Munich in English - selected by independent Locals for Cosmopolitans, Newcomers and Residents - since 1989

back to overview

November 2001

Shared Wealth

Lucky for us, collecting masterpieces was one German doctor’s bag

For those who enjoy great paintings, but don’t give a fig about interpretation or background, Die Sammlung des Dr. Rau: Meisterwerke von Fra Angelico bis Bonnard (The Collection of Dr. Rau: Masterworks from Fra Angelico to Bonnard), now at the Haus der Kunst, is perfect. More inquisitive visitors may wish to learn about the mysterious Dr. Rau; they will be rewarded, for to know this man’s intriguing story is to better understand his majestic collection.

Gustav Rau, a retired doctor now living near Lake Constance, spent 30 years treating sick and undernourished children in Zaire. When Rau’s father sold his automobile accessories business, this gave his son the funds with which to amass the second-largest private art collection in the world. Over three decades, a few times a year, Rau visited European auction houses, acquired more masterpieces, and stowed them in a cellar near Zurich, Switzerland. Rau’s collection may have remained hidden in Switzerland, had he not fallen ill soon after retiring to Monaco in 1993. He was declared mentally unsound and Swiss authorities took control of his collection. However, Rau made enough of a recovery to contest the diagnosis, and wrested his pictures from the iron grip of bureaucracy. He has since donated the collection to Unicef, and sent the best works on a world tour.

While other famous private art collections, such as those of Phillips or Barnes, tend to focus on one period of painting, Rau’s assemblage is unique in that it covers the entire canon of western art. Whether it was the doctor’s plan to bring together five centuries of masterworks, with representatives of almost every school of painting, is not known. But it certainly has an impact on visitors to the exhibit, when they are presented with this panorama of European painting. Furthermore, though we are familiar with the works of almost every artist included in the collection—Canaletto, Tiepolo, El Greco, Gainsborough, Cezanne, Munch and Macke, to name but a few—the pieces on display here have been cellared away for so long, they retain a freshness no longer enjoyed by so many other, over-exposed masterpieces. Now these long-obscured works have come thrillingly to light, in Munich.

It is, perhaps, no coincidence that a doctor would have a special affinity for portraits of the ailing. The misery portrayed in Joshua Reynolds’ painting of 8-year-old Rebecca Watson, a somber young girl depicted in cool blue and silver tones, was likely intimately familiar to Rau. Similarly, Edgar Degas’ final self-portrait, depicting an old man on the verge of blindness, peers at the viewer, sad and defeated. Rau seems to have chosen portraits characterized both by individuality and the universality of human emotions, as seen in Gerard Dou’s The Cook, who gazes out her window, pot in hand, in the middle of an everyday exchange.

French poet Stéphane Mallarmé’s observation that the painter Alfred Sisley “holds on to the fleeting moment of the day” applies not only to the work we see here—a view along the Seine entitled Saint-Mammè, La Croix-blanche—but to many other landscapes in this collection. Viewers feel the warmth of a summer afternoon in Pierre Bonnard’s composition Open Window in Uriage or the chill of a winter day in Gustave Caillebotte’s Snow-Covered Roof Tops.

If there is any style that has been excluded from Rau’s collection, it is the epic: large, dramatic tableaux depicting an historical event—what Germans affectionately refer to as ein großer Schinken (a big ham). In fact, such stirring scenes would be quite out of place among works that are distinguished by their sheer simplicity. A single, pale pink rose in a chestnut vase painted by Odilon Redon jumps off the canvas, as fresh and vital as the day it was painted. Corot’s tranquil Path to a House in the Country draws the viewer into the rural scene as lucidly as any modern photograph could.

The collection is dotted with several oddities, such as the quirky Portrait of a Picador, El Coriano by Ignacio Zuloaga y Zabaleta and a rendering of naked fishermen by Frédéric Bazille. While El Grecos’s depiction of San Domenico, a figure transfixed in prayer, kneeling beneath a gray, foreboding sky, or an unknown 17th-century Italian artist’s dark and mysterious Portrait of Maddalena del Grande, may not be paintings to which visitors warm instantly, most will find themselves returning for a second look.

Once asked to name a favorite piece in his collection, Rau, perhaps seeing himself in the work, selected a portrait of François-Henri, Duc d’Harcourt by Fragonard, a work bristling with vitality. In the painting, the duke, caught by surprise, looks back, half smiling, his clothes and hair flowing with motion. He may have both feet planted firmly on the ground, but he is open to and involved with what is happening around him.

tell a friend