Hallway Talks with Dr. Shmuel Tatz
The Rothko Centre: Thank you for the opportunity to enjoy Chapiro’s painting – 26 works of your collection have become a hit for the spring season.
– The very first – as I now remember – I got after an auction in Jerusalem. At that moment, I was in Vilnius, so that’s where I looked through the auction catalogue. And I really liked this one particular picture! So I called Antanas Anriauskas (we’ve now become friends); he’s an academic, and he wrote a book on Lithuanians in Paris. So he saw it and said, ‘Buy it quick! For any price!’ My friend knew that Chapiro was connected with the already world-famous Chaïm Soutine. Chapiro arrived in 1925, whereas Soutine had already lived there since 1914. They knew each other and were close. So, that was my first Chapiro. If I’m honest, I didn’t yet understand just how much it was worth. It was only later that I delved deep into the issue. By then, I had already found out from a friend who had arrived in New York and who showed me a book on The Beehive (‘The Beehive’ (French ‘La Ruche’) was an international commune of struggling artists in the Montparnasse region, located in the south-west of Paris – note). The book was in French. Chapiro, along with other poor artists from our area, lived there and was the only one to write a book about it. He writes beautifully, I mean, it reads like real literature by a real author! It’s a shame he didn’t talk about his paintings, ‘My creativity speaks for me. My fanbase will understand everything without explanation.’ Sometimes Soutine and Chapiro wouldn’t even give their paintings names. They were their own terrible agents and managers. Not like Picasso. They didn’t know how to ‘promote’ their work and didn’t even want to. Soutine, for example, is now all the rage. Not the case with Chapiro. And 98 percent of the Chapiro’s paintings I’ve bought, I bought in Europe and not America.
– When did you start collecting?
– I’m from a small provincial town in Lithuania. I had a friend from childhood who left to study in Vilnius when we were in the 7th Grade. I was 25 when I decided to leave Lithuania. Before I left, I stopped by the capital to say goodbye. My friend was already working as an artist. We talked for an hour, and suddenly he brought me a portrait! I couldn’t remember when he drew it… I asked him: ‘You’ve kept it all this time?’ ‘Yes!’ And today, that portrait is in my archive, and it became the very first in my collection. My friend reminded me how we used to go on walks together and how even then, I was interested in art. I was interested, but I didn’t draw. Well, I didn’t really have a talent for art or sport. That’s why I became a physiotherapist, so I could approach these professions from another angle (laughs). My patients are famous athletes and musicians, and I’m happy I can help them. I subconsciously went somewhere to work with my hands but not in music or art. And my advisers notice that I have a taste. I didn’t actually study, but I subconsciously pay attention to the works that are worth the money at the auctions. I look through the catalogue and make my decision. I then ring my professional adviser and ask to assess my choice. I don’t understand the technicalities, but somehow, I have a feeling for the value of a painting. That’s why when I saw this wedding, which is in your exhibition, I said I’d buy it whatever the cost! This is what happens with some people in business – they haven’t been educated in the ‘classical’ way, but they have a sort of knack. They know how to buy cheap and sell high. Maybe it’s the same with me – if I decide to buy it, then maybe it’s valuable.
– How is your collection restocked? Geographically? By time? By like or dislike?
– Well, at first, it was Lithuanian artists. My compatriots. As a Lithuanian, I’m a patriot of my region. But then I saw that this was too much. I thought I needed to narrow it down and switch from quantity to quality. Chaïm Soutine was the first one I focused on, but I was worried I wouldn’t be able to take the financial strain. After all, I only work with my hands, where was I supposed to get that sort of money? And I decided to either buy some property or securities or paintings. I stopped at Soutine, it will always be a name. And so, at one exhibition in New York, I liked a painting. It was a portrait. I began looking into its history (I love doing that). It turned out that this picture was bought in New York in ’32 by George Gershwin. And he was a Lithuanian! He was, of course, born in America, but his father was from Kaunas. He bought the Soutine because Soutine was a Lithuanian too. Gershwin died young, and the picture went to his sister Francine Gershwin, who married another Lithuanian – a pianist called Leopold Godowsky. After a while, Godowsky’s grandson became one of my patients! And this picture, which I not only really liked, but which also had such history – yes, I would have bought it for any price! I found the money and acquired my very first Soutine. But my appetite was whet (laughs). I already had a Chapiro. And other Lithuanians. That’s when I decided that it was more important to buy Soutine than apartments.
– Are you only interested in Chaïm Soutine and Jacques Chapiro?
– No, not only them. I have twenty names which I follow. And in regards to them, I am very well orientated in their prices at auctions. One of my acquaintances who does auctions in Vilnius, after my question about the cost of Soutine’s paintings, laughed and asked why I was asking. You know much better than me, she said. I keep an eye on every painting that goes on sale. I understand when the price is reasonable and when it’s inflated.
– Do you have an unusual history of acquiring paintings?
– I do, here’s a recent one. I bought ‘The Beehive’ a year ago in Kyiv, once the war had already started. And it’s mindboggling how it worked out… Besides, that party took all the obligations on itself for that delivery. You know, there’s still a law in Ukraine that the ministry has to give the go-ahead for the export of paintings. But they pulled it off. It’s unbelievable.
– What is the most exciting moment when acquiring another painting?
– I had one patient, a billionaire and a big collector. Of course, he bought paintings for any money. So he told me that he is most excited right at the time of purchase, and then his interest dies away. Mine doesn’t – I want to enjoy my art later on. It doesn’t end with the purchase.
– The paintings in your collection travel around. Are there any pieces that have never left and will never leave your home?
– I have three Chapiros hanging on my wall, which I would only ever take down if I had to move the whole collection for some reason. I wouldn’t have sent the self-portrait away either (the painting now on display at the Rothko Centre). The thing is, it didn’t come here from my home, so it made a little detour (smiles).
– What reason could there be for moving?
– I understand that I am 76, and no one knows how many years I still have to enjoy my paintings. The time will come when I’ll need to choose a place for their lives after me. And I’ll need to decide where their home will be. When I send them to a museum, I observe how they are viewed, whether they are admired, what is written about them… I am choosing a place for them.
– What is the principle of this exhibition?
– It’s very simple – these are paintings from my Lithuanian collection. The ones that were nearby, right next door.
– Philosophy, thought or action – what inspires you to keep going?
– In life, it’s my friend Inessa. These days, she knows more about Chapiro than I do, although she had no idea who he was before (laughs).
I’ve been lucky (or maybe not): I treat people with my hands. So I myself must be healthy and in good shape. My technique is ‘Body Tuning’ so I have to be fit myself. Even now, in this interview, I am concentrating on breathing, I control it and understand how I breathe. I am thinking about music, about art. I don’t have a Chaïm Soutine or Jacques Chapiro in my bedroom. But they and other artists hang in my salon. I love to walk around the salon and say hello to them, say ‘good morning’. I eat breakfast surrounded by paintings. Take Tereshkovich – a good Russian master who took in Soutine when he had just arrived in Paris. His portrait in watercolour is so calm. I live like this all the time. It helps me at work, too. I have five rooms in my practice in which there are no advertising posters for medicines, bones or countless diplomas on the wall, as is customary amongst other doctors in America. They complete a course in the evening and – bang! – the certificate goes up on the wall straight away. I mean, who’s gonna bother to read that the course only took two hours laughs). But I have paintings! Twenty-five of them! The fish and the scribe, which is now in the Rothko Centre, were also in one of the rooms in my practice. There are photos donated by Rostropovich and Baryshnikov, too. Photographs of other creatives… But the main thing is the paintings. When I finish treating with my hands, I take the patient to another room to continue the treatment with art. Free of charge. I say, ‘Choose yourself a painting that you like and just look at it. I want you to think about it alone and not about your debts or where your wife is.’
Gideon Kremer gave me twenty records, other musicians also shared. That’s why I have classical music playing. There are my favourite compositions, but they are always classics. Then, of course, I play Čiurlionis. I love Shostakovich, but he doesn’t suit my surroundings and paintings. I really love Mahler, but he doesn’t fit either. My paintings need Ravel, Debussy… My paintings are like my children, I can talk about them for hours. And there’s no stopping me (laughs).