A Secret Garden Filled with Art - Paul Haim’s La Petite Escalère

July 31, 2020

It is always intriguing to look closer at certain private collection; the stories of their conception are often saturated with details that unravel the broader context of the time and circumstance of art production of the time. The ones consisting of sculpture and outdoor interventions are rare and therefore of special interest to scholars, gallerists, and other collectors.

Take for instance the breathtaking garden collection called La Petite Escalère founded by French art dealer and collector Paul Haim in the 1970s. This sculptural haven situated on the banks of the Adour River in France was a result of the collector’s collaboration with the artist Jeannette Leroy and the gardener Gilbert Carty. By merging sculpture and nature on the forest terrain of sixty-nine acres, they wanted to establish a contemplative space for the consumption of modern and contemporary artworks by artists such as Auguste Rodin, Niki de Saint Phalle, and Eduardo Chillida.

After Haim died in 2006, his daughter Dominique took over and run the estate. The sculptures, forty-one of them, are about to be auctioned at Christie's, on 22nd October in Paris.

On this occasion, we will revisit the collection and the legacy of Paul Haim and pay more attention to the sculptures themselves and the way they were assembled throughout the years.

Left: Mark di Suvero - Tumbleweed II, 1986. Painted steel, 280 x 220 x 190 cm / Right: Niki de Saint Phalle - Nana riding a bird, 1967. Painted polyester resin. © Christie’s Images Ltd, 2020

La Petite Escalère - The Secret Garden

In the late 1960s, Paul Haim and Jeannette Leroy, the photographer, painter and his wife, decided to form their home along the Basque Coast. At the time, Haim was one of the leading art dealers in Paris, known for presenting the works of Impressionists and other modernists to the Japanese art market. Along the way, the couple befriended various artists such as Roberto Matta, Zao Wou-Ki, Niki de Saint-Phalle, and Eduardo Chillida, and their works became part of the collection. They were also close to the great Japanese collector, Shikanai Nobutaka, the owner of Fuji Television; he founded the Hakone Open-air museum in 1969 where the pavilion dedicated to Picasso formed after Haim's initiative is.

With Rhodia Bourdelle, the daughter of Emile-Antoine Bourdelle, Haim worked for many years in Japan by organizing and promoting, among others, the work of Bourdelle or Rodin. During the course of a few years, the small farm the couple purchased along the Adour river extended by several hectares. Haim started forming a collection that was installed in the garden, and gradually it became one of the most relevant sculpture gardens.

Now, the very concept of La Petite Escalère wouldn’t be possible if there wasn't for the gardener Gilbert Carty who helped Paul and Jeannette to form an adequate setting for the sculptures. The landscape consisting of trails covered with railway sleepers, a large bamboo grove, a vegetable garden, and undergrowth creates a truly magnifying site that overwhelms the visitors.

Left: Eduardo Chillida - Mural III, 1999. Painted stone, 295 x 295 cm / Right: Aristide Maillol - The chained action, armless version, designed in 1906. Bronze with green patina, 216 x 98 x 92 cm. © Christie’s Images Ltd, 2020

The Sculptures

The astonishing sculptures by Emile-Antoine Bourdelle, Alexander Calder, Augustin Cardenas, Anthony Caro, Eduardo Chillida, Mark di Suvero, Fernand Léger, Aristide Maillol, Etienne Martin, Joan Miró, Isamu Noguchi, Jorge de Oteiza, Jaume Plensa, Auguste Rodin, Niki de Saint-Phalle, and Zao Wou-Ki will be presented within the sale.

Interestingly, Zao Wou-Ki’s grandiose 1984 mosaic was acquired after Haim visited the collection of the Houston-based collector Dominique de Menil. Namely, when he arrived at her house, Haim encountered a mesmerizing abstract mosaic reminiscent of Monet's Water Lilies at the end of the alley leading to the house. Enchanted with this work, he asked Zao Wou-Ki to make him a mosaic for the garden. The two were very good friends through Jeannette’s friendship with the painter's first wife. The work took several years to finish, but the final result was a meticulous piece of art.

Another sculpture up for the La Petite Escalère sale is a large totemic work entitled The Caress of a Bird (1967) by Joan Miró. The modernist master used a vivid palette of primary colors for the edition of three sculptures, the other two located at the Maeght Foundation and the Miró Foundation. La Petite Escalère one was made by Miró additionally. The Caress of a Bird embodies Miró's poetry to the full capacity, the playfulness achieved through the assemblage of trivial objects.

Left: Joan Miro - Woman and bird, 1961. Mosaic on cement in an iron structure, 75 x 116 x 6 cm / Right: Joan Miro - The caress of a bird, 1967. Painted bronze, 310 x 111 x 47 cm. © Christie’s Images Ltd, 2020

Christie’s Auction Of La Petite Escalère Collection

Christie's auction will present these monumental sculptures at Kering’s headquarters, the former site of the Laennec Hospital, whose unique architecture will complement the collection. In the light of the upcoming auction, The Director of Collections, Lionel Gosset, stated the following:

In my 40-year career, I have had few opportunities of this magnitude. The presentation of the collection will be undertaken in association with Nathalie Crinière who will put all her talent, at the Kering headquarters, to not only pay tribute to the sculptors of the 20th century but also to Paul Haim who passionately brought together this exceptional ensemble. We will also honor his daughter Dominique, who has maintained and enriched it for nearly 15 years. 

The visitors and potential collectors will be able to experience the works from Paul Haim's collection in the main courtyard of Kering’s headquarters, 40 rue de Sèvres, from 15 until 22 October 2020, while the biding will take place the last day of the presentation starting from 7.30 pm.

Featured image: Zao Wou-Ki - Untitled, 1984. Mosaic on concrete wall, 190 x 757 x 8 cm. © Christie’s Images Ltd, 2020.

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