Sunday, February 19, 2012

Cézanne Tops 10 Most Expensive Paintings

Everyone loves a list. The problem with "Top 10" lists is that they go out of date. This one was written about a year ago, but still holds in 2013, though it is beginning to creak at the seams. It'll be a while before #1 is toppled, I hope, and by comparison all the others on the list trail away in a distant squabble of numbers. Part of the issue is that the sale figures can be hearsay. It's hard to confirm just what moron was willing to spend how much on a painting. But fortunately for our entertainment, there is no shortage of morons.

"The Qatari royal family has paid £158 million ($250 million) for Paul Cézanne’s “The Card Players” painting, making it the highest sum ever paid for an art work according to The Telegraph."

The sum is so ridiculous as to beggar belief. If this list was compiled the same time last year, you might describe the then #1 price of $156 million for a Pollock as "staggering" and "jaw-dropping", but with Vanity Fair's announcement that the Qatari Royal Family bested that price by $100 million, the only response is to roll your eyes and give up. Qatar spending $250 million on one painting in the wake of the Arab Spring is the kind of brinkmanship that makes me head for the door.

For the record, here's what $250 million looks like. This was confiscated from a Mexican drug cartel, by the way. There are very few people in the World who have this kind of cash sitting around, and I doubt if any of them are legit. On that note, one of the Qatari Royals was arrested in 2005 for spending $1 billion of public funds on artwork.

By all accounts it's a stupid sum of money, but I guess that if I did have that kind of loot, I'd rather spend it on a Cézanne than on Charlie Sheen's rehab, which reportedly cost the same. Seems a bit steep, if you ask me. For that price, I'd be tempted to chuck a bottle of bleach, a fake moustache and a one-way ticket to Mexico into my napsack, and hop over the back fence. You could buy a shitload of blow for a quarter of a billion.

Four Steps to Success
I was talking to a friend about that street-kid who is worth $200 million in Facebook stock after painting some murals, and it is a measure of my stupidity that I had to think for a split second before I agreed that that would totally ruin my life.

Jackson Pollock, "No. 5, 1948." And yes it's sideways; does it matter?
"The sale beats the previous record of £88.7 million ($140 million) paid for Jackson Pollock’s “No 5, 1948” in 2006" the British newspaper reported on Feb 3, and speculated that this deal would "change the whole art-market structure" as it beat the old record by a staggering $100 million.

"The most paid for a painting at auction is $106 million, paid last year at Christie’s for a lush portrait of Picasso’s curvy mistress Marie-Thérèse. Privately, works by Picasso, Pollock, Klimt, and de Kooning have changed hands in the $125 million-to-$150 million range." [source]

So what's the Top 10 list of most expensive paintings ever? Here it is, with prices adjusted for inflation:

1: $250 million    Paul Cézanne “The Card Players, sold in 2011

2: $156.8 million Jackson Pollock “No 5, 1948 , sold in 2006

3: $154 million Willem de Kooning "Woman III", sold in 2006

4: $150.2 million Gustav Klimt  "Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I" sold in 2006

5: $144.1 million Vincent van Gogh  "Portrait of Dr. Gachet" sold in 1990

6: $136.4 million Pierre-Auguste Renoir "Bal du moulin de la Galette"  sold in 1990

7: $124.3 million Pablo Picasso "Garçon à la pipe"  sold in 2004

8: $110.1 million Pablo Picasso "Nude, Green Leaves and Bust" , sold in 2010

9: $107 (++) million (plus exchange of works) Vincent van Gogh "Portrait of Joseph Roulin"  sold in 1989

10: $106.1 million Pablo Picasso Dora "Maar au Chat"  sold in 2006

Trivia about the World's most expensive paintings:

3 paintings are works by Picasso
3 paintings are works by Van Gogh
The top 4 were private sales
4 of the Top 10 paintings were sold in 2006
3 paintings have the artists' mistress as the model

Here's an interesting video on the subject, from Alastair Sooke. He comes off like the 'everyman' of painting - asking the questions we really all want to know deep down - which is actually refreshing next to the grotesque new-money collectors like Jeffrey Archer, who orders him to get his "grubby hands" off his walls.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Gerhard Richter: Hottest Art Star in the World?

Richter's "Panorama" show at the Tate
Maybe it's his giant retrospective at the Neue National Gallerie in Berlin right now, but Richter has emerged as one of the most "bankable" contemporary art stars in the World.

I remember once hearing Richter claim that he started blurring his paintings because he couldn't paint. I don't believe him. I think he's one of the most talented contemporary painters out there. I wonder if he's making anything off the spike in sales of his work though, or does it all just go to Sotheby's?

In one night this week (Feb 15th), Sotheby's made a cool $80 million, much of it by selling works by Gerhard Richter:

Eis (Ice), by Gerhard Richter

Lot 13: Ice by Gerhard Richter, 1981, estimated between 2 and 3 million pounds, sold for £4,297,250.
Dated 1981, the work was "based on a photograph taken on a solo retreat in Greenland in 1972, captures Richter's struggle with his marriage and the exodus from his troubled life in Dusseldorf to a Polar haven."[1]

Abstraktes Bild, by Gerhard Richter
  Lot 52: Abstraktes Bild by Gerhard Richter, 1992, estimated between 2 and 3 million pounds, sold for £4,857,250.

Abstraktes Bild (Rot), by Gerhard Richter

 Lot 8: Abstraktes Bild (rot) by Gerhard Richter, 1991, estimated between 2.5 and 3.4 million pounds, sold for £4,073,250

Kind (Child), by Gerhard Richter
  Lot 14: Kind (Child) by Gerhard Richter, 1989, estimated between 2 and 3 million pounds, sold for £3,065,250

"The Sotheby’s auction house made a turnover, during a “Contemporary Art Evening Auction” on 15 February 2012, of £50.7 million.  With 63.2% of the bids above the estimated value, the increased amount of lots sold well surpassed the pre-sale estimation of £35.8 million.  The auction made 90.5% of its estimated sales by lot and 94.6% by value and set two records for the artists A.R. Penck and Albert Oehlen.  Out of the 63 lots in the catalogue collection, only six went unsold." [1]

Sotheby’s reported a global sales total of $1.17 billion for contemporary art in 2011, selling a record total of $3.4 billion in total art sales in the first half of that year alone. If you add that to Christie's (first half of 2011) sales of $3.2 billion, it's easy to see that the art market is alive and well. At least, that is, at the high end: Sotheby's sold 441 works over $1,000,000.

"The [Richter] exhibition of some 130 paintings and five sculptures spanning five decades, titled "Gerhard Richter: Panorama," opens to the public at the Neue Nationalgalerie on Sunday and runs through May 13." [2]

Friday, February 17, 2012

The Frescos of Oleg Supereco

Oleg Supereco has spent nearly a decade living in Italy. Though he's starting to develop an Italian accent, his roots are firmly planted in Moscow, where he was born and raised. 

Yet despite his Russian origin, Oleg is a painter who has come to be known as one of the leading proponents of the Italian art of buon fresco, and was recently commissioned to paint the pennacchi and the cupola of the Cathedral Church of St. Nicholas, in Noto (all images here) after it collapsed one night in 1996.

The buon fresco technique has now been virtually abandoned because of the difficulty of the procedure (once the mortar is spread on the wall you have only two or three hours to paint before it is dry), and for the lack of large clients with deep pockets. Accepting the proposed project in Noto brought many challenges, but was one of those opportunities that occur only once in life.

Still, it was a mammoth undertaking. The dome itself has an area of ​​about three hundred square meters, and is considered the largest contemporary fresco in Italy.

Working on a scaffold 32 meters off the deck, the first step was to remove the earlier plaster because it was cement-based, and replace it with traditional lime-based plaster, which allows more flexibility and better breathability. Supereco then started transferring his drawings of the thirteen figures that make up his scene of the descent of the Holy Spirit.
"The iconography of the entire project was drawn up by the Rev. Charles Chenis, then Secretary of the Pontifical Commission for Cultural Heritage of the Church, who proposed an organic cycle in which was proposed: the Heavenly Jerusalem with the Assumption (the nave Central), Pentecost and the Evangelists (dome with its plumes); Christ Blessing (apse), the seven sacraments (glass dome); saints venerated in the Diocese (windows of the nave), the Ladder of Paradise Madonna patroness of the Diocese and four local saints (right transept); Cross with four fathers of the Church (left transept).
A course that will make the vast Cathedral of Noto a rare example of a stylistic blend of the baroque and the present."

His father, realizing Oleg's passion for the Visual Arts, took him to see his first museum at a young age, intending to visit only those halls showing the modern art of the day. Oleg, however, had other plans. He spotted, in another separate area, some old Russian icon paintings and was immediately entranced. Despite Oleg's insistence, his father would not let him get a closer look. These were the first years of perestroika, after all.

That first meeting with Russian icons left a permanent impression. "I was immediately taken by the expressive power - remember - I do not get enthusiastic about Impressionism, Realism and Soviet art that speaks of everyday life. I was just struck by the faces of the icons; it was something higher, not made ​​with hands. Something clicked. I said 'I have to do that.'" If you ask him when he realized that he would become a painter, he has no doubts: "Always."

After finishing art school, Oleg enrolled in the Academy of Fine Arts in Moscow. It was there that he met a pivotal figure in his artistic life; Ilya Glazunov, present rector of the Academy and one of the most important contemporary Russian painters. The old man saw something of a kindred spirit in young Oleg, who described him as "a fighter against the dark forces." By that he meant the "dark forces" of secularism and modernism in art. "A great man, before whom you feel small. One of those people who happen along once every hundred years. He was perhaps the only one who understood me." The two men shared a deep religious faith that bonded them. "Painting is a prayer through which I communicate with the Lord and He communicates with me. I am only an instrument."  

When asked why he paints, he replies simply: "Because I can't not paint." 

His inspiration is clear; so what does he say about his style?

"It's certainly a (style of) painting that is based on the idealized concept of mimesis, that is, an art that is inspired by nature which brings out only the good parts." His work, as he wrote the Rev. Chenis in 2004, is "heedless of the seasons of contemporary art."

Gladunov grasped the potential of the young student, yet other teachers accused of being too Western and too Italianate, and artistically too "Catholic". But his teacher defended him and today, among the many students he had during his long career, Gladunov appoints only three or four as being the best. Oleg is one of them. Supereco traveled to Italy, where he continued his studies with a scholarship to the Academy of Fine Arts of Venice, graduating in 2004, and where he lives and works to this day.
A monograph, sponsored by the Prince Sebastian Von Furstenberg, his patron, is available from Amazon.  

Transferring the day's cartoon

Supereco's initial sketch for one of the pennacchi figures


Monday, February 13, 2012

Postcards From the Front: WWI Sketches of Percy Matthews

The last surviving veteran of World War I died this week at 110 years old. Out of the tens of millions who served, Florence Green was the very last, and her death marks the passing of one of the defining events of human history.

The human urge to create art somehow endures despite the most hellish conditions imaginable. In some cases it can be a desperate effort to record events as documentation, such as the scratched visions of concentration camp horror or the drawings of David Olère. In others there is a discernible effort to create something beautiful, perhaps in an attempt to transcend misery through art, or maybe it's just the fleeting relief fighting artists found while concentrating on the act of sketching.

Percy Matthews trained as an artist in England before serving on the Western Front during World War I as a Private in the Kentish Buffs, and later in Salonika (today called Thessalonika, Greece), as a Lieutenant in the Middlesex Regiment. The remarkable sketches reproduced here are from a collection of scenes and characters drawn from military and civilian life at that time. Percy's son Peter donated these sketches to the Imperial War Museum in 2007, almost one hundred years after they were first created.

 " You will be driven into the sea,
and you will not have time even to cry for mercy"
Greek Chief of General Staff

There's a deep humanity in the portrait drawings of Percy Matthews sketched during "that awful pause (between fighting) in which defenders and attackers are braced up to face the ordeal, with fear or desperation, with cool courage or with blazing ardour."

Dulce et Decorum Est, by Wilfred Owen, (1893-1918)

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.

Gas! GAS! Quick, boys! -- An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime . . .
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under I green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, --

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Harold Anderson (1894-1973), The Happy Greeting

Eye Deep in Hell: Trench Warfare in World War I by John Ellis is a terrifying read, full of crawling around in the fetid slurry of rotting corpses and mustard gas, and makes Anderson's painting (above) seem like a kind of manufactured lie on a par with Russian posters of happy, well-fed peasants while millions were starving to death in the Ukrainian 'bread basket' during WWII.

The truth is, Daddy was more likely to come home looking like the poor sod in this disturbing video of a shell shock victim from World War I than the saccharine chocolate box cover by Anderson. You can also watch War Neuroses, filmed in 1917 at Netley Hospital in its entirety here. It's disturbing viewing, and makes society's desire for shuttered normality during the 1930s and (later) 1950s completely understandable given what the world had just gone through.

Still from the Seale Hayne shell shock video

From the artistic fiction of fairies and butterflies drawn on postcards and sent back home to children missing their fathers, to the disturbing visions of Otto Dix, artists have been using art as a method of processing pain as long as there's been war.

There has been a huge effort recently to make freely accessible a vast collection of drawings, letters, documents and memorabilia from the hands of the people who were there. Here are some fantastic online resources whose breadth of content, excellent image databases, attractive presentation and ease of use will make you forget all about that boring To Do list you've been avoiding all day.

The Great War Archive
First World War Digital Poetry Archive
Europeana 1914-1918 (The World War I documents of everyday life)
World War I Document Archive
1418: Documenti e Immagini dela Grande Guerra
UK National Archives

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Damien Hirst: The Pale Student of Unhallowed Arts

 "I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life and stir with an uneasy, half-vital motion. Frightful must it be, for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world"

Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley 

"Put some more monkey chemicals in FrankenHirst: His Gagosian show got panned"

Ever look at a Damien Hirst painting and thought "a monkey could paint better than that"? Hirst's Gagosian PR charade (Jan 12 -Feb 18) got me thinking about chimps. Not because he resembles one (Frieze describes him as "looking like a fossil from the Britpop era for whom time froze sometime around 1995 in the Groucho Club toilets"), but because his work reminds me of monkey art.

"I just move colour around on its own"
Damien Hirst 

Frankenstein's Monster

Hirst's Gagosian show: "A Perfect Storm of Banality"