The Ema Gordon Klabin Cultural Foundation is an art museum located in the city of São Paulo, Brazil. Officially established in 1978, it is a not-for-profit private institution, legally declared as an organization of federal public interest. It was created by the Brazilian collector and philanthropist Ema Gordon Klabin (1907–1994), with the purpose of preserving and displaying her art collection, as well as promoting cultural, artistic and scientific activities. The foundation is headquartered in Ema’s former house in Jardins district, specially designed by architect Alfredo Ernesto Becker in the 1950s to hold her collection. The house is surrounded by a 4,000 square meters garden projected by Brazilian landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx.
The Foundation’s collection includes more than 1,500 pieces, covering some of the most compelling periods of Western art history, from Greek and Etruscan civilizations to European masters, with important works from the Dutch, Flemish, Italian and French schools, as well as works from Asian cultures, African and pre-Columbian art. Brazilian art is also outlined in the collection, which includes examples ranging from colonial period to the first generations of modernists. The Foundation’s library holds an assemblage of rare books, ranging from illuminated manuscripts to incunables.
Born in Rio de Janeiro in 1907, Ema Gordon Klabin was the daughter of Hessel Klabin and Fany Gordon Klabin, Lithuanian immigrants who came to Brazil in the last decade of the 19th century. His father and his uncles Maurício, Salomão and Miguel created, in 1899, the company Klabin Irmãos e Cia, which had great prominence in the development of the pulp, paper and packaging industry in the country.
She spent a great part of her childhood in Europe, making frequent travels to her homeland. Taken by surprise by the World War I, the family, which had been living in Germany since 1913, was forced to move to Switzerland, where they stayed until 1919. During this period, Ema obtained her only formal education. After returning to Brazil, she only studied with private teachers, since at that time there were no conditions for women to study, except at the Catholic schools, which she could not attend due to her Jewish origin. She grew as a great appreciator of music and art, an avid reader, and frequenter of concerts, theater, opera and ballet. She soon developed great interest in collecting. Her first acquisitions were oriental rugs, porcelain and silverware.
In addition to her role as a businesswoman, Ema Klabin played a significant role in the cultural life of the city, with participation on the boards of several institutions, in addition to promoting artists, musicians and orchestras. In the late 1940s, after his father’s death, he began to acquire important works of art, forming a comprehensive and diverse collection. With a different vision from that of an art historian or curator, he filled his home environments with more than 1600 pieces from different periods, techniques and origins.
After Hessel Klabin’s death in 1946, Ema and her sister, Eva, became heiresses of the family’s fortune. Ema also became her father’s successor at the company council. She never married nor had children, dedicating herself exclusively to business affairs, philanthropic and cultural activities. As her sister, Ema also continued to expand her art collection, making frequent travels to Europe and the United States to acquire new items. In 1948, she commissioned the architect Alfredo Ernesto Becker to project her a new house in a plot of land she inherited from her father, located in the Jardins district, in order to hold her growing collection. Some time later, she would order the construction of a winter country house in Campos do Jordão, when there was no space left to hold her frequent acquisitions.
Ema became significantly involved in the cultural life of São Paulo. She served as a member of the boards of trustees of the São Paulo Museum of Art, the São Paulo Museum of Modern Art and the São Paulo Art Biennial. She collaborated at the creation of the Lasar Segall Museum and the Magda Tagliaferro Foundation, and was also a member and supporter of the Sociedade de Cultura Artística and of the São Paulo Philarmonic Orchestra. Among her philanthropic activities, her most significant work was the donation of the amount necessary to buy the lot where the Albert Einstein Hospital would be built, as well as organizing fund-raising activities to help finance its construction. She also collaborated with the Association of Parents and Friends of the Handicapped of São Paulo (APAE), the Association for Assistance to Children with Birth Defects (AACD) and the Cancer Hospital.
In the 1970s, Ema began to concern herself about the future of her collection. One of her first ideas was to donate major part of it to Brazilian museums. But after the tragic fire which destroyed almost the entire collection of the Rio de Janeiro Museum of Modern Art in 1978, she decided, as her sister, to create a foundation with the purpose of keeping the collection together and turning her house into a museum open to public visitation after her death. Ema died in 1994, aged 86.
The Foundation was officially registered in 1978. After Ema’s death, her house remained closed for three years, until the end of 1996, when the architect Paulo de Freitas Costa was invited to set up a team to begin the activities and was later named curator of the institution. The work of researching and cataloging the collection began in 1997, conducted through consultations with specialists and institutions within Brazil and abroad, aiming to solve questions related to identification, attribution and authenticity of the pieces, beside determining their artistic and historic value. Restoration actions were also carried out in many pieces through agreements or collaboration of other institutions. The definition that best applies to the Ema Klabin Foundation is that of a “house-museum”, where a “closed collection” is permanently arranged according to the taste and wish of its creator, thus preserving the original character, idiosyncrasy and personality of the collector.
In recent years, the Ema Klabin Foundation has been making efforts at disseminating information about the collection, including by lending pieces for temporary exhibitions held in museums of São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Porto Alegre. Pieces of the collection have also been shown in foreign exhibitions, such as Brazil through European Eyes, held in London, Brésil Baroque, held at the Petit Palais in Paris, Chaim Soutine, held in the Musée d’Art Moderne de Céret and the Jewish Museum Vienna, and the retrospective exhibition Lasar Segall: un expressionista brasileño held at Museo de Arte Moderno in Mexico City and the Latin American Art Museum of Buenos Aires.
The headquarters of the Ema Klabin Foundation is located in a 4,000 square meters lot at Jardim Europa district, an upscale subdivision designed by Hipólito Pujol Júnior at the end of the 1920s, following the model of the British-style garden-cities in the adjoining district of Jardim América, projected by the English urban planner Richard Barry Parker in the previous decade. The house has a floor space of 900 square meters and was projected in the late 1940s by architect Alfredo Ernesto Becker. Its gardens were designed by Roberto Burle Marx.
The house, tailor-made to house the collection, inspired by the Sanssouci Palace in Germany, with materials modern finishes in the interiors. The Italian Terri Della Stuffa, pioneer of interior design in São Paulo, was responsible for the eclectic decoration of the house, and Roberto Burle Marx carried out the initial project of the large garden.
The house presents an eclectic style, blending modern and classic elements. It seems to be inspired by European palace pavilions, particularly by the Sanssouci Palace in Potsdam, visited by Ema in her childhood and teenage years. It is a single floor building organized in a long semicircular gallery, facing the garden, around which all the rooms are distributed. Although it presents an impressive scale, as seen by the nearly five-meter-high ceilings, it possesses relatively few rooms.
In her room, Ema tried to reproduce the decoration of Frederico II’s rooms in Sanssouci, as well as French apartments from the 18th century, using Rococo colors and decorative shapes.
Planned to receive many guests, the Salon is decorated in warm colors, guided by the colors of the canvas The triumph of Bacchus and Ariadne, arranged over the fireplace, which are repeated in the tones of the fabrics and carpet, on the great Ersari rug, originally from Afghanistan.
The decoration of the dining room is marked by the Brazilian Baroque, which, in the discourse of the modernists, was seen as a genuine artistic manifestation of our history
Connecting all rooms in the house, the gallery makes reference to the great galleries of European palaces, where valuable pieces from an art collection were exhibited.
This was the environment where Ema spent most of the day, listening to music and enjoying her books, and used to receive her family and closest friends for long conversations. The circular format was inspired by the library of Frederick II in Sanssouci
The Ema Klabin Foundation Library holds a collection of more than 3,000 books. Though small in size, it includes an important set of rare works, such as illuminated manuscripts, incunabula and Aldine editions. It also holds a collection of reports of European travelers in Brazil, ranging from 16th to 19th century, including works by André Thévet, Arnoldus Montanus, Robert Southey, Willem Blaeu, Maria Graham, von Spix, von Martius, etc. Another highlight of the collection is the set of luxury books published by the Society of the One Hundred Bibliophiles of Brazil, illustrated by some of the most important Brazilian modernist artists.
Almost all of the projects for the new home included a space reserved for music – one of Ema’s great passions – where she could accommodate the French piano Érard, purchased by her father in 1912.
The ambience of the guest room stems from the receptive nature of the room: the presence of Portuguese-Brazilian furniture in rosewood (18th century), along with the painting by Tarsila do Amaral
The circular hall repeats, on a small scale, the design of the Marble Gallery of the Palace of Sanssouci, with the same material on the floor. The pieces exhibited here, bringing together different materials, periods and techniques, are harmonized by their shapes, colors and textures.
The vestibule, or main entrance, was the place where the guests were received, with access to the headgear and the toilet on the side.
From the Gallery we can see the garden of the house, a project by the landscaper, architect and artist Roberto Burle Marx, in which we can see some of its most striking features such as the layout and the use of Brazilian species.
As the dining room does not overlook the main garden, an internal courtyard was created, marked by rich vegetation and the Italian marble fountain (18th century), purchased in Rome during the construction of the house.
The collection of African art comprises religious and ritual objects, executed in wood, ivory and bronze by distinct Ethnic groups of Western Africa, such as Ashanti, Bambara, Yoruba, Mossi, Dan, Baoulé, Bakongo and Bakuba, most of which dating back to the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
The collection of Asian art includes objects proceeding from many different cultures, from Near East to the Pacific Islands, including Turkey, Persia, India, China, Japan and Southeastern Asia. It comprises rugs, sculptures, paintings, prints, furniture and decorative and ritual itens. Among these, Chinese artworks stand out, both in quality and quantity. The collection includes an important assemblage of ritual bronzes dating back to Shang (14th to 9th century BC) and Zhou dynasties (10th to 3rd century BC), ceramic funerary figures produced during the Tang Dynasty (8th century) and polychromed wood sculptures of the Ming Dynasty (14th to 17th century).
The Colonial Brazilian art is represented by a group of 24 Baroque sacred images, as well as by a number of polychromed wood carvings (columns, doorways, finials etc.). Of particular importance are those made by Valentim da Fonseca e Silva (Master Valentim), proceeding from the demolished church of São Pedro dos Clérigos, in Rio de Janeiro. From modernist Brazilian artists, the collection includes important paintings by Lasar Segall, Candido Portinari, Emiliano Di Cavalcanti and Tarsila do Amaral, as well as sculptures by Victor Brecheret, Bruno Giorgi and Bella Prado. There are also drawings and prints by Clóvis Graciano, Iberê Camargo, Maria Bonomi, Marcelo Grassmann, Poty Lazzarotto, etc.
The collection of antiquities at the Ema Klabin Foundation consists of works in ceramic, terracotta, bronze and marble from Greek, Etruscan and Roman civilizations, most of which produced between the 4th century BC and the 1st century AD. It comprises sculptures, aryballos, amphorae, Tanagra figurines, etc. Outstanding among the sculptures is a Greek marble head of Zeus (5th century BC).
Decorative and applied arts
The collection of decorative and applied arts includes a relatively large number of pieces, such as light fixtures, rugs, small statuettes, fireplace pediments, mirrors and decorative objects in general. There is a large collection of tableware, including porcelain (Sèvres, Limoges, Meissen) and crystal glassware (Baccarat, Bohemia).
The furniture collection is mainly composed by Italian and French pieces, ranging from 16th to 19th century, including tables, cabinets and other itens. The most important works in the collection, however, are those of Portuguese-Brazilian origin, produced with Jacaranda, being the most noticeable example a Portuguese games table desk with several ivory marquetry covers, commissioned by the Portuguese royalty. The collection also includes many examples of upholstery produced by Terry Della Stuffa, as well as Chinese tables and cabinets, etc.
The museum also holds an expressive silverware collection, composed by over 150 pieces. Outstanding among these are the assemblage of antique ceremonial chalices, proceeding from England, Germany and Russia, the collection of 19th-century Portuguese toothpick holders, the collection of English and Portuguese candlesticks, incense boats and chandeliers and the Brazilian religious silverware, which includes candlesticks, processional lanterns, etc. The collection of silver tableware is mainly composed by British pieces, executed by important silversmith sculptors, such as Paul de Lamerie, Paul Storr and John Wakelin.
The collection includes a number of Italian paintings dating from 16th to 18th century. Outstanding among them are the religious and mythological scenes by Raffaellino del Garbo, Giacomo Francia, Giovanni Battista Gaulli and Sebastiano Ricci, besides the portraits by Alessandro Allori and Pompeo Batoni.
The collection presents a wide panorama of Flemish and Dutch schools, ranging from 15th to 17th century, with a strong emphasis in Baroque paintings. It includes genre works, hunting scenes, landscapes, portraits and still lifes by artists as Jan Brueghel the Elder, Jan van Goyen, David Teniers the Younger, Gerard ter Borch, Abraham Brueghel, Philips Wouwerman and Abraham Hondius, beside two small panels attributed to Dirk Bouts. The collection also includes two landscape paintings by Frans Post, including View of Olinda, probably the most valuable canvas in the museum.
Outstanding among the French paintings is the canvas Ariadne by Jean-Baptiste Greuze. There are also landscapes and mythological scenes by Claude Lorrain, Gabriel Briard, Nicolas-Antoine Taunay, a Still-life by Pierre-Auguste Renoir and works by the painters of the School of Paris, like Chaim Soutine and Maurice de Vlaminck, beside two important canvases by Marc Chagall: À la campagne and Couple with flowers and a rooster.
The European collection also include prints by Albrecht Dürer, Rembrandt, Francisco de Goya, Pablo Picasso, among others, as well as a number of Eastern icons.
This small collection is composed by objects produced prior to the 16th century, proceeding from relevant archaeological sites in present-day Bolivia, Peru and Mexico, such as Tiwanaku, Chancay and Nazca. It comprises works in terracotta, stone, wood and fabric produced by civilizations like Chavín, Moche, Chimú, Toltec, and Nazca.
Signed by the engineer-architect Alfredo Ernesto Becker, the Ema Klabin House-Museum was inspired by the Sanssouci Palace in Potsdam, near Berlin, frequented by Ema in his youth. The mansion took more than ten years to complete.
The works were acquired by Ema Klabin in galleries and antique shops around the world. One of the first purchases, in 1948, was made on the recommendation of Pietro Maria Bardi, who then started to form the MASP collection.
In a sinuous shape and with a stunning koi pond, Ema Klabin’s garden was designed by one of the most important landscape architects of the 20th century, Roberto Burle Marx.
In the Foundation’s collection, there are pieces of great historical value such as ´Vista de Olinda´ (1650), by Frans Post, one of the first paintings made about Brazil. The painting was part of a series of gifts given by Count Maurício de Nassau, who ruled Dutch Brazil between 1637 and 1644, to the French king Louis XIV.
Ema Klabin also collected orchids and had more than 400 pots in her nursery, with species brought in from all over the world. He recorded all the blooms in his notebooks and even had award-winning vases at exhibitions.
Ema recorded all of her exquisite dinners in a special notebook, where she wrote down everything from the porcelain and silverware used, to the menu, towels, wines and flower arrangements (taken from her own garden). He has always received distinguished visitors such as Assis Chateaubriand, Magda Tagliaferro, João Carlos Martins and José Mindlin, among others. Currently, each semester, the table in the museum house is still set to reproduce one of these dinners.
To set up his library, with 3,000 volumes, Ema initially received guidance from bibliophile José Mindlin. The collection has rare books, ranging from illuminated manuscripts and the first copies of the printed book (incunabula and aldine editions), to reports by European travelers in Brazil, dating from the 16th to the 19th century, as well as several illustrated luxury editions, such as the collection of the Hundred Bibliophiles of Brazil.
Ema dedicated herself to numerous philanthropic and assistance activities, among which the donation of land for the construction of Hospital Israelita Albert Einstein, in São Paulo, stands out.
Ema Klabin’s collection has a panoramic and historical character, with many gems. The oldest piece is a Chinese bronze cup from the 14th century BC, and the most recent is an engraving by Renina Katz from 1987. Between them, there are almost 3,400 years of history and art.
In the 1970s, without having direct heirs and concerned with the fate of her collection, the collector began to consult specialists to assist her in the choice of institutions capable of receiving a collection. The fire at the Museum of Modern Art in Rio, MAM (1978), however, made him choose to create in his house a museum open to the public.