The Batliner Collection: the bequest that brings modernism to the Albertina

Gold, sunrise yellow and orange, Mark Rothko's Saffron (1957, left) is one of his few works to bear a title instead of a number…

Gold, sunrise yellow and orange, Mark Rothko's Saffron (1957, left) is one of his few works to bear a title instead of a number. It is a glowing, optimistic salutation of a painting, a welcome. It beguiles the viewer, revealing yet another side to one of the most inspiring and mysterious of 20th-century painters.

Even allowing for the near-physical sensation of walking through a private collection as diverse, even as idiosyncratic, and as bizarrely cohesive as the Batliner, currently running at the Albertina in Vienna, the experience of arriving face to face with this glorious, shimmering, heat-hazed Rothko is exciting.

Having spent almost 50 years gathering together some 500 works, Herbert Batliner, one of Europe's great art collectors, and his wife, Rita, have presented a collection which in itself illustrates the way in which Impressionism began the story of 20th-century art.

Monet to Picasso has a chronological structure, from Monet's Water Lilies to the magnificent frenzy of the late Picasso, whose work dominates the show. This permanent loan, chronicling the various modern movements, now acts as a dazzling foil to the Albertina's famous medieval, Renaissance and classical holdings. There is work by Monet, Degas, Renoir, Toulouse-Lautrec and Cézanne, as well as several fine pieces by Emil Nolde and Franz Marc. The Russian avant-garde is represented, as is cubism in Russia.


Three of the finest works in the collection are by Braque, including The Sideboard (1920) and two late pieces from 1941. The exhibition also includes works on paper by Cézanne and others from the Albertina Collection and some 20 major works from another collection, the Forberg, which was also recently presented to the Albertina. The Forberg's emphasis is on Paul Klee, including Abstraction of a Motif from Hammamet (1914), Southern Coast in the Evening (1925) and Garden House (1929), while his contemporary, Wassily Kandinsky, is represented by the watercolour, Emotions (1929), and several other works.

After the current exhibition closes, a selection of these works will be on permanent show in a new exhibition space expected to open in October. In acquiring these collections as permanent loans, the Albertina becomes a multi-dimensional museum. There is also, of course, the irony that just as Conte Durazzo once gave its founder, Duke Albert, 1,000 pieces to begin his collection, so too, more than 200 years later, has the Albertina again benefited from an art-lover's unconditional generosity.

Monet to Picasso: the Batliner Collection runs at the Albertina, Vienna, until Apr 6