Lempicka exhibition draws in record crowds as villa announces plans to keep a third on permanent show
Planned to last just three months, with 80,000 visitors descending on an exhibition of Tamara de Lempicka’s works, to meet popular demand the Villa La Fleur just outside Warsaw was forced to keep its doors open for an extra three months.
Describing the collection as ‘the world’s largest exhibition of Lempicka’, the gallery now intends to keep one-third of the paintings on as a permanent exhibition.
Set in beautiful forest surroundings in Konstancin near Warsaw, the villa is home to the country’s most important private art collection and perhaps the largest collection of paintings in private hands worldwide by artists from the famous Paris School.
The collection gathered by businessman Marek Roefler has now grown so large that it recently expanded into a stunningly refurbished neighbouring villa, making the complex one of the most astonishing cultural sites in the country.
Roefler’s collection focuses on Paris in the first half of the twentieth century, at that time the unquestioned art capital of the world.
The leafy streets of Konstancin lined with palatial villas belonging to the wealthy and influential are a far cry from the impoverished streets of early 20th-century Montparnasse.
Artists from around the globe converged on the district after the Great War attracted by the cheap rents and with hope of making a big career. Collectively they became known as the École de Paris.
Some of the artists become global stars such as Picasso, Amedeo Modigliani and Man Ray.
Many of the artists were Poles and Polish Jews, and while a few, such as Tamara Łempicka, are household names, most remained forgotten for decades despite their work being equal in quality to that of bigger names.
To restore the balance and raise the profile of this group of under-appreciated artists, Roefler opened Villa la Fleur in 2010.
Since then, the private museum has had much success in changing perceptions.
“The objective of this place is to popularise those masters who were not well known in Poland and forgotten but are worthy of recognition,” Roefler said.
The opening of the refurbished historical villa from 1906 more than doubles the exhibition space and raises the prestige of the collection to an even higher level.
The collection started when Marek Roefler made his first real money in the 1990s with his firm Dantex. He did what many successful businesspeople do and bought a large house in Warsaw’s suburbs.
Faced with swathes of blank walls, he started to visit auction houses, which were starting to appear in greater numbers in the first decade after the 1989 transformation.
Like many collectors at the time, he was attracted to the Munich school of Polish artists from the 19th century, known for their patriotic canvases and battle scenes.
However, he couldn’t see the value in some of the huge prices these works were fetching at auction.
That was when he started to focus on paintings from the École de Paris.
“I started to read about it, to be interested in it, to go to museums, wherever I was in the world. Paris at the beginning of the 20th century is a place and a time that is extremely important for the whole culture. There, our artists painted or sculpted side by side with the greatest figures of the art world,” he said.
Since that time, Roefler has been collecting intensely and has built a collection of paintings and sculpture of the Paris School that is unrivalled outside of public museums.
In doing so, he has been described as Poland's leading private art collector and is better known now for his collection than his considerable business achievements.
Whether it is the largest private collection of this school, museum director and art historian Artur Winiarski hedges cleverly, saying “We are not aware of another similar ranking collection in private hands.”
Roefler says that he first collected paintings in an amateurish way, buying what pleased his eye.
When he learned more and realised that he was not only decorating his home but building a serious collection, his approach became more professional.
Now, he focuses on collecting a core of around twenty mainly Polish and Jewish artists, occasionally going out of that circle when opportunities arise.
Among this group is Mojżesz Kisling. Known as the Prince of Montparnasse, he was a highly respected artist and a friend of Amadeo Modigliani. He painted beautiful portraits, beautiful faces, beautiful eyes, which buyers paid huge sums of money for.
He was a relatively successful artist with his own studio and was able to support Modigliani, who was living in poverty. The museum features many of Kisling's works in a dedicated room.
A special place in the collection is held by Tamara Łempicka, who enjoys the distinction of being the artist of the most expensive Polish artwork ever sold at auction, when her Portrait of Marjorie Ferry sold for GBP 16.4 million at Christies in 2020.
Most of the works by Łempicka held at Villa la Fleur are currently on display at an exhibition devoted to her at Lublin Castle. When they return, they will feature in the villa’s own Łempicka exhibition.
The museum also has furniture from her famous Paris studio featuring her own logo.
The pearl of the collection according to Winiarski is Hayden’s cubist Chess Players. Winiarski knew of the painting’s existence but for a long time did not know where it was. That was until it came up for auction in London.
It now takes a prominent role on the ground floor of the newly opened villa.
Walking around the new villa feels more like walking through the rooms of a private home, though not an ordinary private home.
A stunning central stairwell is housed in a tower, which in turn is wrapped in a modern hall. Only further into the building do the rooms feel historical.
Beautiful floors, Art Deco styled furniture and elegant lighting take visitors back to the time when the artists were working.
A modern lighting system beams down squares and rectangles of sharply delineated light on each work, creating a stunning spotlight effect after dark.
The basement has been turned into a 300-square-metre space, which will accommodate temporary exhibitions.
Outside, a sculpture park is located between the buildings among historic trees. On pedestals stand bronze sculptures created mainly by French artists, including the brothers Jan and Joël Martel and Ossip Zadkine.
Asked what most people’s reaction is when they visit the building for the first time, Winiarski simply says “Wow!”
The achievement of the final result is even greater given that the villa was a complete ruin before work began.
Asked about the future of the collection and the museum, Roefler said “It is my life’s passion and I want it to continue.”
Though there are no concrete plans at the moment, his dream is to take the best of the collection to Paris and organise an exhibition where it all started over a hundred years ago.
First published in June 2022, this article has now been updated.