by Roderick Conway Morris

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Jan Krugier Collection
Seated Draughtsman by Hubert Robert, 18th century

The Timeless Eye

By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE 20 November 1999


'Drawings are like the first cry of the human being, the 'To be or not to be.' Painting is an elaboration of this, but drawings take us directly back into a tradition that stretches back to the first traces, the first marks our ancestors left behind them on earth.' That is Jan Krugier, speaking of a passion that has led him over the last three decades to build up one of the world's finest collections of drawings in private hands.

Krugier was born into a Polish-Jewish family in 1928. The family was deported by the Nazis in 1942, and he was the only one to survive a series of concentration camps, from which he was liberated in 1945. By the time he was 40, he found himself still unable to escape the nightmares of his past. At his wife Marie-Anne's suggestion, he began to study the art of drawings and buy them as a kind of diversion from the dark thoughts that threatened to overwhelm him. He immersed himself in their skill and beauty. Had he not found this escape, he says he would 'not have been able to go on.'

Nearly 200 of his acquisitions are on show at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in 'The Timeless Eye: Master Drawings From the Jan and Marie-Anne Krugier-Poniatowski Collection,' on view here until Dec. 12 before going on to Madrid, Geneva, New York and eventually, the couple hopes, Warsaw. 'It is our dream to do this,' Krugier said of getting the show to Warsaw, 'but money is simply not available there at the moment for this kind of thing, so we are trying to find private sponsors.'

The 500-year span of the collection - which includes works by Carpaccio, Pontormo, Parmigianino, Tintoretto, Tiepolo, Rubens, Rembrandt, Poussin, Fragonard, David, Constable, Turner, Delacroix, Ingres, Gericault, Degas, Seurat, Cézanne, Bonnard, Kandinsky, Klee, Matisse, Picasso, De Chirico, De Kooning and Giacometti - and its exceptional quality make it almost a condensed encyclopedia of European art from the Renaissance to today, but seen in the studio, at the moment when the artist's vision first takes on physical form.

And, given that exhibitions exclusively of drawings and watercolor are not normally great crowd-pullers, it has been an unexpected hit, with an average of well over 7,000 visitors a week, close to the museum's highest-ever attendances.

A particular strength of the show is the way it illustrates the continuity of basic techniques employed by masters down the centuries, and the close links between artists of different eras, something in which Krugier is intensely interested.

Krugier's enthusiam for art was fostered by his father, an amateur art lover and collector, and further encouraged by the Swiss family that adopted him after the war. He trained to become an artist, but this pursuit, rather than proving fulfilling and therapeutic, merely aroused the ghosts of the past. By then he had become friends with Giacometti, who counseled him to give up painting and use his knowledge and fine eye to advise others on art. In 1962, Krugier opened his own gallery in Geneva, one of his first shows being of the Swiss sculptor.

The staging of this show containing so many old masters in a museum devoted to modern art clearly underlines the debt of the great artists of the 20th century to a tradition within which they could innovate and reinvent themselves.

'I don't believe in progress in art,' he said. 'I think the idea is utterly irrelevant when it comes to art. That is why the pictures in the Lascaux Caves are still far more important than, say, a drawing by Twombly. The latter represents the aesthetics of the moment, but the Lascaux drawings have a permanent expressive and spiritual value.'

The necessity to rest and rotate some of the drawings means that each edition of the event will have a common thread but be somewhat different. In Madrid, Krugier will include some related painting and sculpture - juxtaposing one of his latest acquisitions, 'a wonderful Egyptian First Dynasty sculpture of a walking man,' with a piece by Giacometti.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023