Art from the Collection of Greta Garbo will come up at Christie’s evening sale of Impressionist and Modern Art in New York on May 15. Among the collection are prime 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].”
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 enamored 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 color. 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 colors. 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.”
Garbo successfully evaded the Hollywood publicity machine. From her earliest years in film to her death in 1990 she granted few interviews, declined to sign autographs and avoided public functions like the Academy Awards. After retiring from cinema at 35 she transitioned to a life dedicated to fine art, scholarship and friendships. From the 1940’s she began to assemble a collection of paintings, sculpture, works on paper and decorative art. Among her friends were the Barnes Foundation visionary founder Albert Barnes and Alfred Barr, first director of the Museum of Modern Art.
The evening sale of Impressionist and Modern art will encompass three canvases that exemplify Garbo’s sophisticated taste and proclivity for dazzling color. These works include Robert Delaunay’s La femme à l’ombrelle ou La Parisienne, 1913 ($4-7million), Chaïm Soutine’s Femme à la poupée, 1923-1924 ($3.5-4.5million) and Alexej von Jawlensky’s Das blasse Mädchen mit Grauen Zopfen, 1916 ($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?”
In many ways, the collection both reflected and rebutted Garbo’s illustrious career: suffused with undeniable visual power, its boldness of color stood in contrast with the argent mystique of early Hollywood. “Color,” 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, mesmerized 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.”