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Berggruen collection gets bigger - but it couldn't get better

HEINZ BERGGRUEN (b.1914), the much respected retired art dealer of Paris, is evidently not a man to wear his passions on his sleeve. He seems quietly self-possessed, even shy. But when asked about his remarkable collection of ``classic'' 20th-century paintings and sculpture - now on full public display for the first time - he suddenly allows you glimpse the eagerness that drives him.

Oh, yes, he says, certainly he is still adding to his collection ``while funds last,'' though with all due modesty he doesn't believe it could really be ``upgraded.'' He notes, for example, that he will soon see a Seurat that he might be interested in buying. A glint of mock greed comes into his eyes. ``I'm hungry for Seurats!'' he exclaims.

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But the scrupulous quality of the collection displayed at the Mus'ee d'Art et d'Histoire here through Oct. 30 makes one thing plain: This collector doesn't get pleasure just from the chase: What matters most is bringing together very fine works by a few favorite artists.

Mr. Berggruen's collection expresses a discriminating taste. As Gary Tinterow notes in this exhibition's catalog, these carefully chosen works are not a slop-over from Berggruen's activities as a dealer. Although the considerable funds for Bergguen's collection come from his success as a dealer, his dealing and collecting have fallen into more or less separate compartments.

His reluctance until now to show his entire collection of just over 100 works publicly (though he has often lent out individual works) and his apparent distaste for hype, reinforces the sense that what is being shared here is an essentially private enterprise.

The Berggruen collection has been pulled together over the last 40 years, with many things added very recently. Among such additions are six of the seven Paul Klees.

These - most notably the moving ``Dance of the Grieving Child'' - have been bought to fill a gap that Berggruen himself occasioned by giving 12 of his Klees to the Mus'ee d'Art Moderne in Paris in 1972 and then no fewer than 90 to the Metropolitan Museum in New York in 1984.

Picasso, a long-time friend, is Berggruen's other great enthusiasm. In fact, he seems to have chosen his collection of Picassos - including paintings, collages, drawings, and sculpture - with an eye toward representing as characteristically as possible various stages of this artist's work.

The earliest Picassos are a drawing and pastel from 1902, the pastel typical of the so-called Blue Period. These are followed by works that trace the genesis of the famous ``Demoiselles d'Avignon,'' the beginnings and development of Cubism, Picasso's work for the theater, his neo-classicism of the early 1920s (notably a marvellous pastel of a massive woman, ``Seated Nude Drying her Foot''). The work of the '30s is represented with particular emphasis.

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Intriguingly, however, Berggruen has collected none of the works that Picasso produced after 1952. This suggests a distaste for ``Late Picasso'' (which has been treated to such a revival of interest by this year's show in Paris and now London). This gap in Berggruen's appreciation of his friend's art is in line with the overall feeling of deliberation, if not caution, that pervades the collection. It has few things that can have been bought as mere whims.

The C'ezannes are superb - from some small early paintings and drawings, to a particularly lucid portrait of Madame C'e-zanne, to one of his dense, yet penetrating, avenues of trees from the late 1880s, to a classic ``Mont Saint Victoire,'' to a study for ``The Card Players,'' to the only two paintings C'ezanne made of girls with dolls, to a classic still-life, to a simultaneously statuesque and radiant watercol-or of the gardener Vallier, painted in C'ezanne's last year, 1906. To own such an array of C'ezannes alone - an array that charts the achievements of this monumental, exacting artist - would be beyond the wildest dreams of most collectors.

But what Berggruen considers the star of his collection is Seurat's second version of his painting of nudes in his studio, ``Les Poseuses.'' It is a consummate painting, balanced, fresh and ... classical. It is supported by a breathtaking line of Seurat's luminous and shadowy black conte crayon drawings, three painted studies, and another finished painting. And then there are the Matisses - again chosen with that uncanny intuition Berggruen possesses for finding works that somehow epitomize an artist.

One less-expected aspect of the collection is a small clutch of first-rate primitive sculptures. They make a fine compliment to the Picassos.

For the rest, there are two good Braques but no works by Gris. And there are works by Bonnard, Dufy, Giacometti, Miro, and Laurens. That's selectivity for you. But the overall effect is so impressive that it makes one wonder if collecting fine art isn't a fine art in itself.

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