La Maison Rouge

L’intime, le collectionneur derrière la porte (Behind Closed Doors: The Private World of Collectors) was the inaugural exhibition of the private foundation La Maison Rouge. Filled with sixteen near-replicas of collectors’ salons, offices, bedrooms, and even bathrooms and WCs, all filled with artworks and posh furniture, and representing extracts of larger collections, its rooms were constructed like linked stage sets leading viewers from house to house to peek through open windows and doors. None of the collectors were named, except the Maison Rouge’s founder, Antoine de Galbert, who showed about seventy small works in a model of his vestibule.

Over 500 works crisscrossing cultures, styles, and media represented 200 artists (mostly, like the collectors themselves, European)—among them Bernd and Hilla Becher, Damien Hirst, Claude Lévêque, Ettore Spalletti, Michelangelo Pistoletto, Luciano Fabro, Maurizio Cattelan, Arnulf Rainer, and Erwin Wurm. Works ranged from Kurt Schwitters collages to sculptures by Paul McCarthy and Takashi Murakami, from photographs by Eadweard Muybridge to an enormous Andreas Gursky Cibachrome. The rooms were all tastefully modern, except for the one bedroom, which felt more like a lamplit attic with objects heaped around a double bed, and the so-called attic, which was two glass displays with a narrow passage between. The bedroom was a packrat’s riot of religious fetishes and erotica, with the four posts of the bed mounted with monitors showing surveillance videos by Julia Scher set opposite two smallish paintings by David Salle. The attic, taken from the same collection, held a collection of tribal skulls, shrunken heads, and African phalluses. The skulls start you thinking about death and death masks, which leads to a vanitas theme, where the permanence of possessions and collecting itself leads to questions about the often fickle relationships between artists, dealers, and collectors.

Under a spotlight in the basement, printed on a sheet of paper about the size of a postcard, was a three-column list of artists’ works that one collector keeps in storage. Farther on, one heard a recording of a lecture by the late art historian Daniel Arasse accompanied by a slide presentation of 396 details of works throughout history. Upstairs again, by the exit, on a wall opposite the café that occupies the red house in the center of the surrounding exhibition space, was a video projection of the sleepy Rhine Canal, where the mother of pathological art thief Stéphane Breitwieser had tossed about half of his pilfered “collection” of over 230 works, among them a Cranach, a Watteau, and a Brueghel—the appalling underside of the impulse to collect art.

“Behind Closed Doors” was a slick, well-produced exhibition offering a compelling look into the lives of European collectors, whose identities remained concealed like game-show contestants behind the curtain of their collections. The press release stated that the exhibition confronted viewers with artworks in “their everyday environment.” That might be true for a dealer or collector, but try telling that to an artist—or a mechanic. An artwork might be composed of everyday things, but in surroundings such as these it’s never ordinary but retains an aura of luxury and status. No one can predict how time will reshuffle these collections. Human skulls, shrunken heads, and Cranachs in the river may tell the starkest truth about fate and destiny.

Jeff Rian