Olivier Berggruen on Picasso, Diaghilev, Stravinsky, Cubism, Classicism, Orientalism, Neoclassicism, aesthetics, the towering achievement of classical music, a love of craftsmanship, creating worlds with the piano, and his Steinway Model B.
By Ben Finane
Photos by Chris Lee
Olivier Berggruen is a German–American art historian and curator. Currently writing a history of art collecting, he is the former curator at the Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt and co-curated the winter 2017–18 exhibition Picasso: Tra Cubismo e Classicismo 1915–1925 with Princess Maria Anunciata von Liechtenstein at Scuderie del Quirinale in Rome. He lives in New York City and spoke to me at his Upper East Side apartment, which he shares with his family and his Steinway Model B.
‘Curator’ is an overused, catch-all title in the twenty-first century, online and off, but you are an actual curator. You recently co-curated a Picasso exhibition in Rome, which takes us from Cubism to Classicism — often by way of Picasso’s works for stage.
We are having a talk about it at Steinway Hall in New York [held November 7, 2017] — specifically on the relationship between Pablo Picasso and Igor Stravinsky. My late father, [art dealer and collector] Heinz Berggruen, who founded the Museum Berggruen [in Berlin], met Picasso in the early fifties and worked with Picasso as a publisher.
I grew up in Paris in an environment in which the visual arts, but also music, were very much encouraged. My father was given a musical education and played the piano. My mother was a stage actress. And the work of Picasso figured prominently at home, since my father was lucky enough not only to have worked with him, but to have collected major works by Picasso at a time when it was still possible to buy great works.
Cubism is the pivotal moment in Picasso’s life — the one that established his reputation as the beacon of modernism, and also revolutionized the history of art by moving away from traditional perspective to a new sense of space on the canvas in particular. Cubism became that watershed moment in the history of modernism.
Already in 1914, during the war, Picasso felt that cubism became too easy a formula. He was always interested in experimenting — never resting on his laurels, but trying something different. Circumstances were such that Picasso, being a Spaniard in Paris, was not enlisted into the war, and therefore free to travel and escape from the very bleak atmosphere then in Paris.
[Sergei] Diaghilev, the talented impresario of the Ballets Russes, along with Jean Cocteau, invited Picasso to work on a new ballet, Parade, with music by [Erik] Satie.
Diaghilev had moved away from traditional Orientalism [e.g., Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring] towards something very much allied with the rise of modernism. This is the period not just of cubism, but of futurism. Diaghilev was desperate to renew himself, and that’s why he continued his collaboration with Stravinsky, who was the backbone of his work.
On this particular occasion, it was Picasso who prompted Diaghilev to find renewal. While in Rome, the two met, and Picasso fell in love with a dancer from Diaghilev’s company, Olga Khokhlova; they married a year later in Paris. So that ushered in a new period in Picasso’s life, and Picasso had this idea of working with Satie, Diaghilev, and [choreographer Léonide] Massine on Parade: something quite lightweight, but introducing these classical elements — and you might say neoclassical elements — and also modernist elements, because Picasso changed the script. Parade had the mixing of the high and the low. “Parade” is a French word for itinerant performers who go town to town and before the evening performance announce their arrival. Picasso’s concept is about mixing ballet, which is considered a high form of art, with the popular theater, which Picasso loved. And then, while in Rome and Naples, Picasso meets Stravinsky.
And the two click! The attraction of traditional and popular forms of art is something that Picasso and Stravinsky both liked, and they also had a similar sense of humor. Picasso drew two portraits of Stravinsky, and he did a third one in 1920, a famous drawing which is now in the collection of the Picasso Museum.
Sometimes with collaboration between great artists, great egos, [things] don’t necessarily work out. While there were certainly clashes between Picasso and Diaghilev, I think they were like-minded, and they put aside their egos in order to create great works of art between 1917 and 1924. The retrospective also has a documentary angle, featuring around fifty letters between Satie, Diaghilev, Picasso, Cocteau, and others. They were languishing in the basement at the Metropolitan Museum here in New York, and had never been seen — all discussing Parade, as well as a four-handed piano reduction of the work and an original score of Stravinsky’s Pulcinella.
For Pulcinella, conductor Ernest Ansermet, Diaghilev, and Stravinsky all went to this library in Naples and they looked at the manuscripts that were said to be by Pergolesi, the eighteenth-century Neapolitan composer known for his Stabat Mater. We now believe that of the eleven or thirteen selections chosen by Stravinsky, only two or three were by Pergolesi. It doesn’t matter. What does matter is that Stravinsky took the score and then reorchestrated it and readapted it in a wonderfully imaginative way. That ushers in the neoclassical style in Stravinsky’s work. At first, Diaghilev did not quite understand what Stravinsky was doing, as he was expecting something as modernist as Manuel de Falla, another collaborator.
All photos: Bridgeman Images
But Stravinsky’s neoclassicism is always delivered with a wink.
Indeed! In the orchestration, you know, there’s a little element of dissonance here, a little…
Things that aren’t quite right.
The parts don’t quite come together.
They don’t, as in Picasso: the exaggeration, in terms of the drawing of a particular limb. Both artists had this kind of monumentality, which, of course, you find in Rome in the monumentality of Roman and Greek art.
Of course. There’s an element of distortion, then everything coalesces somehow. And so Pulcinella was probably the most harmonious of all the collaborations between Picasso and Diaghilev. Everybody was very happy.
We all know that there is nothing more stimulating for a child than to play a musical instrument. We all know that.
Let’s do an about-face from the ineffable to the very tangible. Tell me about your Steinway.
I love Steinways. That goes without saying. Who doesn’t? I love the craft associated with both Hamburg and New York Steinways. I was trained as a pianist in my youth. Then I abandoned the piano, but late in life I met a friend of my father’s who was an art collector and pianist by the name of Eugene Istomin. He had a famous trio with Leonard Rose and Isaac Stern. He talked to me extensively about Steinways and said, “If you’re interested in craft, you should look at these pianos.” So my wife and I had been living in New York for eighteen years, and we toured the factory in [the neighborhood of] Astoria. It’s a unique place. [Pauses.] You know, what I would say to you in very general terms: I have a French education.
So you had to take notes on graph paper; that’s what you’re telling me.
We did that, but being educated in France, especially in the seventies, there was such a respect for traditional craft. You see it in French fashion — and in the fact that all these ateliers still survive. I was taken by my father as a child to meet various people who work with traditional print-making techniques — which is fascinating — and frame-makers, so I was instilled with a love of traditional craftsmanship. This is something that has become very rare, for obvious economic reasons.
Mass production, line production. Things which in the modern world make sense, but there is an aspect to traditional craftsmanship that’s irreplaceable. And this is one of the things that really attracted me to Steinway. We first bought a slightly smaller Steinway, a Model A.
And this is a Model B?
This is a B. I tried a few Bs, and I chose this one in collaboration with David Fung, an Australian–Chinese pianist and Steinway Artist. There are four of us living here now, and the Steinway is played by three!
You still play?
I play. I play more and more nowadays. I play a little bit of Bach, because we all have to do some Bach. And I’m very keen on the Romantic repertoire, so I play a little Schumann, Chopin — but I have a particular affinity for the music of Scriabin. I’m struggling through various Scriabin Preludes and shorter pieces. And I’ve played some Brahms. I’m also interested in contemporary music for piano. So I’m playing some Luciano Berio, which is a challenge, and a bit of [Korean composer] Unsuk Chin, who’s a wonderful composer, now recorded by Deutsche Grammophon, and who kindly sent me her Etudes. My son, Toby, plays. He is seventeen. Ana is quite gifted. She is nine and has already played in a children’s recital at Steinway on Forty-Third Street.
Let’s speak about the intermingling of visual and musical aesthetics. You’re a trained pianist, but one who is inarguably more active and influential in the visual art world.
How do visual and musical aesthetics interact for you?
So this is the most topical question you can ask me at the moment, as I recently participated in a small colloquium in Florence, under the auspices of NYU, on the future of classical music and contemporary classical music.
There is a difference in attending an art fair — or certain museums where there is hype — associated particularly with contemporary visual arts. It has to do with the fact that works of art are tangible objects. They are objects you can buy and sell, and people like to have works of art in their homes.
Whereas music doesn’t “exist” in that way.
Music, of course, exists, but it is not tangible in the same sense. Though I should say, and you know this better than anybody, that in any respectable home a hundred years ago — or perhaps more recently — there would be a beautiful piano like this one somewhere in the living room. And it continues! But we’ve now come to a stage where contemporary visual arts figure very prominently in pop culture at large. While music in some countries is still very much part of the fabric of society, in others it is more difficult and needs further development and encouragement.
We all know that there is nothing more stimulating for a child than to play a musical instrument. We all know that. And if it’s done in public schools, and there are programs… We all know how successful this became in Venezuela with El Sistema and Gustavo Dudamel, a program that was extended and transformed and developed in the Los Angeles area. As a result, the L.A. Philharmonic is the most successful orchestra in America nowadays in terms of attendance, in terms of how varied the public is, how big a crowd it draws.
The reason why art is so important is because it figures so much in our social consciousness, in terms of a sense of place. A musical auditorium — say Carnegie Hall, Disney Hall, the Elphilharmonie, the Pierre Boulez Saal — the concert hall is not necessarily a place where you arrive at seven-thirty, and then there’s a concert at eight, and then you leave as quickly as you can. Somehow there is a sense of space that places the hall in the cultural fabric of society. Not like a museum, because it serves a slightly different purpose, but the concert hall has a certain role in our institutions.
When it comes to music — it doesn’t necessarily have to be classical, it can be jazz, it can be other things, and I think the barriers are a little bit more flexible nowadays — but the achievements of classical music rank with any art. When it comes to classical music after Schoenberg, I would say that if we think of the piano repertoire of Webern, Schoenberg, Messiaen, Boulez, Nono, and others, in terms of the sophistication, the thinking, the level of emotion, the element of contemplation, the sheer beauty that comes out of this music — crossing over to jazz greats Bill Evans, Keith Jarrett, Oscar Peterson, it’s unbelievable what has been achieved in the field of so-called classical music!
Take the sophistication of the thinking of someone like Morton Feldman or John Cage, and it’s no coincidence that John Cage also engaged in collaboration with Merce Cunningham and Jasper Johns. A very successful collaboration! Music should be more than the mere entertainment that a certain type of pop music provides. And this is not to disparage pop music either, but there are different needs in our lives. Sometimes you want music to be uplifting, to give us something more than just sheer background noise!
With a piano, you can create different worlds, and I think that is something extraordinary! To have this thing, which is here with you at home!
A fine elaboration on the strict German designations of E-Musik and U-Musik [ernste Musik and Unterhaltungsmusik, or serious and light music, respectively].
At the end of the day, it’s a phenomenon that we also find in the visual arts, in the sense that the artists who are the biggest crowd-pleasers — say, the children of the pop generation, of the Warhol generation, by which I mean Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons, Murakami in Japan, and others — these artists whose work offers an immediate visual impact, they are the ones who succeed the most in today’s general pop culture.
Should we be pleased with that? Should we be concerned? Or is it just the way things are?
It’s a reflection of the world in which we live, and we shouldn’t be too elitist. There is a French writer who once said, “My slogan is ‘Elitism for all.’” That’s really what I would aspire to.
If a Damien Hirst exhibition draws you into a museum, and you see it and you say, “Wow!” but then you wander into another gallery and you see something which is more difficult, say a painting by Titian or even by Kandinsky, and if that draws you in, if that gives you an opening into something else, then I think that’s something to be welcomed.
In the same manner, there’s a long list of wonderful classical composers like Korngold — or Miles Davis in jazz — who wrote for film. And film music can be a point of entry. Or the Boston Pops and John Williams. That’s a point of entry. And after all, Luciano Berio, who was among the most avant-garde composers, did his own adaptation of the Beatles’ songs, which are beautiful.
And we still have the through line from Bach to Berio. Nothing comes out of left field.
Yes, we have all of that. And the piano, there are thousands of ways of playing the piano! And what I love about the piano, apart from the repertoire — you can spend your life playing Liszt or Chopin and discovering new things in this music — is there are hundreds and hundreds of ways of playing piano. I came to the official opening of the new Steinway Hall in New York and I heard Yuja Wang, whom I worship, and I also heard Robert Glasper, who I think is a wonderful pianist! I love his music and I love the way that he does something with a piano, with a lot of ostinato, a lot of repeated notes. I think of the quality of sound that someone like Keith Jarrett obtains — or this Italian jazz pianist, Stefano Bollani, who is a genius as far as I’m concerned. What one can do! With a piano, you can create different worlds, and I think that is something extraordinary! To have this thing, which is here with you at home! There is a lot to be said for creating your own music. And you can do that with a guitar, of course. You can do it with a violin. But the piano gives you a range that is infinite.