Listen to this article
Édouard Carmignac certainly knows how to throw a party. In October 2012, he organised a Rolling Stones concert in Paris exclusively for 1,600 friends and clients. A few weeks ago, it was cocktails and dinner for 500 on an island off the coast of the South of France. Guests then moved on to a moonlit pine forest where the French singer Camille performed and DJs played against the backdrop of a huge Ed Ruscha painting on metal inscribed with the words “Sea of Desire”. Carmignac, who is 70, danced with 800 guests until 4am.
The event marked the opening of a new museum and sculpture park on the idyllic island of Porquerolles, which will show selections from the Fondation Carmignac’s 300-strong collection of mostly postwar artworks from June to November. The island, predominantly owned by the French government and designated a national park, appears like a floating forest in the sea, a few minutes by boat from the coastal town of Hyères; there are few cars, a string of sandy beaches and smoking is banned everywhere except the main square.
“We want people to leave the mainland, take a 15-minute boat ride, walk another 15 minutes to the foundation, put some distance between everyday life and the art and nature they will find here,” says Carmignac. The foundation and its park are, for him, a situationist utopia. “This is about the ‘Ici and maintenant’,” he says, “Reality over the virtual.” He is mistrustful, one feels, of the intangible digital world, professes to be “fearful” of bitcoin, resistant to the lure of Facebook. “We were having a laugh 10 years ago about Japanese kids having fake pets, and now it’s become overwhelming. Is it because people have less money, so they’re trying to create a world they can have?” he wonders of the virtual realm.
Instead Carmignac describes himself as a “radical subjectivist”, a Columbia Business School MBA who “didn’t get on well in other people’s organisations”, although he did stints in a few of those, including Banque Paribas, before setting up the asset management company Carmignac Gestion in 1989 (now called Carmignac). His contrarian positions (he is perhaps best known for setting his Patrimoine fund squarely against the prevailing winds of the market in the 2008 crisis and emerging unscathed) have made him personally rich, and his company deals with assets worth around €55bn from offices in London and Paris.
He first came to Porquerolles almost 30 years ago, for a wedding, and has had the property there in his sights ever since. In 2013, he succeeded in acquiring it, with its 15 hectares of land. The farmhouse was converted into a villa in the 1980s, and sits on a hill that offers views out to sea. Carmignac’s architects, Geneva/Paris-based GMAA, unable to build on protected land, have burrowed into it to create 2,000 sq m of exhibition space with vast landscape windows that offer framed views of the surrounding nature from inside the galleries.
Carmignac seems to collect art with the same gusto with which he attacks the business of finance and the playing of polo. His interest in polo he puts down to a childhood spent partly in Peru. He now plays with a team in Deauville, and practises on his Normandy estate.
“But I don’t like the word ‘collecting’,” he says, as we sit on the roof terrace of the house in Porquerolles, looking out over a newly completed sculpture garden by the paysagiste Louis Benech, and rows of vines. A mirrored maze commissioned from the Danish artist Jeppe Hein shimmers in the distance.
“Collecting has the idea of aggregation and greed; you need a bit of this and a bit of that. My decisions about what to buy are instinctive.” He has, he says, never sold a piece of work and has only exchanged one in 30 years: a painting by Alighiero Boetti, of type letters falling down the canvas. “It felt like it was dying.”
For Carmignac, an artwork needs to pack a punch. “I think Twombly is over-rated,” he says at one point. “I just can’t come to terms with paying that kind of money for scribbles.” He finds the taste of the great French collector François Pinault too conceptual.
His Carmignac Photojournalism Award, established in 2009, is a €50,000 annual prize for reportage photography. “I don’t want to be the lover of one certain type of art,” he says. “And I admire the talent and courage of the reportage tribe. It’s important to put the spotlight on human disarray, and acknowledge its impact on the rest of the world.” This year’s joint recipients, Yuri Kozyrev and Kadir Van Lohuizen, have carried out a climate-change project in the Arctic.
The inaugural exhibition, also called Sea of Desire, in the new galleries at Porquerolles, curated by Dieter Buchhart, could be a portrait of the collector himself. It is ebullient and unfussy, for all its rather French thematic separations (“Transgression”, “Disruption”, “Suspense”). There is some big-name box-ticking — a small Rothko, a de Kooning — but the prevailing mood is big bold Pop and provocative postmodernism.
There’s a suite of Lichtensteins; a massive Mark Bradford bauble, loaded with paint; a Yoshimoto Nara, his wide-eyed protagonist appearing on a canvas shaped like a shallow bowl; stocking-clad women covered in cherry pie filling by David LaChapelle; a Maurizio Cattelan, with the artist’s Picasso mannequin dancing in a Lichtenstein-like roomset. The final work in the show is a painting on aluminium by Douglas Gordon. It says: “I am right”.
Although Carmignac professes to like art more than artists, the show opens with a portrait of him by Jean-Michel Basquiat. The pair met at a party in New York in the early 1980s, and hit it off. Says Carmignac, “He liked the way I danced.” They went to Basquiat’s studio, where the artist made a quick sketch before they moved on to another party. Some 20 years later, Carmignac saw the finished painting in an auction, a dancing figure with his own name clearly written in the bottom left hand corner.
Visitors are welcome to Fondation Carmignac in limited numbers, asked to remove their shoes on entering the gallery and expected to take their time in the sculpture park, to experience what Carmignac’s son Charles, once a member of the folk-rock band Moriarty and now director of the foundation, calls “an elsewhere”. A series of commissioned works sits stridently in the freshly reorganised landscape: Ugo Rondinone’s “Four Seasons”, a ring of gurning silver heads; Olaf Breuning’s “Mother Nature”, a big red tufty-haired face.
“All the artists I like have contact with their inner child,” says Carmignac. “I want children to relate to the works that I show.”
Until now, his acquisitions have gone directly to his offices, one in the Place Vendôme in Paris and a more recent addition in London’s Carlton House Terrace, or to his homes in both cities as well as his estate in Normandy. A new acquisition is about to be installed above his Paris desk: a troubling painting of a bloodied doll with staring eyes by James Rosenquist, acquired at auction. “It’s a very disturbing work,” says Carmignac, “made in the 1980s when Aids was emerging as a crisis.”
But Andy Warhol’s portraits of Mao and of Lenin, which once hung there in pride of place, are now in the opening exhibition at Porquerolles. “Both men came from nowhere and changed the world. I might not agree with their actions, but I am fascinated by revolutionaries,” he says of his choices. “In my business, you have to question yourself and established ideas all the time. Art helps me in that way.”
And with that he slaps on a Sea of Desire baseball cap and strides off to entertain more guests.
Get alerts on Collecting when a new story is published