The End of Fashion?
Source:Artinfo Date: 2011-02-15 Size:
In the days when aesthetics dictated buyers' choices, the pendulum swung from one broad artistic trend to another. Abstract notions now take precedence over what the eye sees, gradually erasing such distinctions.

 In the days when aesthetics dictated buyers' choices, the pendulum swung from one broad artistic trend to another. Abstract notions now take precedence over what the eye sees, gradually erasing such distinctions.

At the New York sales in November, every school, from Impressionism of the 1880s to 20th-century abstract Surrealism, inspired bidders with equal enthusiasm. It was as if aesthetics no longer mattered to buyers and had ceased to be a significant factor in determining prices.

Five world records appeared to reflect this new reality. While these high-selling works were widely different in style, one common denominator linked them. None could be argued to represent the artists at their greatest.

No one among auction house professionals expected Amedeo Modigliani’s likeness of a young woman with a white towel across her lap thinly concealing her nudity to become the sensation of the week. On November 2 the Sotheby’s team was visibly thrilled when "Nu assis sur un divan (La belle Romaine)" climbed to a breathtaking $69 million. Painted in 1917, "La belle Romaine" is a typical image by the Paris School artist. But her simpering expression and mannered posture hardly puts her on par with Modigliani’s best portraits.

 After the sale, Melanie Clore, the worldwide co-chair of Sotheby’s Impressionist and modern art department, told me that she had thought the picture might go up to $50 million. The record exceeded ambitions by a third. When it appeared at Sotheby’s in November 1999, a Japanese contender carried it away for a less extravagant $16.7 million.

The performance of a second portrait credited to Modigliani, also said to date from 1917, confirms the limited role that aesthetics now play. "Jeanne Hébuterne (au chapeau)" is a curious work. The woman looks squarely at the viewer, in contrast to the unfocused, virtually vacant stares found in Modigliani’s likenesses at that time. The eyes are rendered naturalistically, which is also unusual. Add the hand that is badly done, and you might be forgiven for wondering whether Modigliani could really have produced such a picture. Bidders, untroubled by any qualms, sent the blue-eyed Jeanne climbing to $19.2 million, well above the $9 million to $12 million expected by Sotheby’s. In May 1996, the consignor had bought it for $3.5 million, also at Sotheby’s.

Two days after the astonishing performance of the $69 million Modigliani, another world record established at Sotheby’s, this time in their sale of 19th-century European art, was even more stupendous if not of the same financial order.

The arch-academic painter Lawrence Alma-Tadema was a great favorite with the establishment in Victorian and Edwardian Britain. Alma-Tadema’s "Finding of Moses," dated 1904, attempts to re-create the world of ancient Egypt in a style that inspired Hollywood film sets and pageantry at their gaudiest in movies such as Cecil B. DeMille’s "The Ten Commandments." This specimen of pure kitsch multiplied the high estimate sevenfold and brought $35.9 million, to the amazement of all professionals. In 1995, the price at auction had been $2.8 million.

 Lightweight art never had it so good. In that same November 4 sale, another world record was set for the café society portraitist Giovanni Boldini when his fluffy likeness of a young girl named Giovinetta Errazuriz went up to $6.6 million.

While the auction records set at Sotheby’s on November 2 and 4 might suggest that figural art was the flavor of the month, equally dumbfounding records set at Christie’s on November 3 pointed in the opposite direction.

The first prodigious financial outburst in Christie’s evening session of Impressionist and modern art was triggered by "Violon et guitare," a 1913 Cubist still life by Juan Gris. Despite its title, the picture is only just identifiable as figural. Done in the manner of Analytic Cubism devised by Braque and Picasso, the Gris dissects forms and reconstructs them into an accumulation of geometrical components. But in contrast to the austere works of Braque and Picasso, "Violon et guitare" is painted in the glowing Mediterranean colors dear to Gris.

For years art critics dismissed Picasso’s fellow countryman as a second-tier painter, addicted to decorative effects. The fate of the picture, which carried a gigantic estimate of $18 million to $25 million, seemed uncertain — the more so as the estimate was set in stone with a guarantee by a "third-party financial interest." This means that any bidder in the room acting on behalf of the third party was free to run up the picture at will.

While this curious practice is currently allowed, auction-world outsiders might have been under the impression that the sale of this lot was rigged. On November 3, unconcerned bidders drove up the Gris to $28.7 million.


 The second world record set later in the Christie’s session went to a high-relief cast in bronze that is even further removed from the figural world. The monumental piece, 74 inches high, was catalogued under the heading "Henri Matisse (1869-1954), 'Nu de dos, 4 état (Back IV).'" It is actually a posthumous work, cast in 1978 in an edition of 12 bronzes. Although Matisse conceived the plaster model around 1930, the appearance of the bronze that was neither trimmed nor patinated under his control inevitably differs from what it might have looked like had the artist been present.

But these days, the idea behind a painter or a sculptor’s work matters as much as its physical appearance.

"Nu de dos, 4 état (Back IV)" is the last of four depictions of a woman in the nude with her back turned to the viewer. The first three versions in varying degrees of figural accuracy were cast in 1909, 1913, and 1916-17. The fourth model that Matisse neglected to have cast borders on abstraction. Strictly speaking, the cast seen at Christie’s is the embodiment of the Matisse concept rather than a bronze figure by him. The catalogue was careful to note that of the 12 casts produced in 1978, only two remain outside museums. The posthumous bronze set a world record for any work graced with Matisse’s aura at a breathtaking $48.8 million.

The precedence given to concept over material achievement was not confined to record-setting works in November. It could be verified at various financial levels, and in works from almost every school.

A spectacular example was provided by "Le bassin aux nymphéas," one of the water-lily views that Monet painted obsessively throughout the last 20 years of his life in the "Jardin japonais" that he carefully designed at his house at Giverny.

 The best of the 30 or so "Nymphéas" are arguably among the supreme achievements of Western art in the 20th century. These are now locked up in museums. The example seen at Sotheby’s on November 2 is awkwardly compressed in a horizontal format. Monet, apparently dissatisfied with his endeavor, never finished it, as is clear from the right-hand edge of the picture. The artist’s estate found it in his studio, as the stamped signature indicates. "Le bassin aux nymphéas" had sold for $9.9 million on its last appearance at Sotheby’s in November 1998. This time, it shot up to $24.7 million.

A direct consequence of the relativist approach to art revealed by the fall sales is the resurgence of Impressionism, which seemed at previous auctions to be undergoing an irreversible decline.

Another Monet, which did not belong to a series sung to high heaven in the past 20 years, was well received. Done in the mid-1880s, at the height of the second Impressionist phase sometimes called Neo-Impressionism, "Le saule," a landscape with a willow in the foreground, is striking for its brushwork, which dilutes detail in a blur of pink, lavender, and green. It stirred up competition and brought a substantial $6.5 million.

But it was at Christie’s on November 3 that the resurgence of Impressionism was fully established with a larger number of works. Even Pissarro, so often turned down until recently, managed to vault the barrier of the reserve price. A garden view with children sitting at a table at the artist’s country house at Eragny made $3.4 million. The composition, dated 1892, is done in juxtaposed color dots, in accordance with the Divisionist theory of light put forth by Georges Seurat and Paul Signac. Its softness and subtlety might have been detrimental a year ago.

Pissarro’s garden view was followed by "La Seine à Argenteuil," a landscape painted in 1882 by Gustave Caillebotte. A wealthy man, the painter was the Mecaenas of his fellow artists, with whom he showed his work at the Impressionist exhibitions. He bought many pictures from Monet, Renoir, and others.

With his very distinctive style Caillebotte was bolder than the other Impressionists. In the landscape offered at Christie’s, the painter spread color in broad expanses. The vigorous composition, focusing on the large sailboat, is typical. This great master, long overshadowed by the other Impressionists, has yet to receive his full due. A lone bidder bought the fine landscape against the reserve for a reasonable $5.1 million.


 Then came a sketch in oil dashed off by Seurat in the mid-1880s as a preparatory study for the Divisionist master’s most famous work, "Un dimanche d’été à l’Ile de la Grande Jatte." The tiny panel, 6 by 9 inches, is prodigiously ahead of its time with its crisscross brushstrokes and dots of color applied in staccato touches that reduce detail to an abstract tapestry. The only elements that link the study to the representational world are a minute figure huddled in the grass and four tree trunks briefly indicated. The study’s association with the celebrated landscape now hanging in the Art Institute of Chicago made the small Seurat irresistible. It climbed to a prodigious $2 million. The art-historical significance — in other words, an idea — mattered a lot more than the artistic prowess, marvelous but puny.

This paved the way for the masterpiece that stood out in the Christie’s sale, one of Seurat’s greatest black manner studies on paper in Conté crayon dubbed "La promenade." A woman stands with her back to the viewer in an atmosphere of profound mystery. Time seems suspended. This is one of those rare works that is worth as much as your bank account allows you to pay. It brought $3.3 million, far above the estimate.

If further demonstration of the new relativism that prevails on the market was needed, this was provided by the enthusiasm that greeted Fernand Léger’s work that same evening at Christie’s. Nothing could be further removed from Monet’s Le saule or Seurat’s preparatory sketch for "Un dimanche d’été à l’Ile de la Grande Jatte" than Léger’s static forms painted in contrasted colors that fill the contours. Less than 10 minutes after the Seurat, one of Léger’s still lifes resembling a close-up of some industrial installation soared above the high estimate to bring $7.9 million.

This was no freak occurrence. Half an hour later, a second Léger, dated 1927, came up. The brutally simplified rendition of a woman seated cross-legged sends back eerie echoes of "Bibendum," the rubbery characters that at the time advertised the Michelin brand of car tires. The black-and-white figure set off by a solid red ground that looks like a poster climbed to $6.3 million.

Eclecticism triumphed even more clearly than the day before at Sotheby’s. The deconstruction of figural appearance as represented by Surrealism veering towards abstraction fared as brilliantly as the elusive Impressionist landscapes or Léger’s ultrasimplified portraits and still lifes.

An unusual composition painted by Paul Klee in 1927, "Pflanze und Fenster Stilleben" ("Plant and Window Still-Life"), depicts elements drawn from the real world in highly stylized geometrical fashion. These are randomly strewn across the dark-green ground. Faintly reminiscent of Miró’s Surrealist inventions, the Klee did brilliantly. The enthusiastic attendance pushed it to a generous $5 million.

An actual work by Miró came up immediately after. "L’air," which carries the art of the absurd one step further than the Klee, hits the viewer’s eye from far away. The inflated estimate ($12-18 million) was presumably accounted for by the history of the work. The Miró passed through the hands of the most famous dealers, from Paris, where it was handled by Stratis Eleftheriades, better known as "E. Thériade," and by Heinz Berggruen, to New York, where the consignor acquired it from William Acquavella. The picture sold for $10.3 million, failing to match the low estimate — but only a beginner would interpret this enormous price as proof of a bargain.

Buyers sought out the works of Analytic Cubism with the same energy as they did the would-be humorous deconstructions of the real world by the Surrealists.

Léger’s Cubist study in pencil and wash for a still life of a trumpet and banjo climbed well above expectations. The 1925 drawing ended up at $458,500.

The biggest surprise was Georges Braque’s Cubist still life, done in 1938. Awkwardly titled, or rather described by Christie’s as a "Balustre et crâne" (recto), "Nature morte au compotier" (verso), the grim subject is a throwback to the tradition of vanitas painting. At first, the paper support and the peculiar composition did not make the retardataire Braque easy to sell. Yet it brought a thumping $1.98 million.

The relativist approach was at least as pronounced in three-dimensional art as in paintings and drawings. Henry Moore’s distorted figures were enthusiastically chased. At Christie’s, his small "Maquette for King and Queen," cast in 1952, brought $2.8 million, more than the high estimate. But so did Moore’s monumental "Large Totem Head," cast in 1968 in an edition of eight, which is in fact a purely abstract work. It climbed to $1.14 million.

Aristide Maillol’s "Nu debout se coiffant (Baigneuse aux bras levés)" is handled in the naturalistic style quite distinct from Moore’s art. Yet it did just as brilliantly at Sotheby’s, where a lifetime cast from an edition of six realized a steep $1.53 million. That too exceeded the high estimate.

When the span of artistic interests broadens to such extremes, the most subtle gems can fail to attract attention, lost in the cacophony of conflicting styles.

The greatest picture at Sotheby’s was one of Seurat’s preparatory sketches in oil, now virtually unobtainable in the market. A peasant and his wife toil in a field ablaze with sunlight that erases detail. "Le tas de pierres," as it was called in the catalogue — although no such "heap of stones" is visible — was completed in the mid-1880s with a freedom that the artist’s finished paintings lack. The sketch, done from nature, sold against the reserve for $1.9 million. Measured against other prices paid at the November sales, this was a modest amount to pay for a masterpiece.

The Seurat is a reminder that extreme rarity can lead to oblivion. It blunts buyers’ reflexes. Even now when the scarcity of good material drives collectors to chase every artist and style, coups can be made in the uppermost range of masterpieces.

[Editor] Lola Xu