Diane Barbier-Mueller lacks neither passion nor ideas to carry on the collection of the museum created in 1977 by her late grandfather.
This young 26-year-old woman with blond hair and eyes sparkling with intelligence has a master’s degree in Law, and is about to complete a second in Property Law. Diane Barbier-Mueller already works in the family-run property management company Pilet & Renaud, one of the oldest in Geneva, owned by her father Stéphane. Like all the members of this extremely large family, Diane lacks neither passion nor ideas to carry on the collection of the museum created in 1977 by her late grandfather, Jean Paul Barbier-Mueller.
The Biennale Paris pays homage to your grandfather, who died last December, and through him, to your entire family of collectors…
Yes. First there is my father, Stéphane, who is fascinated by French and Russian coins, and the painter Vigée Le Brun. Then come my two uncles, Thierry and Gabriel, respectively contemporary and Japanese art collectors. My grandmother, Monique, was a modern art buff. But of the eleven grandchildren, I am the only one of my generation who collects, for now. My passion is antique books: I started with the 19th century, and now I’m focusing on the 17th.
Tell us about the two books from your collection you are presenting at the Biennale.
One is a book of finances from 1708 I found in a bookshop. I fell in love with the binding: a period morocco with the coat of arms of the Comtesse de Verrue, Jeanne-Baptiste d’Albert de Luynes. As a great 18th century woman of letters, she owned over eighteen thousand books, which she kept in Boulle marquetry cabinets. She collected them assiduously, reading them, studying them, and annotating them. The second is one of the rare 1663 first editions of Molière’s “L’École des Femmes”, filled with handwritten corrections, where the word “love” has been replaced with the word "esprit" (wit or mind). Are they by Molière himself? The French playwright Sacha Guitry liked to think so, but nobody knows for certain. It makes it all the more mysterious and fascinating to me. I acquired this marvel at a Christie’s sale in April 2016. Incidentally, there are only three in private hands.
Young bibliophiles are rare. What spawned this interest?
When I was 17 and doing an internship at the family museum in Geneva, I went to the Plaine de Plainpalais flea market during my lunch break. I saw an old edition of a François Villon book and bought it for a few Swiss francs. When I got back to the museum with my book under my arm, I met my grandfather’s librarian, who said, “So you like antique books too”. I was astonished: I never knew my grandfather was a bibliophile, knowing only of his passion for Africa and tribal art. And our grandfather didn’t bond much with us when we were little, being too taken up with his work and his collections. Well, it has to be said that there were eleven of us, scattered across the planet.
Did this mutual passion bring you and your grandfather closer together?
Yes, and he was very happy about it. From then on he guided my first steps as a bibliophile. In 2014, I did an internship at Sotheby’s in the books and manuscripts department with the vice president, Anne Heilbronn, right in the middle of the Maréchal Berthier sale. I handled books that belonged to Napoleon, and some of the Emperor’s letters: they were powerful, and incredibly moving. I love the small, contained, authentic world of bibliophilism.
Then your grandfather asked you to do the inventory of his library?
More precisely, to index the entire section of his collection of 16th century poets, going from early Ronsard and the birth of La Pléiade group up to the death of Marguerite de Valois in 1615. It was also a way for me to soak up some of his knowledge, because my grandfather was a library in himself. I began the inventory in March 2015 and finished it at the end of July. I would scrutinise each book, leaf through it, analyse the bindings and titles, and then write a description and show him. Every time I had doubts I could ask him for help, as I was working in the room next to his office. We would eat together at lunch time, and for four months we saw each other every day. This inventory has just been published by Librairie Droz, with a preface which I wrote with a deep sense of emotion.
How did he affect your life?
Without my grandfather, I wouldn’t be who I am. At his funeral, which took place at the Cathédrale Saint-Pierre in Geneva, I told the story of when I was eating a meal with him and my cousin. My grandfather asked him point blank: “What is the circumference of the Earth?” He couldn’t answer, and my grandfather scolded him for not knowing. That why some of my cousins tended not to visit him very often, because they were afraid of looking ignorant. He once recited a poem to me by Du Bellay and asked me who it was by. And as, of course, I didn’t know, he retorted, “Diane, you are so uncultivated.” That stung me, and I quickly made amends. Today, I, who had never heard of Pontus de Tyard or Guillaume du Bartas, have become almost intimate with the La Pléiade poets. My grandfather was like that: very demanding, but very loving with it, and I miss him enormously (…). I find that culture no longer interests many of the young people of my generation. I feel a bit like an alien, with my constant thirst for knowledge. Since my grandfather died, I have keenly felt the loss of someone to talk to.