Monday, June 28, 2010

Headed East

As my wife headed West the other morning, I went East that evening. My first stop on this tour was Paris where I went to a number of exhibitions of auctions and some I sat through. Aside from the usual suspects Christies and Sotheby’s, I visited Articurial and the amazing Hotel Drouot. Artcurial is an auction house in the Hôtel Marcel Dassault (built in 1844) and Drouot is a modern building built to house many auction rooms which are shared with many auctioneers who exhibit and auction their merchandise there. Many years ago they even sold washing machines at Drouot but these days it represents houses that have fine and decorative arts as well as jewelry and coins.

l do not always attend the actual sale but I try to get around to all the exhibitions so that I know what is available and if I will not be there to bid I can leave a bid with the house or a colleague. A French collector said to me at Drouot the less they profess to know, with little information published and no photograph the work of art will sell for the highest price. Of course, this is not always the case but the point he was making was in all these many pieces that are being sold everyone hopes, to make a discovery. Some times, it goes the other way and one does get a bargain, but that is the exception.

Not too far from Drouot at 69,rue St. Anne, in a courtyard, you will find two top dealers Eric Turquin for paintings and Galerie de Bayser (father and sons) for drawings. But they are not just dealers they are also ‘experts’ for a number of auction houses. This is a legal designation with responsibilities for the property sold through the auction house. Works of art reside with these dealers for some time as they research them but they cannot sell directly to the client. They can, however, show the works and give out many details of the research they have done before the work appears at auction. I visited both to see what the future held and in the case of the drawings they will come up right after I leave Paris. I left bids for five of them… who knows? So far this week I have not had much success in the auctions. But there were other works to consider from the galleries and there is another opportunity.

My next stop is Prague where I will be for the meeting of the International Confederation of art dealers consisting of 5000 dealers from about 20 countries. These meetings, which occur once a year, give an opportunity for discussions on the legal and financial issues that face the dealers over much of the globe. I look forward to reporting on it next week assuming I have internet access where ever I am.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Art in the Theater

We went to Broadway the other night to see a straight play and the theater was full. When we walked into the theater, a half hour before show time, there was a man on stage sitting in an armchair with his back to us. He didn’t move until the lights went down.

Turns out he was the brooding, contemplative Mark Rothko (played by Alfred Molina), staring at one of his large red and black canvasses with several others around him.

The plot, there really isn’t one, let us say the exploration of art, is brought forward by a continuous conversation that Rothko has with his young assistant, Ken (Eddie Redmayne). Actually it is more of a monologue than a conversation. Ken is the foil and you can see him trying to hold in his personal opinions until, in one of the most dramatic moments I have ever seen, Ken pours out an impassioned commentary from the young artist’s point of view.

The playwright (John Logan) uses Rothko’s view of the art world to address the question of what is art, and as Eddie Redmayne, accepting his Tony award said, “how much the arts matter”.

I am always amazed at how few artists today understand or even care about what has been done before but I am impressed by those artists who are interested in the work of their predecessors (e.g. Jeff Koons who collects Old Masters; Joel-Peter Witkin who searches out antique frames to use with his photographs.) . In this play Rothko insists that in order to understand art, and more particularly his art, one needs to know and understand all that went before, and not just the art history but music and philosophy as well.

Rothko wants his work to have great meaning and significance. Ken points out to him that he is selling out by undertaking the commission for the Four Seasons Restaurant of a series of painting to go around the main dining room. Rothko’s defense is that he wants to put the “rich bastards” dining there off their food. Ultimately, after visiting the restaurant, he calls Philip Johnson, the architect responsible for the interior, and says that he won’t turn over the paintings and is returning his $35,000 advance.

In the play Rothko says “There’s only one thing I fear in life, my friend, one day the black will swallow the red.” In fact, more and more black did appear in his paintings over the years, reflecting the dark side of his personality. He committed suicide in 1970 before his dream, and arguably his greatest work, the de Menil chapel was completed.

If you have ever spent time looking at Rothko’s work you know that his paintings come alive with less light and even with the reproductions on the stage the point is well illustrated when Ken suddenly turns up the lights to illustrate the point. When you are in the Rothko chapel in Houston you really understand.

As we left the theater I heard a woman talking about an artist she knew who had worked as Rothko’s assistant for two and a half years. He had told her that they were not allowed to talk in the studio. Only during lunch could they break the silence. This revelation did not affect my enjoyment of the play in the slightest as the dialog was merely a vehicle for Logan’s insight into this artist and the creating of art.

Since the actors have other commitments “Red” is here for only a limited engagement. Sadly, after winning 6 Tonys, it will close at the end of the week. If you want to engage your mind and get into that of the artist I urge you to book a seat. I understand that there are still some left.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

The Barnes Collection

A week ago we had a family gathering in Philadelphia to celebrate the Bar Mitzvah of my oldest grandchild. As you can imagine it was a very busy few days and there were times that we were neither needed nor wanted around. So we decided to profit from this unusual freedom of time in Philadelphia and went to visit the Barnes Collection. My wife had not been there since she was a graduate student and I believe my last visit was when I went as a lad with my parents. Our son and his wife joined us for what may be a last chance to see the Barnes in situ.

The issue of moving the Barnes Collection from its suburban location to a new museum building in the center of Philadelphia where it would be more accessible has inspired heated controversy and even a recent sensationalist movie ”The Art of the Steal”.

Dr. Albert C. Barnes was the co-developer of an early antimicrobial drug called Argyrol. It made him an incredible fortune and with a healthy portion of that money he started collecting art.

He built a phenomenal collection of predominantly late 19th and early 20th century French art as well as a bit of everything else. Decorative arts of several countries. American paintings, African sculpture, even some Native American pots and Navajo silver and textiles. There are some Old Masters, as well but those are not worth a visit on their own.

As a setting for his collection Dr. Barnes and his wife bought a twelve-acre arboretum on which to build and house his collection. At first, the floor to ceiling installation of pictures and artifacts looks haphazard but it was Dr. Barnes’s own hang with the concept of being able to discuss and compare the art of different periods and cultures.

He strongly believed in art education and The Barnes Foundation was established in 1922 as an educational entity to study horticulture and art which it continues to do today.

The main reason for visiting the Barnes is to see the fabulous collection of Cezanne, Matisse, Renoir and Picasso. I do not remember seeing so many in any one space except for a monographic exhibition. Most importantly, the quality of much of it is absolutely tops.

Dr. Barnes was very interested in the plight of the working classes and most especially the “negro people”. He wished to empower the “Negroes” by putting them in charge of his foundation and he appointed the majority of his Board of Directors from Lincoln University, a Black college in the outskirts of Philadelphia.

Dr. Barnes wanted his collection open to the workers and not to the art establishment. In the past, if you worked for a museum it was best not to disclose the fact when trying to book a reservation. His theories of arts education were also unusual and soon he ran afoul of the establishment in Philadelphia and forbid any of the trustees from the major local Universities or Museums from joining the Barnes’s Board.

For many years the people of Lower Merion complained about traffic, the cars parked illegally on their residential streets, and the invasion of the public in their quiet corner of the world. When the Barnes began to have financial difficulties a loan tour of part of the collection was organized. Although it was hugely successful (it attracted 1.5 million visitors at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris) the funds raised were deemed insufficient.

Discussions began of the possibility of moving the Barnes to Philadelphia proper, to a new building near the Philadelphia Art Museum. Of course, at that point the people of Lower Merion began to object and a fight began over the legality of changing Dr. Barnes’ will. After a protracted court case it was decided that the Barnes could be moved. The new downtown building should be ready for occupancy in 2012.

I see both points of view and am very glad not to have had to make that decision. But no matter how hard the new stewards of the Barnes try to adhere to the original installation, as they have promised, it will certainly not be the same. As my wife pointed out, one cannot hang a major Van Gogh tight into the corner of a gallery because of the number of people who will try to squeeze in to see it.

In any case, seeing this idiosyncratic collection amid the crowds who will be driven by curiosity to flood the new downtown museum will surely evoke nostalgia in those who made the pilgrimage to the secluded esthetic sanctum of an inspired collector.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Jean Valade......who is that?

Jean Valade (1710-1787) was born in the small town of Poitiers, France but made his career in Paris.

Pierre Faventines (1695-1776), Marquis de Roquefeuil and Vicomte d'Alzon made his fortune as so many do today by managing other people’s money, especially that of the Duchesse de Bourbon, he then became the Treasurer of the Parlement of Bourgogne as well as a fermier général (tax collector) in Provence and Languedoc.

Personally, I do not believe that a good painting has anything to do with the name of the artist. Why are Watteau, Fragonard and Boucher about the only artists that anyone, not involved in the field of 18th century France, heard of? One of the reasons is that they were set above all their contemporaries by the Goncourt Brothers who were the great publicists of the virtues of 18th century French art from the vantage point of the following century. One must admit that all three painted more pictures of quality than not, which have found their way into public collections and have, therefore, been available to be written and lectured about.

This does not mean, however, that every work they did was a masterpiece or even necessarily good. A few are dogs! But, as in the stock market, the investors who come out ahead in the long run are those that have made more successful than unsuccessful transactions. The differences in percentage are small and every point above 50% is significant.

Valade was a member of the Academy and one of the most successful portraitists of his day. Our two pastels are among his most ambitious works and, painted in 1768 represent the climax of his career. They were central to the 1993 monographic exhibition in Valade’s home town and were clearly the stars. We know that Valade was the favored artist of the Faventines because the artist painted a number portraits of them and their family, mostly smaller conventional treatments.

Valade was one of the few masters of the difficult medium of pastel in this period. Two of the best known who happen to be of the same generation are Maurice Quentin La Tour (1704-1788) and Swiss artist Jean-Étienne Liotard (1702-1789). They often command attention when their work comes up in an exhibition or auction sale.

What attracts me particularly to these Valade pastels is that they combine the individuals with the objects of their time. They go beyond the standard bust-length likeness to present the individuals in surroundings that represent who they are. Clearly the Faventines are showing off a bit. The Marquis appears as the up-to-date businessman sitting in his fine “morning coat” working at his desk, whose design and gilt bronze laurel swag convey the message that he is a patron of the avant garde classicising style. But do note he has not given up his comfy Louis XV chair. Madame is industrious as well, working at her embroidery loom (needlework being the emblematic occupation of a virtuous woman). She may sit along side an old-fashioned Boulle-work bracket clock but she shows off her gold snuffbox of the latest Neo-Classic design. Note what is on her lap and on her left wrist as well.

Further we are dealing with a rare instance of 18th century pictures in their original frames. In this case they are major architectonic statements whose carved swags complement and balance the pictorial compositions. The fact that they have remained in their original frames is one reason for the fine state of preservation of this notoriously delicate medium of pastel.

A point that I will come back to again and again is that a great work by a lesser artist is preferable to a lesser work by a great artist. Here we have “museum quality” in an artist who is not a household name.