Swiss inventor Philippe Woog's prized private art collection daringly crosses continents and cultures.
Swiss inventor Philippe Woog's unwavering eye for innovation has resulted in one of the world's most prestigious private art collections.
"Paintings are not done to decorate apartments; they are weapons of war"
Philippe Woog, the brilliant Swiss inventor who created the first electric toothbrush in 1954, is no stranger to innovation. Outside of devising revolutionary methods for improving our oral health, the inventor has spent his life collecting extraordinary artwork, the likes of which, when purchased, were considered so avant-garde that they eclipsed the radar, and tastes, of his contemporaries.
Be it African sculpture, Dada collages, Hopi Indian Katchina dolls, or Joseph Beuys blackboards, his eye for outstanding creativity has crossed cultures, civilizations and continents.
"For me there are some pieces that are as important as the Mona Lisa, or the Venus of Milo. Flying over time and civilizations they attain the universality and divine," explains Woog of the Primitive Art masterpieces that are the heart and soul of his collection. Issued from the world's most renowned provenances, purchased years before the surge of interest in Primitive Art, his many exemplary pieces —such as the pristinely abstract Ocieba sculpture, and the Baga figure, an undisputed chef d'oeuvre of African art—are amongst the most prestigious in the world.
What is your definition of luxury?
The finest realization of whatever is in our dreams.
If luxury were an object, who would it be?
The bed of Louis XVI.
If luxury were a person, who would it be?
A beautiful, intelligent lady, that's certainly the greatest treasure in a man's life.
If luxury were a place, what would it be?
My apartment in New York, which was designed by Philippe Johnson's interior decorator, John Bedenkapp, who later went on to design the inside of the National Gallery of Art in Washington where he used the same concept of space and volumes.
If luxury were a moment, when would it be?
For me it has been many of the moments I spent with my wife.
What triggered your passion for collecting art?
Emotion probably. Not culture, emotion. It was a naturally built passion for plastic arts that became the directing motor for sculpture and mostly African and Primitive Art.
At what age did you first begin collecting?
Well I did start collecting marbles when I was 7 or 8. I was not the only one, but it was still enjoyable. I remember I very much liked agate in beautiful colors and polishes. In the 50s I bought some Kurt Schwitters. At that time it was conceptually interesting, and not too expensive. I was living in New York and I had many friends including Arman and Warhol. I was working with a pharmaceutical company but in the evenings I did enjoy to going out with my artist friends. They were less conventional than those in the pharmaceutical or finance industries.
When did you first discover Primitive Art?
I didn't know much about African art, but in the late 50s I was introduced to a collection in Brussels that was amassed by an administrator in the Congo. When he died in the late 19th century, his successor kept the objects. They were made in ivory by the secret sect called the Tulibangomas, and had been seized by the police of the King of Belgium. The power of those African sculptures, their aesthetic quality, their abstract expression, their 3 dimensional presence, it was very strange to the European eye and I immediately received a big shock — an aesthetic collision.
Which collectors and specialists of Primitive art have had the greatest impact on you?
I was introduced to Mr. Ulman, one of the collectors that have impressed me most, when I first started collecting painting. I purchased a very large painting by Tal-Coat from him that I still own. He had a very large apartment in Paris on rue François 1ère with a collection that was absolutely unique; full of enormous charm and sensibility, it included the most rare objects of Primitive art. After he died in 1960 I bought two sculptures from his collection from the art dealer in NY, Merton Simpson. Ulman was the only one with the taste to truly recognize, differentiate and rate the quality of objects, wherever they came. The only other specialist that came close to his level of expertise was Charles Ratton. Ratton, Merton Simpson and William Fagg the director of the Royal Academy in London, had the rare ability to place sculpture from the classic period of Greece or from the Renaissance on an equal footing with Primitive art. For me there are some pieces that are as important as the Mona Lisa, or the Venus of Milo. Flying over time and civilizations they attain the universality and divine.
What is the most exciting aspect of collecting? Is it finding that rare piece, creating a coherent ensemble, living with the work?
As an inventor, I have filed dozens of patents and have participated in over 160 university clinicals. I have always put the highest value on creativity. When I look at art after 1970 I feel as if they are mostly remakes and pieces of decoration that lack real inventiveness. They are not as good looking as bags from Hermès, yet they sell for far more.
So you haven't collected any work after 1970?
Oh, yes. Several years ago I purchased a Tony Cragg bronze sculpture called Meander in Basel. It was really something new. It's very large, over three meters wide. I keep it in my garden because I don't have that space in my bathroom. Also, in 1977 at Dokumenta at the Museum Palacium Fridericianum, there was a university directed by Joseph Beuys. He had made some blackboards about the terrorist faction called the Baader-Meinhof Group (Red Army). What he was doing departed radically from regular art — it emphasized and in some ways predicted that the world would have to cope with terrorism. The severity and scope of terrorism conveyed in this work had an enormous impact on me. I was so struck by Beuys' message that I convinced him to sell me those blackboards. Beuys has been a revolutionary artist, but never did he do something of the magnitude of those blackboards. The three panels are in my collection and they were shown in 1993 at the Dokumenta retrospective exhibition. Each one is signed and dated by hand by Beuys — including the day, date, hour and minute.
Business titans, like Pinault and Arnault, have taken their competitiveness to the art arena. Why do you think it is important for these men to publicly demonstrate their taste for fine art?
I think art has become a commodity, so it is only normal that two of the brightest and certainly most successful businessmen jump on the trend. They are doing a lot of good because it creates a new standing for art in the public eye. I give you an example: in the late 50s I used to live in NY and on Sundays would visit the Metropolitan Museum. They museum was so empty I could walk a quarter of a mile and never see any other visitors. But once they began advertising the museum became full. Today I know most of the objects because I have seen everything over many, many weekends, but visitors today are being taught to look in a scholarly way. So even if they had a chance to understand art, it will prevent them from ever feeling it. It's not only a question of understanding art but feeling it. So they are preventing the few visitors who may understand art to have direct access to the spirit of the artwork.
Do you think it is possible to acquire good taste, or is one born a natural aesthete?
I presume that you are born with it, but some are born with much of it, and others with little of it. Those with much have no problem, those with little can access it, and those with less than 1% are better off looking at cars.
When it comes to collecting, does price indicate quality?
You can find top art for 1000 euros that's better than work 100 times the price. There is art in many places if you can recognize it. For example in the 50s I bought a Hopi Indian Katchina doll in Paris from Jacques Kerchache that is an extraordinary sculpture, like a goddess. At the time it was not that expensive, but good judgment and discernment was required to see just how grandiose it was.
What do you think of the popularity of the art market today?
Today art is a status symbol. People want something on the wall that everyone can recognize. If you have a Vuillard, a Renaissance painting or a Picasso on your wall, then your guests will recognize its value in dollars or euros instantly. But if you have an African sculpture on your commode, though it should be worth the same price as top paintings, its value is not printed on the base of the object. Undoubtedly top African sculpture should obtain the same price as "La Petite Danseuse" by Degas