The Tribune - Spectrum


, May 26, 2002
'Art and Soul

To collect and then to donate
B.N. Goswamy

The month of Karttika: lovers playing a game of dice Pahari, 18th century; Collection Horst Metzger
The month of Karttika: lovers playing a game of dice Pahari, 18th century; Collection Horst Metzger

THE last time that I met Horst Metzger in Zurich some years back, I had no idea that he was suffering from an illness that eventually claimed his life last year. He must have known it himself, of course, but he made no concessions to the dread malady, judging from the enthusiastic manner that he was still going about, looking at paintings, discussing matters of fine detail about specific pictures. Indian paintings were his first, perhaps his only, love in the area of art, and his passion for them apparently kept him going. He had just acquired, at an auction in New York, a beautiful Pahari painting showing a young couple – the man dark like Krishna, and his beloved wearing that demure expression which one associates with seductive nayikas – sitting on a terrace, playing a game of dice. The scene was set in a dark night, with candle-stands placed close to the carpet upon the terrace, and tall poles at the side from which were suspended, balance-like, lamps that burnt steadily. When one saw, in addition, the piles of coins lying next to the players, suggesting their being engaged in gambling, one knew that it was the month of Karttika, in which the festival of Divali falls, that the painter had rendered. Dr. Metzger did not quite know that the painting came from a Baramasa series, and it might not even have mattered to him: what he had responded to, while buying the painting, was its sheer aesthetic charm. It was, as I said, a truly beautiful painting, but, at that moment, he was interested in knowing my view on his thought that the work was possibly by Nainsukh, the celebrated 18th century painter, on whom I had published a book a short while earlier.

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Remembering a painter of birds
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The mysteries of silk
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I remember the occasion well: we pored over his picture for quite a while, silently, and I recall his looking at me intently as I sat, taking the details in patiently, very carefully. Finally, when I looked up and gave him my considered view that the work was in the style of Nainsukh – done by a member of the family, very close to him – but not by Nainsukh himself, I sensed that he was a little disappointed. But not quite put out. He was naturally interested in my reasoning, and I shared all my thoughts with him. Then, after taking all that in with a measure of good cheer, and thanking me warmly for my time, he rose, saying simply and quietly: "But, some day, I know I shall have a Nainsukh in my collection ...."

This was spoken like a true collector. Horst Metzger was not in it professionally – he was a scientist who occupied for long years a position high up in the echelons of a major chemical concern in Germany – but from 1978 onwards, when he acquired his first Indian work through a casual gift, he was ‘hooked’, so to speak. Collecting Indian paintings became for him something of an obsession, and everyone in the field knew that he would be there at every single auction, bidding, regardless of whether it was in London, or New York, or Paris. He did not only look at, or acquire, paintings: he pursued them. He would make notes, track down other collectors who had paintings from the same sets or series from which some of his own came, visit all the museums that he could. Steadily, very steadily, did his collection grow, and with it grew his fondness for the works he owned. Rajput paintings – Rajasthani and Pahari – in particular ‘spoke’ to him in a manner that few other things did, it seems. He travelled extensively in India, taking in the culture, establishing for himself the precise matrix of thought and society from which these paintings had sprung. In the process, he formed friendships, none stronger than that with the Maharao of Kota in Rajasthan, of whose family he became virtually a member over the years. I saw him at the time that the celebrated Kota exhibition opened in Zurich, and saw for myself the warmth that obtained between him and the Maharao. It was touching in some manner. Equally touching I found the fact that late, very late, in life – well after he had retired from service – he enrolled himself at the University of Heidelberg, next door to Ludwigshafen where he used to work, for learning Hindi. He wanted to enter personally the rich world of poetry that had inspired the works that he so dearly loved.

I have often wondered in my own mind what thoughts course through the head of a collector like Dr. Metzger as he contemplates his collection after it has acquired a certain profile, a status in the eyes of his peers. Does the urge to collect remain as strong as the years go by? Does it become sharper, or does it tend to diminish with time? Is there always a competitive edge? How keen is the desire to share with others the treasures that one owns, the joys and the sorrows of collecting? How often do thoughts of what is going to happen to the collection after one has gone, come sailing in the mind? It is difficult to tell. One thing is almost certain, however. Collectors do wish their work to be exhibited at some point of time or the other in their lives, become a part of other peoples’ awareness. As Dr. Metzger did. when he agreed to have his collection put on show at the Linden Museum in Stuttgart some years ago. There were long years of preparation, I am sure; a richly illustrated catalogue was published; thousands of visitors came to see the show. The Metzger collection had become a part of the domain of scholarship.

Finding a home

But what was to happen to the collection – there were close to 250 choice paintings in it by now – Dr. Metzger must have spent considerable time and energy cogitating about in the last years of his life. Finally, he decided to leave it not to his own family, but to the Museum Rietberg in Zurich, as a bequest. The decision came as a surprise to many perhaps, but he had his own reasons. This, in his eyes, was an institution with a deep commitment to the arts of Asia, and he must have felt secure leaving the paintings in the care of the senior director of the Museum, Dr. Eberhard Fischer, with whom he had established a close rapport over the last few years. In Dr. Metzger’s mind, his collection had found a home; on its part, the Museum received the bequest with respect and gratitude.


This feature was published on May 19, 2002