Inside The Max Mara Family's Museum
Inside the Max Mara family's museum, where contemporary art is a personal passion.
In London, the name Max Mara means softly tailored camel coats, and marvellously wearable women’s separates. But in Reggio Emilia, a wealthy town an hour from Milan with a full complement of baroque churches and a reputation based on parmesan cheese, it also means art.
The Maramotti family, which owns Max Mara, has been collecting art since the 1950s, and from 2007 has shown a large part of its holdings in the building that once produced the company’s apparel.
This weekend, le tout Reggio Emilia turned out to celebrate its re-opening after a short hiatus, during which its nearly 1,000-piece collection was reconsidered, resulting in a re-hang of around 400 works.
The doggedly discreet Maramotti family is keen to separate the business of Max Mara from its art collection. Even at the opening, Luigi Maramotti, now the company’s chairman, and his son Elia, were present, chatty and charming, but utterly interview-averse.
And yet this a company that has always mixed art and industry: when the building was still in use as a factory, a large part of the collection was installed there, for the inspiration of both workers and visitors.
Now its generous terrazzo tiled floors are still marked by the oil that used to seep out of the early industrial sewing machines, as Elia points out, and the building – a fine piece of modernism-meets-Italian rationalism – has adapted perfectly to its second life role.
Achille Maramotti, who died in 2005 aged 78, established Max Mara in 1951, to produce designer quality clothing defined more by Italian craftmanship than a single designer. (Though Karl Lagerfeld and Jean Charles de Castelbajac were among those who graced the design ateliers, they were never significantly named.)
He also started collecting art at around the same time, first investing in paintings by the abstract painter Alberto Burri. The initial rooms of the collection, with work by Jannis Kounellis and Piero Manzoni as well as Burri and Cy Twombly (an American who’d followed Burri to Rome), are simply bursting with the experimentation and optimism of post war Italy.
Achille didn’t just collect, he befriended and assisted artists. A room dedicated to delving into the collection’s mighty archive tells the story of how, in 1972, he sourced a pure white cow for the artist Claudio Parmiggiani who wanted to project each continent of the world in black onto its haunches. (This was pre-Photoshop, remember.)
The full documentation for Altea, the cow finally cast in the role, is laid out in perfect vitrines. It is Luigi who enthusiastically tells me the story, and that he was 22 when he made his own first acquisition - also a work by Parmiggiani.
In more recent years, the Maramotti Collection has commissioned large amounts of new work from contemporary artists, and judging by what’s on show here, they’ve done it rather well.
There is a dramatic room-sized installation from 2009 by Gert and Uwe Tobias, Transylvanian born artists who like to take motifs from their ancestral past and mingle them with artist currents of the 20th century in painting, lithography and ceramic works; and a suite of nine exquisite silvery paintings made by Jacob Kassay, who hadn’t seen them since he made them in 2009.
“Wow,” he said, looking inquisitively at the nearly ten-year old work, “I was kind of finding my way.” Meanwhile the subject of British figurative painter Chantal Joffe – a truculent teenager called Moll shown across five canvasses – is now 21.
“I felt slightly disconnected when I first saw them,” says Joffe, who likewise had last viewed the work when it was first shown here in 2014. “But I loved making that exhibition when I think about it.”
That so many of the artists had travelled to the event was testament to the good relationship they’ve formed with the Collection, which is also behind the influential Max Mara Art Prize, open only to women and run by the Whitechapel Gallery.
What sits between this contemporary work and those early postwar Italian rooms is a very great deal of highly florid expressionist painting, mostly from Italy and the United States – once seen as the saviour of the 80s and 90s art world, which now looks as inappropriate as nouvelle cuisine and doorframe-touching shoulder pads.
But its presence marks this out as a highly personal private collection, one acquired entirely contemporaneously, and descriptive of the times over which it has been made.
And that being a case, it’s really quite a privilege to be the Maramotti family’s guest at this fabulous old factory, as well suited to the display of art as it once was to playing its part in the making of modern Italy.
Entrance is by prior arrangement; collezionemaramotti.org