Mario Testino OBE may be renowned for his fashion photography, but he has also spent a lifetime collecting and championing the work of new artists. This month a unique exhibition and auction at Sotheby’s showcases these pieces together for the first time
"Just as photography is a vehicle for me to live a new moment, to go to a new place, meet a new person and so on, art is a process of encounter and discovery,” says Mario Testino. “Art is never static.” As one of the industry’s most celebrated photographers, Testino’s name has become synonymous with today’s most influential stars thanks to his signature blend of portraiture and groundbreaking fashion tableaus. But his judicious eye has naturally led him to look beyond the lens to the world of contemporary art around him.
From arriving in the Big Smoke as an unknown 22-year old, to travelling the world as the most sought-after photographer of his generation, Testino has always immersed himself in local art scenes, engaging with galleries and artists, and acquiring their work. Starting with photography – his first aquisition was a portrait of Vivien Leigh by the Surrealist photographer Angus McBean – he at first concentrated on early and mid-20th-century photography before moving on to more contemporary artists. “It was a great learning curve for me,” Testino says, “exploring how photography can be used in so many different ways.”
This month, Sotheby’s is collaborating with the photographer and philanthropist to present a unique exhibition and auction series of his collected works entitled Shake It Up, with proceeds going towards the not-for-profit Museo MATE (pronounced mah-teh) in Lima. The centre was established by Testino in 2012 to promote and support Peruvian culture, as well as bring the country’s greatest talents to international attention.
“I have an amazing opportunity to help my country,” says Testino, about the auction. “I’ve been very successful in my work, thanks to my origin. My roots have been very key to who I have become.”
The curated group of paintings, photographs, works on paper and sculpture hail from some of the most important artists of the past two decades, as well as others still under the radar.
With more than 400 works on sale from 45 countries, the display, which will be accompanied by talks from friends and collaborators, isn’t just an auction for Testino.
"Just as photography is a vehicle for me to live a new moment, to go to a new place, meet a new person and so on, art is a process of encounter and discovery" - Mario Testino
“My buying was associated with making young artists stay alive almost,” he says, “because I was buying them quite early on and betting on people who had no proof. My money was going into things that could make it or couldn’t make it. But I was excited by the process, participating with the artists’ careers and development and growth. They also all surprised me with what they did.”
Unsurprisingly, portraiture is a recurring theme that runs throughout Testino’s Shake It Up collection. Highlights include work by the controvesrial German artist Georg Baselitz; American painter Elizabeth Peyton, who is known for her highly stylised portraits of close friends and family; and fellow photographer Richard Prince, whose Untitled (Girlfriend) is estimated to fetch between £250,000 and £350,000.
Indeed, the discovery of Prince and his development of ‘rephotography’ as a new art form marked a key early moment in Testino’s passion for collecting art. “The first piece of his that I bought was the biker girlfriend,” says Testino. “The idea of appropriation for me was a very new thing, because I’ve always been quite respectful about other people’s property. But what I’ve realised is that he made us look at things that we weren’t looking at properly and challenged us to look at things differently.”
For Testino, the dialogue with fellow artists has often extended to working relationships. Cecily Brown, Paul McCarthy, Urs Fischer, Vik Muniz and Albert Oehlen are all artists with whom he has collaborated and whose work features in the sale.
As well as raising money for MATE, and the chance to buy into the extensive collection, the display offers a glimpse into the creative mind and voracious eye of one of the industry’s greatest iconoclasts.
“Life is all about energy, letting the energy flow. In a way I’m shaking it up to give to others and to let this work also be appreciated by other people.”
With some of his most treasured personal pieces up for auction, Testino is only too happy to pass on his greatest finds. “I feel I have consumed them and I don’t want to hold onto things just because of their value or their historical value,” he says. “When you close a door, another door opens. I think it’s important to let go, to allow new things to come in.”