French Collector Bernard Massini on Violent Beauty, Fiction's Truth, and Sharing

Ronald Ophuis, "Srebrenica 1", 2006
(Courtesy Aeroplastics Contemporary Brussels)

French neurosurgeon Bernard Massini owns an art collection that would be the envy of many lifelong connoisseurs: including 450 works and encompassing paintings, drawings, photographs, videos, and sculpture. Nevertheless, the 59-year-old Massini came into collecting from a relatively inauspicious background. The grandchild of Russian and Italian immigrants to France, he was raised modestly in Nice, where his father worked as a musician and his mother as a laborer. Having developed a passion from an early age for works ranging from Old Masters to modern art — from Titian and Vermeer to Goya, to Matisse, to Picasso to Golub — along with a devoted interest in philosophy, he began amassing works from the young age of 19, with a particular taste for figurative paintings (which make up 90 percent of his works).

Today, he keeps some in his home and others in his extensive office space, renovated by architect Marc Barani. Currently, however, 70 pieces from his collection are on view at the Maeght Foundation in the southern French town of Saint Paul de Vence, selected by Massini and the foundation’s director Olivier Kaeppelin, where they will be displayed through March 17.


Massini otherwise plays an active role in the arts, having served on the jury for the Prix Marcel Duchamp at FIAC in 2006, and currently as president of the Friends of the Musée d’Art Moderne et d’Art Contemporain in Nice. ARTINFO France spoke with him recently about building a collection, the themes of war and suffering he finds himself drawn to, and what’s good and bad in contemporary painting.

What do you think of contemporary painting?

Contemporary painting? [It's] a proliferation of images that are worked over and reused, an overflow of images, usually talkative ones, which leads to a kind of confusion. It seems important to me to show works that contain silence, and intelligence. It’s very rare. Today, the quality of an artwork is often reduced to its market value, but parallel histories are being constructed patiently and stubbornly. I don’t really like the frenetic quality that dominates fairs, since the appreciation of an artwork needs time, dialogue, and an exchange of ideas.

Why do you appreciate figurative art in particular?

People often ask me, “Since you’re a neurosurgeon, why don’t you go for conceptual and minimalist artists?” I always give the same answer: the absolute concept that touches the sublime is in mathematics. Mathematics are the quintessence of the concept. I love mathematics and especially arithmetic. Also, remember that Marcel Duchamp, rather than condemning retinal pleasure and painting in general, was only criticizing the painting of his time.

How did you put together your collection?

My collection grew from conversations and connections that I was able to make with artists, with Alun Williams and Denis Castellas in particular, but also Gérard Garouste and Djamel Tatah. I still remember fragments from these conversations that have enriched my understanding of the world. Moreover, beyond the perceptible surface of their works, I try to understand their intelligible content and to get a hold of the works which seem essential to me. I am not a compulsive collector and my collection is quite thought-out. What I’m looking for in a work is accuracy.

Have you ever thought of leaving neurosurgery for the art world?

Yes, of course. And I was gullible and naïve enough to open a gallery, in Nice and Paris. After two years, I stopped. I had a pretty romantic idea of this profession, which is far from the reality.

Are there particular themes that motivate your collection?

I was born in the ’50s, so I couldn’t help but be marked by the war. The suffering inflicted on other humans is a subject that overwhelms me. I’m interested in themes such as sadness, or how a man can have a family life, get up in the morning, kiss his children, and go massacre other men. The status of the victim, the status of the persecutor, oppression, the mechanisms of genocide, tyranny, violence, and injustice are subjects that stagger me. Leon Golub’s work is at the heart of these subjects, as is that of Ronald Ophuis. In these themes there’s a form of lucidity, a realism, that enlightens us about what human beings are, their relationships to others, and their relationship to the world. These are works that try to translate being and its relationship to others — this notion of alterity that Levinas teaches us about. These people have affected me greatly — it’s a whole part of my life.

Why such large formats?

I like the idea of entering the painting. The works are mostly large formats because history painting has always impressed me and also because my first experiences of art were in museums. You’re in a very realistic representation with a scale of one to one. The work hits you like a fist.

For you, is accuracy connected to truth?

Truth is difficult to perceive in an artwork because by definition it’s a fiction. So I prefer to speak about an accurate work revealing truth through fiction. Believing and sticking to your statement. Showing a work means saying not to forget it. Art is also there to bear witness.

To see works from Bernard Massini's collection on view at the Maeght Foundation, click on the slideshow.