Former investment manager, now full-time art collector Christian Levett and his wife Florence recently moved to the city. Their central Florence home is an inspiring gallery in its own right, hung with abstraction art by women artists, alongside classical busts and lovingly framed family photos. The Florentine spoke with Christian and Florence one grey afternoon, our spirits immediately lifted by the privilege of being surrounded by such a collection.
Here we are surrounded by your thought-provoking art. How did you become an art collector?
Christian Levett: The short answer is I’ve been a fanatical collector of things since my childhood. From the age of seven or eight I started collecting inexpensive 18th- and 19th-century English coins and World War I campaign medals. I reconnected with it in my mid-twenties at a point in my life when I started to earn quite a lot of money trading commodities in the markets. I moved to Paris for 18 months when I was 25 and art educated myself in the museums there. During that period, I started collecting paintings, which I felt I liked at the time. Then I got back into collecting Roman coins, hand-painted books and antiquities, which led to the opening of the Mougins Museum in southern France in 2011. For the last eight years, the collections have been surrounding post-war art. In our house in France we have Impressionist and post-Impressionist drawings. We also have collections of zero movement art. We’ve also been collecting 20th-century African art. In the last couple of years, we’ve really built up the female abstraction collection significantly, which is what led to the rehanging of the house here in Florence and what we have today.
Your aim is to open up your home to small groups of art enthusiasts. What will that entail?
We decided to share the collection with the public. But this is our home, so unlike the museum in Mougins, which is normally open 364 days a year, we can’t have people wandering in and out all day. We thought a nice thing to do would be to host specialist groups four or five times a month, such as university art history groups or senior level museum patrons. Partnering with museums and institutions in Florence is one of our main focuses at the moment. There are over 20 American university campuses alone in Florence, and given that most of the artworks are American, we thought this synergy could work very well. We’ve been in touch with two of the major art museums in Florence and two of the leading American universities, and they’re both extremely excited about bringing patron and student groups to see the collection, as is the British Institute. Everyone that we’ve talked so far is completely on board. We’ve also started doing Zoom tours for the patrons of two major UK museums and another in Japan, plus there’s a couple of other collectors’ tours lined up.
How are you both finding the experience of moving to Florence and settling into a city so focused on culture in the middle of what we’re living through at the moment?
Florence: I’m enjoying the pace of not having the city full of tourists. I feel like I’m getting to know it in a way that’s different, like you’re really in the soul of this place. I’m seeing Florence so much clearer now. Of course, it’s difficult to see businesses closed, but on a positive note we’ve managed to meet a lot of interesting people in between times.
Christian: Actually, it hasn’t hindered us meeting people because people network here; there’s spider’s webs of people. You meet one person and, before you know it, you’ve actually met quite a lot of people. It’s clear that everybody knows each other. You very quickly get a sense that you’re living in a relatively small town, despite its global importance and reputation.
Florence, do you have a special connection with the city, given your first name?
Florence: Maybe partially. My parents had a house near San Gimignano, so this whole area, Siena, Florence, it was a big part of their world. There’s always been a real link for me to Italy because we love it. I used to come every summer, my grandpa had a house here, so there’s definitely a real familiarity for me.
What’s your impression of how the pandemic is impacting collecting and the art world?
Christian: I think it’s speeded up the move to more successful digital marketing to some degree and the participation in online auctions, which has exploded the business for the big auction houses online. Probably for the first time, it has made buying art without seeing it seemingly credible and not such a bad idea as it appeared before. Normally I would rarely buy a picture, particularly one of value, without looking at it. I’d rather get on a plane to New York, if only actually to be there for an hour, view the picture and then head back to the airport. A reasonable part of the formation of this collection has been bought unseen in the last 12 months or so, and only on a couple of occasions have I been disappointed.
Florence: The galleries do some amazing, really beautiful 360° films. They really jumped on the digital trend at the beginning of the lockdown. You really get a sense of the piece. People have clearly become more comfortable with it and galleries have become experts in filming and describing pieces.
So, will you be getting back on the plane in the future?
Christian: I’d trust them a little more, but the urge is always to get on a plane and go to a viewing for a number of different reasons. Often you go to a viewing because you have an idea in mind based on catalogue, you get there, see something else, and end up buying a different picture! People in the art world don’t want to sit at a computer all day; they want to go out and experience it. We have reached a point where collectors have received so many emails that buyers have got email fatigue. We just want to go to an art fair now; go to Christie’s or Sotheby’s, and look at an exhibition.
Florence: It’s a huge part of the art world, you’re buying into that. It’s a social thing.
You serve on numerous boards and sponsor exhibitions, including the Ashmolean Museum and the British Museum. Do you have any philanthropic plans here in Florence?
Christian: We were one of three sponsors for the cleaning of the Dante memorial in Santa Croce and we’ve also made a donation to The British Institute.
Visit www.mouginsmusee.com if you would like to reach out to Christian and Florence Levett and learn more about their collection and the Mougins Museum in France.
About the art
The visit starts with a 1937 charcoal drawing by Mercedes Matter, an early female artist in the movement. The sketch shows Lee Krasner as the sitter; she was studying with Mercedes Matter at the time. “It displays the foundations of the Abstract Expressionist movement in the New York area,” Christian explains.
We move along the hallway on the piano nobile to peer at Perle Fine’s 1954 Painting No. 56. A pioneer of Abstract Expressionism, the artist was at the forefront of developing the movement as one of the 12 women (out of 74 abstract expressionist artists) who showed at the ground-breaking 9th Street Art Exhibition. “This is a gentle piece, with soothing colours and soft vertical and horizontal lines, with almost a still life underneath. The brick-like layout was influenced by Mondrian’s geometry,” outlines Florence.
Pat Pasloff’s Stove (1959) dominates the living room. An action painting, we see Willem de Kooning influence with “wild brushstrokes underneath a mass of pale blue with masses and masses of layers added over a long time” (Christian). “It draws you in to see what’s going on more closely.”
Also in the living room, above a doorway, Audrey Flack’s Homage to Franz Kline (1951) shows black lines inspired by his oeuvre. Next to this painting, lower down, Cedar Bar by Grace Hartigan (1951) was initially called Aries, but the artist changed the name without explaining why in her journals. Named after the Cedar Bar in Greenwich Village, Christian points out a yellow pentacle and white body of the ram.
In the dining room: Grace Hartigan’s Portrait of W (1951-52) was discussed at length in her journal. It was painted a few months after the 9th Street Art Exhibition under George Hartigan, the male moniker used by the artist until 1954. At this time, her paintings were also being acquired by MoMA and the Whitney, bringing her “shoulder to shoulder with the likes of Jackson Pollock”. Also in the dining room, a three-metre high 1977 painting in earthy tones by Joan Mitchell has a Monet feel, painted as it was in Vétheuil, in Northern France, where the Impressionist master also lived. Above the bar, our gaze is drawn to Yvonne Thomas’s Transmultation (1956), who moved from Nice to America. “A spectacularly beautiful painting, Thomas never painted a bad picture in the 1950s,” Christian enthuses.
Helen Frankenthaler’s Bending Blue (1977) is a three-metre tall masterwork in colour fielding, of which Rothko and Frankenthaler were pioneers. Florence explains how acrylic paints were mixed with paint thinner in coffee cans before being poured onto the canvas and staining it. The paint was then manipulated with rollers and sponges to make shapes in the colour, hence the abstraction. “The paint is expressing the freedom for the artist,” says Florence, to which Linda replies that Frankenthaler wrote, “A really good picture looks as if it were born in a minute.”
Landing midway down the staircase, we pause to observe a 1962 work by Amaranth Ehrenhalt, which enjoyed a good review in the Herald Tribune after being shown at the Paris exhibition. Later, Christian elucidates, the journalist commented that had he known that the painting hadn’t been made by a man, he wouldn’t have praised it so highly. “It’s a million colours in a painting.”
In the lobby, Elaine de Kooning reigns supreme with her 1954 pure abstract portrait of Walter Auerbach, which Christian defines as “the Mona Lisa of Elaine De Kooning’s portraiture”. Opposite, the artist’s masterpiece The Burghers of Amsterdam Avenue (1963) stretches 4.5 metres wide: “If that was the Mona Lisa, then this is The Last Supper of Elaine De Kooning”. Finally, Elaine de Kooning’s 1963 JFK required more than 100 preparatory drawings to produce before the president’s untimely death in November 1963 and resulted in 24 paintings rather than one. “It’s almost like she fell in love with him after spending three months with him,” muses Christian. “It was pretty much all she did that year and then she went a year without painting after he died.” It’s an action painting, more about the posture than the face.
We finish our visit in Christian’s office, which is hung with primarily Bay Area abstract expressionist artists, who studied under Clyfford Still. Sonia Gechtoff’s The Map (1958) was chosen by the curators of MoMA to represent America at the first Paris Biennial in 1959.