The London-based patron, collector and art historian Catherine Petitgas has built a collection centred on Modern and contemporary female artists and artists from Latin America, particularly Mexico, where she has a home. French by birth, she is a committed supporter of museums and cultural non-profits in both London and Paris. She chairs the board at Gasworks, which provides space for emerging artists, as well as the Friends of Aware (Archives of Women Artists, Research and Exhibitions). Founded by Camille Morineau, the curator of the all-female Spotlight section of Frieze Masters this year, Aware aims to improve the visibility of 19th- and 20th-century women artists. Petitgas also sits on the board of Les Amis du Centre Pompidou, chairs Tate’s International Council and is a member of its Latin American acquisitions committee.
The Art Newspaper: What was the first work you bought?
Catherine Petitgas: A piece by Francis Alÿs entitled 61 out of 60 from 1998-99. It is made up of 60 plaster models of Zapatista soldiers from Chiapas, Mexico. Each figure is broken up and glued back together except for a small fragment that makes up a 61st soldier. It is a playful but poignant reminder of the violence of war that remains painfully relevant today.
What was your most recent purchase?
L’homme aux masques from 1949 by Leonor Fini. This is an intriguing half-finished portrait of an intense young man by one of the most captivating figures of the Surrealist movement. She was one of the most blatant missing links in the collection of Surrealist women artists I started nearly 15 years ago. I had been looking for a work by her for years but I missed a few, wasn’t convinced by others, and then just fell in love with this piece. I was so happy when it seemed to be a bit under the radar at auction last June, and I was able to add it to the collection.
If your house was on fire, which work would you save?
Such a cruel question—it would be a torture for me to have to choose just one of my favourite works! But because it would have to be small and easy to carry in a rush I would grab Katchina Coquette from 1954 by Dorothea Tanning. This is a caricature of the great collector Peggy Guggenheim, whose ex-husband’s [Max Ernst’s] new wife Tanning then was. She portrays Guggenheim as one of her cherished Lhasa Apso dogs, against an exquisite moonlit Arizona landscape. It has all the drama and the humour of the Surrealist set in one image and I love dogs! Looking at this work always puts me in a good mood.
If money were no object, what would be your dream purchase?
Most probably a work by Frida Kahlo—for my love of Mexico, of Mexican craft and lifestyle, and my passion for Surrealism. She was fiercely independent and original—such a brilliant and visionary artist.
Which work do you regret not buying when you had the chance?
For a while I kept as the screensaver on my phone an image of a beautiful Sonia Delaunay that I hadn’t been bold enough to chase at an auction. She is an artist I greatly admire and who has been hugely influential to many of the Latin American artists I collect. I have since found a very special piece by her at a gallery in Paris…
What is the most surprising place you have displayed a work?
Right above the toilet in the main guest powder room at home hangs a 2006 piece by the wonderful Brazilian artist Rosângela Rennó from her series The Last Photo. It consists of an ethereal photograph of Rio’s famous Corcovado Christ taken with a Penguin Eight-20 camera that was then blocked off. The camera is displayed next to the photograph and points directly at the viewer. Male guests apparently find it rather disturbing.
Which artists, dead or alive, would you invite to your dream dinner party?
Because I am so hooked on Surrealism, it would have to be a gathering of all the strong-willed, irreverent, funny, beautiful women of the movement, especially Leonora Carrington, Lee Miller, Leonor Fini, Nusch Éluard and Ithell Colquhoun. They were all well versed in occultism and spiritualism and they must be having a ball from wherever they are looking down on the extraordinary revival—or rather the long-overdue reappraisal—of their work. They would make the most entertaining and challenging dinner companions.
What’s the best collecting advice you’ve been given?
Be bolder! Choose fewer but more important pieces rather than scores of smaller works—a piece of advice I wish I had followed sooner.
Have you bought an NFT?
I’m still considering it, but getting closer. At the right time, and at the right price!