Mouse Stew

I’ve got a bad habit of going way out on a limb in advising my current and prospective clients what art to buy and what to avoid. It’s a time-consuming process, yet I only occasionally succeed in my efforts to alter anyone’s tastes or collecting proclivities. And lately I’ve begun questioning whether or not I should even bother, given the low likelihood of success and the high likelihood of (unintentionally) offending. The following is a classic example of how such a line of reasoning crashed and burned. It regards a discussion I fell into about a couple of prints a collector had purchased years ago from Picasso’s illustrated book La Tauromaquia (1959, Bloch 950-976). I have a strong distaste for these prints and decided to ask a number of pointed questions to the collector, thinking naively that he couldn’t possibly answer them to his own satisfaction. Boy, was I surprised. Here’s his answer. Despite its length, I’ve chosen not to shorten it so as not to weaken its arguments. I still resist the notion that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, unless I’m the beholder, that is, but so it goes:

Dear Kobi, When we spoke several nights ago I was familiar with that part of your inventory that was pictured in your web site, and I simply wanted to know what pieces you might select if you were going to purchase just one original signed Picasso as your first signed Picasso purchase, because that is something I am interested in doing. I am not however quite ready to make a decision since I am still trying to decide on what I really like, and what I might want to own. When I take my time and have the opportunity to make my own decisions I generally like what I purchase more after I bring it home than prior to purchasing it. When I rush into something because someone is trying to sell me something or I am getting external pressure to purchase something I am frequently disappointed. On numerous occasions I have purchased something with a guarantee allowing me to return the item after getting it home if it did not exceed my expectations. In almost 100% of the instances when I have done this I have returned the item, because of something I did not like. You did not offend me by telling me what you said the other night, but you did come across as more as a salesman than an art dealer with your response. I am sure you have sound reasoning in your own mind for how you responded to my inquiry, but it was simply not what I was expecting or anticipating from you. I hope that this opinion does not offend you, but your line of questioning asking me what I might be looking for seemed to be very close to a textbook Dale Carnegie sales pitch which surprised me. If I knew what I was looking for I would simply buy it or realize it was more than I was able to or willing to spend. I am still formulating my tastes in certain art (including Picasso’s) and my tastes tend to expand and grow the more I learn. I was hoping to possibly learn more than I did from you. I did appreciate much of what you said and as I told you on the phone I do enjoy reading many of your write ups on your art pieces in your web site, because they give me a greater appreciation for the art itself (the more I understand and learn about a subject the more I tend to appreciate it). Hearing what you have to say and hearing your opinions about Picasso’s works are more valuable to me than your trying to figure out what I might like or not like. I do realize that my likes and tastes are expanding the more I learn about art. I would still like to know what you would buy for your first signed Picasso print if you did not already own one.

I fully agree with what you said that one of your central duties as an art dealer should be to advise clients about their prospective acquisitions regardless if they like hearing what you have to say or not. I did however get the feeling that if you really knew exactly what I was looking for you might have more of a bias to tell me what you thought I wanted to hear instead of what you really felt. I prefer to hear what you really feel regardless of if it agrees with my tastes and opinions or not. I realize that I am still formulating my opinions of what I like and what I don’t like regarding Picasso’s works, and I simply wanted to know what you thought was the best values for a signed Picasso from the pieces you have pictured in your web site. What I heard from you was that everything you had was a great value, which may be true, but I would imagine that some pieces are a better value than other pieces To give you some idea of my background concerning art I have traveled extensively in my lifetime and have been to many of the major art museums throughout the world on numerous occasions, but I did not really start to gain an appreciation for serious art until 1-2 years ago. Until recently (less than one year ago I had never seen a Picasso that I would even consider owning, and I have walked by Picasso museums in Paris and Malaga in recent years without having any interest to pay the nominal fee to enter. Several years ago we fell in love with several Chagall pieces and we now own seven. We also love Calder and we own two. We like a lot of what Dali did and hate much of what he did, but our biggest fear was the number of fraudulent pieces especially in the later half of the 20th century. We have met several close personal friends of Dali that knew very well him when he was alive, and we have had access and confidence to what we believe to be authentic works of Dali and we do now own two pieces from the Argillet collection which we purchased directly from Christine Argillet who now controls all of the art that Dali left to her father when Dali died. Christine is the curator of the Musee du Surrealisme in Melon, France which is the permanent home of many of the most important Dali works not found in the Dali Museum in Figueras Spain. She knew Dali very well, and almost grew up as a daughter to Dali, because of the relationship between her father and Salvadore Dali. Although they did not speak for many years prior to Dali’s death Pierre Argillet was one of Dali’s closest friends and he had collaborated on almost 200 original prints with Dali and ended up inheriting Dali’s castle and most of his private collection upon Dali’d death. Prior to his death Pierre Argillet already had the world’s largest collection of Dali’s etchings which are now owned by Christine and her brother.

I did not like any of Miro’s or Picasso’s works until recently and now I like many of both of theirs. Several pieces from Miro’s Ubu Roi series I am particularly fond of and the first Picasso that I really fell in love with was “The Raising of the Bulls” from Picasso’s La Tauromaquia suite [Bloch 950-976]. We currently have one signed Miro, and three unsigned Picasso’s all from the La Tauromaquia suite. We also own “La Girafe en feu” from Dali’s Tauromachie Surrealist Suite published by Pierre Argillet as a tribute to Picasso’s La Teuromaquia suite.

I understand that you do not care for La Tauromaquia and that is OK as I am certain that I do not care for a whole lot of what you like either. That is not to say that I don’t value or respect your opinion as I expect that you know far more about Picasso and about art in general than I do or more than I probably ever will know. Here are some of my reasons for liking and owning La Tauromaquia:

First several prints from the La Tauromaquia suite were the first Picasso works that I ever liked and I feel it is important to buy art that you like or art that you really love. I do love the La Tauromaquia suite. In addition to liking it so much, we do travel to Europe about twice a year and I have been to Spain more than a handful of times for up to two weeks at a time. I am not particularly fond of bullfights I n Spain myself, but I know how important they are to the culture of the Spanish people and how central they are located to many of the older towns and villages throughout Spain. Many years ago I had car trouble in a small village and met a young man who helped me out. He was nineteen years old and barely stood five feet tall but he happened to be a bull fighter appropriately named “The Little Giant”. He proudly showed the many scares all over his chest from getting gored, and he supported his entire family of 11 brothers and sisters and two parents who all lived in a one bedroom house where everyone except for his parents slept on the floor. Posters of “The Little Giant” proudly hung on the walls throughout the small casita they all lived in. I spent two nights living in this casita while Pepe’s cousin repaired my car and I ate mouse stew with the entire family one evening which was a special meal they would prepare when important guests stayed or visited with them. Most of the children in Spain dream of becoming a famous bull fighter like “The Little Giant” in order to become famous and also become wealthy enough to support their entire families. In the US kids similarly dream of becoming rock stars, professional sports figures or models to achieve fame and fortune, but in Picasso’s world bullfighting was number one. This had to be an important part of Picasso’s life experience when he was growing up as a young child. So much of his art whether it be his etchings, his lithographs, his ceramics, his linocuts etc. reflect his attention to this obvious significant part of his life experience reflecting the importance of bull fighting within the Spanish culture. This was Picasso’s heritage. This was one of the most important events that occured in the world that he grew up in.

In professional basketball we have the NBA and a commissioner to write and enforce the rules that everyone ends up playing by, in golf we have the PGA, in football we have the NFL, in baseball we have the National League and American League etc., and in Spain “La Termaquia” was the bible for everything to do with bullfighting starting with the proper the raising of the bulls, to the type of arena itself, to the parade of matadors, to the actual bullfight itself, to the killing and removal of the bull. This was recorded in literature and also in art and although Goya paid tribute to this important literary work with more detailed etchings of famous bullfighters and styles or techniques used in his day, it was Picasso who captured the essence of this great and most important literary writing by putting it into simple pictures for everyone to understand and appreciate. Just as in early Christian times cathedrals had stained glass windows portraying the essence of the most important stories and graphic scenes from Bible for all of the parishioners to follow, the Russian Orthodox Church had icons, which are important works of art today, and Picasso immortalized “La Tauromaquia” with his suite by the same name. Just as Picasso paid tribute to LaTauromaquia itself and also to Goya’s earlier works, Dali paid tribute to Picasso with his Tauromachie Surrealist Suite published by Pierre Argillet as La Tauromaquis was considered to be one of Picasso’s most important works according to both Dali and Argillet. As you must certainly realize Dali and Picasso were once very close friends and after Picasso paid for Dali to come to America at the start of WWII Dali made the mistake of publicly embarrassing Picasso by telling the press that Picasso would probably want to be paid back by Dali and when word of this got back to Picasso he never spoke to Dali again. Dali’s Tauromachie Surrealist Suite was a tribute to Picasso intended to be an apology for how Dali abused Picasso’s generosity when he paid his way to the United States when Dali couldn’t afford to do that for himself.

These are some of the reasons why I think the series is so important and so meaningful to me personally. I think the people that knew Picasso closely (such as Dali and Pierre Argillet) and the people that understand the culture that Picasso lived so much of his life in can recognize the importance of this series itself more than just those that examine it as simply art and overlook the importance or significance of subject matter itself. I have heard before that it takes a genius to make everyone understand a single thought or subject and when it comes to La Tauromaquia nobody made this most understandable than the “Genius of Picasso” itself. The simplicity, the completeness, and the importance to the Spanish culture attached to this series is what comes across as being so meaningful and consequently why La Tauromaquia is what first turned me on to Picasso.

When I ask myself your questions:
(1) Did the artist portray the subject well? I would have to say, yes — because no body ever did it more complete job of illustrating the subject matter itself including Goya.
(2) Could anyone have done it, or did it require particular skill, creativity, and originality. There is no doubt in my mind that some other people could have done the same thing, but not with the same impact and certainly not everyone or anyone. Goya did it and his rendition certainly had more detail and because of that one could easily make the case that Goya’s rendition took more skill but it did not portray the subject matter nearly as well and it was certainly far less meaningful than what Picasso achieved later on. Dali’s rendition was without a doubt more creative but it was clearly a copy a la Dali, and I did already admit that other people could have done the same thing and others certainly did, but the fact that Picasso did La Tauromaquia is what makes it so significant in my opinion. This series by Picasso is the greatest reflection, of the greatest writing, on the greatest example of Spanish Culture, by the greatest Spanish artist, and perhaps the greatest artist in the world of all time. That combination of elements is what makes this series by Picasso so significant and meaningful.
(3) Is it just a series of sketches, or finished, accomplished works of art? I’m not really too sure how to answer this question, and it is probably somewhere in-between but there are so many other great works of art that are even less finished or accomplished so my opinion in this case may not be that significant.
(4) How could he have improved upon them? From my point of view and understanding of the
meaning of La Tauromaquia, Picasso couldn’t have improved on the subject or improved on his rendition of the text itself — he did exactly what he intended to do and La Tauromaqauia is a most complete illustration of the subject matter.

I have heard on several occasions that there are only three works of art in the world today that the art world generally agrees won’t ever go up for sale, but if they did they would be the only three works of art to sell for $1 Billion or more. These three paintings are “The Night Watch”, the “Mona Lisa”, and “Guernica”. I have seen all three of these pieces reproduced by other artists and they are difficult to distinguish from the originals which I have also seen so I guess I would have to say that there are other people that could probably do any work of art, certainly there are many artists that make a living copying other works of art just are there are 100’s and probably 1000’s of Elvis impersonators some that sound better than Elvis ever did himself. The other night we both agreed that Picasso’s simple nude that I believe was entitled “La Derriere” [Bloch 125; close enough””but it’s title is actually Fragment de Corps de Femme] was a great piece and you called it the best in the entire series by Picasso, and you considered it a great piece of art.

I also think it is a great piece of art so we clearly agree on some art being great and appealing to both of our tastes. When I ask myself the same questions I would have to say that almost anyone could have done this — and even I could probably learn to copy it myself given enough time. When I ask myself was this just a sketch or a finished accomplished work of art, it would be difficult for me to argue it was really much more than a sketch, but personally the simplicity of the piece itself is what makes that piece so magnificent in my opinion. If my next door neighbor did it I might like it but I would clearly not be that impressed, but since Picasso did it the piece is a finished accomplished work of art in my opinion if that makes any sense to you. I’m not sure that I am correct with this assessment, but that is what I think.

I am sorry that I rambled on so much with my answer to your question, but I did not have time to make my answer more concise. Think about it, if I could have reduced all that I told you into eight simple lines like Picasso did with “La Derriere” I could have created a masterpiece. When Picasso reduced the literary works of La Tauromaquia into a series of simple etchings he captured the essential fundamentals of the rules and ceremonial rituals to be included in the sport of bullfighting throughout Spain for every citizen to completely understand. This completed set of work serves as icons for the national sport of bullfighting in Spain. Picasso created a finished and accomplished works of art for the masses of the people in Spain to follow. Next to Chagall’s Bible series I believe that La Tauromaquia is one of the finest series of etchings ever created. For what it is worth, that is my answer. -Jerry T

1 thought on “Mouse Stew”

  1. Dear Jerry, What an absolutely fascinating and wonderful response to my question! I loved reading it so much that I’m definitely going to blog it on our website, possibly even including your negative comments. (By the way, if I get it and this response uploaded in time, you could, if you like, respond directly off the blog””I think I’ll file this under the “Collecting Instinct” category, though you could also find it in reverse chronolical order in the “View by Date” section at ). But what I really want to know is how good was that mouse stew? And am I really missing out by letting my cat have all our rodents?

    Ordinarily, I would have picked up the phone and tried thereby to save a lot of time in responding to you (I have three babies running around). But you brought up some very thought-provoking issues that are eminently blogworthy. So I’ll take a stab at them in prose.

    First, enough time passed between our phone conversation and your subsequent email that I was sure I had managed to offend you by coming down on the Tauromaquia. Little did I know that I had indeed offended you, but not about that so much as with what came across as a hard sell. If that was the case, I’m glad you took the trouble to continue our correspondence. Gosh, nothing could be further from my mind than the hard sell. I rack it off to a simple misunderstanding, no doubt due to my failure to precisely communicate my meaning. I am soooo soft sell that I am just about to start melting. Or at least that is my self-image””I take note when someone points out the opposite, and will adjust accordingly, so thanks. Honestly, as I mentally replay our conversation and reread your last email, I feel that I failed to clearly communicate my meaning. Far from Dale Carnegie, whom I confess not to have read but of course know about, I must first say that I was raised in a time-honored Talmudic tradition of answering a question with a question. There is wisdom to this approach, not the least of which is in an attempted response to a very, very broad question such as yours. I enjoy helping clients narrow the universe of possibilities down to a single selection, but the process requires a working understanding of each client’s tastes, budget, and insistence on signatures or lack thereof. I realize I’m fairly new to this biz, but yours was the very broadest question I have encountered to date. Far from attempting a hard sell, I was and, with your indulgence, will continue an attempt to refine my search for an answer for you. To give but several examples of what job description is like, some of my clients just want female portraiture; some are looking for horses; some hate eroticism, while others want nudity; some love the Blue Period and hate late Picasso, others only want The 347 Series (from 1968). So in order to know where to begin, I need to learn more about you two. To do that, I think I’ll follow up this email with a phone call, once I’ve given you a chance to read it, or perhaps you could call me afterwards at your convenience. I am not at all trying to put you off by protesting that your question is overly broad, but just hoping to be able to convince you that I need to learn much more about you in order to be able to hazard an answer. I love, make that LOVE, soooo many Picasso prints that I could give you a list of easily a hundred that I believe would serve admirably as your first signed purchase. To get a handle on this, by the way, you need only look at those prints to which I’ve accorded a five-star rating along the criterion of “beauty” in my rating schema. But my next step would be to try to match this list, or even the list of “four-star prints” or worse, to your individual tastes and budget.

    In the meantime, I’d like to touch upon another issue. I made a calculated decision about not rating those Picasso prints which I find unworthy, but perhaps it was a miscalculation. Clearly, my ratings are subjective, reflecting my own taste, alongside a hopefully accurate tabulation of the market’s valuation of each print. Yet my omissions seem to be getting me into trouble. Just after reading your email this morning, I fielded another which expressed wonder at the omission of two linocuts from my tables. After further examination, I will now include them. And after reading your lengthy, and I am happy to say convincing, at least on some levels, exegesis of the Tauromaquia, I’m even considering including it.

    I look forward to corresponding with you further, soon.-Kobi

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