Musée Picasso Paris, Redux


Balcony of the Pic. Museum

I suppose it’s time to weigh in on the newly reopened Picasso Museum Paris.  Not that it needs it—it truly speaks for itself.  But opinions vary, and it should come as no surprise that the museum has its detractors, despite the fact that it has more Picassos and has more of them on view than any other place on earth.  Weirdly, that doesn’t seem to stop some people.  For example, see the scathing review by Holland Cotter in the NY Times of Oct. 27, 2014 (http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/28/arts/design/the-picasso-museum-reopens-in-paris.html?_r=0).  Tell you what—I’ll spare you and just paste one of his choicest rants:

“All together, you can learn a tremendous amount about him in the Picasso Museum show, not least that he could be a truly terrible artist. Maybe the biggest revelation, though, comes on the top floor, when you catch your first glimpse of a Cézanne landscape Picasso once owned, and instantly sense what’s been missing from the two floors below: focus, concentration, a point of repose, warmth like a light in a tunnel, a fire in a hearth, a vigil lamp in a church.  The comparison of Cézanne to Picasso we see here is of painter to cartoonist, of steady walker to competition dancer. It’s hard even to imagine Picasso painting landscapes — though he did; there’s one nearby — because, judging by this jumpy show, he doesn’t know how to be quiet, to sit there, stop spewing, do nothing, look long.”

You’d think the Times, of all rags,  wouldn’t have a hard time finding a writer who understands his subject, but never mind.  At the time, I posted a comment on NYTimes.com in response, sight unseen.  Now that I have seen the exhibit, naturally I have a bit more to say.  But I’ll start by pasting my original riposte to Cotter:

I sympathize with the author’s anal desire to view the Picassos in chronological order.   But that was not Picasso’s way.  In his first museum retrospective in Basel in1932, he hung the exhibit himself and juxtaposed works of dissimilar periods and styles.  Ms. Baldassari [the since fired curator], undoubtedly aware of this exhibit and in service of her exhibit’s theme, chose to do the same.

Picasso was not one to make our viewing simple.  His art is chockfull of puzzles, allusions, and visual puns.  He would be pleased, if the author’s description is accurate, that the visitors must wander about a seemingly disorganized exhibit, dead ends and all.  I have always found that the museum’s choppy viewing spaces, amid its period architecture, enhances the intimacy and charm of the experience.

Rather than praise even a single Picasso, the author’s principal impression of the exhibit is that Picasso “could be a truly terrible artist.”  Perhaps such irreverence is to be expected from someone who does not appreciate Picasso, much less his preeminence in the pantheon of art.  A book-length equivalent of such a lack of understanding is Arianna Huffington’s screed.  I am certainly not one for censorship, but the author makes the case that sacrilege should perhaps be judiciously edited from the usually responsible pages of the storied NY Times.  Personally, I can hardly wait to arrive in Paris and bask in the glory of so many masterpieces, in whatever order.

M.-T., and Gina and me

Now, dear reader, fast forward a few months, to the day when my family stormed the museum, and then hold up for a moment so I can gush.  Actually, there’s no need to belabor the point—simply put, there are twice as many Picassos on view than before.  Need anything more be said?  Four hundred works of art, a far larger permanent exhibit of Picassos than has ever existed.   There were so many great Picassos on view, so many of them your faves and mine, that by the end, even my ability to take in yet another Picasso was starting to reach capacity.  (But please don’t repeat this last to anyone—I have a reputation to uphold!)

As is well known, a successful museum’s bottleneck is not funding, it’s space.

The Musée Picasso has about 5000 Picassos, last I read.  As far as I’m concerned, the only significant gauge of the success of the renovation is that many more of them are now on view.  Any other criteria pale by comparison.  So someone made the executive decision of reframing the paintings in a contemporary way (basically centering the raw canvas within a shallow white box).  The effect was clean and simple and unobtrusive, better than a distracting frame of an ill-framed painting.  I would have preferred leaving the old antique gilt frames intact, but whatever.  Framing actually matters a lot to me, but really, fine art is not about the packaging.

Miranda Doesn't Picasso

As for the order of the artworks, or the lack of it, it could have been totally random, as far as I was concerned—I was so rapt up in devouring each individual piece that the order they appeared hardly mattered.  Though whenever I actually noticed the groupings themselves, they seemed well-conceived.  I can certainly understand that a Picasso novice might well prefer a chronological display in order to make sense of this 8-decade career.  But Picasso hadn’t intended his art to be easy—he liked making his viewers work.  He might have come up with a different arrangement if he were once again the guest curator, but I should think he would have graciously approved of the arrangement, thanks to Anne Baldassari.  On the other hand, I don’t think he would have liked the new frames.  Though who knows?  That quintessentially modern artist might well have kept up with the times better than I….

There's more??
There’s more??

Lessons from the Block

Cabri (Kid), circa 1947
Cabri (Kid), circa 1947

What happens when you mix a rare and desirable blue-chip art collection with a bevy of hungry collectors?  Well, at the special sale of unique Picasso ceramics from Marina Picasso’s collection, held at Sotheby’s London this June, the result, as you may have expected, was an unmitigated feeding frenzy.  Rarely if ever has there been an opportunity for the public to see, much less choose among, such a large collection of the master’s unique ceramics.  According to one of the Sotheby’s auctioneers, this assortment represented the lion’s share of Marina’s remaining unique ceramic collection.  Even without this disclosure, many collectors must have judged that they were unlikely to ever again come across such a large collection of unique Picasso ceramics.

Casey and I and our three children happily took it all in during our sojourn in London.  We of course made a point to scrutinize the several Picasso paintings and drawings on hand, but mostly we wandered about the ceramics room, marveling at the master’s creativity and playfulness and also at  the sheer volume of his output (though that last didn’t.

Yet when it came to crunch time, that is, deciding which pieces we would actually like to acquire for ourselves and/or advise our collectors to, the ensuing critical analysis of the collection yielded a strikingly different result than reviewing the collection in its totality.  After all, bringing the entire collection home with us was never even remotely the question.  Rather, as in any art-buying expedition, the question in its distilled form was, which piece or pieces would we most like to live with?

As I have at times been known to do when beset with a large array of choices (see, for example, my collecting guide [insert link] for Picasso’s original prints and editioned ceramics), I sharpened my virtual pencil and began the cold calculation of rating Marina’s terracotta treasures.  In rating the ceramics, I did not so much compare each piece with others in the same sale as with Picasso’s entire ceramic oeuvre.  Comparisons even with his editioned ceramics was warranted, especially in those instances in which there are generally available editioned ceramics of similar appearance, yet at far lower prices.  This exercise, perhaps not surprisingly, resulted in a brutal pruning of the many available choices to but a small handful of compelling pieces, price permitting.  I went through this process twice, before and after direct inspection of the sale.  Direct inspection, as usual, improved the appearance of much of the art.  Nevertheless, in the final analysis, only a handful of ceramics remained standing.  Using a 0 to 10 scale, only 15 lots achieved better than a rating of 5.  These included six 9’s and but two 10’s.  Any such schema is of course highly subjective, since it relies on an individual’s own tastes and preferences.  And call me a tough grader if you will, but I am prepared as always to defend my point of view.

Once the dust had settled, it was clear that Marina’s enthusiasm to rid herself of her estranged grandpa’s art was rivaled only by the enthusiasm of the collectors who snapped it up.  Remarkably, all 126 ceramics were sold.  Though it took several lots for the bidding to hit its stride, the more coveted pieces soon started selling for 3, 5 and 10 times their pre-auction estimates.  Almost everything went high.  The lot that soared the highest was a vase of a goat with large handles resembling horns (though it was paradoxically named cabri, French for a kid goat).  This 9 in my book fetched £ 485,000 (around $761,000; shown above).

I also loved two clay sculptures.  The first of them was reminiscent of his surrealist paintings of the late ‘twenties:

Femme, 1948
Femme, 1948

and

1950 Tête de Bélier, 1950
Tête de Bélier, 1950

There was a fabulous octopus, to my knowledge is a unique subject among Picasso’s ceramics.  It soared pretty high, despite an unstable though restorable central crack:

Pieuvre Bleue (Blue Octopus), 1947
Pieuvre Bleue (Blue Octopus), 1947

There were some vases with abstract designs (who says Picasso eschewed abstraction?) and also some wonderful tiles and plates depicting owls:

Hibou, circa 1956-7
Hibou, circa 1956-7

A hilarious faun really had to seen in the flesh to be fully appreciated (at least by me):

Tête de Faune, 1961
Tête de Faune, 1961

In the end, we came away with just exactly nothing (long story, but mostly I had my sights set on a drawing, an aquatint, and a unique ceramic at another auction) and the collectors for whom I had been bidding were too disciplined to have fared any better.  It’s not that the achieved prices were too high, at least not for the better pieces.  What I was left wondering about, rather, was how many bidders were thinking critically, versus how many were so swept away by the size of the collection, the rarity of the opportunity, and the auctioneers’ hype, as to have momentarily forgotten themselves and bid indiscriminately.

The results sort of speak for themselves.  A number of collectors came away with wonderful artworks at not unreasonable prices.  Still others ended up the sudden new owners of pricey ceramics of dubious artistic quality.  One of “our” collectors, for example, who had decided to go it alone ended up bidding with an eye at his budget not quite balanced with regard for the merits of the individual pieces.  Judging by the rampant success of all the lots, at times uncorrelated with their merit, I fear there must have been many like him.

The take-home, I suppose, is as follows: approach an auction analytically, make a firm plan, and be sure to be firmly lashed to the mast long before the bidding has started, safe from the sirens’ call.

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The Golden Dove

IMG_6735 (1)

As our family of five is wrapping up our mini-“Grand Tour” of London and the Continent, I find myself thinking again and again about the many highlights of our trip.  Our visit to the “new and improved” Picasso Museum in Paris deserves a whole blogpost in and of itself, but, although it’s been almost a week, my mind is still reverberating from that transcendent visual onslaught and needs to regain some composure before I can even think about tackling it.  Then I should also weave in our visit to the French Riviera, with the Picasso Museum in Antibes, the Picasso Chapel in Vallauris with the wartime L’Homme au Mouton (The Man with the Sheep, 1943) in the nearby square, Picasso’s gift to the town.  But a more manageable place to start is our serene sojourn at La Colombe d’Or, our perennial base of operations in the south of France.

The Golden Dove is a wondrous small hotel in the high-walled medieval town of Saint-Paul de Vence, nestled in the hills about 6 km above the French Riviera.  We had checked in late at night, only to be greeted upon awakening by the sweet sounds of a symphony of doves.  Before breakfast we wound our way to the gorgeous pool and beheld the great Calder mobile, seated at the foot of the pool on its massive haunches:

Version 2

A large green ceramic apple roosted along its length, which always reminded Casey and me of the first time our now 12-year-old Gina had visited.  She was two at the time, and we had perched her atop the apple for a memorable photo op.  Now even our 10-year-olds, Sofie and Noa, seemed too large for that roost, at least without hazarding the good graces of the proprietors, the family Roux.  Anyway, a pittosporum now loomed over the apple and prevented perching, at least for any wingless biped.

Apart from enlargement of the odd shrub, this property seemed otherwise exactly as I remembered it.  Which is a good thing, because remained just exactly perfect.  Architecturally it is neither opulent nor grand, but it is nonetheless gorgeous: a stucco villa with cozy public rooms and large suites, a beautiful dining terrace overlooking the verdant valley below, and tasteful stonemasonry and landscaping throughout.  But what makes this hotel unique, all the more remarkable given its small size, is its world-class modern and contemporary art collection.  I’ll of course begin–no surprise–by enumerating the Picassos:  The highlight of the collection, rivaled only by the massive Calder, is a wonderful 1950’s canvas in the dining room, which unexpectedly surprised me upon first encounter and has never failed to thrill me since.  And I’m not alone in that opinion, as I believe it is the only one of the many oils in the establishment that is displayed behind protective glazing:

IMG_6694

In the hallway leading to the pool are two original prints, the 1952 Crâne de Chévre with a dedication by Picasso to M. Roux Grand-Père, and one of the nicer etching/aquatints from The 156 Series.  I’ve always loved all three of them, and it just so happened that another impression of that goat became available (elsewhere) during our visit.  I absolutely adore Picasso’s animals in general, as you may know, and I had been wanting to acquire this particular memento mori for years.  I  finally snapped up this coincidental impression not just for its own sake but also as a memento vitae of our trip.  (OK, why don’t I just admit that that is just a boldfaced rationalization for acquiring a great but noncommercial Picasso that we’ll almost certainly be “stuck” with for years?  Well, I certainly hope so!)  Taking that amazing canvas home with us as well would have only added to our fine memories, but now one really shouldn’t be greedy.  No doubt the Roux are sentimentally attached to it anyway, given the history of how it fell into their hands.  Here is how it happened:

Picasso was a generous man, especially when it came to giving away his art, but in the case of La Colombe d’Or, there was ample precedent.  Just about every room of the establishment, public and private alike, is chock full of paintings, prints and sculptures.  As the story goes, the starving artists who dined chez Roux paid for their meals in art.  Sounds nice, but by the time they chowed down on that lovely terrace, quite a number of them were already world-famous and hadn’t missed a meal in decades.  Their more famous gifts include an excellent Miró canvas, a proper blue Yves Klein “body-brush” painting, a large mural after Léger on the terrace, and a huge César marble thumb just within the entrance.  There are a whole bunch of Calder works on paper and a suspended mobile, and of course the seated monster with swinging arms. Between the Calder, the  beautiful stonework, and the Mediterranean plantings, we all agreed it was the most beautiful pool ever.  I won’t bother mentioning the mosaic, an unimpressive late Braque bird, on the wall behind the pool.

Kids with César thumb

Between La Colombe d’Or and the rest of the Picassos, the Côte d’Azure was a splendid hors d’ouevre before arriving in Paris, where I might well have been the only crazed art lover to spend a solid week institutionalized at the Picasso Museum, if not for the many tween activities that drew my kids, just as the shopping sirens beckoned Casey.  And, out of nowhere, even I had this nagging feeling that Paris might be hiding one or two other attractions, if only I could find them.

IMG_6726

Wuzon da Block

On a jet-lagged early morning, I’d like to spill my thoughts onto this screen so you can hurry and see these spectacular Picassos, in case you happen to be in the ‘hood.  This time I sojourned in NY with one of our kids, and I have to say that the apostate Sofie chose as the best-in-show not a Picasso at all, but rather a Warhol painting.  Well, Superman is an admittedly spectacular Warhol, but since I’m writing this and not Sofie, it’s not going to be illustrated here.

The 1000-pound gorilla in the room was the unavoidable Les Femmes d’Alger, Version O:

1955 Les Femmes d’Alger, Version O

This Christie’s blockbuster, which is predicted (and I believe also guaranteed) to break the world auction record to the tune of something like $145M USD, was one of 15 paintings and a variety of drawings and prints that Picasso created à la Delacroix, and also as an homage to Matisse, who had died five weeks before Picasso began the series.  Picasso’s friend and really his only rival had famously depicted the harem and other “orientalist” scenes, and, as usual, Picasso wanted to one-up him.  A tribute, yes, but also, shall we say, an improvement.

Past that wonderful painting, the two pieces I was tempted to sneak away with are the print at Christie’s, La Femme qui Pleur, I (the 7th and final state, est. $4-6M):

B1333 La Femme qui Pleur, I, State VII

Last time another impression was auctioned, it broke the $5M mark and thereby set a world’s record for original prints.  (And I am pleased to remind you that it was unsigned.)

The other is the lovely and hilarious ceramic of 1952, Le Hibou Noir (est. $800,000-$1,200,000) at Sotheby’s:

1952 Le Hibou Noir, Soth. NY 2015

Wuzon da Block?

BIRDBRAIN

La Chouette, 1950
La Chouette, 1950

Here’s an owl worth noting at Sotheby’s evening sale in London this week.  In my opinion, it is the one of the two nicest Picasso owls and arguably the most desirable Picasso terracotta or ceramic, period.

This ceramic was one of about a dozen that were cast from a mold, as well as six bronzes.  Picasso then painted each ceramic differently.  The bronze version is lovely and is of course sturdier than the ceramic, but I find the painted terracottas to be more expressive than the bronzes and, in a number of cases, more beautiful.

It is noteworthy that five of these ceramic variants including the current lot (but no bronze) were included in the MOMA’s 1980 Picasso retrospective, the greatest and largest Picasso retrospective that ever was and will ever be.  It is highly significant that any one of them, much less five as well as a photo showing Picasso seated next to one, was included in this show, which had at its disposal the very best of the best.

The provenance of this particular variant is also significant, as it comes from Marina Picasso’s inheritance.

Wuzon da Block?

Starter Picasso

Nature morte à la cruche, 1937

Time was you could still land a nice Picasso canvas for under a mil. Today, with few exceptions, you’re looking at a cool 2 or 3 mil, or then some, for a starter Picasso.  Yet, more likely than not, what you get for your money is uninspiring.

So along comes this offering at Christie’s London.  I must say that the first time I leafed through their online catalogue, this painting didn’t catch my eye.   That first time around, I had judged it merely as one would a still life and, as such, I readily dismissed it.  After all, Picasso certainly painted many more beautiful and more clever still lifes.  But when my printed catalogue arrived, I gave it a closer look.  Now I saw a lovely, colorful painting in which Picasso’s lover Marie-Thérèse is depicted not once but twice, as the bowl of fruit in the foreground and also in the drawing-within-a-painting hanging on the wall.  The jug struck me as rather masculine, convincing me that it represents a male suitor, Picasso to the fruit bowl’s Marie-T.  Of course the master’s ego had to endure an ample belly, a small sacrifice in the service of art.  As if resigned to this fate, he highlighted his contour in white.   Well, there are other Picasso portraits of women à  la pitchers, two of them quite renowned, but offhand I can’t think of another artwork in which the pitcher is the doppelgänger for the Maitre himself.  (By the way, the Christie’s catalogue caption is well-crafted and informative and totally worth reading.  And its author agrees with me, at least on most points.)

There is an auction history for this piece.  It BI’ed in 2005 on an estimate of 600-800K USD, but it did sell in 2010, not the very best of times, for just over 1.1M USD.

All things considered, this is a pretty nice entry-level oil, and, at 56 cm, not even a small one at that.  And it’s signed, for what that’s worth.  All this, on an estimate of 800,000 – 1,200,000 GBP (1,213,040 – 1,819,560 USD).  Not bad for a starter Picasso….

Get your tickets now!

Musée Picasso photo

After five long years of abject deprivation, we can now bask in Picasso Central once again.  Following extensive renovation and a doubling of its exhibition space, Le Musée Picasso reopens tomorrow, on the maitre’s 133 birthday.  It has surely been a long, dry spell….

Wuzon da Block?

Bouffon et Jeune Acrobate  1905, gouache
Bouffon et Jeune Acrobate
1905, gouache

The most beautiful and most important piece in all the auctions is amazingly underpriced.  It’s at Sotheby’s Imp/Mod evening sale, lot 63.  The most recent  comparable sale among the oils and works on paper (WOPs) of 1905 was this one, far smaller and less beautiful:

1905 Saltimbanque assis OPP.034
Saltimbanque assis, 1905
pen + ink + watercolor

This tiny (14.4 cm), faint, unsigned watercolor just brought down 434,500 GBP (710,083 USD) at Sotheby’s London earlier this year.  Yet the Sotheby’s estimate is only $2.5-3.5M for the present 58 cm gouache.

The priciest sale of this gorgeous series of Saltimbanques on paper went for over $38M way back in around 1986, setting a record for a WOP that has not yet been broken:

Acrobate et Jeune Arlequin1905, gouache
Acrobate et Jeune Arlequin
1905, gouache

OK, I’d rather have this record sale, despite my love of The Fat Man, but the fat man and the young acrobat at Sotheby’s is stupendous and a giveaway at this estimate.

Skipping several periods ahead, here’s a WOW surrealist drawing, the most amusing I’ve seen at auction in the series:

Baigneuse au Ballon1929, pen + ink
Baigneuse au Ballon
1929, pen + ink

My third and final pick is the nicest late Picasso on cardboard I’ve ever seen, at Sotheby’s evening sale (and, in my opinion, one of the nicest late Picasso paintings of all in any medium),  a large painting (97 cm) at a very reasonable estimate of  $4-6M:

Tête d'Homme à la Pipe1969, oil on cardboard
Tête d’Homme à la Pipe
1969, oil on cardboard

Good luck at the races, people!

There’s More for Concern than the Prick of the Lance

B908 hirez

Now that I’ve encountered 5 confirmed forgeries and 2 suspected ones of the same linocut, more than I’ve seen of any other print outside of the Vollard Suite, I thought you might want to know about it.  The print in question is “Pique, Rouge et Jaune” (“Lance, Red and Yellow”, Bloch 908).  I came across the two that are merely suspect years ago, before I knew exactly what to look for.  But one of them was in the shop of a dealer convicted of (unwittingly) selling forgeries, and its price was too low.  The other was such a bad impression like I’ve never seen in a real linocut, with large swaths of the image incompletely covered with ink.  (A similarly poor impression is currently at auction at the time of this writing and is clearly forged.)

There is a silver lining–or two:  First, none of these was in the hands of a reputable auction or private dealer.  (The first poor impression referenced above was in a gallery with which I have had no personal experience and can’t fully judge its reputation.)  Second, the distinction between the forgeries and the real thing is satisfyingly trivial, if you just know what to look for.  But since you, dear reader, might not, I thought I’d not only alert you to the prevalence of these forgeries, but also show you how to identify them for yourself.  Ordinarily, I don’t publish such tips, for fear that they’ll fall into the wrong hands, but in this case, the discrepancies can’t be corrected for, because they reflect an apparently inherent limitation in the resolution of the reproductive process.  Also, I’ll reveal just enough so that you can positively identify the forgeries from photographs alone, without discussing several other types of discrepancies, some of which would be more apparent upon direct inspection.  You would need to compare a print in question either to the real thing or, barring that, to a good photo.  Even the smallish photo in Baer is good enough for this purpose, and Kramer will do but is not great.  Just compare the prints, or photos thereof, side-by-side, focusing on the details of each, and see if there are variances between the two.  You will find numerous fine distinctions if one is a forgery, but here’s just one example of what I mean (first, side-by-side close-ups for orientation, then further magnified close-ups for detailed analysis):

B908 best side-by-side
Copy                                       Original

B908 forgery close-up
Copy, further magnified

B908 orig. close-up
Original, further magnified

Note the “O”-shaped structure at the tip of the lance–it’s fluffy on top in the actual print but smooth in the forgery.  The “O” is also much more uniform in width than in the original.  There are additional discrepancies just in these close-ups, let alone the remainder of the prints, which should be obvious once you start looking.

Another caveat: just because a print you’re examining doesn’t resemble the above forgery doesn’t mean it’s real.  There are at least two different forgeries.  Theoretically, there could be more than two, but I have seen (and photographically archived) two forgeries which differ from each other, as well as from the original, in their details.  Logically, a print you’re examining must resemble the original in detail if it is real itself.

There are certainly other forged linocuts on the market.  The source of the first forged Pique I encountered had consigned a number of lesser linos to a Parisian auction, which succeeded in selling most of them.  I’ve however seen only forged “one offs” of other linos.  My experience could certainly be skewed.  Nonetheless, particular caution is warranted when shopping for this bright red-and-yellow linocut masterpiece. (See http://ledorfineart.com/B908_La_Pique.html for a discussion of the artwork itself.)