By Enrico Cavaliere

It’s already joyous Spring time for the international art market! Stunning results for the Modern & Impressionist and Contemporary Art auctions in London, February/March 2018

If you were of the impression that heavy snow and Siberian weather conditions or financial turmoil can stop the appetite of big collectors, well think twice… Last week the Impressionist & Modern Art evening sales put on display by the big auction houses in London managed to amass an overall £285m (with fees). No records were broken (even though stunning results were not missed) and the absolute dominator of the whole week was – surprise, surprise! – Pablo Picasso. The Spanish superstar was featured extensively at both Christie’s and Sotheby’s (the former having 9 works by the Master in the catalogue, the latter 4) and all the pieces sold rather well. London-based art advisory firm Gurr Johns was particularly active on behalf of their high-profile clients in this sense, purchasing 11 of them out of the total 13 and splashing a grand total of £100m (including buyer’s premium). No wonder if we therefore decided to focus on Picasso’s two top lots, democratically split between Christie’s and Sotheby’s. The week’s first prize lot to test the market’s robustness was Mousquetaire et nu assis. Completed on April, 11th 1967 at his home/studio in Mougins, Southern France, at the end of a period in which he was recovering from surgery and saw the painter immersing himself in extensive readings. Literary sources definitely had an impact on the appearance of the musketeer’s figure in Picasso’s production from late 1996 onwards, as confirmed by the artist as well (see novels by Dumas or Shakespeare). However, the world of the Old Masters had a clear influence too. Frans Hals, Goya, Velázquez, El Greco but especially Rembrandt, for whom Picasso had a deep, authentic respect (and almost identified with) since he was seeing the Dutch very much like a predecessor of himself, with the same stigmata of greatness that only the gifted ones receive. In this specific case, two paintings by Rembrandt must have inspired the Spanish painter: The Nightwatch (1642, currently at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam) with the figures of the guards resembling of musketeers and more importantly Portrait with Saskia (circa 1636, now at the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen in Dresden), representing the artist with his younger wife Saskia. In this second case, the link is even more direct being the sensual, seated nude in the foreground of Picasso’s canvas his final great love, muse and wife Jacqueline Roque who played a major role in the master’s impressive late productivity. Characterised by lavish, loose, tactile brushstrokes and marked by a distinct eroticism, the present work perfectly epitomises Picasso’s last phase of his magnificent career where desire and lust for life balance each other in a remarkable way. Offered to the public with an estimate between £12 and 18m, it sold for almost £14m (including fees).
Pablo Picasso, Femme au béret et à la robe quadrille - Marie Thérèse Walter (image Sotheby's)

Pablo Picasso, Femme au béret et à la robe quadrille – Marie Thérèse Walter (image Sotheby’s)

Sotheby’s was quick to respond to the challenge the day after…and what a response! Femme au béret et à la robe quadrille (Marie-Thérèse Walter), dated 1937, was bearing an estimate on request and in the saleroom was fiercely contested by two different phone bidders. Post-sale, it was revealed that the winner had been Gurr Johns (and who else could it be?), submitting the decisive bid of £44m hammer (£49,8 if you consider the buyer’s premium). Boldly painted and with a rich, primary palette of colours, it was completed towards the end of a key decade for Picasso, for both personal and broader reasons. The 1930s were opened by the great influence that the artist’s favourite model and then lover Marie-Thérèse Walter had on his production. This explains why the portraits of this period are imbued with an increasing sensuality which started fading away in the second half of the 30s: the reason being the encounter with young talented photographer Dora Maar in late 1936, whose beauty was less voluptuous and more algid, definitely more intellectual. Picasso found therefore himself between the two of them and the present picture sees them both depicted, the red beret and the profile are a clear reference to Marie-Thérèse, whereas the angularity of the face and the long hair recall of Maar. In other words, we are here in front of a double-portrait of the two muses who were at the time competing for the painter’s attention (and love). Additionally, 1937 was also the year of Guernica, conceived by Picasso as his artistic manifesto against the escalating horrors caused by the Nazi/fascist regimes increasingly gaining sinister power in Europe. Behind the powerful faces of Guernica’s weeping women is Marie-Thérèse again – an additional evidence of the extreme importance the model was still having in the Master’s life.
Pablo Picasso Mousquetaire et nu assis (image Christie's)

Pablo Picasso Mousquetaire et nu assis (image Christie’s)

Following on the results of the Impressionist & Modern Art auction, March wrapped up a highly successful week for Contemporary Art as well. Results were even more impressive, showing how the international art market is in full recovery – at least for the above segments – after a string of depressing outcomes marking most of 2017, in London and elsewhere. Overall, £343m (with fees) were raised by Evening Sales at Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Phillips respectively. From an auction perspective, the result achieved by Phillips’ London team was undoubtedly the most unexpected: presenting a mix of 20th Century art (therefore not strictly focussed on Contemporary Art), it gathered £97m, with buyer’s premium included, accompanied by stunning 92% sell through rate – the highest ever total for the auction house, in global terms and across all categories. No surprise we would hence like to start this post-sale review with a quick analysis of this specific auction. The star lot was again a work by Pablo Picasso, entitled La Dormeuse and dated 1932, half-painting and half-drawing, which managed to achieve nearly £42m after being fiercely disputed by five bidders. It was eventually won by a client who was active over the phone with a Phillips’ senior executive, Ms Marianne Hoet.
Pablo Picasso, La Dormeus (image Phillips)

Pablo Picasso, La Dormeus (image Phillips)

Strategically sold on the same day the Picasso’s show at Tate Modern had opened (the exhibition is still ongoing and will be on display until September 9th, apparently the seller turned down the institution’s offer to include it) and presented with a very competitive estimate (£12-18m), it had never appeared at auction before and had been in the same private collection since 1995, when privately acquired from the then existing NY-based Pace Wildenstein Gallery. Moving on to the big guns, the most successful sale of the whole week in terms of both revenues and average quality was Christie’s one, demonstrating once more the positive momentum which the Pinault guys are currently going through (they are winning top consignments in series, culminating with the Rockefeller Collection going on sale in NYC this May). The £137m threshold (considering fees) was hit, making this the highest ever dedicated auction taking place in London (92% was sold by lot and 96% by value). The top lot was Andy Warhol’s Six Self-Portraits, a rare masterpiece completed by the Pop Art guru only months before his death in 1987 and included in the first and only exhibition entirely centred on Andy’s portraits (at the Anthony d’Offay’s London gallery in 1986). It managed to gather in excess of £22m, with fees. Stuffed with great pieces by established names (it is also worth mentioning a unique and stylish piece by Lucio Fontana, Concetto Spaziale, Attese, executed in 1965 and representing a brilliant example of the artist’s ability to cross the borders between flat art and design – adjudicated for £8,6m including buyer’s premium), our attention was immediately directed towards an ambitious and monumental work: The Raft of Perseus by US-based young artist Kristin Baker.
Kristin Baker, The Raft of Perseus (image Christie's)

Kristin Baker, The Raft of Perseus (image Christie’s)

Raised to international recognition in the early 2000s when she started collecting high profile shows at Deitch Projects, Acme (LA), Gavin’s Brown, Centre Pompidou as well as Saatchi Gallery in London, with the present work Baker has decided to give her own personal interpretation of a key painting for 19th Century European painting, The Raft of the Medusa by Théodore Géricault (1791-1824). This is part of a wider project which sees the artist, initially influenced by the world of motorsports, now constantly looking back at previous art historical movements and figures. The Raft of Perseus is a colossal (254.4 x 405 cm) juxtaposition of planks, shards, sails as well as masts of colour creating vibrant and powerful masses of material and pigment. The glossy surface, an effect enhanced by Baker’s wise decision to work on PVC rather than on canvas, is permeated by an overall sense of vigorous energy and dynamism (a clear reference she owes to the Italian Futurism) that makes the viewer feel at the centre of the scene and a live witness of the imminent disaster. One of the ‘cheapest’ lots within the whole auction (estimate was £50-70,000), it sold for an overall £100,000. Sotheby’s Evening Sale also significantly contributed to the week’s very healthy performances, putting together a robust £109m figure, even though the auction proved to be less spectacular in general. In this case, it was Peter Doig who took the stage. His The Architect’s Home in the Ravine, a work from 1991 which has been at auction four times in the last 16 years, being the last only two years ago (also in London, but with Christie’s), was the star lot of the night and obtained £14,3m (with buyer’s premium taken into consideration), only slightly above the low estimate.
Peter Doig, The Architect’s Home in the Ravine (image-Sotheby's)

Peter Doig, The Architect’s Home in the Ravine (image-Sotheby’s)

As typically happens with Doig, it embodies both references to physical experiences and emotive recollections, helped by the use of photographic material. It is also a tour de force of thick paint lines which create an intricate layer in the foreground imitating the dense forest surrounding the big house in the background (that one of mathematician Eberhard Zeidler, in the wealthy suburb of Rosedale, Toronto). Additionally, the subject was also inspired by a visit to Le Corbusier’s building Untié d’Habitation in France, equally enclosed in a wood. Such a painterly style, meticulously developed after a careful study of selected art historical references (ranging from Post-Impressionism – see Munch – to Jackson Pollock) became recurrent with the artist in the early 1990s and contributed to the success of a seminal body of works produced at that time, which marked a key moment in his career and influenced its further development. Positioning itself on the edge between abstraction and representation, this canvas is a mesmeric work witnessing Doig’s ability to mix dreamlike, nostalgic memories with savvy painterly skills.