Celebrating the Centenary of Baron Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza

Collectors' Tip, Art History, Exhibition Reviews

April 22, 2021

Looking at a private collection is always a unique experience, as it offers an insight into someone’s taste, but more interestingly into the way one consumes visual arts according to their social status. Probably one of the most compelling private art collections in Europe, to which after an important museum was dedicated, is undoubtedly the Thyssen-Bornemisza collection.

The man in charge for it was Baron Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza (1921−2002) who successfully continued the family line of collecting and managed to acquire a selection of 20th modern art production, especially German Expressionism.

His vision of the collection, his life, and the major role he played in enriching Spain’s cultural life are about to be closely examined through the centenary marking the Baron’s birth with a special program organized by the Thyssen-Bornemisza National Museum in Madrid.

Hendrik de Somer - Lot and his Daughters, ca. 1645. Oil on canvas, 148,5 x 194,5 cm. Thyssen-Bornemisza Collections, inv. 1991.4 (A 825)

Baron Thyssen-Bornemisza – The Great Collector

Baron Thyssen-Bornemisza was an heir of a grand fortune from a wealthy family which enriched through a steel and armaments business. In 1905, his father Heinrich Thyssen left Germany and settled in Hungary, where he married his first wife Margit, Baroness Bornemisza de Kászon et Impérfalva. Their son, Hans Heinrich, was born in Scheveningen, Netherlands, in 1921.

Collecting art had already been the family's hobby, started by Hans Heinrich’s grandfather August Thyssen, an influential industrialist, who bought seven sculptural groups from Auguste Rodin between 1905 and 1911. Then his son, Heinrich, made his first major acquisitions in the late 1920s, after his father died.

Ultimately, in 1947 young Hans Heinrich inherited his father’s collection with hundreds of masterpieces by European painters from between the 14th and the 19th century. Along with continuing the family business (a business empire TBG (Thyssen-Bornemisza Group) Holdings N.V), which was affected by the war, he opened the Villa Favorita gallery to the public and started revitalizing his father’s collection by purchasing back paintings auctioned by his siblings.

Although initially interested in old masters from Duccio to Francisco Goya, Baron Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza decided to leave his own mark on the collection, changed the course, and started buying modern art, which was a novel tendency practice by the likes of his friends such as Stavros Niarchos and David Rockefeller. Among his first acquisitions was Emil Nolde’s watercolor dated between 1931 and 1935.

In the 1980s, the Baron became concerned regarding the status of his collection, and so he reached out to the Swiss authorities with a plea to extend the gallery at Villa Favorita. This project did not receive financial support, forcing him to think about relocating the exhibition space and the collection elsewhere, abroad.

After several offers from the United Kingdom, the Getty Foundation, and several German cities, Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza decided to bring his collection to Spain under the influence of his second wife Carmen Tita Cervera.

The Baron signed a contract with the Spanish state in 1988 for the loan of 775 works from the collection with a view to their subsequent sale. The building of the foundation itself, which would manage the collection, immediately occurred and Rafael Moneo was commissioned to fully redecorate the Palacio de Villahermosa for that purpose. The new Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza opened in 1992.

About his collection, Baron Thyssen-Bornemisza said:

I have a passion for art which has often seen me through difficult times in my private life and my business. It is more important than anything else and puts the rest in its proper perspective. 

Philips Wouverman - Falconers Passing a Farmhouse, ca. 1645-1650. Oil on oak panel, 41 x 58 cm. Thyssen-Bornemisza Collections, inv. 1988.33 (A 829)

The Exhibition

To mark the centenary celebrations and honor the Baron, his heirs decided to organize special exhibitions planned at the Thyssen-Bornemisza National Museum. After the grand exhibition of the German Expressionists, which launched the celebrations at the end of 2020, the museum has just opened a specially orchestrated selection of twenty works from the Baron’s original collection which were displayed only once in 1992 at the museum opening.

Treasures from the Thyssen-Bornemisza Family Collection brings a wide selection of works including magnificent paintings from different 17th-century schools, Italian and German Renaissance sculptures, Dutch and German 16th and 17th-century goldsmith’s work, outstanding Italian Baroque crystal pieces; and a remarkable 18th-century German traveling case with 66 accessories.

Herman Saftleven - Rhine Landscape, 1663. Oil on copper, 15 x 23,8 cm. Thyssen-Bornemisza Collections, inv. 1989.24 (A 824)

Celebrating The Deeds of Baron Thyssen-Bornemisza

In the wake of a yearlong program, the Baron’s daughter, Francesca Thyssen-Bornemisza, the representative of the fourth generation of the Thyssen’s family’s said:

The Thyssen-Bornemisza National Museum embraces both the legacy of my father’s passion for art coupled with his immense generosity. He spent his life making sure that his father’s legacy was preserved, whilst taking great pleasure in adding to it through his own passion for collecting. At the core of my father’s belief was his passionate desire to contribute to world peace, drawing upon his collection as a vehicle for cultural diplomacy. At the time and more especially now, this endeavor remains a huge inspiration, guiding me as I move forward. 

The upcoming program of events for the centenary will also feature the lecture series, starting with the one titled The Baron and the Collection of the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum; then, the International Symposium: Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza, Art Collector, as well as a series of Online Conversations about the Baron Thyssen-Bornemisza as a collector.

Treasures from the Thyssen-Bornemisza Family Collection will be on display at The Thyssen-Bornemisza National Museum in Madrid until 23 January 2022.

Featured images: Portrait of Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza, transfer of the Thyssen-Bornemisza's Collection to Madrid, 1992; Attributed to the Master of the Wettringer Altar, workshop of Tilmann Riemenschneider (ca. 1460-1531) - Lamentation for the Dead of Christ, ca. 1505-1510. Franconian (Würzburg), Germany. Limewood, probably originally polychromed, 91 x 98,5 x 14 cm. Thyssen-Bornemisza Collections, inv. DEC1648 (S 56). Picture credit: © Nicolas Lackner, Universalmuseum Joanneum Graz, Austria. All images courtesy Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza.