venue in politically neutral Switzerland, even though the correspondent would be Thyssen, the quintessential capitalist. Simon quickly got into high gear a project for a selection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist works to travel to Lugano. It was 1983 and the impact of the event was far beyond what even Mrs. Pope could have ever imagined. Not only had the paintings never been seen in Europe, they had also been locked in an upstairs no-go zone at the Hermitage since the early 1920s. When the stupendous trove of masterworks by Matisse, Gauguin, Van Gogh, Renoir, and Bonnard arrived, the Villa Favorita became, overnight, the center of the art world. There were breathless reviews in every paper and periodical, and visitors lined up for hours in queues stretching back to the town. The unprecedented blowout was followed by further exchanges and attendant accolades.

The “Russian shows” blew winds from new and different directions across the lake of Lugano. They may have encouraged Heini to look beyond the European Old Masters towards the German Expressionists, the Russian avant-garde, even the American nineteenth- and twentieth-century masters. Again, it was just in the nick of time, for he had understood that most notable French Impressionist works had already found permanent homes. No matter; with the help of Antonina Gmurzynska of Cologne, Heini procured, among others, works by Kasímir Malevich and László Moholy-Nagy. From Norbert Ketterer in nearby Campione came the stunning Max Beckmann portrait of his wife, Quappi in Pink Jumper (1932–34),and a number of early Lyonel Feiningers as well as works by Emil Nolde and Oskar Kokoschka. In New York, the notorious dealer Andrew Crispo, despite his other rather sinister pursuits, was a very knowledgeable and effective source of important examples of American art. By far the most memorable of these is the Signal of Distress by Winslow Homer (1890–96), comparable if not superior to the Metropolitan’s celebrated Gulf Stream (1899). It is still astonishing to consider the breadth and diversity of these purchases—by a collector weaned on the European “classics,” a collector who could, when the occasion arose, also turn on a dime back to his first love. That occasion presented itself dramatically when Silvano Lodi, an astute dealer, set up shop in a charming lakefront house, also in Campione. Silvano soon became a magnet for Italian “runners” who would bring him first-rate material, knowing that (unlike his colleagues in Italy) he would instantly pay top price, in cash and tax-free. Two of Heini’s several purchases from Silvano are worthy of note for their exceptional rarity and impeccable conservation: a tondoon panel of the Virgin and Child with the Infant St. John and St. Jerome by the Sienese Mannerist master Domenico Beccafumi (ca. 1523–25), and the ineffably sexy Venus and Mars (ca. 1600),a tiny jewel of a painting by Carlo Saraceni. Doubtless the unabashed erotic depiction of the amorous couple got Heini’s motor running.

Max Beckmann, Quappi in Pink Jumper, 1932–32, Oil on canvas, Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid. Photo: © Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza. 

By the later 1980s, Heini was well into his sixth decade and, understandably, thinking about the disposition of his legacy. Having turned over the bulk of his business interests to his eldest son, Georg Heinrich, he was now focused primarily on the collection and its future. It represented an estimated $600-plus million invested in enlarging and diversifying what he had inherited from his father. Throughout his adult life, Heini remained steadfast in an abiding intention that this cultural patrimony should never be dispersed. He teased the Swiss government and the Ticino canton with the prospect of a much-expanded new museum that would be large enough to contain the entirety of Thyssen’s vast holdings. A design competition for the new building was announced, and maquettes by the likes of Norman Foster, Santiago Calatrava, and Lugano’s own Mario Botta were unveiled. The unspoken understanding was that, while the project would be underwritten with public funds, the collection would be deeded to a public foundation that would maintain it. There remained, however, an insurmountable problem: the collection now counted as the principal asset of Heini’s eventual estate, and therefore one that would risk being dismembered in litigation among the offspring of four different marriages. The legal landscape to be traversed was decidedly arduous. It appeared to be made even more difficult when, in 1985, Heini married his fifth wife, Carmen “Tita” Cervera, and legally adopted her son from a previous relationship. Whatever his children might have thought of this event, it actually proved to be the first step in the successful path toward a solution.

The new baroness happened to have excellent connections in Spain, just as that country was entering a period of spectacular economic expansion and prosperity. It was termed “el milagro Ibérico” and lasted just long enough for negotiations to be completed for a “deal” that would provide not only for the lasting integrity of the collection, but also for its display in a grandly refurbished Madrid palace, with Thyssen’s name on the door. Integral to the agreement was the payment of several hundred million dollars to the presumptive heirs who would then sign off, giving their consent. It was a brilliant solution and wholly without precedent in the history of collecting and museum governance. The only distant and not wholly comparable example is the late-nineteenth-century accession by the Yale University Art Gallery of the Jarves Collection of Early Italian paintings, which was a case of a willing seller/benefactor and a very reluctant buyer.

The Thyssen Collection is the result of the tastes, passions, and ambitions of two quite different individuals.

The Thyssen Collection actually does not hang in its entirety in Madrid. For political reasons, a number of first-rate pictures, including the incomparable Madonna of Humility by Fra Angelico (1433–35), were dispatched with other lesser works to Barcelona as a token of Catalan “independence.” If there is a problem, it resides in the word “entirety.” It must be remembered that the Thyssen Collection is the result of the tastes, passions, and ambitions of two quite different individuals. Heinrich, the father, acquired art in a very favorable moment, adhering as much as possible to the highest standards of quality, historical significance, and conservation. There was much material available, and he tried to choose the best with the best advice. Heinrich must have tried very hard to avoid embarrassing mistakes. By and large he was successful, though there are some misses. Heini loved the process of buying; he enjoyed the chase, and, more often than not, came to decisions rapidly and instinctively. Given the choice between two similar items, his instinct generally guided him in the right direction. If he had an issue, it was his seemingly insatiable appetite. There are five landscapes by Jacob van Ruisdael in the collection, only one of which is truly first-rate. Bronzino is represented twice: Cosimo de Medici in Armor (ca. 1545) is decidedly not worthy of the collection, while the Portrait of a Young Man as St. Sebastian (ca. 1533) is one of the artist’s best early works while still under the spell of his master, Pontormo. When the mediocre pictures were at the Villa Favorita, they were, essentially, in a private setting—as if they were hanging in one’s home, immune to critical judgment. The rigorous context of a museum demands more fastidious criteria of quality and conservation. No doubt the professionals responsible for the Madrid display were aware of such shortcomings, of which there were more than a few. Yet, how else to justify the public expenditure of such an eye-popping amount (though only a third of the full, fair-market-value appraisal), if not by hanging as much material as possible on view? The puckish subtext is that not one in a thousand visitors will distinguish varsity from JV when four similarly labeled paintings hang together in a museum.

These minor details, and a possible objection to the color scheme of the setting, are insignificant quibbles when compared to the greatness of the achievement: an awe-inspiring compendium of the visual arts, spanning many centuries and cultures, housed in a rigorously designed contemporary setting in one of Europe’s principal cities—it is Heini Thyssen’s legacy writ large. In this hundredth-anniversary event, there was much to remember and to celebrate. The twenty-eight contributors to the symposium appropriately honored the museum’s founder with a wide range of revealing insights, anecdotes, and critical analyses. Heini Thyssen would approve and be grateful of the way the institution that bears his name tipped its hat to him. In time, perhaps, the museum will see fit to publish the symposium’s proceedings, ensuring access to the material in the future.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 40 Number 4, on page 22
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