The endearing story of the largest collection of naive art in the world
A true story of genuine love for naive art
BY ANDREA ROMANÍ
Commonly known as naive art, this artistic trend is characterized by naivety and spontaneity, artists' self-education, bright and contrasting colors and free perspective (and even the absence of it).
Like any love story, Lucien Finkelstein's story and naive art had its lights and shadows. Death of love? Some believe it impossible, but they may change their minds when they know the trajectory of this romantic Frenchman.
Lucien Finkelstein arrived at Cidade Maravilhosa (Rio de Janeiro) at the young age of 16 and fell madly in love with her. His granddaughter Tatiana Levy, who in recent years led the management of the small family legacy, says that his grandfather used to have affection for the first time he saw the Christ with open arms at the summit of Corcovado. Such was the feeling of gratitude for his warm welcome, which is believed to have decided to open his museum as a gift to his beloved city.
His love for naive art began when he was still studying, one afternoon in which he entered the French Bookstore in Rio (which at that time, in addition to selling books in different languages, exhibited paintings by Brazilian painters) and was enchanted by the works by Heitor dos Prazeres and Di Cavalcanti. From that moment, and without having a hard one, he decided that he would collect the work of both.
Almost prematurely, the young Frenchman began to trade in gems and precious stones shortly after arriving in the most cosmopolitan city in Brazil and, it should be said that it did not take long to raise some money to allocate to buy of his first works of naive art (which were the ones that best fit his pocket).
The success in his career as a jeweler did not take long to arrive and, just a few years later, he opened his own store on the luxurious Atlantic Avenue, on the edge of Copacabana, at a time when Rio de Janeiro was the city of fashion and of worship among the stars of Hollywood.
To understand the stroke of luck that this good man had in business: he became one of the most prestigious jewelers in Brazil. His pieces were sold at the Place Vendome in Paris and the Brazilian government bought the jewel it would give to Queen Elizabeth of England as a gift for her visit to the country. In short, the creme de la creme, both Brazilian and European, ended up buying in the modest (or perhaps not so much) establishment of Lucien.
Finkelstein was a true collector. Not only was he dedicated to buying works by unknown artists, but he was interested in their lives and in maintaining a personal and close relationship with them and, on many occasions, he ended up sponsoring them. His granddaughter explains how his grandfather worked and how he prepared the purchase of his works. His interest in artists, to know if they were genuinely naive and if they were really self-taught, was the main spark that ignited their love fire for their works. In the museum, works by artists who are actually doctors, diplomats, housewives, postmen and even homeless have come to coincide. The plurality of profiles facilitated, for Finkelstein, the deep connection with each of them and their ‘naive souls’.
In the mid-80s, the French already owned more than 4,000 works and kept them carefully in an apartment in Copacabana (expressly intended for that). After discovering the dimensions of the Naif Museum of Art in Nice (only 1,500 paintings), he decided to open a foundation that would become the current museum.
The authorities of the country refused to offer a place for his dream museum and, therefore, ended up buying a house strategically located next to the train that leads to Christ the Redeemer, since his aspiration was to have international visitors, since Brazilians have strong prejudices against this art.
The museum was inaugurated in 1995, but lasted only 10 years, due to the suspension of municipal funding that the institution received since its inception. The museum went into crisis and ended up running out of support the same year that its collection was exhibited at the UN headquarters. After two decades devoting himself fully to the museum, the jeweler desperately invested his time in seeking sponsorship from private companies, but was unsuccessful. Faced with this failure, the 75-year-old collector decided to close the museum's doors in 2007. A year later he would die of a heart condition, which his own relatives associated with pain due to the closure of his beloved museum.
Faced with these events, typical of a Shakespearean tragedy, let's discover how fate wanted to give this story a happy ending. In 2010 heavy rains destroyed the roof of the museum, which damaged more than 300 paintings. The news went around the world, international newspapers resonated with the tragedy and one day Prince Claus Fund (the Dutch emergency fund that cares about the recovery of damaged artistic heritage) contacted the family and offered their help to restore the roof.
Despite the help, given an unsustainable situation, in 2011 the family decided to permanently close the museum but, unexpectedly, the public administration reacted and decided to offer support to the institution. In April 2012 the museum reopens its doors and today the educational part represents the main activity of the center, directed by the founder's granddaughter.