Please note that this work is displayed with a loaner frame for the exhibition, which is available for purchase.
PROPERTY FROM THE COLLECTION OF GRETA GARBO
In the history of cinema, few individuals remain as enigmatic and iconic as the actress Greta Garbo. “Of all the stars who have ever fired the imaginations of audiences,” film historian Ephraim Katz wrote, “none has quite projected a magnetism and a mystique equal to [hers].”
Born in Sweden in 1905, Greta Garbo was a shy, imaginative young woman who studied at Stockholm’s Royal Dramatic Theatre acting school. In 1924, she appeared in her first film, the Swedish-produced Saga of Gosta Berling. After being ‘discovered’ by MGM co-founder Louis B. Mayer, Garbo relocated to Hollywood, and in 1926 released her first American picture, The Torrent. An instant commercial success, the actress would be deemed “the greatest money-making machine ever put on screen,” and later won an honorary Academy Award for her “luminous and unforgettable” performances. Garbo’s mastery of her craft—spellbinding in its subtlety of expression—left an indelible mark on audiences and critics alike.
“Garbo still belongs to that moment in cinema,” philosopher Roland Barthes observed, “when capturing the human face plunged audiences into the deepest ecstasy, when one literally lost oneself in a human image....” In films such as Flesh and the Devil (1926) to her first ‘talking’ picture, Anna Christie (1930), filmgoers were enraptured by the actress’s signature persona of graceful world-weariness. In just twenty-eight films across sixteen years, Garbo managed to solidify her place as one of the twentieth century’s greatest talents. “She would move her head just a little bit,” director George Cukor enthused, “and the whole screen would come alive, like a strong breeze that made itself felt.” Fellow actress Bette Davis described Garbo’s performances as “pure witchcraft.”
Much of the public’s fascination with Garbo stemmed from the actress’s successful evasion of the Hollywood publicity machine. From her earliest years in film to her death in 1990, Garbo granted few interviews, declined to sign autographs, and avoided public functions such as the Academy Awards. After retiring from cinema at just thirty-five years old, the actress transitioned to a life dedicated to fine art, scholarship, and the many friends she held dear. From the 1940s, Garbo began to assemble a remarkable private collection of painting, sculpture, works on paper, and decorative art. For those fortunate enough to be welcomed into the actress’s wood-paneled Manhattan residence, the ‘real’ Garbo would be revealed: a vivacious, quick-witted woman who lived each day surrounded by beauty.
Through both personal erudition and friendships with luminaries such as Albert Barnes and Alfred Barr, Garbo steadily acquired works by artists including Robert Delaunay, Chaïm Soutine, and Alexej von Jawlensky. Dynamically composed in brilliant hues, the collection was largely hidden from public view—a treasure to be absorbed through intimate contemplation and conversation. Garbo’s grandniece, Gray Reisfield Horan, recalled her aunt’s profound love for the collection. “What are they talking about?” she would ask visitors about the pictures. “What do they say to each other?” It was a tremendously personal assemblage, one the actress arranged and re-hung with each new purchase. Horan described the image Garbo sitting each night in front of her favorite paintings, “enjoying her evening scotch and a Nat Sherman cigarettello... held so elegantly with her gemstone encrusted Van Cleef & Arpels holder.”
In many ways, the collection both reflected and rebutted Garbo’s illustrious career: suffused with undeniable visual power, its boldness of color stood in contrast with the argent mystique of early Hollywood. “Color,” Horan recalled of her aunt’s acquisitions, “was always the essential component.... The works meshed and flowed in a wondrous explosion of enveloping hues.... Nothing was black and white.” Garbo herself, mesmerized by Delaunay’s vibrant La femme à l’ombrelle, would often remark of the canvas, “It makes a dour Swede happy.” If Garbo managed to enchant audiences via movement and gaze, so did the artists in her collection similarly capture the viewer through their pioneering use of brushwork and palette. “Color,” she enthused, “is just the starting point. There is so much more.”
In fine art, Greta Garbo found a means of expression that continued long after her final appearance on the silver screen. Whether in the actress’s legendary cinematic career or her more private world of spirited connoisseurship, Garbo enjoyed a truly remarkable life—an elegant vision entirely her own. “You just have to look, and look, and look,” she declared. “That way, when you see something extraordinary, you just know.”
PROPERTY FROM THE COLLECTION OF GRETA GARBO