Christie'S Images Ltd.
“Le Chemin” (1911) by Albert Gleizes.
LONDON - Future historians peering at the outcome of art sales this year may conclude that the early 21st century was the time when abstract notions took precedence over visual perception.
That trend came out strongly in Sotheby’s auction of Impressionist and Modern art on Tuesday. In earlier days, the offerings, which were mostly modest, would have been greeted with commensurately modest prices. The 35 lots that found takers could never have added up to £112 million, about $167 million, not even in a market as bullish as it was this week.
The ease with which atypical works by famous artists sold was astonishing. It began with three pencil sketches by Picasso. Done in 1937, these bear no connection to the painter’s work at any period. They are personal keepsakes recording the appearance of his companion, Dora Maar, whom Picasso had met a year earlier.
The “Portrait of Dora Maar Pensive” is a banal, rather soppy image, and the others are not much more original. Without Picasso’s signature, the three sketches would never have found takers in a sale of Modern art. Yet they respectively brought £993,250, £1,161,250 and £769,250, vastly exceeding the high estimates. These were the prices of what may be called the Picasso concept.
Moments later, another atypical work by a world famous artist went through the roof. “Vampire” is a pastel drawn by Edvard Munch in the mid-1890s under the influence of the French Symbolists. “Vampire” is far removed from the violence in line and color typical of Munch’s Expressionist oeuvre that made him famous. This did not prevent the pastel from selling for £937,250, more than double the £397,000 that it cost at Sotheby’s in 2004.
The financial ascension of Munch’s pastel reflects the soaring interest in art history. The drawing reveals something that the oil painting similarly titled does not. In the picture, the Symbolist imprint alone is apparent. In the pastel, Munch’s indebtedness to the Nabi movement of the 1890s is also evident. This makes the work on paper very interesting from an art historical perspective, and that is a conceptual consideration.
Further proof of the triumph of the conceptual approach over visual perception was provided by the smooth sale of Egon Schiele’s “Portrait of Otto Freund” done in charcoal and wash around 1910. Devoid of the tormented strokes from Schiele’s Expressionist phase, which began later, the drawing is banal in its traditional handling. The £241,250 that it realized is a large price to pay for identification of the sitter only made this year — Freund was the director of the National Bank in Prague. A close-up view in black crayon and wash of his wife, Eva, later sold for a huge £565,250. The portrait of the simpering woman has little merit other than Schiele’s name attached to it.
This new cerebral approach to art that ignores the visual aspect has gone a long way toward erasing the distinction between supreme artistic achievement and moderately successful art.
This week André Derain’s “Arbres à Collioure” set a world auction record for the artist at £16.28 million, even though it lacks the vigor of his greatest Fauve landscapes. Another world record was established for Edouard Manet when the painter’s self-portrait painted in 1878 or 1879 realized £22.44 million. But the picture did not rouse much enthusiasm. It sold on a single bid against the reserve, as if its mastery was lost on most potential buyers.
The growing indifference to the art versus the discourse that it inspires is a blessing for auction houses.
After decades of art market draining by an ever-expanding constituency, great Impressionist and early-20th-century avant garde paintings have all but deserted the auction arena.
In Sotheby’s sale, the contrast between the eagerness to buy and the lack of intrinsic quality or interest of many works was startling.
True, 16 lots failed to sell. But most of these would have been doomed under almost any circumstances. A bronze cast of Rodin’s “Meditation, Grand Modèle Version avec bras” may only be called Rodin’s work due to legal convention — the heirs of the copyright to a deceased artist’s signature are entitled to have it cast on specimens executed at their request. Since the artist never controlled the trimming and patination, which are essential operations in determining the appearance of a bronze, the posthumous cast is an original in words only. In fact, it is a copy. Sotheby’s cast — executed in 1982, 75 years after Rodin’s death — carried a £1.25 million to £1.8 million estimate plus the sale charge. Its failure to sell at that level is a tribute to common sense, not an art market defeat.
Later, a tiny bronze bust by Alberto Giacometti cast in 1950, within the artist’s lifetime, was expected to be knocked down between £800,000 and £1.2 million. The disproportionate estimate for a small piece executed in an edition of six left it little chance of making it.
The day after in Christie’s bigger and slightly better sale, which ran to 62 works, those that were too blatantly mediocre or too wildly overestimated crashed on 16 occasions.
The star lot, Picasso’s Blue Period portrait of his friend Angel Fernández de Soto dated 1903, carried a gigantic £30 million to £40 million estimate. Andrew Lloyd Webber had bought the picture in May 1995 for $29 million. On Wednesday, it fetched £34.76 million, more than $50 million. The gloomy likeness does not conform with the image that the general public has of Picasso. It actually sold remarkably well. Monet’s “Nymphéas,” also estimated to be worth £30 million to £40 million plus the sale charge, dropped dead, but a white haze running half way up the composition made it unappealing. Christie’s had been lucky to sell it in May 2000 for $20.9 million and that did not encourage bidders to match a low estimate equivalent to $46 million.
Most mishaps were similarly bound to happen. In 1904, Picasso painted flowers in a vase in a style that belonged to an earlier age, verifying his uncanny aptitude at working in every manner. Unfortunately, nothing about it other than the signature suggests Picasso. It was unsold as the auctioneer called out £3 million several times in the vain hope that bidders would match the £3.5 million low estimate. At that level, the Picasso concept is not a sufficient inducement to part with that much cash.
In contrast to these inevitable failures, enormous prices were commanded by works deemed desirable, with or without merit. A cartoon style picture of a couple kissing done by Picasso in 1969 in his most outrageous style shot up to £12.14 million. That is more than four times the £2.86 million it had cost the consignor in June 2003. Unlike the failed still life, “Le Baiser” is an archetypal Picasso image.
An interesting Cubist painting done by Albert Gleizes nearly doubled its high estimate. “Le Chemin” painted in 1911 by Gleizes while under Jean Metzinger’s influence is reduced to nearly abstract prismatic facets. The tiny figure of a walking man only vaguely justifies the title. At £1.83 million, the Gleizes must have cheered the vendor, merely identified as “a gentleman,” which in auction house speak often stands for “dealer.”
Some prices could be called miraculous. Gustav Klimt’s “Portrait of a Woman (Portrait of Ria Munk III)” is unfinished. While the elaborately completed face has a kitsch sweetie pie expression, the body uncovered by color looks like a space left empty — for doodling purposes. At £18.8 million, it should be a source of considerable satisfaction to the descendants of the sitter who were selling it.
In short, the Christie’s sale was a brilliant commercial performance if not a dazzling artistic event.
The only question it raises concerns supplies. How long will the conceptual approach, which gives precedence to names and history over aesthetic achievement, make up for the precipitous decline in quality as leftovers are being sifted through again and again? Differently put, could the proportion of unsaleable goods become so large that Impressionist and Modern art auctions will cease to be financially viable?
Whoever happens to have the answers will benefit from the undivided attention of auction house managers, not to mention collectors.