Carlos Slim's Xanadu?: Reactions to the World's Richest Man's Overweening New Museo Soumaya
Carlos Slim, widely described as the richest man in the world, opened his new museum to house his personal collection this month and, while you'd think that the opening of a brand new, massive trove of world treasures opening to the public would be a cause for universal celebration, the reviews haven't exactly been stellar. The personal collection that forms his brand-new Museo Soumaya in Mexico City, named after his late wife, has endured some pointed criticism, with critics deeming it eclectic at best, and, at worst, a totally incoherent grab bag of stuff a la William Randolph Hearst's notorious Xanadu. It's enough to make you think that, just maybe, having enough money to acquire literally anything has its downside, aesthetically at least. (The museum's design, by Fernando Romero, a 39-year-old architect who worked with Rem Koolhaas and also happens to be Slim's son-in-law, has generally met with more positive reception.) Below, ARTINFO takes a look at reactions around the world to Slim's ambitious undertaking.
The L.A. Times' star critic Christopher Knight digs the "windowless, cinched-corset shape — call it the 'bustier building.'" But he's surprised by "just how weak the museum's collection is, and how poorly the paintings, sculptures and decorative arts have been installed in the open floor plan galleries." He goes on to point out that the museum's collection, which was on view in a smaller building for several years, was never really impressive. "If you love Salvador Dalí's cheesy Surrealist bronze sculptures of the 1970s and 1980s, churned out for moneyed provincial buyers; posthumous (if authorized) casts of Auguste Rodin masterworks; or sentimental Victorian odes to childhood innocence, carved in marble, this is the place for you." The best news? "Admission is free."
Art + Auction's own Benjamin Genocchio finds the building "really spectacular" from the outside, "a cross between a spaceship, a mushroom, and a futuristic Mariko Mori installation." But he deems it derivative on the inside, imitating the Guggenheim's layout, down to the spiral ramp. Since by some estimates the collection is worth $700 million, Genocchio wonders why Slim couldn't have used those vast sums "to put together a truly important and historical collection for his museum, rather than a grab-bag of objects across endless categories." The collection and the architecture are also at odds: it's "a quasi-encyclopedic collection shoe-horned into a contemporary art museum."
In an unbylined piece in its "Weltkunst" magazine, German newspaper Die Zeit relates criticisms of Slim as an uninformed nouveau riche, along with "a persistent rumor that he has paintings hanging in his house with Sotheby's labels still on them." The collection does not seem at all "representative of one of the world's wealthiest men, and certainly not of a real art connoisseur: a dark van Gogh from his early phase here, then several Mexican colonial portraits, a few sculptures by Dalí or Picasso, a Miró or a Max Ernst there, and so on — a surprising mix."
Some choose to see the varied nature of Slim's collection as a strength, including Roberta Bosco of Spain's El País, who diplomatically writes that "eclectic does not begin to describe it" and lists its contents as including "colonial art, nineteenth-century art, avant-garde art, a thousand pre-Columbian artifacts, a large collection of coins, prints, relics, miniatures.... as well as a small fashion collection." She goes on to quote Alejandro Massó, a consultant to the museum, who describes Slim's collection as "one of the 10 or 12 largest collections in the world created by individuals" and compares it to "the grand collections of U.S. industrialists who imitated French and English aristocrats of the 19th century and created personal collections that became great museums."
For the Wall Street Journal's Nicholas Casey, the Museo Soumaya injects some needed artistic muscle into Mexico City, since it lacks an art museum worthy of international buzz. "Sure, the city has a great anthropology museum, if your idea of fun is staring at pre-Columbian figurines for several hours." Visiting the museum before its opening, Casey is wowed by the architecture, and offers a rather odd historical reference: "a few steps into the narrow entrance, the museum unfolds as an airy white gallery — a trick an architect tells me was used by Baroque builders to convey a sense of grandeur." But he does include a critical voice, that of Rodrigo Rivera, a Mexico City art dealer and antiquarian, who calls Slim "impulsive." "The king is interested in quantity," Rivera says. "He's interested in a big museum, not a grand museum."
Finally, an interview that Slim gave to the U.K.'s Telegraph would seem to indicate that if the museum has taken fire from critics, the gazillionaire himself can take the blame, depicting him as a bit of a control freak who insists that each detail fit his personal specifications. The construction manager on the Soumaya project says, "I just see him come in and watch his eyes scanning the building, because I know that wherever his gaze settles, he is going to want something improving or tweaking." On the other hand, if the building has been subject of praise, he can take credit for that too: According to Slim, he told his son-in-law that "there are two architects on this project... you and me!" Finally, lest there be any doubt that his tastes are truly global, when asked what work he'd like to add to the collection, Slim replies by naming two works in particular that he'd like to show at his space: "The Winged Victory of Samothrace" and the "Venus de Milo." They say good things come in threes, so maybe Slim should see if the Louvre can throw the "Mona Lisa" into the deal too.