by Lily Hoagland
Cubism is not everyone’s flattened-and-multi-angled cup of tea. Some of Pablo Picasso’s works have sold because the patron liked the signature in the corner rather than the style of the painting. But thanks to Leonard Lauder, Cubism is gaining converts.
“What intrigued me was that these were artists who were always inventing,” explains Lauder. In 1981, he began by acquiring Picasso’s “Still Life with Candlestick,” and added Fernand Léger, Georges Braques, and Juan Gris throughout the years. As his reputation as a serious aficionado grew, the naturally social Lauder became part of a rarified circle of Cubism devotees, including the art historian Douglas Cooper. Cooper had been collecting Cubist art since 1932 and had cultivated close—if tumultuous—friendships with many of the movement’s stars.
When Cooper passed away, the question of what to do with his art fell to his lover, Billy McCarty-Cooper (Douglas had adopted Billy for inheritance reasons). “When Douglas died, Billy didn’t want to see the collection scattered to the winds. I found that remarkable.” Upon going to see the pieces in an art warehouse in Geneva, where “the crates were spilling masterpieces,” Lauder was determined to try to save the whole of it at any cost. “I borrowed a tremendous amount of money,” he emphasizes. “Never regretted that for a moment.” The collection became an unparalleled gathering of Cubist works that surround Lauder every day. “I’ll come home from dinner and often walk into the living room and just sit somewhere. The next night, I’ll sit somewhere else. I never tire of that.”
Yet, as the son of Estée Lauder, who was noted not just for her business acumen but her philanthropy, Leonard Lauder decided to give the world a chance to enjoy what he had lovingly assembled. He donated all 81 paintings to exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art as “Cubism: The Leonard A. Lauder Collection.” Unlike many similar donors, Lauder put no restrictions on what should be displayed where and how, trusting the curators to do their job well. Thanks to him, crowds were able to see the most comprehensive Cubism exhibition since the Museum of Modern Art’s 1989 show, “Picasso and Braque: Pioneering Cubism.”
Another way the Met profited from Lauder’s collection is that the show added legitimacy to their often-weak modern art division. They successfully attracted crowds to see a style that some people do not believe is easy to appreciate. The show included works enclosed in glass, allowing visitors to see hidden paintings and other details on the backs of canvases: the flip side of one Gris landscape reveals a hidden portrait.
On top of being a coup in the art world, this exhibit was a brilliant example of how a passion can transform into philanthropy. Lauder collected what he loved and wanted to share the fruits of his labor with other art lovers. But when pressed about what his favorite piece is out of the group, he refuses to pick. “If I’m near it, that’s my favorite picture.”