Acquiring artConversations about collecting with Isabelle Darrigrand
A few months ago, during the Photo Kathmandu Festival, I was given an opportunity by the organisers to facilitate a conversation with Isabelle Darrigrand, a French collector and remarkably thoughtful individual who began collecting 15 years ago, and whose collection now numbers between five to six hundred photographs.
Broadly speaking, there is no real culture of collecting art here in Nepal, partly because our celebrated artistic traditions mostly involve (sublime) craftsmanship that developed as a result of royal patrons commissioning large, mostly public and religious edifices that exemplified their own tastes and consolidated their power. Therefore, by default, a dialogue surrounding collecting art-works primarily for personal, aesthetic consumption has not really become a part of the mainstream because it has not yet pervaded a growing middle class culture that evidences interest in aesthetics and consumption, but is a trend that has not yet trickled into the realm of acquiring art.
Writing about art, moreover, about collecting and buying art may seem frivolous at a time when Nepal itself is in desperate straits, however, it is was our intention, mine and Isabelle’s, from the outset, to try and make our conversation relevant even to the layperson who may indeed regard collecting as an elitist activity reserved for the privileged. In some way, I am being selfish by simply not copying and pasting here a transcript of Isabelle’s extraordinary, original, sensitive answers to my questions, but I do feel that a paraphrasing of my learnings from our interaction might be a better entry for those who wouldn’t really spend the time reading the transcript of an event.
Isabelle is a petite brunette, simply dressed in dark colours, wearing serious looking glasses, who seems initially shy, until you start talking about art. She never loses her gentleness, but all of a sudden, the moment we focus on the subject she cares about all the dimensions and nuances surrounding art, photography, and collecting in particular, shift into focus and suddenly, what might have been a banal conversation even with a fellow art lover, becomes a profound, earnest discussion about patronage, personal symbols, the protection and nurturing of artists, and most importantly the absolute commitment to egalitarianism in collecting without a hint of the usual extremely unattractive acquisitiveness, and unbearable smarminess that can sometimes (actually more often than not) come from those people who consider themselves collectors.
Collecting art, or anything really, is about using tangible symbols to create personal meaning. This is why one person’s collection is so very different from another’s. While some people collect so that they can own particular art works that come with a caché—for instance, in the Western world of contemporary art collection, certain pieces, from a certain period by certain artists are must haves for a “weighty” collection, Isabelle believes, as do most intellectual collectors, that each person must be motivated by personal choice, a will to please oneself versus the pressure of an art market that can bestow honour upon certain artists based on fairly nebulous notions of future appreciation (both price and history wise) - a trend that is not always based on real quality.
Which brings us to aesthetics, and another prickly subject, that is to do with taste. Why do we sometimes put so much value upon an individual’s ability to say that this or that is worthwhile? Both Isabelle and myself believe in creating meaning regardless of net worth—which is why collecting can happen without becoming convoluted by issues of value, meaning that sometimes a discerning individual, like Isabelle, would acquire a work regardless of its relative lack of monetary worth—actively going against a human tendency towards giving importance to something, anything that has been deemed “priceless”. If you can follow your instinct and collect what you love, then it is possible to become a collector without being too much tied to purse strings, making collecting then, more of an act of love, and of a willingness to take risks and most importantly, an issue very central to Isabelle, a way to support young artists at a time in their lives when being bought by a collector is a crucial bestowal of legitimacy, helping them in their careers in a way that only a respected collector can.
Imagine a world where personal tastes and individual quirks would never figure into curating a collection? Every museum would be as predictable as the permanent collection at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, rooms filled with Piccasso, Gaugin, and Matisse - the “greats” of modern art configured in different iterations, but never really changing or adding insight to an existing norm. Isabelle Darrigrand’s presence at Photo Kathmandu and our conversation, which was preceded by a stunning 8 minute slide show of selections from her personal collection, shone a delicate light on the philosophy behind collecting, hopefully allowing those who were physically present at the time a particular insight into not just collecting, but on the importance of nurturing artists, understanding their intent (for Isabelle, her only unwavering criteria for collecting, and hers is a varied collection, is that the photographer must respect his subject), keeping certain pieces by certain artists within the country because of their specific content and context, and understanding that when it comes to art, not everyone may initially see the subtleties of the Christer Strömholm photos that Isabelle collects
(featured in this column), the first because she loves the little boy’s point of view as he stares at the legs of a women for the first time, and the second, because a lit window in an urban landscape evokes for her, the essence of Paris.
Our hope is this, that people will begin to take that first step towards collecting, slowly but surely accumulating, in Isabelle’s perfectly apt analogy, those varied art works, striking or not, like putting poppies next to peonies interspersed with violets, that will eventually make up the perfect bouquet that will come to represent the complete, deeply personal aesthetics of an individual’s collection.