William Cook

Art and soul

William Cook meets one of Europe’s most influential art collectors Frieder Burda, a man who likes paintings, not pickled sharks

Art and soul
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Imagine you had £20 million to spare, burning a big hole in your pocket. What would you spend it on? You could buy a stately home or a private jet, but that would be so boring. Surely the nicest way to spend it would be to ask one of America’s greatest architects to build a new museum in your hometown, to show the world your favourite paintings. Now that really would be fun.

For the man I’ve come to meet today, this is no idle fantasy. It’s the story of his life. Ten years ago, Frieder Burda invited Richard Meier to design a gallery to house his art collection, here in Baden Baden. Since it opened in 2004, the Frieder Burda Museum has transformed this sedate spa town into a cultural oasis in the Black Forest. Marlene Dietrich said Baden Baden had the world’s most beautiful casino. It now has one of the world’s most beautiful galleries — a sleek glass sanctuary in a leafy valley, flooded with natural light. ‘It’s a little masterpiece,’ says Herr Burda, a boyish septuagenarian with a thick mop of silver hair. Flanked by a pair of Miró sculptures, which guard the entrance like two jolly sentries, his museum is a wonderful place to while away a few hours. And, remarkably, in Britain it’s still virtually unknown.

We’re sitting in the drawing-room of Brenners, one of Germany’s most famous hotels. There’s a Reynolds above the fireplace, but the most striking artwork on view is Meier’s gallery, a shiny white cube bathed in sunshine, a short walk away across the park. David Hockney is a familiar guest at this grand hotel and at that gallery. The English brought golf and tennis here, the French brought roulette and racing. Burda has given this historic resort the one thing it’s always lacked — a proper forum for fine art.

However, Frieder Burda’s gallery isn’t just a classy tourist destination. It also indicates a sea change in the direction of modern art. Burda is one of Europe’s most influential collectors, with an impressive track record for anticipating future trends long before the market catches up. ‘I never studied art, but I definitely had the right feeling,’ he says, with a shrewd grin. ‘This is something you cannot learn.’ He bought a dazzling array of work by the brilliant German painter Gerhard Richter, at a time when conventional painting was widely regarded as obsolete. ‘Of course I like his art,’ he says, sipping his mid-morning cappuccino, ‘but — and this is important — Gerhard Richter is a good painter. We have so many painters who cannot paint.’

Burda and Richter became good friends, dining together here at Brenners and travelling to Israel together (Israel is one of Burda’s lifelong inspirations). ‘He is definitely our best painter in Germany,’ says Burda, and now the entire art world has come round to his point of view. ‘I had a feeling for good quality,’ he reiterates, emphatically. And quality, like the truth, will out. Today, Richter is the most expensive living artist on the planet. When Burda buys a work of art, you can bet it’s on the up. ‘He lives in his own world,’ he says of Richter. ‘He doesn’t look at what other painters are doing.’ It could almost double as a manifesto for his own approach to art. ‘When Gerhard Richter started, they all said in Germany, “Painting is dead.” He proved that painting was not dead. I don’t think that painting will ever die.’

Frieder Burda was born in 1936, the second of three brothers. His father Franz made his fortune founding Bunte, one of Germany’s bestselling magazines. Franz bought pictures by German Expressionists such as Max Beckmann and Emil Nolde to hang on his walls. ‘The house was always full of artists — I grew up with painting,’ recalls Frieder. Yet his childhood home was no utopia. ‘I had a very difficult youth because I couldn’t speak properly,’ he reveals. (He no longer has a speech impediment, but as we discuss his family he stammers slightly.) ‘The marriage between my parents was not a good marriage — it was a very difficult marriage,’ he tells me. His mother was also a prolific publisher. His parents were clearly both very driven. ‘When they were together they had only fights, but my father didn’t want to be divorced, maybe because of his three boys — he was very conservative in a way. The marriage was not good. I was in the middle. I wanted to do something on my own.’

Frieder Burda bought his first picture in 1968, a lacerated crimson canvas by the Italian artist Lucio Fontana. ‘I was so impressed,’ he remembers fondly. ‘I had no idea about the artist.’ That didn’t matter. It was love at first sight. This painting cost 3,000 Deutschmarks (£1,200), a lot of money for a young man to find in 1968, but Frieder had to have it. He hoped it would annoy his father. ‘I wanted to shock him,’ he chuckles. ‘I thought he would be upset.’ He failed — his father quite liked the painting — but Frieder had caught the bug. He bought a broad range of painters, from Germans such as Georg Baselitz to American artists like Alex Katz, but it was never a way of making money. ‘When I was building my collection, it was only emotional,’ he says. ‘I only wanted the paintings. I was fascinated by the art.’

He now owns more than 1,000 artworks, including the largest private collection of Gerhard Richters, but the gaps in his collection are equally significant. He has no interest in video installations. He owns no unmade beds or pickled sharks. ‘I don’t want to have conceptual art in my museum,’ he declares. ‘I want to have paintings on my walls.’ Do his preferences point the way towards a revival of traditional values? Let’s hope so. There’s nothing nostalgic or old-fashioned about his collection — it’s full of works that shock and startle — but with its focus on established genres, it represents a return to the classical roots of modern art.

Burda’s museum attracts about 200,000 visitors a year, not bad going in a town with barely 50,000 inhabitants. He mounts several shows every year, with a core from his own collection bolstered by loans from other institutions. Previous exhibitions have ranged from Marc Chagall to Sigmar Polke. His most innovative show married the cinematic photos of Gregory Crewdson with the super-realist sculptures of Duane Hanson. It was as if Crewdson’s lowlife characters had stepped straight off the wall. His last exhibition was devoted to the quirky American painter William Copley. ‘He’s funny — I like him very much.’

The artworks in Burda’s collection often take you by surprise. His late Picassos refute the orthodox critique that Picasso’s work declined with age. His figurative paintings by Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko shed fresh light on their more celebrated abstract works. ‘You cannot make abstract painting if you are not a good painter,’ he says, but his love of Rothko goes a good deal deeper. ‘You cannot explain a Rothko — it’s something emotional,’ he says. It’s that emotional connection which drives Burda’s collection, and makes it so appealing to the public. He doesn’t have much time for colder genres like Pop Art. After all these years, as the Beckmanns and Kirchners in his collection confirm, he’s still an Expressionist at heart like his late father.

So what gives this businessman such a shrewd eye for modern art? One reason is his unique upbringing. His father bought modern masters, but the magazines he published were unashamedly midmarket. Bunte is bright and breezy, a Teutonic Woman’s Own (the edition that secured its success was devoted to Queen Elizabeth’s Coronation). Frieder was weaned on high culture, but working for the family firm, giving German Hausfraus what they wanted, he acquired a taste for vivid colour and a healthy appreciation of the common touch. Franz Burda’s Bunte was populist and unpretentious. ‘But he liked it. The most important thing for a publisher is that he must like what he is publishing.’

Which brings us to the main reason why Frieder Burda is such a great collector. It’s because he has no strategy, no game plan. He isn’t an investor or a speculator. He doesn’t buy art to make a profit. He simply buys what he likes. ‘I never thought a lot about what I was doing,’ he says, looking across the park at his lovely gallery. It’s the sort of thing a great artist might say when they’ve just completed a great work of art.