Color has tremendous power. It stirs the passions, uplifts the spirit. Little wonder, then, that a quarter million people lined up in 1998 to see the Israel Museum, Jerusalem’s first blockbuster show, the “Joy of Color.” Many of the works in that show of Fauve and expressionist art came from the collection of Werner and Gabrielle Merzbacher.
Last week the museum opened “Color Gone Wild,” a show of forty-two Fauve and German expressionist works, all from the same collection. Werner Merzbacher was in Jerusalem for the opening and told how his interest in these artistic movements was shaped by the collection of his wife’s grandfather, Bernhard Mayer, a wealthy fur merchant who lived in Switzerland.
But Merzbacher was an art collector long before he met Mayer. He was born in Germany in 1928; his father was a doctor. In 1938, after Kristallnacht, Merzbacher’s parents send him to Switzerland, where a Christian doctor took him in. His parents died in Majdanek concentration camp.
Merzbacher won scholarships to schools, but for pocket money he did odd jobs, including working in a bakery. He already had the urge to collect art, an urge he did not attempt to explain, and by the age of twenty he could afford his first paintings, social-critical works.
But the sight of Mayer’s collection of ten high-quality paintings from the 1920s impressed the young man and inspired him to develop his taste.
“It became a passion,” he said. “I worked a lot to be able to follow this passion.” The work was in the Mayer family’s fur business and also in finance. And the first painting to become part of the collection was “Dorfstrasse,” by Kandinsky.
The result was a home near Zurich filled with brilliantly hued works. The Merzbachers could have breakfast while looking at a Kandinsky and drink coffee under a portrait by von Jawlensky.
But the collection had its darker side: While the couple enjoyed the fruits of their shared passion for art, their older daughter, Merzbacher said, “never wanted to bring home friends because of what was hanging on the walls.”
And now, as he approaches eighty-five, he is hardly acquiring more art. “There’s no room to hang it,” he said simply.
But the works he has already collected are being shown more often. In 2015, works from the collection will be hung side by side with paintings of Van Gogh at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, to show the earlier artists’ influence. Meanwhile, the exhibition at the Israel Museum is scheduled to run until November 2.
P.S. Some day I will figure out how to insert images in the new WordPress format. People like me will never understand why website designers can’t leave well enough alone.
Text copyright 2013 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text may be used without written permission of the author.
A private passion becomes a source of joy for many