Titian's Poésie : an oasis of Liberty beyond Good and Evil
English translation will be uploaded soon.
The human face captivates again the world of art: a portrait by Botticelli surprises one and all
Carlos Herrero Starkie
20 November 2020
As the economic situation grows, the Old Masters seem to rise up, so as to infuse its figurative hallmark, in a moment in which, the world of art feels a kind of creative satiety and the market shows signs of uncertainty. In our February blog we have already pointed out that something positive was moving in the Old Master 's segment of the market, according to the good results of Christie 's December London sale and to Sotheby’s January New York sale. Covid 19's crisis has confirmed this favourable trend.
Though we shudder at the thought, over the past few years we assist to a dismemberment of historical collections of Old Masters and an increase in the offer of works of a particular importance, just at the same time as new buyers, with an eclectic taste, are emerging focused on purchasing unique works in all types of arts. Monographic sales of old Masters collections present high quality works of art fresh to the market that can be distinguished as remarkable examples of refined taste, good state of condition and remarkable provenance. They alternate in the auction calendar with "cross categories" sales where stand out as jewels the old masterpieces in lively dialogue with modernity. The best example of this convergence of an increasing offer and a renovate audience is the sale to a new collector of the self-portrait by Rembrandt at Sotheby’s in July 2020, though at a lower price than could be expected for a painting of this category.
However, if there is a genre which has risen from its ashes, that is the Portrait, a field reserved not so long ago just for connoisseur collectors and that, even those who were guided by aesthetic criteria, declined their possession because it gave a certain air of pomposity to their homes. On the contrary, nowadays the human face enjoys a revival; following the path established by the "Salvator Mundi "of Leonardo, good results are achieved in auction by paintings representing images of Christ by the circle of Petrus Christius and Quentin Metsys and portraits by Rubens and Van Dyck or tronies by Rembrandt and his followers are among the highlights of the Old masters sales. Portraits by the great artists of XX century as, by Picasso, Hockney and Basquiat have recently been sold at Christies in October in high prices; All of them offer us different artistic interpretations of human figure and how new collectors have understood the real artistic value of this genre which transmits in a superb manner the values of an epoch expressed through the individual mood of the sitter, with whom the viewer has a kind of psychological symbiosis.
Moreover, what is significant and new is the increasing interest in portraits by Renaissance painters. Those who, inspired in Roman busts, have invented this genre. A good example of this trend which demonstrates the level of interest in early portraits, is the outstanding portrait attributed to the "bourguignonne" school which rose fourteen times its estimate, selling at 1,4 M£ at Christie's in July evening sale.
In this context Sotheby’s surprize one and all presenting as a highlight of its January New York old Masters sale a paradigmatic portrait of a young man holding a roundel by Sandro Botticelli, one of the dozen existing portraits by the Master. Painted between in 1470 / 80, his best period, it expresses in an unsurpassable way the quintessence of the "Quattrocento Fiorentino", embodying the conquest of the representation of Man in Art. An image of a young man of not more then 20 years with porcelain complexion and verdigris coloured eyes, that, due to his eternal beauty, his shocking modernity and iconic character, is destined to become a symbol of the strength of Art in times of crisis and to break records, as the "Salvator Mundi" of Leonardo did years ago, in a different moment, when only we could foretell the abyss. In this sense, we should be satisfied that a masterpiece of the Renaissance assumes this role, because it would mean, that Art needs images of impressive beauty and permanent canons, so as to fight against the sentiment of void that invade human beings when personal live is shattered.
The World of Art needs to send a clear and positive message in order to maintain the mood of the collectors, so that they do not abandon the market. However, it is a paradox and, in my opinion, a very encouraging fact, that in a background so focused by Contemporary Art, Old Masterpieces are among the unique works selected to instil confidence and in a way become the "porte parole" of the whole market. On the hand, it is also surprising that an image of beauty embodied in a youth with a gaze that invites to have confidence in future, is the work selected to exert as "Salvator Mundi" of a dehumanized artistic world "au bord du précipice"; a face on the opposite side of the skulls of Basquiat, symbols of an age already passed in which we lived with opulence a fragile vital frenzy.
The Human nature is so contradictory and full of contrasts, that in a moment where prevails the distrust of man's capacity to face a kind of apocalypse, it grasps to all the values that Botticelli represents in an iconic manner. The vitality of Man, the sweet bloom of youth, the permanent sense of beauty...
The announcement of the presentation for sale of a Botticelli of this category has spread in the mediums as gunpowder, creating an unusual optimism in the market and world of art, as it is regarded as a winning bet and a sign that the taste of collectors may return at last to the human figure. This kind of courageous actions, achieved during a crisis, gives confidence to the market and, infuses passion to collectors, promoting a favourable trend for the change that Art needs and all the lovers of beauty yearn.
The portrait of a young man by Botticelli rise as a star that guides the return of Art to eternal values of ineffable beauty, exquisite technique and search of modernity through the human figure, authentic pillars of Renaissance Art. The Beauty, that is revealed by the lineal manner in which the master renders the features of the young man and the subtle touch that distils the demeanour of the personage, standing out from a symmetrical background and impressive colour; the Modernity, due to its overall immediacy, simplicity and brevity of its message; the exquisite technique, that appears in all its splendour in the incredible "trompe l oeil" of optical illusion which is shown through the delicate gesture of the hands; granting all this the clear and outstanding significance that only unique works of art can have.
This portrait could have stood as the jewel which would have gleamed in a "cross categories" sale or as a brooch in a contemporary art auction, because it would perfectly dialogue with masterpieces of all times, breaking boundaries. However, Sotheby’s, demonstrating its everlasting traditionalism, its clairvoyance and utmost care in selecting scenarios for his highlights, decided to reserve a special place in its January New York old Masters sale. Certainly, a quite acute and brave decision as it would serve to test the eagerness of all the new buyers that Sotheby’s has been attracting to the Old master field a long these last months; collectors who search the best works in all types of art. This would represent a great success, all the more it has been a target they have always failed to achieve during last years, in spite of all their efforts.
Furthermore, this announcement appears in a timely moment, when other periods of art highly considered by the market begin to show a slowdown. Impressionism is not so appreciated as before, not only due to a lack of offer of masterpieces, but also because it does not radiates the powerful expressiveness required nowadays; Picasso does not seem to stimulate the buyers mood like previously, as collectors and investors begin to be aware of the inevitable pictorial unevenness of such an immense corpus; Contemporary art remains the most active segment of the market, but at present is quite self-conscious with the astronomical figures achieved during last years, showing a kind of panic at testing the market.
Has the time come to question why old masterpieces of our history are value three or four times less then a top contemporary work of art?
I really hope so....
The market is strong, the demand of millionaire lots is still there and the new technology novelties have made accessible the old masters to new potential buyers who at present stay at home, feeling their compulsion to purchase and to enjoy only what they like, certainly what is more immediate and intelligible to their sense and knowledge, as for example a Portrait
We shall see the conclusion of this story at Sotheby’s January Old Masters New York sale, where the Botticelli painting should rise above the 100 M$, so as to be consecrated by the market.
Challenges, opportunities and dangers of the art market during covid -19 crisis
Carlos Herrero Starkie
The crises test the capacity of those who are called to lead changes. The art market has had the fortune of having in the front line two companies who have react on time to face the confinement of their clients and the lockdown of the borders. Sotheby’s and Christie’s have saved the market from collapse, demonstrating that art can still be sold in a situation of lockdown. Both of them have known how to read the future and have interpreted the crisis as an opportunity.
The demand of art in the low, middle and high segments of the market has strongly responded to the confidence demonstrated by the auction houses who have promoted the passion of buying, creating new scenarios where works of art of different periods can dialogue, inducing the collectors to expand their interest for new fields.
Art with no boundaries shown by the auction houses, though it may at first sight chock, it represent a great opportunity to educate the taste of the new collectors of the future.
Habits have changed, the traditional auction calendar has been disrupted and all the collectors have been flooded by a huge mass of information, in consequence feeling quite disoriented. Things will return to their natural channel when the pandemia is under control and as soon as the collectors may travel, they will certainly wish to inspect again in flesh the works of art, feel the excitement of a preview, have lunch with the specialists and attend to a live sale.. All this backround forms part of the kind of life to which they do not intend to renounce.
However, many of the technological advances tested during these last months as, online auction, blockbuster virtual sales, on line platforms, the use of 3D technology and the digital segmentation of network of clients, among others, will remain in order to expand the market and make it more profitable and efficient.
Since the Covid crisis, two classes of art auctions move the secondary market, the online sales focused in the low value segment and the live auctions reserved for the most highly appreciated works of art. The latter will enjoy the same prosopopoeia as before Covid, with an even more exclusive character Change would affect basically to the range of work in between 5.000$ and 100.000$ included in an increasing number of online auctions which would inevitably affect the quality of catalogue entries made with certain haste and lacking the accuracy with which they used to be done. In this sense I venture that online auctions in particular those referring to Old Masters, would be in the following years an extraordinary ocean in which to "spot sleepers" those who have an intelligent eye for distinguishing the quality and the attribution of works of art through images.
During the Covid period we have in fact observed a readjustment of the estimates of the works of art that have benefited their liquidity and the % of lots effectively sold. However, the clients have still not benefited from the positive consequences of the important reduction of marketing costs due to presenting art pieces on line; it should affect not only a low down of their commissions, but also a reduction of the costs of transport and insurance of the works consigned.
The important auctions houses can use the global structure they already hold, so that that their specialists may inspect in situ the quality and state of condition of the works of art consigned, without having to transport them to their central offices. This would mean that it won’t be necessary to transport an object presented on line until it has effectively been sold and consequently would have an important economic benefit for the clients in terms of transport, insurance and optimization of taxes; all these issues have great transcendency if we bear in mind the forthcoming regulatory changes as a result of the Brexit. Furthermore, it would favour avoiding the danger incurred by some auction houses of not inspecting the work of art first-hand; something that is already happening in certain on line sales.
The calendar of auctions would certainly change. The traditional weeks for sale specialized in old Masters, Impressionist, XX century and contemporary art would probably disappear in favour of a continuous flow of much more flexible cross categories sales much; thus the clients will not have to wait until June or December to consign a work. However, the highlights would always be announced with great anticipation, as milestones of the year, in order to create expectation and convene in a certain time and place the presence of the best clients, combining live and streaming formats.
Art has always livened up passions and to promoted the egos of collectors. Therefore it has no real sense that the market should abandon personal human relation; the close inspection of a painting, the joy of having lunch with specialists or the thrill of family trips to purchase a work of art, are what at the end promote the fondness for art and not just to look at images on line at home ; this can be an ideal medium to gain newcomers but does not satisfy spirits authentically passionate for art. That is why, once we have overcome the pandemia, the galleries and fairs which have survived to the lockdown will rise up again in order fulfil these vital demands of the clients. Sotheby’s and Christie’s, as leaders of the secondary market, have to choose whether they maintain this human connection they always had with the client or they decide to follow the strategy to reduce costs, exploring all kinds of digital and online communication systems. I presume they will certainly keep this close personal relationship with the vip clients, though probably will abandon the rest of the audience to an impersonal online communication.
The galleries and art fairs have to take advantage of this opportunity, strengthening personal ties with their potential clients. They have to be aware of all the good things of the digital environment as a way of gaining audience, but they have to realize that their competitive advantage and what the client appreciates the most, is the personal relation, the easy accessibility to view the work of art, and the enjoyment of the whole process of buying a painting. Furthermore, galleries of contemporary art must never to forget what is their real core business, to reveal new artistic talent and old masters dealers should maintain a keen eye, enabling them to rediscover works of art fallen into oblivion, taking advantage of the nowadays easy accessibility to the huge offer provided by the online market.
The virtual fairs as something autonomous will disappear, as soon as live fairs resurge because they cannot substitute the experiences that collectors feel when they attend to a preview... The technology employed in building their virtual sites will be used as an additional service provided for clients and transformed into commercial online platforms which would be connected to social networks in order to gain newcomers who will only be retained by having a personal contact with them. Live fairs will come back as the phoenix rising up from the ashes, though in a more selective format. When they return it would represent a unique moment to enjoy the reencounter with other collectors and curators of museums, to approach the new contacts made online, to have a first-hand feeling of the state of the market, and to infuse great expectations in the clients with the magnificent highlights and new discoveries that galleries like to show in their stands, after being ratified by the vetting committees. Then, we will attend to an explosion of the demand in Art market.
The business of art consultancy will be successful due to multiplication of the online auctions. The huge offer in the low segment of the market, the lack of the accuracy of the catalogue entries and the appearance of a new type of collector characterized by an eclectic attitude, will increase the need of a professional assessment focused on discovering the quality hidden under the digital massification of the market.
Regarding the type of works sold, according to their value, the data of the online sales indicates to us that 83% of the sales correspond to lots under 100.000$,14% under 1M$ and 3% above 1 M$. This leads us to underline that the on line sales are, not only an extraordinary channel to attract newcomers but also an insuperable machine for selling art objects with a low estimated price, due to the reduction of marketing costs, their global audience, and their capacity to digitally segmentate the market according to tastes and income. As for the works of art with a medium and high price (above 100.000$) on line sales represent an efficient system to attract the new generation of collectors who are very keen in using this format and to support live events, perfectly orchestrated in a modern scenario, using all the new technologies, though being very carefull to not lose any of the glamour which has characterize traditional auctions; with their preview, their cocktails and the day of live sales. Art has a fetish component, a kind fascination which can only be reached in certain moments, enjoying the view of a piece in the original, sharing comments with other collectors and living the tension of bidding in public. The newcomers would be attracted through digital tools, but they only will be captivated by the Art market when they feel the whole ambience that surrounds a live auction or the preview of an art fair.
For a connoisseur specialized in a type of art that dominates the new tools, and knows how to dive into internet, it is now the best moment to discover "sleepers" due to the fact that art objects are more and more better photographed and less well catalogued. The only problem is that, as all the potential buyers are very well targeted by the auction houses, there will be certainly a great competition for reaching the goal of acquiring them.
Contemporary art will culminate its process of dominating the market. There is nothing which seems to threaten him during the forthcoming years. It has captivated the taste of the new collectors and this situation will not change in the near future. All the more, the way contemporary artists conceive art in a conceptual manner, in perfect synchronisation with our global era and with a striking lack of interest in the autograph nature of their work, makes this type of art suitable to be visualized in digital formats, and shared in social networks.
On the contrary, the spell of impressionism cannot be felt on line. Its paintings need a certain space so as to express the magic of the fleeting instant when they were rendered, and lose the figurative aspects of their blurred shapes when we look at them closely. The effect of light transforming colours and shapes is distorted when you view online an impressionistic painting and you always miss the presence of the original work...
With regards to Old Masters, the new tools of visualisation will facilitate the observation of all their details, thanks to high resolution images and to 3 D technology, very helpful when you scrutinize a master piece of the Renaissance and very specially early Flemish paintings. However, the work of baroque artists, like the Caravaggists, appears online flat, the same occurs with XVIIIth and XIXth century painters as Watteau, Fragonard, Chardin, Goya or Delacroix.
During the present quarter the results of the Christie's New York evening sale, October 6, will be important to foresee how impressionism and modern art will behave in the future. An outstanding watercolour by Cézanne, 1900/ 1906, "Nature morte avec pot au lait, melon et sucrier", an extraordinary example of simplification of shapes and colours, will be presented for sale along with an iconic Picasso, portrait of his muse, Dora Maar. Both works represent pinnacles of modern art and thus we expect they should not have problems to exceed their high estimates of 30M$, so as to remove the disappointing feelings we had during last quarter in which we did not see one single master-piece of impressionism on sale and with results under our expectations for the two great masters of XX century, Picasso and Matisse.
Finally, it is interesting to point out how the market is actively supporting the work of almost unknown contemporary artists, as Mattew Wong, deceased in October 2019, and whose paintings have multiplied its value in only few months, with a record price of 1,8 M$ achieved at Christie's in Hong Kong July sales. Several months ago, these artists, with scanty presence in Museums and exhibitions, were selling just for a few thousand dollars. The online sales have given them the opportunity to be successful.
During the covid-19 era, we are living the prelude of a process of democratisation of art where value is established by the sole opinion of collectors who bid on line directly from their home. They are the ones who have today power to push up the low estimates of relatively unknown artists to levels above 1 M$, only because they like the piece and they have the money to purchase it.
This dangerous tendency that grants the capacity to create value to something so fluctuating as the Market comes along with the progressive assimilation of art with luxury goods and certainly represents nowadays a real threat to the very essence of Art, bearing in mind that it ignores the objective quality of the works of art that can only be endorsed by the passage of time. Thus, it could promote at a certain point a speculative bubble effect based on the fact that the subjective criteria, like taste and fashion, that captivate private collectors are not permanent standards in which should rely the eternal value of Art.
Sotheby's and Christie's maintain alive the art market
Carlos Herrero Starkie
Director of IOMR
Download text with images
The way the market has reacted in the Covid-19 crisis represents an outstanding example of how a segment of the cultural and economic world has been forced to abandon a comfortable situation in order to urgently apply technological solutions which were already tested on a small scale by the most important companies of the market. The restrictions to enjoy art in the original have favored online visualization, the creation of virtual worlds and the development of digital tools. The market has demonstrated an extraordinary capacity to adapt itself to new times and is already defining the segments which would be reinforced by the crisis. In fact, the published results for the first semester are far more positive than we would have thought in March.
During these three months we already can appreciate how the companies with a wide network of client's, a global attitude, technologically strong and with transparent sales, are shining on top of the rest of the enterprises based on traditional commercial methods and opaque sales which do not transmit confidence to the market. It is not the moment to enter as a newcomer into a market so well protected by technological barriers, a cultural backround accumulated through ages and a global network of clients.
The auctions have led the idea of change. On the contrary the galleries and the fairs are living their worst moments because the crisis attacks the very essence of their business based on gathering in special time and place the best clients to view the most selective range of works of art. They are suffering from an existential crisis that began years ago. The Museums lockdown and their multimillionaire losses has had a terrible effect on the galleries and art fairs business, in particular the financial crisis of the American museums whose curators were so welcome in their venues. Curators have always preferred a personal relation with a gallery and to discover in an art fair the Museum quality of a masterpiece than to bid in a public sale where the purchases are irrevocable and payment cannot be delayed, due to museums protocols. The galleries have been always very keen on maintaining this relation and have become in some cases a kind of head hunter of museum quality pieces. Therefore, it is a key point for their future the reopening and financial recovery of the Museums. On the other hand, the financial cost of having closed their premises during the lockdown and cancellation of art fairs or their transformation in a virtual format have not helped to draw a clear strategy to face the crisis. Even today, Art Basel and Freeze have decided to launch a platform where the galleries can publish HR images of their pieces paying in exchange a lump sum between of 2.000 $ and 8.000 $. The fair Art + design has preferred to return to the traditional method of editing a luxurious magazine financed by the announcements of the galleries which would be sent free to their net of clients. The virtual fairs are reporting that the results are in general good, but there is a feeling of a lack of transparency that deprives the market of the confidence necessary in these moments of crisis. Indeed, there are individual cases which prove an incredibly quick reaction. That is the case of the well-known dealer, Mark Weiss, an eminence in selling Renaissance portraits, very active in Instagram and publishing videos in various social networks. In his London Gallery he has organized several virtual tours where Florence Evans, his gallery director, explains all the details of his outstanding portraits. These videos incredibly well prepared are the best example on how a painting has to be observed and how the love of Art can be promoted. However, most of the galleries, though maintaining their web pages in a very similar format, have preferred prudence and preserve their partnership with the fairs, financing part of their losses in the hope that a better future would come soon. In the meantime, they still maintain close relation with the final clients that has been so successful for them in the past and are forced to consign some secondary work at auction so as to obtain some liquidity. Thus, they have decided it is time to save money and to trust that their art stock would never be depreciate and their client would still be faithful for ever.
The reason that the auction houses, specially, Sotheby's and Christie's, have faced the crisis in a better position than other sectors is based, first of all in the fact that their core business, Art, is a safe and liquid asset. The centennial experience accumulated by these companies has made them trust in the maxim transmitted through generations that in times of crisis Art behaves better then other assets; its value increase or at least does not diminishes. Just like gold and diamonds, it is considered a safe asset in uncertain times. The Covid-19 crisis could not be an exception. The American Federal Reserve, cutting down interest rate and injecting a huge mass of liquidity, has promoted indirectly this general adage. On the other hand, Sotheby's and Christie's, following the examples of Facebook and Amazon, had already applied the digital segmentation of their clients network which follows the tastes of their audience and all their events and commercial actions had a presence on line. Thus, both of them knew how to take advantage of their privileged position and how to interpret the crisis in a positive way. That is, as a way of increasing the market and their sales in relative terms. Finally, their privileged technological and financial position, as part of important private trusts, have facilitated their decision to abandon, at least temporarily, the old commercial systems based on massive cocktails and the distribution of catalogues, in favour of multiplying their presence on line. Their experts have flooded the net acutely, selecting their targets, with images, data, catalogue entries regarding theirs highlights and discoveries. In this sense there is no other actor in the market such as Sotheby's or Christie's who dominate how to catalogue works of art. They only had to download on line all this information with an attractive format in order to appeal to their clients network considered the most numerous and acutely segmented of the world of Art. Covid-19 crisis has given both companies a unique opportunity to increase their dominant position.
Sotheby's and Christie's, showing their centennial capacity to adapt themselves to changes and having been already conscious for some time that their traditional model of business was exhausted, have demonstrate a strength and flexibility much more outstanding than their competitors. This crisis would not represent any threat to their leadership. Philips in modern and contemporary art market and Bonhams, Dorotheum and Artcurial in old masters, are at long distance the secondary players in the auction market.
According to Mutual data, during the first semester of 2020 Sotheby’s sold 1145 M $ and Christie's 990 M $, though it is a volume similar to May 2019, it should be considered a good result bearing in mind the exceptional circumstances of the crisis and the limited results of their competitors. Philips sold 150 M $ during the same period. These extraordinaries results will imbue Sotheby’s and Christies with the confidence necessary to continue their process of innovations as a global organisation and will make them face these times characterised by uncertainty with a sense of leadership of the market ever stronger than before.
However, if we have to choose a company as winner in this struggle for the hegemony of the market, this should be without any doubt Sotheby’s. The oldest auction house founded in 1744, the quintessence of tradition until 2019 when the multimedia magnate, Patrick Drahi bought the company. Sotheby’s embodies the star which should guide the transition from the traditional formats to online. It has demonstrated that the change can be done in a time record applying the flowing strategy:
1- Convince the important collectors with a necessity of liquidity that today is a good moment for selling.
2- Postpone their highlights to July.
3- Multiply online auctions.
4- Reduce the estimates of the works of art.
5- Promote "cross categories sales".
Its reaction should be studied as a model of how the commitment of ownership with the technological change can imbue an organisation with a new mentality absolutely necessary in times of crisis. The whole world of Art should be grateful to Sotheby’s for having demonstrated in these moments of unrest that even in the period of lockdown, art is still selling very well.
In April, Sotheby's organized 43 online auctions, among them "Contemporary curated" held on 7th April where it sold 88% of the lots for 6, 4 M$ with a work of Georges Condo achieving 1,3 M$, proving that the contemporary market is still strong in crisis times. Its Old Masters auction reconverted to an online format was also a great success selling 88% of the lots estimated in general in a conservative way. In this sale all the lots of collection of miniatures were awarded, several ones multiplying their high estimates by ten. A Frans Pourbus miniature portrait rose from 600 £ to 30.000 £ revealing that a miniature, as a jewel or a watch, can be perfectly visualized with digital tools and even better than viewing the items in flesh. The monographic auction dedicated to the dealer, Rafael Valls sold online for 2,1 M£, four times its mid estimate. The NewYork impressionist & modern art sale and the contemporary art sale brought an halo of optimism achieving a combine result of 23 M$ with a Giorgio Morandi (1) rising to 1,6 M$ ,a record in online sales, in spite of not including any of its highlights reserved for the July sale and the result was far below the May 2019 sale (44 M$ only in the contemporary sale) .The 18th June, when European countries were progressively opening their economies, Sotheby’s decided to launch in Paris its first life auction with a reduced audience, offering a preview to vip collectors and the possibility of inspecting the work of art in the original, though everything was perfectly synchronized online with its client network. The highlight of the sale, a monumental Paul Klee (2) rose from 2,2 M€ to 4,4 M€. The market testified again a great strength and capacity to grow, as prove by the fact that 29 % of the buyers were newcomers.
After these series of successes, on the 30 June, when Europe had just opened its internal frontiers, USA was overwhelmed by a flood of Covid-19 cases and New York was nearly paralyzed, Sotheby’s organized in New York its first global auction of modern and contemporary art in an entirely digital format without public. That evening can be considered as a real feat in the history of art sales due to the courage shown for being the first one and for achieving an exceptional result of 340 M$, in spite of the exceptional circumstances of great uncertainty which surrounded the event. The highlight of the sale, a monumental tryptic by Francis Bacon (3), inspired in the "Horestiade" was sold for 84 M$ after a struggle between a Chinese collector online and a NY collector on the phone. The fact that the painting was one of 25 tryptics painted by Bacon, his group of works more appreciated by collectors, only half of them in private hands, as well as being a work fresh to the market (the painting has been owned by a one person since he bought it at Marlborough gallery in 1987), was more powerful than the apocalyptic circumstances created by the Covid-19 crisis. In this auction a Roy Lichtenstein was sold in 28,73M $, a Clyfford Still (4) in 28,73 M$ and one of the best examples in paper of a Basquiat "head" (5) made 15M$. Unfortunately, an exceptional and very appealing woman head by Picasso (6) only rose to 11,9 M$ just below the reserve price. The Pandemia has created winner and losers, even within the great masters. Picasso like the impressionist masters and Zao Wou- Ki, authentic Icons of the market before the crisis, have not performed in accordance with their expectations. during this semester.
Christies was slower in reacting and maintain a more cautious view of multiplying its online sales during the first months of the crisis and focused all its efforts in preparing a "block buster virtual sale" titled, “One a global sale for the 20th century "developed in four sessions held in Hong Kong, Paris, London and New York planned for July. Furthermore, Christie’s decided to organize its first major events coinciding with its Asiatic week, this year delayed until the beginning of July. its strategy has been to wait and see how the situation evolves and, once it clears up, to launch a spectacular auction with several millionaire top end quality lots within a new format with all the technological tools that will show what is the auction of the future : global, on line and with vibrant and electrical ambiance which guaranty great expectation in the potential buyers.
Hong Kong sales did not disappoint and the principal actors made 400 M$, approximately the same as in 2019, showing that this market still very strong and has not been so affected by the Covid-19 crisis. It is a market focused mainly on three Chinese artists, Zao Wou-Ki, Sanyu and Chu Teh-Chum who lived for a long time in Paris and on the contemporary artist Liu Ye. Sotheby’s stood out as the leader of this market with 232 M $ sold above Christies which realized 142 M $, perhaps affected by a long period of inactivity. Sanyu rose as the authentic victor, selling for 33,3 M$ "les trois nus" (7) at Sotheby’s and a monumental painting of his series of Chrysanthemums for 24,5M$ .Both paintings overshadowed the successful sale of "les éléments confédérés"(8),by Chu Teh-Chum, sold un récord price of 14 4 M$ , an abstract master piece inspired in the ninth symphony of Beethoven with an incredible and almost musical combination of green blue,yellow and black tones and the painter Zao Wou- Ki who, in spite of having sold several work at medium prices for a combine amount of 60 M$, is not performing so well in 2020 in the top end market. Finally, this week has confirmed the great interest of the Asiatic market for the occidental contemporary art, achieving several millionaire sales.
Christie’s announced his highlights of the semester with a lot of anticipation in the frame of his mega sale, "one", which finally took place on the 10th July in Hong Kong, Paris, London and New York. Each session was conducted by a specific auctioneer connected through a big screen with the different specialist in each work of art. The sale was attended by not more than 30 vip collectors and was followed by 80.000 people; it was on the whole a great success achieving a result of 421 M $, as the auction with a highest volume of sales of the semester. Though the first session, Hong Kong, was disappointing when its main star, a very energetic masterpiece of Zao Wou-Ki, in red tones did not sell at 10 M$, the New York session achieved 2/3 of the sales, awarding the major lots, all of them from the contemporary market; a Roy Lichtenstein 46 M$ (9), a Brice Marden 30,9 M $ (10) and a Wayne Thiebaud 19,4 M$. The highlight of the evening and iconic image of the auction, a version of the series "Les femmes d’Alger" by Picasso (11) was just sold for 29,2 M$ far away from Christies expectations, all the more it has sold in 2015 another version of the same series in 179 M$. In London the most noticeable result was made by a magnificent Magritte, "l'Arc de triomphe" sold at 23 M€; the Paris session presented mainly impressionist and post-impressionist works, in my opinion, not of great importance, with a Dubuffet sold at 6,5 M€ and a portrait of Modigliani awarded in 4 M€, as the only sales of significant interest.
Sotheby’s planned to culminate its semester in London at its historical headquarters with a big bang, emulating Christies mega auction with a cross categories sale titled "From Rembrandt to Richter" that would go through 500 years of art, appealing to the very trendy idea of "art without boundaries". The target was to promote a dialogue between works pertaining to different ages which would be echoed by cross bids applied by different departments of Sotheby's. The format chosen was a "live streaming sale" attended in life by a few vip clients and orquested by Oliver Baker in front of a big screen in connection with the main offices of Sotheby’s all over the world and very well escorted by the Head of departments of the company. The scenario had all the prosopopoeia of a Bank Shareholders meetings. The auction hosted top quality works fresh to the market. With regards the Old Masters, the highlight was a small self-portrait by Rembrandt (12) ,1632, one of the three which have remained in private hands. Though the picture appealed to quite a lot of interest from Dutch museums, it did not rise more than its mid estimate, selling for 14,5 M £ to a new collector. An iconic battle by Paolo Uccello, was far more attractive for the collectors , multiplying four times its high estimates and achieving a price of 2,4 M £; a portrait of a lady by Rubens only reached 2,5 M £ and a melancholic view of Dresde by Bernardo Bellotto (13), the nephew of Canaletto, rose above its high estimate up to 5,4 M £, attesting that the market still value top quality novelties representing the genius of the master.
The evening had also its shadows, among them the disappointment expressed by the audience when they knew that a Frans Hals portrait was at the last moment withdrawn, in my opinion due to its not showing the "sprezzatura" and lively style of the best works of the master. Furthermore, regarding modern art, Sotheby’s surprised the audience withdrawing another of the highlights of the auction, a major work by Francis Bacon estimated 12M to 18 M£, study for the portrait of John Edward. Though it represented one of the most important friends of the master and had all the quality expected in a Francis Bacon portrait, it did not appeal enough to the potential buyers. The auction only got over when a charming and highly coloured Miró with blue background and striking red forms, "Femme au chapeau rouge" (14) achieved the highest bid of the evening, 25,8 M £. Finally, a tryptic by Richter, extremely reminiscent of the skies painted by Dutch painters, rose up to 10 M£.
However, during the evening, the big surprises were reserved this time to low and mid estimates as "Femme debout" by Giacometti which sold three times its estimate at 11 M£, a lyrical sculpture by Barbara Hepworth and a painting by Henry Laurens with estimates of 300.000 £, sold respectively in 1M, 65£and 2,7 M£. Unfortunately, the evening fell again into a state of confusion when an odalisque of Matisse, the epitome of sensuality, sold for 6,4 M£ far beneath its low estimate, showing again that French postimpressionism is not performing so well in the Covid era.
Both mega auctions, though achieving an overall success, did not respond to the expectation created by the organizers. Sotheby’s historical sale of Modern and contemporary art held 30 June in New York could have overshadowed their results and perhaps lessened their protagonism. In fact, the latter has been the best auction orquested up to now in 2020 and the peak event of the semester coinciding with the sale of the tryptic by Bacon. Since then the market showed a kind of ennui that have prevent the achievement of world records regarding the most important lots and focused the successes on the mid and low estimates (between 1-5 M$). We cannot discard that next semester could be imbued by this weariness.
With regards to the old masters we must point out that Sotheby’s has been very keen on protecting them, including several old masterpieces in their dialogue with the 500 history of art maintained in the "Rembrandt to Richter" auction. We should recognize how well this experience has functioned, expanding the market to newcomers, thanks the efforts of all its departments. Christie’s has been much more conservative and has decided to maintain independent his old masters evening sale where we saw the market captivated by a small Flemish portrait (15) that rose from 500.000 £ high estimate to 1,7 M £. It is certainly a museum top quality panel with resonances to Van Eyck and Roger van der Weyden portraits which would certainly induce an interesting debate regarding its attribution. It is for sure an autograph work by one of the masters of the second generation of XVI century Flemish masters, may be Quinten Massys or Jan Gossaert. However, the market did not appreciate the outstanding quality of the unfinished portrait of an enigmatic woman, an unfinished work by Peter Paul Rubens (16) from his Genoese period or probably coinciding with his first Spanish journey when he painted the portrait of the Duque de Lerma and met Velazquez. The painting was awarded under its low estimate. Sotheby’s and Christie’s day sales of July had fairly good results above its expectations with similar figures to the ones performed before the pandemia. I was pleased to know that in Christie’s the recently discovered Borggiani was sold and that a small modelino attributed to Van Dyck multiplied his estimate of 15.000 £ and was awarded in 87.500 £ .Regarding the monographic auction on works owned by London and New York galleries, organized by Sotheby’s to support this sector which has been such a good client in the past, there is nothing worth noticing. Though the estimates were low, the market did not show great interest, may be because the works were not fresh to the market, most of them had already been exhibited at Tefaf and none of them were an outstanding discovery.
I have tried to describe in this article which have been the strategies of the leaders of the market in order to face the Covid crisis; how they have employed different tactics in their struggle to gain the hegemony of the market and what have been their results during these uncertain times.
The conclusions will be drawn in my next blog where I will try to define which would be the path followed by the market in the post Covid era. Which is the type of art that will adapt itself best to the new formats? How the galleries and art fairs would flourish again? Which would be the role of the old Masters in this new era?
Edward Hopper, a visionary of the reality of man today
Carlos Herrero Starkie
6 July 2020
If there exists an artist who expresses the sensations of solitude and anxiety that many of us have felt during our prolonged confinement, that is Edward Hopper.
The IOMR invites its friends and followers to view the magnificent video which accompanies this blog. A real homage to this American painter whose work represents the eternal values of Art and, in particular, of Painting.
Hopper’s work embodies the ideals that every sensitive person seeks in painting, which is the visible result of two centrifugal forces converging on him, his capacity to scrutinize reality as well as listen to his inner Soul.
Hopper is so indubitably contemporary of his time that he is considered one of the painters who best represents XXth century society, employing the same resources used by the old masters whose works echo throughout all Hopper’s art. In his painting we see the foreboding of Watteau, the silence of Vermeer, the introspection of Rembrandt, the adagio rhythm of Velázquez and the study of light of the Impressionists.
Hopper, like all great masters, is, above all, a thinker of his time; in him nothing is superfluous, everything has its significance, that is why he can express so clearly the evils that grip fast the individual in modern society; evils which accompany him wherever he goes, in his home, in the hotel, in the bar, in the theatre; that anxiety and inner emptiness which he feels on contemplating from his window what is outside; that depersonalization typical of a man of the masses due to his lack of interaction between himself and his environment, that absence of communication which destroys so many couples today.
But also, like the early Flemish painters, in Hopper’s work, it is the objects that reveal the secret in his painting and the spirit in his personages; all of them seem to emit an echo with a sense of foreboding which dominates the spectator. A typewriter, a letter, a book, a public advertisement, a lamp on the bedside table, a suitcase beside the sofa, the simple frame of a window opening on an urban landscape at sunset.
But no doubt the most unique feature of his work is the light. This is a force which acts like a real obsession on his artist’s soul, inasmuch as it gives a special meaning to the void which equally surrounds both persons and objects, just as it isolates them within their own environment, a feature that indubitably reminds us of Velázquez.
A clear, diaphanous daylight that penetrates the interior transforming matter, giving liveliness to the tedious everyday life of an American home; an artificial light, somewhat yellowish in tone, like what may be glimpsed indiscreetly in those dwellings which fill the skyscrapers of modern cities as if they were beehives or which we notice in theatre or cinema scenes with dumbfounded spectators, frequently found in Hopper’s work; an icy-cold modern neon light, like those which illuminate highway shop-windows and cafeterias, or petrol stations of American provincial cities; a light that, due to the effect of its shadows, reveals to us the silhouettes of citizens going in herds to work or the figures of workers perched on a beam enjoying a moment’s rest.
Hopper’s work is full of violent contrasts which thanks to his subtle way of treating them, they scarcely surprise the spectator:
The difference between nature, the sea, the wind, the sun or the light and the skyscrapers, the car, the ship, the neon lights of the advertisements, symbols of modern man, a man without a project who is awaiting an uncertain destiny.
The temporary link between the past, present and future, something always visible in the story told in Hopper’s pictures which encourages us to feel a sensation of suspense connected with the action not openly described, but which the spectator intuitively imagines may occur.
The contrast between the confinement that man lives in a building imbued with a “slow movement” existence and the life of the external world that gives a halo of hope symbolized by the importance that Hopper gives to windows.
All this leads us to another of his qualities: the brevity of his pictorial description as the form chosen to transmit a message that respects the freedom of the spectator's imagination to interpret the outcome of an incomplete story represented in the picture. This explains Hopper’s close connection with the cinema; the action of his painting, in particular its foreground, seems to be led forward by a camera, increasing the tension of the spectator and creating an overall feeling of suspense in the scene.
Hopper is the best example of how “objective painting”, as he himself calls it, can transmit a philosophic, sociological, and social message intimately close to the heart of his time, containing a profound significance, absolutely comparable to any existentialist novel, by means of a traditional pictorial technique and a simple, attractive and universal language very far away from the experiments of the “avant garde” that convulsed XXth century art. A visual message as powerful as Banksy nowadays can transmit, but infinitely higher from an artistic point of view
Hopper represents a spirit of resistance against abstract painting, a solid outpost to which eternal art can cling in opposition to the vanguard currents of the XXth century. He is the only one in the United States who rises up against the destructive force of Pollock’s abstract expressionism.
I do not wish to extend myself any further because on this occasion I only aim to instil in my readers a feeling of curiosity not only for Hopper’s work but also for the originality itself of the video which I present attached, where are combined in a masterly way interviews given by Hopper himself and by his wife, as well as reproductions of his pictures, photos and films of his age, all linked together following along the way chosen by this great observer of his epoch.
Link Video: https://youtu.be/qk7nL27BxNg
Reflection on Beauty, Nature and Art
Carlos Herrero Starkie
Director of IOMR
1 June 2020
During these days of withdrawal in ourselves due to confinement, we must not fall into a state of resignation and pessimism, but rather seek new ways of escape which may leave free scope for our minds. These are moments for enjoying calm and for arousing thoughts that may raise us up as human beings.
Today, profiting from the sensations that Spring inspires in me, I would like to ponder on the timeless significance of beauty, to appraise the fleeting instant of happiness which our contemplation of it can overwhelm us and meditate on its connection with nature, art and man.
A rose in its fullness, a bud outcropping, something as eternal as it is ephemeral in its periodical rebirth; two roses which reblossom every month, of a pale rose colour and winding creeper shape, which stand before me in all their haughty air, as if to declare to me that the origin of beauty lies in man’s association with nature due to his capacity to contemplate, observe, feel and grant a value to what is external.
These moments are the ideal backround in which our creative impulse is born. A time to spur us on to write, paint or simply to regenerate ourselves, to change the direction of our life, or continue, if possible, with greater energy along the route already chosen. Moments to recall past experiences and to allow ourselves to be drawn back to emotions which had fallen into oblivion.
The image of the blossoming of nature captivates me because it represents a sign of hope that the living world changes, that nothing remains the same, that things can develop. A feeling that makes me meditate on the idea that everything in life expires and that man strives to make himself immortal through his works, thus becoming the centre of the universe.
From this symbiotic relationship between human beings and nature, the imaginative man stands out; the one who stamps his mark on the world through his capacity to innovate, to participate in the idea of progress so characteristic of civilised man; the man who controls his impulses and does not simply react when facing what is external, but rather ponders in himself and on what surrounds him, reserving time to contemplate and enjoy a certain measure of respite, which is fundamental for anyone who desires to rise in his quality of life. An individual, in the case of an artist, who is conscious of his potential to express himself through the imitation or interpretation of natural forms, projecting himself in his work and endowing it with his personal soul that makes him transcend and become immortal.
This capacity to enthuse over the nature of persons and objects surrounding us, tends to instil in man a sense of purpose which overcomes the frustration he feels in not knowing what is the origin of the world, of his own life, of the levity of his existence and of the significance of the passage of time. This is an intimate experience of a spiritual nature which only partially softens the sense of tragedy that man bears within himself on being conscious that all that is alive is basically temporary and is opposed to all that is inactive, of a permanent nature. A feeling of commitment to an idea which in some people appears in the form of faith in the other world, in others in an ambition to achieve success in life; in most people in sharing a life in common with another person, creating a family and, in the case of an artist, is reflected in an irrepressible creative force and in the need to leave the evidence of his existence through a work that may survive ages.
Art, as an exclusive and paradigmatic creation of man, evolves through the passage of time based on three columns which remain unchanged throughout history : Man, as the indisputable protagonist who takes over, interprets and moulds the external world, so as to create a new reality ; Nature, as everything that shows itself as something real and discernible, that can be transformed and interpreted by man; and the Sense of Spirituality, as that which occupies the area of what is inexplicable and unknown. To this must be added two elements around which Art turns: firstly the Cultural Heritage accumulated for centuries by the traditions of various different civilizations; and secondly, the Sociocultural Situation in which each artist lives. All these factors play a greater or lesser influence in the blossoming forth of the artist’s work.
Man’s gradual conquest of his own identity has been the driving force which has made art advance up to the present day. The different interpretations that artists of genius have given of the external world has served as sediment to foster the creativity of future generations of artists, causing the foundation of various schools of Art which have occurred during all this time.
From the XIXth century onwards and coinciding with the blossoming forth of the Romantic movement, the development of the visual arts has been characterised by a constant search for what is contemporary, expressed by artists through the rejection of academic art and by a progressive separation from the natural world, either by focusing on themselves in their mood, as done by the Romantics, or by expressing their particular way of observing and rendering the external world, as the Impressionists do when they paint nature just as they see it, and not as it really is. This process culminates at the beginning of the XXth century with Picasso and the creation of a totally new artistic language: cubism, an explosion of all the rules of pictorial creativity which, however, maintained certain links with tradition and natural shapes. Picasso breaks down and recomposes everything according to a new order, but the form, the line, the brushstroke is still there in his work where one always observes a reference to the outside world. The same occurs with Matisse’s work where his unique drawing and colouring recall to us perfectly recognizable environments due to their natural forms; we also find them in certain artists of the Surrealist school, like Dalí, Magritte or Chagall who express the relationship between the oniric world and reality, transforming the meaning of things which still dominate his artistic work.
The abrupt ending of Art, as a creation conceived by man and related to his interpretation of nature, emerges from the multiple experimental movements related to Abstract painting whose most important artists proudly declaim they represent an absolute break with the past and with natural forms, to the point that their pictorial work is not intelligible any more. The picture fails to correspond to a code recognizable by the spectator, but only expresses the conception of the artist which is sometimes intellectual, though in other cases, absolutely irrational so that art is reduced to the exclusive transference of the soul of a man without a direct link with the outer world. Abstract art mostly seeks to create a totally autonomous reality of a more cosmic than earthly order, rejecting figurative forms, simplifying colours, creating geometric surfaces perfectly designed by the artist, or allowing himself to be unconsciously carried away by a spontaneous pictorial gesture.
Abstract Art no doubt has represented the final point in the process of breaking away from natural forms and, in my opinion, it has brought us chaos, after which no idea of progress may exist. Indeed it has supposed a milestone which has stamped the XXth century with a great artistic innovation which responds coherently to the universal pessimism which rose up as a result of two successive world wars and a response to Picasso’s cubism. Only within these limits can we interpret it, but its perpetuation as an artistic style has proved to be very harmful for painting as an artistic genre, because it favours the blossoming forth of artists of little pictorial talent and because behind this absolute negation of what is natural and the complete submission of the work to the creative rhythm of the artist, there can only be the sensation of abyss and void. Henceforth, once the novelty is assumed, there is no room for a new pictorial universe which could follow its course, only repetition, boredom, apathy and fundamentally a lack of vitality.
I know, in view of the state of the art world at present, that there will be many who think just the opposite, who declare that nature is precisely what controls man’s imagination and that Abstract art consecrates the freedom of the artist to meditate about the origin of the universe, revealing what is within and is not visible to the human eye but conceived by his mind, such as cosmic space, the atom, the molecule, or chaos itself which surrounds us; all these are abstract concepts much closer to the world of ideas than to the world of the senses.
I would reply to these opponents that in the very rejection of figurative art there is no consistent creative act on which a future artistic development may be planned. Only the first works following this primary idea of refusal are intrinsically original. In the actual fact of painting on a canvas in a single tone of colour and of executing on the surface three streaks, as if one were drawing, or of letting oneself be carried away, by a chance movement of one’s arm, spilling, at random, paint on the canvas, there is a touch of arrogance in whoever executes these acts , not only with regard to the great masters who have preceded him, but above all regarding the spectator , who may feel an impact at the first abstract picture observed, but I wonder whether that sensation will persist when he discovers another similar painting, but of a different colour and texture.
In Abstract art there is above all obsession; artist’s obsession with his own way of expressing himself , and thus has no urge to reinvent himself; that is why even the greatest Abstract Masters when they seem to have attained the touchstone of their painting they cling to it as if they were going to fall into an abyss.Mondrian and his grid, Lucio Fontana and his streaks, Rotco and his great daubs of brilliant colour, Pollock with his dripping and his action painting. They are all so repetitive, so foreseeable, and, therefore, so iconic.
Nevertheless, I would certainly point out as one of the most outstanding artistic genius of the XXth century, the founder of Abstract painting and so-called “Prince of the Spirit”, Wassily Kandisky, the first artist who responded to Picasso with an equally subversive work. Kandisky’s art is the outcome of a restless spirit who is constantly and insatiably seeking to dig deeper into the inner realms of painting and to transfer his centre of gravity from nature to man’s mind. Like Leonardo, or his great rival Picasso, in Kandisky’s work we can appreciate a clear evolution, with all its internal logical process, passing through the various creative stages in harmonious succession. At no moment Kandisky suffers a creative deadlock as has occurred to other Abstract painters.
We find the same negative nature, in the “ready made” objects by Marcel Duchamp that have influenced so intensely contemporary art and have tried to give an artistic sense to a simple object of daily use. In this case the artist denies the originality of the artistic representation in itself and limits his action to the mere choice of a concept which may be applied to any object of daily use in our life that can be exalted to the level of a work of art; everything is reduced to a simple intellectual exercise which even touches the absurd without the least manual participation by the artist.
The visual arts, to our deepest regret, have not followed the evolution of Literature that, although during the first half of the XX century it has submited to the need to carry out vanguard experiments, it never has lost its way and has continued demonstrating tremendous creative vitality. The writer has in no way been disturbed by the new "avant garde" trends in his capacity to communicate with the reader, to make him live through situations connected with the world of real life, creating characters and environments. There we have standing before us the examples of James Joyce, Samuel Becket, Proust, Octavio Paz, Borges, Sartre, Camus, Graham Green, Truman Capote... The novel, the tale, the story, prose, have not changed in their essence throughout our long history and when they have done so, they have been able to re-establish themselves challenging the anti-academic tendencies which would have harmed the very essence of Literature if they had persisted. Poetry because of its relation to music and theatre plays due to its vocation to be represented as a visual art, have both listened intently to the echoes of modernity; but, in general, the writer never has lost confidence in the power of the word to describe and make one feel imaginary worlds. The painter, however, has incomprehensibly renounced to give importance to that which gave his art a divine characteristic: the brush-stroke, the line drawn, the moulding of forms, everything in which may be appreciated the authentic autograph touch of the work. Nowadays, Sculpture, and above all, in my opinion, Painting, suffer from a weariness of creativity which makes them run the risk of disappearing and of being swamped by all the new forms of expression promoted by the new technologies.
It’s hard work for contemporary artists who have to rescue visual art from this dead end. They are the ones who are responsible for regenerating Art through encouraging painting technique, drawing and the observation of nature. There are, no doubt, many examples which may be followed, not only the old masters, consecrated by the History of Art, but also the main figures of modern art, Picasso, Matisse, Modigliani, Chagall, Dalí and Hopper or Balthus, of generations closer to us; among contemporary artists, Hockney, Kiefer and Antonio López may be magnificent models to inspire a refoundation of Art. In spite of this, artists of today have forgotten the intimacy of painting in a canvas and have been driven by the trend of creating art installations, a kind of art performance very closely related to Marcel Duchamp’s "ready made objects", the great influencer of our age.
The contemporary artist must return to the sources of classical inspiration, observe nature, copy the old masters, abandon the computer and pick up again the pencil and set himself to draw; in the other words, go back to his profession. Return to the world of the senses.
The world is going to change a great deal as a result of the pandemia Covid-19 and it is highly probable that we may live through the beginning of a new era. Art must react; it is worth while trying, because, even though we only make the effort through nostalgia, in our melancholy and our search for time passed away, we may find inspiration.
The clue to the question lies in observing the stately rose which was the source of this essay and has moved us to express its spiritual and symbolical significance, because beauty has no value in itself, but only when accompanied by the spirituality that man alone can instil in it.
Chronicle of a pre-announced Apocalipsis
Analysis regarding the crisis of covid-19
Carlos Herrero Starkie
27 April 2020
These are not moments for dissertations on art, or, at any rate, for granting priority to them, but rather for reflecting on the dramatic situation in which the inhabitants of the universe, are living. For that reason, on this occasion, I shall only transmit to you my thoughts on the present crisis of covid 19.
I leave for a later analysis the consequences that may be felt on the world of culture and specially on the way Art should react on being faced by this challenge which should be interpreted as a unique opportunity for giving a qualitative leap upwards at an artistic level in accordance with the regeneration which must take place in the economic, social and political environment.
In a previous blog written in March, I conclude manifesting with a shade of premonition Voltaire’s words “il faut cultiver notre jardin”.
Although it was only at its preliminary stages, I didn’t suspect the vast dimension and transcendency of the storm which the pandemia of the coronavirus SARS-COV-2 was driving down on the world and destroying our way of life.
The virulence with which it has spread, the dramatic intensity of the number of deaths and how it is reaping harvests with our aged people, the sensation of humiliation that we all without exception are suffering on seeing ourselves stripped of our fundamental rights, together with the consternation that such a situation may occur in a society supposedly advanced and not immune; all this has caught us so unawares that we scarcely managed to react, accepting, for fear of the unknown, what is a radical and sudden change in our customs and habits as if it were a lesser evil.
A change imposed by a government which should be guided by a leader to whom we may demand efficiency in the fight against the pandemia and responsibility if he invades our rights, but at the same time who does not weaken in his courage in his decisions, no matter how unpopular they may be; a Churchillian personality, a father figure, open-minded, sincere, communicative, convincing, backed by a technical cabinet who should order us to make efforts, but at the same time must transmit to us confidence that he is determined by his correct decisions to get us out of this critical situation. Unfortunately, few of the western statesmen have been equal to the task of solving the problems. The only exceptions are the Portuguese Antonio Costa, Governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo and the Prime Minister of Germany, Angela Merkel.
The absence of foresight, of any order of priorities, the improvisation, the delay in making and carrying out decisions have been the normal standard of activity of rulers who scarcely have been able to hide their absolute inefficiency behind the flood of advice and information of committees of scientists and technologists who act in their service. The latter, logically, recommend absolute and almost perpetual quarantine as the surest method that enables the governments to shield themselves for fear of not being able to confront the virus with sufficient arms which can only be health ones of protection and detection of the virus.
In consequence, we should feel no complex in declaring that the government is responsible for guaranteeing to us another solution which is not the absolute paralization of our economy and of our social relations, because if carried to extreme degree, the remedy can be worse than the sickness. No doubt, health enjoys definite priority, but we must not fail to be conscious that the more days we remain in quarantine, the more difficult it will be for us to escape from the economic crisis which is about to fall upon us; this is something which raised to an international scale may mean a complete change in the world order of economic power, based on the winners and the losers. We cannot ignore many of the threats which undoubtedly exist nowdays such as the bankruptcy of states, the failure to pay pensions, the collapse of the banking system, the breaking up of the UE and even, though it may seem to us completely unlikely, the decline of democratic systems of government in favour of much more personalised forms of rule, or some sort of totalitarian government.
We cannot delay even one day more than is strictly necessary the end of quarantine because we are risking the survival of our business firms, the employment of millions of workers, and, though many find it hard to admit it, even our welfare state could die out .Arguments that the outbreak of the epidemic may become more severe in winter are not convincing because the disease probably will increase in particular moments until a vaccine is discovered and the pandemia is bound to show a rise during the so-called “desescalada” (climbing down) and the proliferation of the highly needed tests. Yet, precisely on account of this, because the virus does not lose its virulence with the passing of time, an absolute quarantine, not a selective one , is not a solution which can be imposed for a long time; governments must use the time that all the citizens, with our efforts, have been giving them, to guarantee health services in accordance with modern life and to enable the state to face another possible attack of the virus, massifying the tests and directing some factories to the mass-production of medical masks and gloves , just as one would do during a war-time economy. . We cannot allow rulers to prolong the periods in which absolutely exceptional measures are in force with the excuse that they would benefit public health; we have to realize that it is a very dangerous precedent to impose a semi-totalitarian regime which can ruin our economy and convert the individual into a dummy subservient to the state. In this case not only shall we have to study the whys and wherefores of this pandemia, but also how far was it necessary to sacrifice the rights of the citizens and to what extent is the government responsible for having prolonged the collapse of our economy due to its evident incapacity.
All of us who were born after the 50s have lived in an altogether privileged society due to not having been affected at any moment by a sensation of Apocalypse that most of the former generations have lived through on some occasion or other. We have, no doubt, had political crises, like those caused by the cold war, the fear of the outbreak of an atomic bomb war, and economic crises like the one of petroleum in ’73, that of the subprime mortgages in 2007 and the one of the puncture of the dotcom’s bubble in 2010, but wars as such, we haven’t experienced nor lived through a fatal pandemia, such as the one our ancestors lived through at the beginning of the XXth century.
The modern world, steeped in unrestrained galloping mass consumption since the second half of the XXth century, has turned us all into spoilt human beings, well protected by the welfare state, into individuals contented with ourselves, endowed with much technical skill, but rather childish and lacking in sensitivity in our analysis of matters viewed as a whole. We have become very demanding citizens, but most of us have not made any effort to reach a state of material fullness which we all, to a greater or lesser extent, enjoy; we consider that it is thanks to a universal right which the states must protect at all cost. We all consider ourselves equal as inhabitants of advanced societies, with the right to work, to travel during our holidays, to be the owners of one house, as well as of another house for the vacations, to have the most sophisticated mobile phones, to wear clothes of well known brands, to go out to have drinks, and to have a big, crowd-attended wedding. If we don’t dispose of sufficient money for all this, the financial system would provide the funds and organize the way of convincing us that everything functions correctly. Very few, only those who are excluded, will find themselves prevented from taking part in this state of affairs which we feel is an important part of life itself. Internet swamps us with proposals for consumption, most of them responding to our desires, tastes and hobbies, as we are closely watched by the most surprising technical systems. Although we severely criticize the system which most of us really consider incorrect, corrupt and inefficient, nevertheless we feel safeguarded and we blindly trust it, not paying attention to all the threats which hide behind. Like Pangloss in “Candide”, we just place our confidence in the future and cannot imagine that some time everything may change; that is our great error as a society. Our rulers give absolute priority in their values to maintaining at all costs the material fullness which is the principal feature of our society. Some governments are more social and others appear to be more keen on promoting the market and business, but all of them give priority to taking care that the social masses maintain the level of consumption which the system itself requires so as to continue functioning correctly. Thus, in spite of the various crises which have occurred, at no moment has the individual nor the social masses, and even less their leaders, have doubted that the system one day may collapse. Everything seems to us guaranteed and when a change happens, it is never of substantial importance, always following the same course established by the system.
Yet, since the attack on the Twin Towers of New York in September 2001, the world has shown indubitable symptoms of breaking down; it has become less foreseeable and protective; that is what the individual feels and thus has begun to claim what he considers the ruin of his human rights. The world was scared when it viewed on television the airplanes passing over the skyscrapers of New York and to some extent the crashing down of the buildings could be interpreted as a sign of the falling down of the Western World. In spite, however, of the series of attacks by Al Qaeda and the spreading of yihadist ideas throughout the Islamic states, the individual forgot with relative ease and, after a few years of tightening his belt, continued on his eternal routine. Later on, the world was caught by the stock exchange crack of the dotcom business firms and in 2007 by the subprime mortgages when the financial world collapsed in an instant with the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers. This carried away the savings of many families and brought in consequence the rescue of Mediterranean economies. All this was doubtless foreseeable, but no one was able to halt it in time, and afterwards no one dared to control a system fundamentally corrupted by a craving for excessive profit, speculation, institutionalised deceit and the fraudulent manipulation of standards and rules. The system adapted the legislation to the new requirements and continued to function basically just the same. At the end of the first decade of the XXIst century, the outbreak of a series of civil wars in Africa and the Middle East, the Arabia Spring of 2010 in Egypt, Libia, Tunez, Argelia.... together with the bloody wars in Siria and Irak drove hordes of immigrants to Europe, threatening the social balance of the continent and creating the rise of ultra-right wing political parties which in certain European countries seized the majority vote , due to discontent and the weakening of the traditional parties for their lack of communication with the people. All of this culminated in Great Britain slamming the door on Europe with its Brexit, a situation no one could ever have imagined happening before and which will end being a secondary event in the year 2020; in Spain, always different, with the appearance of a Catalan nationalism transformed suddenly into independence, and in France, ever revolutionary, with the outburst of the “yellow waistcoats” who denounced the indifference of the “establishment” towards the countryside and the provincial cities of France.
Last year, all of us who treasure in our heart a certain measure of sensitivity were seized by a terrible foreboding of disaster when we viewed on television Notre Dame of Paris burning and enveloped in flames and swirling smoke: Notre Dame, a symbol of our western soul. How could something like that occur in a world so full of regulations and protocols of safety? The numerous passers-by who were absorbed in contemplation of the Cathedral in flames were the same people as those who are now quarantined in Paris due to the pandemia which is overrunning the world. No one could escape his astonishment; we all of us felt deep sorrow and anguish because something of our souls was buried deep under the cinders of Notre Dame: our confidence that we were still the worthy bearers of our western values.
Like a divine sign, the 96 m. Spire of Viollet-Le-Duc plunged down before our eyes, just like the Twin Towers of Manhattan, but nevertheless none of these signs were sufficiently clear to warn the leading classes that something had to change, that our civilization was in danger. The social masses, in spite of their discontent, continued trusting that the system would never collapse and the political leaders, keen on maintaining their political party followers contented, have preferred to conceal the real situation and directed their attention towards short-term goals which could easily fascinate voters. None of these leaders has wished to get to grips with fundamental problems: that of how to pay pensions, immigration, the lack of unity in EU decisions when faced with crucial situations, the problem of nationalism, the increasing poverty of provincial towns, the exaggerated growth of administration. These problems are still there, unsolved, and have only been parked tidily away, but they have become ever more difficult to manage, without predicting that the situation may suddenly get worse with the appearance of a “black swan”, something absolutely unforeseen and not calculated.
Everything therefore appeared to be conspiring together so that something of a universal and inexorable nature should break out clashing into the system and, for the first time in this century affecting in a direct, radical and immediate way all human beings of all races, nations and classes. The repeated lack of foresight by those who govern us, and our “panglossianism”, combined with a world ever more global, have been the ideal breeding ground that has produced what many scientists had foreseen as one of the great inherent threats to a universe so interrelated as our own: a fatal pandemia. This is a natural phenomenon that has laid waste entire nations and has devastated millenary civilizations.
At the beginning of January there came the first news that in China, another great menace for the West, a virus, the coronavirus SARS-COV-2, was spreading rapidly. The Chinese government declared states of alert and the quarantine of entire regions; we saw on television how families were separated by force from some of the members of their families. All this surprised us enormously, but no one paid any more attention to the news than to any earthquake or tidal wave occurring in a distant land. No country inaugurated protocols to serve as protection, nor did the OMS send out clear warnings of the risk of a pandemia; and so the virus in less than two months put the whole universe on its knees. Towards the end of February, in Italy people thought the virus was like influenza; a week later, all Lombardy was put in quarantine and the children were forbidden to go to school; now one began to hear with terror that in the Italian UCIS patients were selected according to their age, an indication that was already included in the medical protocols of the Intensive the Health Service, but which no one knew, nor imagined could exist in a society so protective as our own. Our ignorance of what was a Health crisis was absolute.
Now, after two months of pandemia, with over 2.500.000 people affected and almost 200.000 dead, with our economy closed down, the population in quarantine, the government in full power, but overwhelmed by events, giving priority to human life rather than to economy; what is left to us of that state of material fullness that we mentioned at the beginning, when our most prized force, our liberty, has been cut down in such a way?
Suddenly, we have ceased contacting with older people, stopped going to school, or to the university, enjoying an evening with friends, or to go shopping, travel is out and the Museums are closed. There are no sports events or concerts. All direct social contact has been cancelled and we don’t know when it will all begin again; we cannot foresee until when the state will continue intervening and controlling us with the declared purpose of protecting us. The only thing we clearly understand is that for the first time we feel afraid, afraid to go out, to decide on our own what we want to do, to express our affections, and for that reason we give way to these rules to cut down our liberty imposed by the government which could ruin our future prospects. We, however, think that some time or other things will become again like what they were in the past and that is precisely our error. If we wish to rise victorious from this challenge, we must assume as individuals, whether workers or heads of business enterprises, that nothing will be the same as before, if the world really wishes to advance. We must react, undertaking a rise in quality at all levels, questioning what previously seemed to us permanent and eternal truths and revealing many of the gaps in the system which appears to be in decline.
What lessons can we learn from this harsh experience?
The first and fundamental one is that we must try to learn to identify the problems of our time, how far they can affect us and have an objective opinion on them. We must raise our interest and sensitivity for public affairs; also enquire how the system is organised and how it affects us in our private sphere. We cannot continue enjoying the state of material fullness that the system gives us, as if it were “manna”, without to some extent trying to understand and maintain it. This will sharpen our capacity of foresight as individuals, will make us think less about our personal problem and more on how we may contribute towards solving the problems of society, if only by our vote and taxes. In this respect, if what has become evident is the lack of a health system in accordance with our population and nowadays’ health challenges, we should in consequence reason out the problem and accept that part of our resources should with priority be directed towards this end. It is not only a question of the State which indeed has to organize efficiently its resources, it is something that should be included amongst our personal priorities. On the other hand, we must be conscious that the State can become bankrupt, its pensions system may not be sufficiently well guaranteed; for that reason we may have to make individual sacrifices so that it may be sustainable. We cannot admit that political parties and governments, for purely electoral reasons, do not dare to treat this problem nor can they either propose, as in Spain, for the same reasons, questions like a minimum permanent subsistence wage, unless they have a clear idea how it will be financed and to what extent it could affect the distribution of resources throughout the country. We must be capable of distinguishing between a populist government and one that is simply responsible for its acts as a manager of public affairs. Furthermore, we cannot believe that the state of fullness, which we shall soon bitterly miss, can be recovered without the combined efforts of businessmen and workers and never, of course, by encouraging the passivity of our citizens, but rather, on the contrary, rewarding hard work and their capacity for assuming risk.
We must, on the other hand, value governments for their efficacy and not so much for their ideology, which, in this moment of crisis, is of secondary importance. In this respect, it is evident that once the pandemia is over, society will judge how each government has acted by the results obtained and by its way of communicating with the people. The demagogic governor, who is normally the most preoccupied by his image, will have to be guided by purely ideological criteria and will have centred his management in protecting the least favoured citizens, delaying unpleasant medium and long-term decisions; the Machiavellian governor is the most dangerous one for the common people because he usually captivates them with demagogic wiles, and uses the pandemia to his advantage so as to maintain himself perpetually in power, stripping the individual of all his resources and opportunities in order to subsidize him with a minimum wage which enables him to survive without working, and thus become his saviour, adding him for ever to his faithful voters. The technocrat will have treated the situation with the "sang-froid" and the technique of a surgeon who encounters a patient in crisis, but perhaps he may have been lacking in communication with the people; the good statesman will be the one who, advised by efficient technicians, has adopted adequate measures early, and acts with forceful resolution so as to assure the people a high level of security , covering all the aspects of protection of health against the catastrophic effects of the pandemia. These measures will inevitably demand sacrifices from everyone, but only those sacrifices considered truly justified and really necessary should be imposed and their temporary nature must be clearly explained, so that everyone may understand that there is hope for the future when the epidemic is defeated and sacrifices are no longer necessary; furthermore, although it may be true that autocratic systems, like Russia and China, are more resolute and effective during times of crisis, it is no less certain that our rights and freedom as well as our sociocultural wealth are much more guaranteed under western style regimes. In periods of crisis and even more in the periods following a crisis, the danger rises up from seductive sirens chanting songs of populist parties who try to captivate us with demagogic speeches. All the deficiencies of political models, the lacks of the nations and of international organizations are going to appear. Comparisons are going to be made of the policies which have allowed certain countries more than others to be better prepared to confront this setting. There will be arguments regarding the response of the EU , at first always unpleasant and rather stingy, though later changed into that of an inconvenient saviour of disadvantaged economies and probably the leadership of the United States might begin to decline with the rise of a new world order; everything will depend on its capacity to react. Thus, from this chaos will surge up winners and losers. Since the pandemia, however, has affected so directly the citizen, the latter must question, with all freedom and no prejudice, the system that has led us to such a collapse and wonder how the political models have behaved facing a challenge of this magnitude. The individual is the one who suffers it and precisely from the individual must rise the regeneration of the system.
Finally, it is natural that we appreciate more what we have missed most during our quarantine: the lack of human relations, of affectionate contact with the older members of the family and with friends. We realise that virtual relations do not satisfy us in the same way at all. We have learnt that it is not sufficient to chat, that the warm feeling lies in companionship and what makes it true is the warmth of the affection and the possibility to express it freely. It is certainly commented in our work environment that we are trending towards teleworking. No doubt this should be a temporary solution that allows one to synchronize work with family tasks, but in the long run we cannot reduce our social life to the family nucleus. Here we encounter the danger of favouring a serious problem which has risen up in modern society: solitude. The solitude of old people, of broken marriages, of the young unmarried. As a result, the tendency to work at home, and to encourage telematic relations for fear of having closer human relations, should not be an alternative to work at the office but rather an addition to it. The way to rise successfully out of this crisis is precisely to overcome fear, adapting ourselves to the new precautions and customs, wearing mask and antiseptic gel, respecting minimum distances between persons, accepting that temperatures be taken and tests be made periodically, definitely agreeing to all these measures, but not renouncing to what most distinguishes us as human beings; our capacity to communicate with one another, show enthusiasm when we are grouped together, our love of dancing, of listening to music in company with others, enjoying after-dinner conversation with pleasant company, and practising team sports. The governor had better not imagine, if he is so out of contact with reality, that the individual will renounce to all these pleasures; however long the confinement may last, and however strict the rules may be, the individual will all the more need to communicate with other people and express his feelings. We are all of us going to do what we most like doing, go on long walks, visit museums, do tourism in the environment of our city or country....
The good governor in times of crisis, the leader, is the one who knows how to transmit hope and is aware of his limits. He therefore should , as soon as the pandemia has reached the point of recession, guarantee clearly the rules and conditions to be followed by the various sectors of activity, marking a reasonable transitional term in each case; he will have to explain how these modifications should develop, but never exclude from these changes any of the sectors which are essential to our economy and to the mental health of the individual, such as leisure, tourism, culture, and sport, even at the risk of another surge up of the pandemia. Because there will be a moment when the individual will lose his fear and will feel again the joy of living and it won’t be easy to cut down his freedom. Just as the governor must likewise protect health with an adequate Public System, he must channel and not limit this joy of living that we are all going to feel again, since there lies the key to our recovery. Because sooner or later, the vaccine will be found, or we shall be rendered immune and life will go on.
The Chinese, our rivals, swamp us with images which prove that life is returning to a certain degree of normality, the commercial centres, the museums, the discos are open, but function under rigid conditions, though they give us the sensation that they have come back to life and, no doubt, seem to wish to teach us a lesson, but we mustn't let them win the game! Our civilization, our way of life can overcome this disaster with courage, rejecting any temptation to fall back into totalitarism. We must trust in our capacity to react , demonstrating this time that, after a period of crisis ,that we are capable of regenerating ourselves and, inspired by the roots of our western culture, that we are able to give a great leap up to the high level required by modern society.
The man without project is like a bird lacking wings. He may survive for a while, but will never be able to fly again; what is the use of caring for his health if he is condemned to a wretched existence and to no longer be himself ?
And so the world will rise up again from the unbearable levity of being, just as the Phoenix rises from its ashes...
The Situation of Art at Present
Contemporary Art facing the Great Masters of our history
Carlos Herrero Starkie
Director of IOMR
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Never has the Art Market dictated with such determination as today the routes along which the World of Artistic Creativity must tread. Nowadays, its dealers make and unmake plans and programmes urged on by the pressure of achieving spectacular economic results profiting from the extraordinary rise in demand produced as a consequence of an ever more global world and the more prevalent conception of the work of Art as an investment. It is of no importance that the offer of Old Master works, whether by Impressionist or Modern artists, should be scanty, the art market itself responds creating a new concept “made to measure” called “the classical works of Contemporary art" using all their marketing instruments to raise them up to the heights of the great Masters; all have been levelled down by the yardstick to their economic value. Never has the artist seen himself serving interests so exclusively alien to the world of Art. Never have art collectors shown themselves so unwilling to live with their collections, nor so well disposed to sell their works of Contemporary art in such a short space of time, seduced by the considerable added value obtainable. However, we must admit that never has the Art market lived through such a long period of vigour, nor felt so immune to all crises, and, although it grieves the lovers of classical art to admit it, never have the old Masters exerted so little influence on the development of art as today.
The art world, freeing itself from all the heritage it had accumulated throughout its history, had given way to the economic worlds of speculation and Mass Culture. The market has turned Art into a financial asset which has led to an extraordinary rise in the economic value of the works by its star artists, leading to the loss of the emotional values which were so essentially its own; the Museums of old art, true guardians of the traditional artistic values of our culture, although they maintain the highest level of prestige and carry out a magnificent work of bringing up-to-date the objectives of their exhibitions, must be alert not to submit to the temptation of massifying themselves, socialising their historic treasures, entering the world of merchandising so as to attract a wide range of audience . Public galleries of modern art have welcomed Contemporary art, levelling down all the periods of art to simple forms of human expression at any given time. The private collections of modern and Contemporary Art, many of them very active museums showing present-day art, have turned into star buyers, raising the value of the art they exhibit. This union between the Museums of Contemporary art and the main actors in the economic field has favoured the blossoming forth of Contemporary art like a permanent reality, as valid as the ancient art and has transformed it into an eternal source of profit for the Market which is the real "master of ceremonies" in today’s Contemporary art.
This separation between what the Market encourages and the true and eternal canon values of Art, and the extraordinary capacity that the Market shows for moulding the buyer’s taste, enticing him with increasing economic profit; the raising up of an artist to the heights of the great Masters when his work reaches real sales records so as to satisfy an ever growing demand, creating an art made to measure to suit the buyer’s commercial needs; the turning Art into money which is indeed so contrary to its essence, even to the point that even today it is commonly accepted that the most important masterpieces of art are amongst the few things that have no price since they are humanity’s patrimony. All these points make me, at any rate, doubt about the trustworthiness of the model followed by the Market to create value and whether this can be maintained through the ages since it is not based on any objective element, nor is produced by a contrast afforded by History, and is only the result of a consensus as abstract as the Market itself.
An analysis of the situation in the world of art today cannot ignore these statements, and we can only begin to study the problem objectively, no matter how paradoxical this may seem, taking into account which are the economic factors, and from that point onwards, which are the artistic tendencies of the moment and giving an opinion on them.
In accordance with these ideas, the year 2019 has not been a star year regarding sales records, but has clearly marked a change in tendencies, although following along similar routes, with the result that the general direction has not varied.
Following on the Art Price report H1 2019 the international Art Market during the first semester of 2019 has behaved in a rather dull manner, maintaining a low tendency (-17,4%). To this must be added the substantial difference with regard to other years that just one work “Les Meules” by Monet, exceeded the 100 M$ level (110,747 M$) and the paradoxical data that the “art price index” increases by a 16% in the top 100 most highly valued works and 5% in its total. All this shows that the market is in tension due to an ever more vigorous global demand and an ever lower offer of masterpieces. This tendency seems to be equally confirmed during the second 6 months term of the year in which only the sale of a panel by Cimabue in France, at over 24 M€, seems to go beyond this guide line. In short, the Market has been much more unwilling to show us the milestones to which it had been making us accustomed due to the shortage of masterpieces by its star artists of recent years, such as Picasso, Modigliani, Giacometti, Brancusi and Bacon, and has turned in favour of other more contemporary artists whose work has not yet reached those peak levels, although they probably may do so no later than 2020.
In a world so fascinated by record-breaking prices, this fall in exceptional results has made the Market lose a lot of glamour, which is characteristic of a transitional period when Contemporary art takes the place of Modern art and is an endless source of artistic works, ideal for the type of collector who is an investor and who prevails nowadays in the art world. The Art Market has not delayed in reacting to this tension launching a new concept, “the classic artists of Contemporary art” where we could include Jeff Koons, David Hockney, Damian Hish and Robert Rauschenberg. Furthermore it has increased its interest in abstract contemporary Chinese painting, specially the artist Zao Wou-Ki, in the ethnic minorities well represented by Basquiat and in women artists like Louise Bourgeois whose “Spider” was sold recently at over 32M$, and obviously Georgia O’Keeffe, the highest priced artist of the moment.
Contemporary art is thus consolidated as the most vigorous part of the whole, with a 40% rise in prices because that is the segment where investors are most active, as demonstrated by the prices reached for “Rabbit” by Jeff Koons at 91M$ and for “Buffalo II” by Robert Rauschenberg at almost 90M$, both sold during the first semester of 2019. A situation that would have seemed incredible 25 years ago when it only represented 1% of the market and the auction houses themselves did not considerer Contemporary art a safe market; yet now general public has discovered it after its arrival under the protection of globalization which makes taste more uniform and lessens national cultural heritage , promoting more universal characteristics and thereby profiting from the blossoming forth of multimillionaires as a distinct social class whose taste leads the big art galleries and auction houses with the frantic rhythm of their exorbitant prices. All this has made Contemporary art turn into a financial panacea for a market which efficiently maintains and increases the economic value of its business deals, even at the risk of losing the traditional concepts of originality, quality and beauty, whose halo of everlasting artistic value is only granted through the ages, substituting other values fundamentally related to contemporary social conscience and to the world of money.
On the contrary, Impressionist and Modern art works, although they are in volume by far the major segment of Art, and occupy 49% of the Market, they are beginning to suffer the same drastic shortage of Master works which has intimately affected the market of Old Masters which has caused a reduction of 22% of the offer of works during the first semester of 2019. In this respect the auction houses maintain a strenuous effort trying to attract the important art collections, guaranteeing the sale of their “highlights”, lowering commissions and leading new strategies like promoting the postimpressionists who previously were a sluggish segment and today is highly appreciated, in particular artists such as Signac and Caillebotte. Yet the reduction in over 41% of their best lots, that is, lots priced at between 10 and 100M$, compared to other years, indicates a weakness which may be the key to maintaining their privileged position and predicts a loss of influence in a market obsessed with satiating a growing demand.
Which are the vectors on which the present-day Art market turns, since it is ever more directly focused on Contemporary art?
The first and most important vector is the financial investment aspect. Art has basically developed into an active financial instrument through which collectors seek to increase the profitability of their resources or to demonstrate by acquiring a momentous “status symbol” their capacity to do so. The system of guarantees created by the auction houses to attract the great collectors of art is the clearest example of how the Art Market, far from being a centre of teeming aesthetic passions, is much more a place where the struggle of "egos" to obtain profit, or to demonstrate economic force.
On the other hand, the firm belief that the bigger the offer is, the more vigorous the market will be, in my opinion, vitiates the whole question since this maxim is based on an obsession to raise prices thanks to the dispute between the museums that grant artistic value to works of art and the multimillionaires who maintain art’s economic value. All this has stripped art of its exclusiveness, has massified and standardised it transformation from, transforming the traditional concept of a Masterpiece as unique work to that of being various according to model, like in the series of three, four or more works, which in many cases are replicas; this is just a way of multiplying the value of a work, though certainly lessening its artistic consideration as being an unrepeatable action. No doubt one of the reasons for Picasso’s extraordinary success was the fact that he was so prolific, thanks to his genius and his unrestricted, creative force. In the case we are now studying, the offer is favoured by just being the consensus of the market itself which raises up certain names due to the need to respond to the pressure of demand which can no longer be satisfied by the great consecrated Masters of art history.
Closely related to the above statement, we must, however, point out that the market now gives little importance to the execution of the work by the Master, though this is a vital feature in ancient art which considers every line and brush stroke in the work as if they were divine. All this has, to a certain extent, nullified the importance given to the genuine hand of the Master in his work, and new methods of certifying authenticity indisputably have been created such as the “block chain”, by means of which the market grants validity as well as security against its principal enemy, forgery; these formulas no longer depend on the study and visual knowledge of the artist’s way of drawing due to the fact that this is no longer an essential part of present-day works. Nowadays, in view of the importance given to the concept in art, the message must stand out and should be immediately assimilated, even to point that there may be works which do not contain any participation by the hand of the Master. This situation, carried to its extreme, leads us to “performance art” and hence to virtual art where the purely material nature of the work loses all its importance. The best example of this situation may be found in the celebrated destruction occurred during the auction of a work by Banksy; this incident was valued positively by the market. Proof of this was that in September 2019 Christie’s and Sotheby’s in each of their auctions sold all Bansky’s graffic work, some of whose engravings were sold at the peak prices of 500.000$.
Another of the characteristic of the market is the despotism exerted on the artist regarding the tendencies to which the latter must adapt himself in order to obtain success during his lifetime. The market constantly allows the artist less freedom and so his work loses originality and acquires a certain uniformity which directly attacks one of his essential qualities, his rebelliousness, his nonconformist spirit. Yet, on the contrary, everything that corresponds to values socially considered correct, those indeed do sell. For instance, recently we have observed that the work by a woman sells better than one by a man and there is great interest in works by ethnic minorities because the market has decided to echo the voice of social conscience which sounds to its own benefit. Although this is something positive whenever it expresses a reality of the moment, it should not go so far as to detract from the artistic value of things which must be supreme when one values a work of art.
Nowadays everyone can be an artist, it doesn’t matter how talented he is so long as he has a mind adapted to his time, a liking for trade, a gift for social contacts and, if possible, a spirit committed to humanity’s world problems. Everything is worth while in Art so long as it is expressed by a human being, and this leads us to the result that in New York there are more artists than lawyers; yet all of them pass along the same riverbed, the one which takes them along the way to economic success and not towards seeking originality in their work, since they forget that art, above all, is an act of revolt against what is established by the world.
Although the Market does not value rebellion, it does appreciate its most superficial aspect, its excencicity. Contemporary art constantly appears more like a catwalk of models where exaggeration is what prevails, disregarding absolutely that the creations are not adaptable to daily life. The art of today searches for new means of communicating; invents new settings, carries out performances, abandoning traditional forms of expression such as painting or sculpture, no matter that the work may be evanescent and will not last through the years, nor do we know how it will be integrated in the family environment, nor in museums, or cities. Thus we could talk of a progressive dehumanization of Art.
Finally, present day taste, which is the result of the integration in the decorative world of revolutionary ideas brandished by the progressive artists, cubists, futurists, surrealists and abstracts of the XXth century that bring us minimalism confronts traditional figurative art. The elites do not seek guidance regarding their artistic Heritage, but are attracted by the revolutionary models of the present, no matter how unintelligible they may be. Therefore the guide-line which has transmitted the evolution of art has been broken, because there is no respect, and much less veneration, for the past. All this has carried away art to an anti-cultural state and the art collectors have been captivated by an iconoclastic art of astonishing simple-mindedness which focuses directly on the emotional reaction on social grounds that any of us may feel at the exaggerated display of economic value given to the work, as well as the outrageous passion for profit demonstrated, to the detriment of the aesthetic enjoyment afforded by a real artistic object whose principal value is the pleasure it gives.
What is the situation of the market of Old Masters facing such a clearly hostile situation?
First of all, I would reply basing myself on the statistical data available and declare the very slight importance these data have when we are speaking about the art of the Old Masters.
Its market share continues to range between 7% and 8%, the same as twenty-five years ago, and in actual figures has indeed multiplied. Yet no one doubts that its influence has obviously diminished due to its not adapting itself well to globalization because of the scarcity of its offer and, above all, due to the uniformity of taste so closely attached of the powerful new generations; this has led them along the path to branding all figurative art. All this, no doubt, has affected the dealers who act without any competitive urge in accordance with an inferiority complex when they compare their sales figures with those of other segments of art up to the point, in some cases, of losing their own identity. Yet, however, since 2017, when an absolute record was broken with the sale of the “Salvator Mundi” at 450,3 M$, there exists the sensation, though not confirmed by facts, of a certain “revival”.
Last year began badly with the disappointment caused by the withdrawal, at the last moment, from public auction in France of “Judith and Holofernes” by Caravaggio, estimated at between 100 and 150M€ and certainly sold in private sale at an unknown price, and the year ended well with the discovery by Eric Turquin of a small panel representing “Christ mocked” by Cimabue, sold in public auction in France at 24 M€. The French state, showing how Old Masters advance along other routes than Contemporary Art, has blocked the sale for three years, until it finds the necessary funds for its purchase by the Louvre.
Furthermore, worthy of notice was the “night sale” of Christie’s on 3 December 2019, not because of the importance of the lots, but rather on account of how the European market behaved when a very fine tablet of the early Renaissance by Giovanni di Paolo was knocked down to an Italian collector at over 5M pounds sterling and how six drawings by Gian Domenico Tiepolo representing scenes from “Punchinello” were contended for in the auction hall, when the value of each drawing multiplied and one of them reached almost one million pounds sterling; the astuteness of the auctioneer was demonstrated when he called together and confronted various collectors of drawings with the capacity to buy the six drawings in one swoop, and thus multiplied the offer in the same session. The result of the auction at 24.218.000 pounds sterling was much more than praiseworthy bearing in mind the uncertainty caused by Brexit. Sotheby’s chose to transfer this year its most important “highlights” to the other side of the Atlantic for their auction in New York at the end of January 2020.
No doubt, it was the correct decision as was confirmed by the excellent result (61 M$) of Sotheby’s New York January auction, with more than 80% of the lots sold, many of them having multiplied their previewed high estimated value. The selection was magnificent. A monumental Gian Battista Tiepolo, of majestic bearing and museum quality, the last work of high altarpiece size by the Master still in private hands, with a powerful provenance since 1889, was the star of the session and was knocked down at 17 M$. The work was last time sold in 1989 at 2,1 M pounds sterling which multiplied by 6 in thirty years time, or by 3 if we bring the price up-to-date due to inflation. The data are revealing because they show that collecting Old Masters, for the private enjoyment of the art, also works well from an economic stand point; the value, no doubt, is maintained through the years and may multiply, although in the case of Master works already confirmed by the market, they never reach the speed and volume of Contemporary or Modern art. We cannot demand to the Old Master Masters, except in the case of the “sleepers”, the results gained by Contemporary art because the latter needs time; the market itself recommends as a condition for a successful sale that the work must have remained for some time in a collection. That is why “Old Masters” must be considered like an investment whose profitability lies in the enjoyment they give and they should remain in the same collection for at least one generation. Then, later on, they may be sold with higher returns; this is something the market accepts and rewards as if it were a new work. The Contemporary Art market is an example of a contrary process in the evolution of collecting valuable objects. The collectors may, in many cases, keep in storehouses their highly valued art collection and do not necessarily live with all their works of art; only a few significant examples, which may act as status symbols, are sufficient for the collectors; they easily get rid of their works of art as there is no sentimental tie between them; the collectors feel supported by the market which values positively obtaining important added value in a short space of time. Contemporary art acts much more like a high profitability fund whose capital gain is obtained by the sale of the participation then like a “passion asset”, at the cost of declining its value as an artistic object and losing its connection with the daily life of its owners. The art of the Old Masters must keep alive their intimate relationship with the personal enjoyment they have always given because, on the contrary, the urge for immediate benefits will act as an illusion driving the collector to frustration. That is why the Old Masters should gather together and resist the present tendency to reduce art to a purely money-making operation; they should lead the collectors’ tastes towards a more decorative art with which we can live.
We found in the significant January auction of Sotheby’s New York other data which reveal the criterion that the present market of Old Masters follows. A rediscovered painting by Rubens, the best version of “Our Lady, Infant Jesus, Saint Elisabeth and Saint John Baptist", which is one of various replicas made on several occasions by the Master, remained below his highest estimation; this caused disappointment in a session with such good expectations. The reason may lie in the way the market of Old Masters, on the contrary of the Contemporary Art market, penalizes versions, replicas and series, and values higher the unique pieces. The collector of art does not feel at ease facing the often contradictory opinions which rise up due to the various aspects of the different versions the technical nuances in each work that belong to different periods in the Master’s life and depend to a greater or lesser extent to the active participation by the workshop. Yet in this sale the market rewarded the impressive sketch, “El paso de Aníbal Vencedor” by Goya, in an exceptional state of condition, with a culminating price (1,8M$) which doubled its top estimate, demonstrating that the world today appreciates almost more the creative process than the final work itself. Finally, we wish to point out that the market was correct in leaving amongst the unsold lots an important portrait of a gentleman by Artemisa Gentileschi, an excellent painter of women, but a mediocre painter of men; and a Gerard ter Borch, who was not at all typical, had similar luck due to his work not expressing the delicacy and depth which normally characterized his paintings.
It is worth while mentioning separately the “sleepers” (works incorrectly catalogued) or discovered by the recognised experts of the auction-houses (like Cimabue) and the participation of the collector in the blossoming forth of an artist or a period of art that is not sufficiently valued. Here we find an interesting point of connection between the “Old Masters” market and the strenuous work the Contemporary Art galleries are doing when they back young artists. The incentive of discovering what I would call “El Dorado” can be an important inducement to return to the old Masters, taking advantage of a market not lively in its medium and low segments.
There are few pleasures greater than making a discovery in Art. This is something which points directly to what is deepest in human nature, man’s need to transcend, in this case, through public recognition, as the revealer of a hidden genius and of the lost halo of a great work of art. To achieve this there must coincide in the person many almost innate faculties, certain favourable circumstances which allow one to take advantage of the opportunity offered, as well as a team work to plan and carry out the strategy which may lead to the recovery of a splendour lost throughout centuries, or the confirmation of talent in a new artist who, in the end, may be a genius! The “connoisseur” collector, the art galleries and the auction-houses are always stalking these opportunities which appear much more frequently than people think. In our recent history we find many examples: Gertrude Stein who confronted in her collection a young Picasso with an established Matisse; Durand Ruel and the Russian collectors who saw in the Impressionists what the market of that time didn’t yet value; Joseph Duveen and Bernard Berenson, who formed the taste of American collectors for Italian art, and the Marqués de Vega Inclán and Cossío who understood the transcendency of El Greco in a modern world when it was about to blossom forth. They all were dazzled, yet caught sight of the light in a blind world.
The new collectors should allow themselves to be captivated by the idea of discovering “El Dorado” since this fantastic goal, when it surges up, indicates a wish for change; a wish to innovate and go against the prevailing tendency in art of making safe purchases of solidly established value, buying works of art which require study, confirmation by experts and probably also restoration processes. For revealing works of arts we have to be provided with an eye which penetrates the work, intuition, courage and a certain contempt for the financial side of the deal, and, above all, the capacity to enjoy the whole process. In Contemporary Art, the galleries work strenuously delving deep in the ocean of vanguard artists, seeking what stands out; the collectors feel intensely the emotion of discovering a new artist, acting with generosity and a genuine spirit of patronage. It is essential that the collector must be a real lover of art and must like the work he intends to buy; he should not be obsessed by its present value, though he undoubtedly would be interested in its potential revaluation in the future. The world of Old Masters is more complex because it requires deeper knowledge and greater effort and so is less familiar to the general public, though no doubt there are many works of art wandering around, incorrectly studied, but whose quality may surprise the appreciative eye. This is a world nowadays reserved to art galleries and antique dealers into which new collectors should enter full of the information they have gathered and passion for what they are seeking, though always accompanied by experts in the corresponding period and style. At present, the “Old Masters” market, precisely because it is not in fashion, offers a magnificent opportunity to create collections at reasonable prices; the only thing to be done is to fill oneself with knowledge and passion, bearing in mind that the “sleepers” rise up more frequency in the low price range of 5.000 € to 50.000 €, for the simple reason that they have normally been less studied and the market itself pays less attention to them. No doubt “El Dorado” may appear in a work of art and the collector may decide to buy it in order to obtain a high added-value on it, which in this case may exceed an annual 100%. Nevertheless, as always occurs with “Old Masters”, you have to be patient, finance publications, take the work to exhibitions, thus contributing value to the work; that is the only way “El Dorado” will be achieved.
The absolute example of this accreditation process of a work we find it in the “Salvator Mundi” by Leonardo, bought during an auction held in London in 1958 by a family from Louisiana at 60 pounds sterling. Two specialists in Italian painting, Robert Simon, owner of a gallery, and Alexander Parrish, a well known searcher of “sleepers”, made off with the work for less than 10.000$ in an auction in New Orleans in 2005 and proceeded to their studio in close collaboration with the restorer and expert of Leonardo, Dianne Duyer Modestini, who had discovered numerous “pentimenti” which proved that the picture could not be a copy, but rather the original work of a Master. The work was shown in a great exhibition on Leonardo in London’s National Gallery in 2012 as an autograph work by the Master and was sold a little later at 75 M$ in a private sale by Sotheby’s to the Swiss dealer, Yves Bouvier, who shortly afterwards sold it again to the Russian collector, Dimitry Rybolovlev, at almost double its purchase price. After an exemplary marketing campaign by Christie’s, supported by the majority of the experts on Leonardo, the work was knocked down in 2017 as the star lot in an auction of Modern and Contemporary art at 450,300 M$. I had the opportunity to study the picture with Alexis Aschot on its presentation in New York and both of us coincided that though the work had lost at least 40% of its original painting, it conserved that aura of mystery that only Leonardo can transmit; Christ’s right hand manifested in its “sfumato” an exceptional quality which is completely in accordance with the greatest works of the Master. On 23 July of last year ends the term permitting the French State to buy at 15M € a drawing representing a San Sebastian by Leonardo. The drawing was presented in March 2016 by a medical doctor at the Paris auction house “Tajan” whose Director of Old Paintings, Taddée Pratte, had detected that the drawing had been executed by a left-handed person and was very close to Leonardo' s way of drawing shadows. Furthermore, there were sentences written with the help of a mirror, which was characteristic of Leonardo. The work did not delay in being confirmed by Carmen Bambach as being by the Master and dated at the end of his Florentine period, 1474-1483. From the first moment I saw it published in 2017, I was surprised by its evident connection with the sculpture of San Sebastian by Alonso Berruguete, where the saint appears similarly trapped by the trunk in an almost analogous position, something of importance to notice since we know that the Master from Palencia directly contemplated Leonardo’s work in Florence. In the course of this year we shall know if the work will be for public sale or will end exhibited in the Louvre. In Tefaf Maastricht 2020 we have seen a Van Gogh of the Dutch period “Paysanne devant une chaumière” purchased by an inquisitive Italian journalist, Luigi Grosso, a collaborator of the BBC, who acquired it in1968 in an antique shop in London for 45$ and was puzzled by the signature “Vincent” inscribed on one side of the canvas, but had the intuition that he was facing an autographed painting. The picture had been bought in a provincial auction for 4 pounds sterling by a London “junk shop” from a farmer who had enjoyed it in his home for generations thanks to the fact that his father had accepted this picture in payment of a debt for tools for the farm. The picture, after passing through various sales in auctions at prices not exceeding 500.000 €, was eventually presented in Tefaf by a London art gallery, Simon Dickinson, at 15M€ and sold to a private collector. The work stands out due to its size and is without any doubt a discovery corresponding to Van Gogh’s formative years, but does not reveal any of the characteristics which have made this painter an icon of the XXth century market.
All these discoverers of hidden treasures have in common the possession of a privileged eye which appreciates quality, an intuition which pierces through what is common and is able to discern the touchstone which reveals the hand of the Master, a passion for figurative art, for the stroke of a line, which is formed by the experience of constantly contemplating works of art. Their achievements are of totally individual inspiration because they are the result of an intimate relation with the work, a real love at first sight, and nothing would have become alive if it were not for his privileged eye, but these processes would not have culminated in success without a team of experts to certify the artist’s discoveries. Nowadays, due to the change in taste and the contempt felt for the “Old Masters”, the latter have become a rich source for whoever has an alert eye and a sound knowledge, as well as a great passion for ancient art, a competitive advantage that will permit him to be a “picker”, someone who discovers “sleepers”. He only has to search for the outstanding quality, lay his bets on it, and know which are the experts to whom he should address himself; he must be absolutely determined to be successful and, at the same time, be resolved to be infinitely patient.
The opposite process, that of devaluating, ignoring and discrediting a work of art is the other side of the same coin. It is something which should be analysed because, on the contrary of being a negative aspect, it may give vitality to art and allow various different artistic currents to confront each other on equal footing and disregarding their economic power, and, at the same time, this may offer an opportunity to collectors of less economic power to enter the market. In short, the devaluation of works which are lacking in artistic value and the rise in value of authentic works of art which have been disregarded by the market, offers the hope of a reaction to all of us who today consider that Art is heading towards an abyss which we must at all costs prevent.
How do ancient art and modern art confront the phenomenon of devaluation? Is there any type of work, artist, tendency, or period that can be immune to it?
Today there is no asset, except gold and diamonds, that is completely safe. Art does not escape from this rule. The “Old Masters” are no exception because, on the one hand, they have lately been subject to speculation which is closely linked to a serious risk of loss of value, and, on the other, they have always been related to taste which differs from one generation to another. Furthermore, works of art must be submitted to the scrutiny of experts who may express contrary opinions regarding the autograph character of the work, specially when the sequence of historical provenance is not clear. The already mentioned “Salvator Mundi” is an example of how a work can run the risk of being seriously devalued due to a lack of consensus concerning whether the work was effected by the Master, by his workshop, or by one of his followers, doubting whether the work proceeded from King Charles I of England’s collection and limiting its provenance to just before 1900. Throughout the history of Art we have found great Masters who have lost value due to changes in aesthetic considerations; like, for instance, Guido Reni, highly valued in his lifetime and only rediscovered in 1954, as a result of a great exhibitions in Bolonia; or Murillo whose “Inmaculada” in “Los Venerables” bought by the Louvre from the descendents of Marshal Soult for 615.300 gold francs in mid XIXth century, when it was considered one of the most important works in the history of painting; through the years it lost credit, and in 1941 the work was exchanged for a portrait of Queen Mariana, painted by Velázquez’ workshop, belonging to the Prado Museum. Another more up-to-date example may be found in the explosion produced in the market by the still lifes of Dutch XVIIth century painting during the second half of the XXth century which in recent years glutted the market; the same occurred with Peter Brueghel the Younger’s work, so sought after by Russian collectors, whose price was affected by their withdrawal from the market. Nowadays, it would be difficult to obtain added value from these segments of art unless we were considering authentic masterpieces. In this respect I shall mention an exceptional portrait of a boy by Ferdinand Bol which may be contemplated these days in the exhibition held at the Thyssen Museum on the portraits painted by Rembrandt. This is a work which emits all the virtues displayed by the artist who was the favourite student of Rembrandt: elegance, refinement, splendid colours, all belonging to a period in which Bol was freeing himself from the influence of his Master. This picture was the highlight of Sotheby’s auction in London in July 2015, and reached the price of 5,18 M pounds sterling. It is difficult for a work of this level of mastery to lose value, its intrinsic quality protects it and it doesn’t matter that its author doesn’t belong to the few painters who form the group of the great Masters of the History of Art.
How can one protect oneself from devaluation?
First of all, my recommendation would be only buy what you like, and with which you can enjoy living; give priority to quality before the artist’s signature; always buy a work which is characteristic of its author and, if you have the capacity to buy Masterpieces, don’t be obsessed with the great names. In that case, the risk of depreciation is greatly reduced and, in any case, is counterbalanced by the profit gained by the aesthetic enjoyment given to you by the work.
Regarding Contemporary work, the equation seems perfect and the short term risk is reduced to zero provided one buys firmly established names; specially the “classics of Contemporary art". The tendency of the market, its tremendous fluidity and its growing demand, all guarantee its value and that is why this type of art is considered a safe refuge during periods of inflation or deflation .However, I will take the liberty of questioning this conception in long term because of the way it has surged up and is linked to the world of speculation, and to an artistic work which has no roots in the past, no connection with the hand of its creator or with the daily life of its owners and is ever more alien to aesthetic enjoyment. Will the market always be capable to maintain its value? The Museums, as Institutions in whom everyone trusts and are the only organizations today who grant or take away artistic value, will they always keep on exhibiting these works? Or will they consign them on sale? Is it really safe to buy a work whose artistic value has not yet been confirmed by the history of Art? In my opinion, only the works in which one perceives real artistic value in the elements common to all works of art, namely , space, matter, colour, tone, balance, volume, light and a sensation of movement , are safe purchases . The price in the long term is of slight importance. The best safeguard is to bid for a work which aims at the future, though it has roots in the past. No doubt, the supreme example of an innovation artist whose origin rises up from the past is precisely one of the greatest of all times: Picasso.
In conclusion, I would like to point out the importance that the great historical Masters survive actively and in full force in the spirit of the people as eternal symbols of our Culture; and that only thus they may one day again be a source of inspiration for the new generations of artists who are today captives of the present-day and of the rebellious urge to break with the past.
The old Masters cannot be annalysed only from an economic point of view; to survive the hurricane of Contemporary art which is approaching us, they absolutely need to recover influence in today`s artistic creativity and in the taste of individual people, so as not to become merely museum pieces visited by masses of tourists from all the world. This is the only way that their market will shine again with its former glory. In this respect the fact that Edward Hopper and David Hockney are amongst the highest prices of artists should inspire a certain degree of optimism as showing a return to a figurative art. The sale in Sotheby’s London, at the beginning of 2020, of “Splash” by David Hockney at the price of over 23 M pounds sterling confirms this tendency. This picture of minimalist tendency finds its humanization in the value that the spectator grants to the things represented in it, the swimming-pool, the mountains, the dip, the diaphanous light, and the ode to the idea of vacations, “il non far niente”. The painting was sold in 2006 at 2,9 M pounds sterling and the price was multiplied by 8 after 16 years, with an annual profitability of 56 %. As very often happens with Contemporary art, it belongs to a series complemented by “Little Splash”, at present in a private collection, and by “A bigger Splash” in the Tate Gallery. David Hockney has become an icon for Contemporary art collectors and a support for the traditional values of Art through the Ages. In this painting there are underlying ideas that derive from the great Masters, such as the studies of corporeal masses by Piero della Francesca, the importance of colour and light in the Venetian painters, the “joie de vivre”, mixed with a touch of melancholy, in Fragonard.
On the other hand, the “Old Masters” cannot fail to be considered a niche for a select group of western collectors, the true protectors of the essence of our illustrious western past. They are the only ones who have the best knowledge of the art of our great Masters and are the first persons whom the market agents should contact and not just waste their efforts trying to increase sales on a global scale. An activity which Modern and Contemporary art know perfectly well how to do and with whom competition is impossible, above all, because of the shortage in the offer of first class Old Masters and to sink our roots in other cultures is a difficult and unforeseeable operation. Proof of this affirmation is the fact that we do not yet know the where abouts of the “Salvator Mundi” by Leonardo, purchased in 2017 in Christie’s New York by the King of Saudi Arabia who, it is said, lent it to United Arab Emirates. The picture has not been seen in public since its sale in 2017.
In my opinion, this crisis which the world of Old Masters is suffering due to the loss of “authority”, would be solved by attracting to our own side all the People who share common values, our families, our neighbours, our friends.... As Voltaire has written “il faut cultiver son jardin” because we shall only survive if we protect our identity, and at the same time be alert regarding the present-day world in order to exert on it our influence, so that Art may continue being Art.
Carlos Herrero Starkie
Alonso Berruguete, El Greco, Hispanic Mannerism and Modernity
Carlos Herrero Starkie
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The coincidence in the dates of the Exhibition of Alonso Berruguete at the National Gallery of Art in Washington and of the Exhibition of El Greco at the Grand Palais in Paris inevitably awakens in us the urge to seek the points linking together or separating these two great towers of genius of the Spanish Renaissance, thus leading us towards establishing a fruitful comparison between the two artists.
If the consecration of El Greco as one of the most revolutionary artists of genius in European painting was not achieved until the outset of the XXth century, in parallel to the blossoming forth of modern art (1), a true recognition of Alonso Berruguete has not yet been won, as Jonathan Brown(2) has acutely indicated when he describes Berruguete as the last important artist of the Renaissance who has not yet received the credit he deserves. To this unavoidable task of rediscovering Berruguete should be contributed the considerable study undertaken with regard to the revolutionary character of El Greco’s work as a pillar of modern art because both artists rise from a common origin which abandons description of nature and engages the spectator, calling on his soul and surprises him with an anti-academic spirit. The search for a parallelism existing between both artists has reached the point that many scholars consider Alonso Berruguete El Greco’s closest precedent and that we should guide our footsteps towards the study of their common hallmark: their eccentricity. A distinctive characteristic which can only be fully evaluated when their work has become more contemporary, more in harmony with a modern conception of Art. This particular modernity, which in Berruguete’s case precedes by two generations El Greco’s time, is something which has to be emphasized when we study his work, since only if we bring the understanding of his work up-to-date by focusing it through the art of our time, can Berruguete’s figure enjoy the credit he justly deserves.
In accordance with these ideas, I propose, first of all, to point out the areas where these men of genius coincided and to what extent Berruguete’s work became a favourable artistic backround for the indubitable success that El Greco won in Toledo. Furthermore, I shall analyse the differences which constitute the uniqueness of the work of each genius and show how, starting out from the same root, each artist strikes out in modern art with a distinct character.
El Greco’s knowledge of Berruguete’s work is confirmed since ancient times. El Greco himself underlined frequently the word Berruguete in Giorgio Vasari’s book Vite de piu eccelenti pittori, scultori ed architettori (1568), although without making any annotations. This succinct manner of expression might surprise us if El Greco’s envious nature regarding the artistic gifts of other people, were not widely known. This is demonstrated by his apparent contempt shown for the frescos of the Capella Sistina that, however, influenced El Greco so deeply throughout his career. Tristán, on the contrary, extends himself in praiseworthy terms referring to Berruguete which are annotated in this book.(3) This apparent indifference shown by El Greco can be explained by the fact that Berruguete had work precisely in Toledo which was the centre of his activity and, above all, that Berruguete preceded El Greco by almost fifty years, which could have deprived El Greco of originality in his revolutionary work. We find a somewhat similar situation regarding Picasso who refers to Goya’s work on very few occasions although the latter may be considered his immediate precedent.
The parallelisms in both character and temperament, as in vital circumstances and in the development of artistic activity, are, however, evident. Alonso Berruguete’s creativity develops in a Castilian Jewish-Christian environment, still in contact with Islam, where the atmosphere of cultural tolerance achieved in former centuries had given way to an environment dominated by fanaticism between cristianos nuevos and cristianos viejos, the result of enforcing the Catholic religious model. El Greco lived through something similar in Crete, a Venetian outpost encrusted in the Aegean Sea where the byzantine component contained a strong load of the ancient orient, even to the extent that the threat of invasion by the Turks could have been the cause of his emigration from Crete to Venice in 1567. The training of both artists takes place rather late but is very eclectic and above all favours the assimilation of the new Italian artistic tendencies of the time. Berruguete is influenced by Michelangelo but above all by the Florentine masters, whereas El Greco draws his inspiration from Michelangelo and the Venetian painters, specially from Tintoretto. Both artists, however, endowed with their strong personality, coincide in being the best example of a decisive break with the Italian rules, creating new models which claim the attention of the spectator. Their controversial nature makes them solve their disputes in law suits and they give great importance to their social status. On the other hand, both artists practised the art of sculpture and painting and each stood out in the genre in which their genius gave them universal fame; Berruguete, in sculpture, which he conceived as a complete art, where he attained a symbiosis of design, carving and painting;(4) El Greco, in painting, derived his inspiration from the effect produced by light on his models in sculpture, thus creating fantastic figures in which matter and the sense of gravity of objects have disappeared. Both had a similar capacity for entrepreneurship, as is attested by their big workshops, though Berruguete creates a school; El Greco remains a unique and inimitable genius. Finally, both artists were great men misunderstood by the Crown; El Greco failed in his presentation of the San Mauricio to Philip II in 1582 and Berruguete felt himself offended on being inexplicably put aside as court painter of Charles V after his commissions in the royal chapel of the Cathedral of Granada in 1520. Both, however, triumphed thanks to the enthusiasm for their works of the Church and popular culture of the epoch, fostered in the cultural circles of the cristianos nuevos. All these analogies lead us to a work with a common halo which is full of modernity and which has a uniqueness due to the personal focus of both men of genius.
Which are the elements of Berruguete’s work which surprised El Greco? Did Berruguete’s masterpiece, the choir-stalls of Toledo Cathedral, exert influence in the artistic change undertaken by El Greco in Toledo? To what extent did Alonso Berruguete’s work influence the artistic taste of the Toledan intellectual classes, so that they welcomed with great interest such an advanced and revolutionary work of art as that by El Greco? The success of our answer will depend on our capacity to demonstrate that common element which we might define as Hispanic mannerism of which Berruguete has the glory of being the founder, and El Greco its principal diffuser, due to the transcendency of his work in modern artistic culture.
What we understand nowadays by mannerism is a movement born in Italy as a consequence of the cultural decline of the Renaissance model and of the crisis of values which in 1527 spread all over Europe as a result of the sack of Rome and the enforced emigration of artists to France, Holland and Germany. It is therefore a paneuropean movement which surges up as a result of the sensation of chaos and abyss, common in Rosso, Pontormo and Berruguete. From this massive exodus of artists, there rises up in France during the ‘30s, on the basis of a late Gothic tradition, the École de Fontainebleau, founded by Pontormo and Rosso Fiorentino , that offers at the service of the monarchy a decorative and intellectualised art, which has a melancholic air, is uprooted from its classical origin, and is devoid of any spirituality. At the same time, in Spain sprouts another deviation represented by Alonso Berruguete who gives to his work a completely different mood, endowed with passion and rebellion that confronts the typical sensation of void and where the artist discharges his inner catharsis.
Hispanic mannerism is visualised as an artistic movement developed in Spain during the first half of the XVIth century on the base of a pre-existing Gothic tradition that harmonizes with the dramatic art which from the XVth century onwards came from the northern countries. A current which hispanizes the new Italian classical forms received at the beginning of the XVIth century, endowing them with a dislocated and bold design capable of expressing the most outrageous sentiments, while abandoning the description of nature and classical harmony, so as to express concepts and the inner meaning of external forms in a protobaroque manner. This idea springs up in an explosive way in Alonso Berruguete’s work when he returns to Spain in 1518 after his artistic experiences lived in Rome and Florence. For this reason Berruguete may be considered the greatest exponent of this essentially Spanish movement which differs from the Italian mannerism that was developed later in Spain at the Escorial, and which died out in mid XVIth century, coinciding with the appearance of the Romanist forms that imitate Michelangelo. Although this Spanish mannerism survived in the form of a slant which links the great men of genius of Spanish visual arts and literature. It is not by chance that Spain produces in painting other men of genius like Velázquez, Goya or Picasso, all great creators of milestones in Art due to their capacity to break with what is established and to advance in a new artistic language. These vanguard artists stand out significantly thanks to their absolute faith in their Art and above all in their modern spirit. This Hispanic Mannerism is indelibly engraved in our Spanish heritage and acts like Divine Grace rising up in certain Spanish artists and exploding what is established, discovering intuitively what is unintelligible, anticipating the future which responds to the exaggerated Spanish way of being, a feature which acutely defines the Spanish soul that throughout its history is destined to embark on great epics and blossom forth in the sublime madness of Don Quijote, in the starry dramas of Calderón de la Barca, in the tremendismo of Valle Inclán, or the sentido trágico of Unamuno.
Alonso Berruguete is overwhelmed by Art in Italy, where he remains from 1508 to 1517; he participates in a competition to copy the Laocoonte presided over by Bramante; he collaborates with Filipino Lippi in his picture The Coronation of Our Lady (1516) and most probably with Rafael in the pictorial decoration of the Vatican loggias. In Florence Berruguete enters in contact with the enfants terribles of the moment, Rosso Fiorentino and Pontormo, in the Chiostrino dei Voti of the Basilica della Santa Annunziata; he contemplates the Brancacci Chapel and the Cartoon of the Battle of Cascina. Michelangelo refers to Berruguete affectionately in three letters and Vasari mentions him on various occasions as one of the foreign artists of the moment. At the outset of the XVIth century Berruguete lives through the questioning of the Renaissance forms. His fundamentally controversial nature makes him join the most ultra vanguard movements and thus is even considered one of their founders, as, in fact, Arnold Hauser indicates.(6) Berruguete, however, would be no more than another of the Spanish artists who visited Italy at the beginning of the XVIth century, nor would he be considered today a genius who opened up new paths in Art, if it were not because, when he returned to Spain, his artistic inspiration boiled over, just the same as occurred years later to El Greco, and he presented work whose distinctive mark is its uniqueness and creative momentum; a work that breaks down classical forms and emits a spirit which we can define essentially Spanish.(7) Malraux’s words El Greco freed himself from Italy is fully applicable to Berruguete with the addition that he preceded by fifty years the Cretan painter.(8)
What circumstances induced Berruguete to express himself artistically in such a personal way after his return to Spain?
It was the contact with his roots, with the Spaniards of his time, who far from feeling a void in their existence, had surrendered to a unidimensional vision of the world submitted to Faith as the only existing truth. A truth, coloured by passion, and fanaticism, stamped into the people because they have attained Divine Grace through the force of arms and due to there having converged in Spain three eminently theocratic cultures, Hebrew, Moorish, and Gothic-Christian. A cultural symbiosis where limits between reality and fiction are not clearly defined. A truth which makes the Spaniard a protagonist in the future development of Europe, not due to his intellectual capacity, but owing to the strength emitted by his convictions. This blind faith in God is translated in artistic terms in an incredibly enthusiastic creativity and above all in an absolute lack of complex in questioning classical Renaissance rules with the same irrational force that the comuneros opposed the authority of Carlos V and led the first revolt of the common people. The Spaniard has so much self-confidence that when he feels himself blessed by the Grace of God he loses all sense of authority in art in favour of giving way to spiritual sentiment.
With Alonso Berruguete, however, as with all men of genius, his mind acts in a more complicated way. Though he is essentially a Spaniard, he cannot fail to be influenced by his artistic training which was closely linked to Italy; he felt the Renaissance fascination and it is precisely his inherently controversial nature, so typically Spanish, that makes him participate from the outset in questioning his model. In this sense his genius responds to a conflict of an inner order, between what is human, assimilated in Italy, and what is religious, contained in his Spanish gene, which surges up again when he returns to Spain. There his artistic personality recovers its own identity as an explosive reaction to the flow of the Renaissance world which he now questions since it is the cause of his anxiety, a feeling he links closely to the loss of divine grace and to Man’s opposition to God. If Spanish artists of the moment, such as Juan de Valmaseda, Diego de Siloé, or Damián Forment, seem to reflect purely the religious fervour of the people and to be guided by faith when they interpret Italian models, Berruguete assumes deeply this faith in order to extract from it the strength that gives him self-confidence to express himself in an absolutely personal way, endowing his work with a fundamentally human content. The modernity of Berruguete’s art is rooted in his overwhelming need to manifest his emotions as a man, because on feeling the sense of void caused by the absence of faith, on becoming conscious of the levity of his existence and even of being abandoned by God, there surge up in him with an exaggerated intensity, universal sentiments such as anguish, melancholy, fury, impotence, related to his existential crisis and to definite historical events, like the sack of Rome in 1527 by the Imperial troops and the defeat of the comuneros occurred in Berruguete’s region, Villalar, in 1521. In his Sacrificio of Isaac (1532) belonging to the San Benito altarpiece, or in his relief representing Job (1539), we perceive the sensation of abyss that man feels facing his own existence, something that makes him confront God. The San Sebastián by Berruguete suffers in himself the impotence of whoever cannot react, bound tightly by something of a superior order, just like the Laocoonte, created in another convulsed world, as was Helenism. In this inner struggle Berruguete finds his inspiration to create an art which goes beyond the limits of visual art and dares to venture in the realm of poetry, but, unlike other artists who lose themselves in exaggerated sophistication and are lacking in content, his break away is imbued with a special clear-sightedness characteristic of those who are convinced of their truth in Art. An idea in Art as valid as Michelangelo’s, inasmuch as it responds to his inner soul and is a pure translation of his ego. Berruguete gives no priority to perfection in technique, nor to material beauty, nor to the complacency of the church as patron, but is focused in giving visible form to something authentic, something intensely personal, free of the bonds that traditional forms require; Berruguete seeks new ways of defining artistically what is not visible and can only be felt. In rejecting what is natural and therefore rational; in his attempt to render visible the spirit by means of deforming shapes and exaggerating the expression of his saints, we find the most mannerist side of Berruguete; the one who poses unsolvable problems so as to make visible what is hidden, or unintelligible.
In this context of religious irritation during the XVIth century there surges up mysticism which is a sentiment of contact with God that the people of Spain feel in exalted way and that Santa Teresa de Jesús, San Juan de la Cruz and Fray Luis de León defined in a masterly way in their texts. Furthermore, the iluminismo is also spread; this is a movement which was considered heretical by the Inquisition, although it was very close to mysticism, and was spread by the converted Jews and Moriscos; many of them stewards, secretaries, or doctors of the great aristocrats like the Marqués de Villena or del Infantado whom they subtly influenced. Hence it may be maintained that the principles of the counterreformation were interpreted in Spain and particularly in Toledo by Jews and Moriscos converted to Catholicism, giving them the inherent fanaticism of an oriental halo which served as a cultural background favouring the blossoming forth in all its splendour in the art of El Greco, synthesis of Byzantine formalism and western creativity.(9)
This is the socio-cultural scenario which El Greco finds when he arrives in Toledo that creates a revolution in his creativity which gives him the confidence to evolve towards a much more personal approach to pictorial Art. El Greco adapted himself perfectly to the environment of rigid iconography due to his Byzantine origin and he scrupulously followed the dictates emitted by the Council of Trento, though he endowed his works with a creative frenzy in composition and technique. The challenges he sent forth are not theological but aesthetic. For this reason, although El Greco’s work may be considered the finest pictorial expression of the mysticism of Santa Teresa de Jesús, we cannot be at all certain that he felt Christ in the same way. He no doubt was an intellectual, a rebel, a vanguard artist, but was he also a mystic? I would venture to declare that El Greco was not, just as Berruguete undoubtedly was not either. Both artists were men too attached to our earthly world. That is why El Greco’s work permits many interpretations as he has given forms and colours an autonomous expressive significance that serve as a means to revive souls in a state of trance whose origin may have different causes. On an artistic level only Berruguete had a sufficiently high level to be able to cause an impact because only he had the strength, the impulse to cause an impression on El Greco. The works by Berruguete which El Greco beyond any doubt contemplated in Toledo were the Sillería del Coro de la Catedral (1539-1548) and the Sepulcro del Cardenal Tavera (1554-1561). We have no certainty that he contemplated the altarpiece of the monastery of San Benito in Valladolid, nor the monastery of Mejorada de Olmedo, nor any other works by Berruguete in Salamanaca or Úbeda; although we find a stylistic link with them, we can distinguish certain differences in creative approach.
Alonso Berruguete’s work, previous to his period in Toledo, when he makes his masterpiece, the altarpiece of the monastery of San Benito in Valladolid (1526-1532), is when he expresses with the greatest authenticity his soul and where we can observe more clearly the inner conflict we have mentioned. Works such as the San Sebastián, the Sacrificio de Isaac or his San Jerónimo belong to the bench of the said altarpiece and are the finest expression of his turbulent genius. Although it is the figures of his Calvaries containing sculptures of the most advanced, almost cubist, design and above all the scenographic character of his groups that are what is most visible in El Greco’s work.(10) The simplification and lengthening of the forms, the lack of balance, loss of a sense of gravity in the figures, the asymmetry of their faces, the horror vacui, the winding movement, the absence of perspective in depth favouring the general movement upwards of its groups, whose dislocated figures swoop down like blazing flames; all these artistic devices are employed by Berruguete and El Greco. We cannot, however, fail to mention a fundamental difference. In El Greco’s religious painting; we do not perceive any anguish, the cornerstone of Alonso Berruguete’s work during the Valladolid period, but just the opposite, a state of existential plenitude expressed in the ascensional movement, striking colours and sketchy forms; its saints and angels appear blinded by the divine light, deprived of both their psychic and material human nature. His religious painting is like a rosary of figures in a state of ecstasy, thus the Berruguetesque wince of pain is nowhere to be seen. In other words, the pictorial craziness of El Greco is of a celestial order, and that of Berruguete is above all earthly, rooted next to the animal origin of man and to his conscience, as an intelligent being, of his tragic destiny. At this point we begin to glimpse the fundamental difference which separates both men of genius.
The Toledan work which certainly causes the greatest impact on El Greco is when Berruguete culminates his artistic conceptions, though when he loses authenticity and in a certain way some of his intrinsic modernity. Berruguete develops a less dramatic, less expressive art, in favour of more rhetorical and graver attitudes, showing a style more in accordance with the first dictates of the Council of Trento (1545-1563) and the new times, but without losing any of his originality in composition. During this period his art clearly anticipates the Baroque which fundamentally seeks to surprise the spectator with an anticlassical composition. The sculptural group that crowns the top of the archiepiscopal throne, in the choir-stalls of Toledo Cathedral, the Tranfiguración (1543-1548) shows a gorgeous artistic richness and constitutes a lavish extravagance in its design which is only comparable to Bernini’s works. The monumental sculptural structure irradiates a vertiginous rhythm, resting on a fragile Vitruvian loggia, thus breaking the traditional Renaissance principles of proportion, balance and logic. In this work Berruguete practises his most original structure. A machine which ascends to heaven from the fragility of an arcade that hides reliefs carved in walnut wood; these indeed are the living expression of Berruguete’s authentic soul, manifested in his agitation, and his drama; reliefs which symbolize Mankind oppressed by divine dictates, which confront the glory of the Creator, represented in the transfiguración with a more majestic and solemn style. But it is the skull-like countenance of Cardinal Tavera (1554-1561) whose stark realism makes us shudder, where El Greco will leave us documentary proof that he knew Berruguete’s work when he painted the portrait of his most appreciative mécénas which is a true copy of the work in alabaster by the Master of Palencia, perhaps with a more ghostly and fantastic touch.(11)
The choir-stalls of Toledo Cathedral are without doubt the most evident Spanish precedent of El Greco. The dichotomy between the earthly and the celestial, so evident in this group, is appreciated in its greatest splendour in the Entierro del Conde Orgaz(1586-1588). The lack of a sense of gravity in the figures, touchstone of Berruguete, and one of the elements which most clearly identifies El Greco’s painting. The horror vacui, specially present in the three lunetos which decorate the archiepiscopal throne at the Cathedral of Toledo, is constantly seen in the Cretan painter’s work; the general rhythm of the composition whose figures are loosely tied together; the contraposto and the winding movements of the personages; the ascending glory of the Divinity that is confronting the earthly world, but above all the incredible composition of the whole scene which ascends to the heavens with absolute physical incongruity. All this truly reminds us of El Greco. His Inmaculada Concepción de Oballe (1607-1613) responds to a similar irrational composition. The twisting of El Greco’s Saints no doubt connects faithfully with the winding Berruguetesque figure, the lack of a sense of gravity of his Laocoonte(1610-1614) or of the soldiers of the Resurrección del retablo del colegio de Doña María de Aragón (1596-1600) which have an evident parallelism to Berruguete’s relief Job of the choir-stalls of Toledo Cathedral (1539) who downcast lifts up his arms and also to the relief of the Last Judgement (Juicio Final) which adorns the Archiepiscopal Throne. All the El Greco’s floating saints overwhelm in their anticlassicism Berruguete’s figures who scarcely manage to keep their balance in the earthly world, sliding off the composition or adopting unnatural attitudes. The San Bartolomé del Apostolado del Museo del Greco, with his long countenance, his humid beard and rather crazy look, everything in him corresponds to the Castilian physique which Berruguete gives to his Saints. The elongated lines jutting out and simply drawn of the personages carved by Berruguete, harmonize with the way El Greco uses colour transparencies so as to define the guide lines of the composition. Even the San Francisco y hermano Leo which we know is by Berruguete, the relief on the altarpiece of Santiago el Mayor of Cáceres (1557), is similar in its originality to the compositions done years later by El Greco.(12) Both artists play capriciously with proportions, unnatural positions and the movement of personages on the scene. Although all these conceptions no doubt come in the last instance from Renaissance Italy and from international mannerism, in fact, both Berruguete and El Greco infuse a new and much more frenzied rhythm where the movement turns human bodies into brilliant shafts of light.
Berruguete opens Pandora’s box, transmitting to us disorder, incongruity and unrest, just as Goya does with his Disparates (Absurdities) and like Picasso, breaks into smithereens the traditional pictorial scenario. What is deeply innovative in Berruguete’s work and what makes his art differ from El Greco’s is the fact that it is rooted in the expression of his soul and yet what most approaches these two artists to one another is their total conception of Art and their common revolutionary spirit which surges up from new aesthetic points of view that voice their inner thoughts, improvising freely and with no censorship. When they design new ideas they may confront scenarios or blurred outlines in their determination to capture movement as a way of expressing the mystery of life and when they transfer their designs to painted sculpture or sculptural painting, they do it guided exclusively by inspiration, in an intuitive manner, rejecting the tradition of perfectly finished shapes which imitate what is natural and venture into new and much more expressive solutions by which they try to describe what is imperceptible; in the case of Berruguete, anguish, impotence, fury. Berruguete is one of the first to give a meaning to the line which is alien to its natural form, as El Greco does years later with colours, which acquire a meaning of their own. Berruguete demonstrates that he is one of the first romantics, something we perceive, with even greater emphasis, in his drawings and in the sculptures situated in the attics of his altarpieces, all of them sketchily designed and carved with great bravura. His sculptural work is therefore impossible to imitate and sometimes manifests uneven execution, due to the participation on many occasions of his workshop; for this reason when we face a work carved by the Master we are subjugated by the throb of life emitted by his saints. Berruguete stands as a paradigmatic precedent of the modern genius, who needs to express himself, and innovates due to his determination to break with tradition, who allows himself to be dragged along by his creative urge in order to set his conscience free. In him we find similarities to the black paintings of Goya and the Spanish veta brava, to Delacroix, to German expressionism, to Münch, Picasso and even to Pollock. An art which, far from describing the external world, expresses the unintelligible universe, that which one only feels.
Due to all this, safeguarding the evident parallelism between them, what appears most obvious is that El Greco found inspiration in the creative maelstrom of Alonso Berruguete, even more from the spirit that his work emits than from its forms or from specific models, all of them of classical origin, perfectly recognizable in other sources. El Greco could have been inspired by the momentum expressed in Berruguete’s work, to draft an absolutely new pictorial display. Something he would have preferred to keep secret for himself as he does not mention it in his writing.
The importance in the modern world of both artists of genius follows parallel routes: the subconscious, autonomous meaning of the line, and the symbolism of colours. However, the more we value the incalculable transcendency of these artists, the more we are aware of their different approaches to Art.
El Greco’s modernity is evident in two areas which are clearly identified in his masterpiece El entierro del Conde Orgaz.
On the one hand, in El Greco’s religious painting, specially when he describes the Divine Universe, we perceive a fundamentally technical recreation of the artistic language similar to what Picasso and cubism presented in the XXth century. In fact, El Greco’s Visión del Apocalipsis, where he attains the culmination of modernity, is an evident source of inspiration for the Demoiselles d’Avignon which also sends out echoes of the most advanced sculpture groups of Berruguete. In El Greco’s representations of the Divine we perceive in all its extent a determination to express in art by an absolutely different manner the dictates emitted by the Council of Trento. El Greco follows these rules in an orthodox way, without trying at all to express the mood of men who appear in El Greco's celestial world, as if they were completely alien to earthly reality; his heavenly glory, his saints in ecstasy, his Calvaries do not express pain, the bloodshed does not frighten us; all in El Greco’s heaven is converted into an almost experimental exercise showing how the figures can be transformed in glowing spirits, losing any link with earthly matter, so as to create in the spectator’s soul a state of devotion to divinity and, nowadays, in the atheist, a sentiment of ineffable beauty. El Greco’s heavens are full of an inherent and almost claustrophobic sense of gravity, in subtle contrast to the ethereal and ascending spirit of the saints and their faintly sketched landscapes, all full of expressivity and symbolism, contributing to create the special mystery of the inexplicable. For all these reasons, El Greco could not be understood in his time except by mystics, iluminados and intellectuals; thus his work passed through a real two centuries of purgatory until his revelation in the XXth century. El Greco then acquires a contemporary and almost timeless character which coincides with all painters of genius who have searched through art to transform and not imitate nature. In this urge to create a new art which is contrary to traditional art, lies precisely its revolt. El Greco surpasses in daring other great rebels of pictorial technique, such as Velázquez and the Impressionists, who, although they refuse to paint things as they are, continue to be limited in the action of describing what is visible under the effect of light which transforms shapes and creates space. They are the great observers of the natural world. El Greco surpasses them as an innovator because, like the most advanced painters of today, he seeks not only to move away from the rule, but also to escape from the obligation to describe the external world as it is viewed. In honour to his Greek origin, he paints with a certain coldness, evaluating the forms and colours in themselves, stripping them of the human sentiments of pain and anguish which are not included in divine values. El Greco is the first genius to convert Art into something autonomous and independent of its religious significance. It is the result of a new conception concerning how colours and shapes can appeal to the viewer. In this moving away from the earthly world and approaching to the celestial, the spectator paradoxically finds areas where he may enjoy his freedom of thought, his most irrational sentiments or the contemplation of beauty created by man. El Greco’s work, more than a cry of protest, as found in Berruguete, Münch or Pollock, represents a song of freedom, for breaking down rules in praise of pure beauty, but, above all, for not attempting to indoctrinate, convince, or impose on the spectator a preconceived idea. He gives to men total freedom of thought. For this reason El Greco was not understood during a historical period focused on the interplay of cultural-religious ideals. It was not until a spirit of tolerance rose up and there was liberty to interpret works of art outside their historical context, at a time when the most advanced artistic currents appeared, that El Greco reached a degree of contemporary acceptance that has finally made him understandable. (15)
There is one question, however, in El Greco’ religious painting which keeps his genius linked to the real world and therefore also to tradition, something that marks a limit to his modernity and still anchors it to the figurative world; that is the study of shadows. Something that defines his creative process of making a break, dissociating his painting from nature and constructing a new reality. A shadow as something independent which proceeds from matter and yet is opposed to it in physical terms; we find here this duality, so characteristic of El Greco and the mystics, situated between the celestial and the earthly world. Shadow as an optical effect of the action of light on matter, with which he plays so as to distort reality. El Greco finds in the shadows his salvation so as to remain a figurative artist, applying light to his sculptures, playing at deforming matter, experimenting with what is visible, but not touchable, with what is elusive so as to transfer it to his painting and thus create a new language. Because El Greco, though he is a great intellectual, is not satisfied with just conceiving the idea. He still continues to be a Byzantine artist who needs models, and is still a painter in the old style although saddled with ultramodern concepts. (16)
On the other hand, El Greco reinvents himself, embarking on portraits which form a second stage of his modernity. Here El Greco describes the earthly world, in particular, the place where he lives in Toledo and where gather together mostly friends, priests, poets and intellectuals, but also important personages of the church expressing the inner soul of the Spanish man of his time and he does so, unlike Berruguete, with all the coldness of those who observe aloof the sitter without expressing an opinion on his personality. For this reason El Greco’s portraits are rather repetitive and tend to represent types of men of the Spanish people more than individual. El Greco’s portrait of the Caballero de la mano en el pecho (1579) embodies the paradigm of the Spanish Hidalgo. It sends forth echoes of Byzantine pantocrators and surprises us by posing his gaze in such a natural way on the spectator, exhibiting a noble spirit, and the calm and the self-confidence of being in possession of a superior truth. The picture El licenciado Jerónimo Ceballos(1605) is perhaps one of the best of his last portraits, inasmuch as he simplifies the pictorial process employing few colours and a loose technique , extremely skilled with the paintbrush where the imprimatura plays a fundamental role. It presents to us the face of a man immersed in meditation, wearing a superb ruff which inevitably brings to mind the effigies painted years later by Frans Hals. In other portraits we also find the special way that El Greco places the personage in space, which gives him a halo of anguish, as in the portrait of Cardenal Niño de Guevara, situating him in an oblique perspective. In this work we also perceive the importance that El Greco gives to hands, as Berruguete also does; hands that define everything, which, with their gesture in contraposto, they symbolise the moderation and strength of the church. In like manner, the gaze, in this case enigmatic and merciless, of the Cardinal freezes us up. In the portrait of Fray Hortensio Palavicino (1611), El Greco employs the same devices, that is, to display the personage in a claustrophobic space, which synchronizes with the mind of the poet immersed in his world; he gestures with his hands in a very forced contraposto position and renders the priest's face looking in a distorted way, so that we may guess intuitively a certain degree of hysteria typical of someone imbued by a divine madness All this reminds us greatly of Cézanne, particularly the portrait of Mme. Cézanne today treasured in the Metropolitan Museum, as well as Van Gogh, Bacon, Soutine and the expressionist Russian artists. They all irradiate a modernity which we intuitively feel steeped in their lack of resources and the immediacy of their message. (17)
Berruguete and El Greco are descendents of this folly which was so present during the Spanish Renaissance. In Berruguete’s figures abounding in pain and anguish and in the personages of El Greco, imbued with a sense of inner bewilderment, the Spanish people found themselves naturally identified with this state of divine madness which was the purest expression of the mysticism, near to paroxysm, which would overcome their local saints, the real heroes of the time, who were overwhelmed by their contact with God.
The contemporaneity of their work is the result of the modernity of the language that both employed, their determination to break with tradition and due to having visualised, before anyone else, that the evolution of art would follow the trend of simplification of shapes and configuration of new artistic models ever more autonomous and less subject to visible nature.
The singularity in each one must be sought in the reasons which drove them to break with tradition. In Berruguete, an impelling need to express his unease; in El Greco, in coincidence with Leonardo and Michelangelo, it was the result of an intellectual exercise. For them, Art is the development of a concept, of a thought; for Alonso Berruguete, it is the expression of a profound sentiment and an uncontrollable need to manifest it.
In this situation lie two different approaches to Modernity. Two sides of the same coin, two consecutive links in a chain leading to a new conception of Art. Their confrontation brings to us echoes of the dialectic between the Apolíneo and the Dionisiaco which influenced so deeply the modern thinking of Antonin Artaud, Nietzsche and the vitalist current.
Berruguete represents the most authentic and rebellious voice, the volcanic expression erupting out from the heart of man which cracks the foundations of the fleeting Parnassus of the Renaissance; El Greco represents the configuration of a new pictorial language and a new ideal of beauty which prophesies the future: an art which has broken its links with nature.
Carlos Herrero Starkie
(1) J.Meier-Graefe ,Spanische Reise, Berlin 1910.
(2) Jonathan Brown, Introduction to the catalogue of the exhibition: "Alonso Berruguete, first sculptor of Renaissance Spain", National Gallery of Art 13 Sept – 2019.
(3) III, 425, V-M, VI, 137, Giorgio Vasari. "Vite de piu eccelenti pittori, scultori ed architettori". In his life of Baccio Bandinelli, on mentioning Alonso Berruguete, Tristán writes : "Berruguete was the man who made the choir-stall of the church of Toledo along with other Works of sculpture, painting and architecture in which he was hot only excellent but also eminent..."
(4) Payo Hernanz, René, "Alonso Berruguete: symbiosis of design, carving and painting", "Treasures of the Spanish Renaissance Sculpture . The origin of Spanish Manner" ed Carlos Herrero Starkie , IOMR , Madrid ,2019.
(5) M. Dvorak. "Ueber Greco und den manierismus", Vienna, 1920, kunstgeschichte als Geistesgeschichte, Munchen, 1924.
(6) Arnold Hauser "El Manierismo". Madrid, 1965.
(7) Arias Martínez, M, "Alonso Berruguete, el Prometeo de la escultura". Diputación provincial de Palencia 2011.
(8) Santiago Amón recoge esta frase en su libro. "Picasso "pag. 150 .Visor Distribuciones. Madrid, 1989.
(9) Gregorio Marañón, "El Greco y Toledo", Madrid EspasaCalpe, 1960 pág. 229- 232.
(10) Orueta R. "Alonso Berruguete y su obra", Madrid, 1917.
(11) Gaya Nuño JA, "Alonso Berruguete y Toledo", Barcelona 1944
(12) Parrado del Olmo JM "La estigmatización de San Francisco de Alonso Berruguete": I would like to mention in this section the revealing article of Parrado del Olmo “The Stigmatization of Saint Francis” by Alonso Berruguete and a painting of “Saint Peter in Montorio” by Michelangelo, now lost, but surviving through a Sketch, for the special closeness which, in my opinion, exists between this composition represented in the Main Altarpiece of the Church of Santiago in Cáceres, and the iconography of Saint Francis and his brother Leo by El Greco. Parrado does not take a stand in this question, but defends that it is a late autograph work of Berruguete. The composition is very original, showing St. Francis with open arms in diagonal and slightly twisting his body. His brother Leo is in “serpentinata” position and fore-shortened, creating space where none exists. As Parrado indicates, Berruguete contributes greater dynamism and spatial grandeur and transforms the sketch of supremely classical composition into a fully mannerist version which it would not be risky to think might have inspired El Greco.
(13) Herrero Starkie, Carlos, "Alonso Berruguete: a modern genius blossoms forth in the Spanish Renaissance”,"Treasures of Spanish Renaissance. The origin of the Spanish Manner" pag 21-37, IOMR, Madrid, 2019.
(14) Eric Storm, "El descubrimiento del Greco ", CEEH, Madrid, 2011.
(15) VVAA, Catalogue of the exhibition "El Greco y la pintura moderna" ed Javier Barón, Museo del Prado, 2014.
(16) Gregorio Marañón, "El Greco y Toledo", pág. 258 – 262. Madrid, 1960.
(17) VVAA, ed Guillaume Kientz, Catalogue of the exhibition "El Greco", Grand Palais, Paris 2019
Alonso Berruguete: a modern Genius blossoms forth in the Spanish Renaissance
Included in the book ”Treasures of Spanish Renaissance Sculpture: The origin of the Spanish Manner”, to be published September 2019. Purchase a copy
The approach of the IOMR to the Spanish XVIth century is intimately related to the heart-throb I felt on acquiring and later studying the pair of sculptures by Alonso Berruguete which at present are treasured in the Institute. From this a whole project was born, that of promoting Spanish Renaissance Sculpture and of assembling a collection of sculptures around this subject. Up to this moment I was not fully aware of the great transcendence that this period of art had won in Spanish Art, and in the renovation of western Art. I could not imagine the deep significance of this first revolutionary break which challenged the Italian classical canon and how far Alonso Berruguete, its most representative figure, could be recognized as the first artistic genius with essentially Spanish features and, above all, that his works of art could contain the most modern stamp of contemporary western art.
Alonso Berruguete was born in Paredes de Nava, a village in the archdiocese of Palencia; he was of a rough and vehement nature and at the death of his father Pedro, court painter, in 1508 he travelled to Italy where he met Michelangelo and mixed with the most distinguished artists of the time in Florence1. There, together with his youthful companions, Rosso Fiorentino and Pontormo2, he creates a revolutionary art movement which centuries later will be named mannerism3. We will, however, have to wait until his return to Spain in 1518 to discover Berruguete as a genius capable of challenging the wealth of new ideas he has assimilated in Italy; then surges up in him a storm of creativity and modernity completely unknown up to that time in sculpture, a field rather new to him. There appears the ultramodern artist, who hispanizes the repertoire of classical gestures, who simplifies forms and shapes, who anticipates El Greco or Bernini...
In the process of acquiring and discovering for IOMR new sculpture works belonging to the Spanish XVIth century, I realised that the work of Alonso Berruguete, even though it is unique, was not created by chance, nor was an exception in the Spanish art world of the time, but was the greatest example of a first generation of artists who created the so-called “Spanish Manner”. Our IOMR collection and this book “Treasures of Spanish Renaissance Sculpture” have the special intention of rendering homage to these artists who have been to a certain extent disregarded by historians and whose works have swamped the altarpieces of Spanish churches and perhaps, for that reason, have not been so well known internationally.
Alonso Berruguete could only have risen up in Spain, since here occurred historical and socio-cultural circumstances absolutely exceptional in the rest of Europe, which were fundamental to favour the blossoming forth of a genius capable of undermining the foundations of classical Art and, at the same time, of giving birth to a new way of understanding art based on giving priority to the spirit instead of the form4.
Looking back to Spanish Renaissance , the prime question which stands up is that our history for the last eight centuries had evolved in a completely different way from the rest of Europe; we were not affected by the territorial distribution after Charlemagne’s death which determined the modern map of Europe; the peninsular kingdoms were involved in an exclusive national project to recover their territory conquered by the infidel – La Reconquista - ; here the church rises up as a bastion of national values and religion becomes the incentive driving the kings to channel the faith of the people towards achieving their national project; accordingly, in the everyday life of the conquered territories appears a phenomenon which was unique in the world, that is the fusion between the Christian, Hebrew and Moslem cultures. A world in which they will live together, though sunk in a state of mutual distrust, until the final expulsion of the Jews in 1492 and Moriscos in 1609. All this makes the individual Spaniard a determined person, convulsed, fanatic, vehement, combative, envious, tremendously resistant, initially not particularly in favour of developing art and on the whole a people in good form who gain successfully their great historic project in 1492, with the conquest of Granada, the discovery of America, the union of the peninsular territories around Castile which assumes the leadership and the opening out to Europe thanks to the result of the very wise matrimonial policy of King Fernando. In scarcely a generation’s time Spain turns into becoming a leading protagonist of Europe’s future, acting with great self-assurance, and firmly convinced on religious principles, full of the emotions which had guided their heroic deeds. In fact, the Spaniard of the early years of the XVIth century believed so much in their natural difference that he felt a real vocation to extend universally his message which was the opposite to what was in use in Europe. This passion to evangelize, to impose his truth, which led him to discover and colonize America, from a political standpoint, would turn at the end of the XVIth century, towards a forewarned disaster, but from an artistic and cultural angle, marked the birth of one of the greatest and uninterrupted currents renewing plastic art which had risen up in the western world and will continue to survive throughout history with landmarks such as El Greco, Velázquez, Goya and Picasso.
The roots of Berruguete’s genius rise in this backround and although he is fundamentally an Iberian nature, Berruguete returns to Spain imbued with all the aesthetic ideas of the Renaissance assimilated during his stay in Italy. The conflict inevitably caused by the new ideas acquired, striving against what is inherent in his nature, so essential in the evolution to maturity of any artistic genius, is clearly revealed in the disquiet transmitted by many of his sculptures, specially those of the San Benito altarpiece; all of them show a genius who has lost his trust in God and in Mankind and whose only refuge is that granted by Art. The nihilism which overwhelms us when we observe his most personal works has an infinite and outright sense of modernity and corresponds to Man's confrontation with the universe. Berruguete needs to express himself when taken aback by the indignation aroused in him by events such as the sacking of Rome by the imperial troops in 1528, or the submission of the “comuneros” of Castile at the battle of Villalar 1521, and, at a personal level, the indifference shown by the new King Carlos towards his own Art, similar to what El Greco must have felt when his art was scorned by Felipe II5. In my opinion, what is exceptional in Berruguete is his very personal and individualistic way of expressing himself in art. In him there is not the slightest sign of religious sentiment, as expressed by Juan de Valmaseda, on the contrary, anguish and despair at the collapse of his values. In this aspect lies his modernity and his important status, of being the founder of the Spanish school and, to some extent, the driving force behind a new conception of Art which may be considered as modern, that is, questioning artistic traditions handed down by heritage. In this respect there is always in Berruguete’s Art an element of protest which rises up from the depths of his soul; in this and in many other points Berruguete coincides with El Greco.
Alonso Berruguete stands up as a forerunner. Thus he creates real artistic icons which will have a great influence in his age, but, above all, he anticipated what other masters, various generations later, would culminate achieving the most acclaimed masterpieces. We do not pretend here to demonstrate the historical connection of these artistic coincidences, but only wish to point out the parallelism between these works so as to prove the perennial and anticipatory character of Alonso Berruguete’s work.
His “Ecce Homo”, executed when Berruguete was only initiating his career as a sculptor , shows stark simplicity in the devices employed to transmit directly the tragic significance of the scene: Christ’s sacrifice. With what dignity and self-assurance he is presented to us! He evokes with his legs crossed the sense of affliction praised by the classics and the lean countenance typical of Berruguete’s Christs6, only partially covered by a vermilion coloured cloak with “corlado” trimming which hangs down and gives a sense of gravity; the Calvary painted by Grünewald at the monastery of Isenhein, 1512-1516, or the Christs of Roger Van der Weiden, 1400-1464, are the only precedents which can compete with Berruguete’s sense of tragedy and sorrow which would have a direct influence on the Andalusian School of “imaginería”, specially in Alonso Cano and Pedro Mena.
There is no other Renaissance sculpture such as the San Sebastian by Alonso Berruguete which expresses so intimately the powerlessness that a youth may feel confronted by a deep pain that alienates him psychologically and physically. This is something which we do not see but we feel its presence all around us due to his perplexed attitude, his paralysed look, his humid half-open lips, and the way his drooping body moves slowly about. In this work Berruguete universalizes a plague which has grasped humanity; it is the Melancholy, the void, brought by the Renaissance which has taken hold of the youth, but which could burst out in any epoch; that is why the sculpture is so timely. The protagonist of the scene is the interplay between the invisible, the soul, and what is visible, the beauty of the youth, empowered by his inner suffering. The sculpture represents modern beauty because it causes an impact which transforms the spirit of the spectator, expressing artistically what is not perceived by the senses; Berruguete, deeply influenced by the recently discovered “Laocoonte”, but he surpasses it in poetry7, creating empathy in the viewer which can only be compared to the sadness we find in the personage "Gile" painted by Watteau and in the harlequins of Picasso’s blue period. It is a premonitory sadness which seizes you and chokes you8...
Included among the Apostles who rise up like flames from the niches in the altarpiece of San Benito, the “Sacrificio de Isaac” and the “San Jerónimo” correspond to the same pattern. Both emit a bestial cry of an almost cosmic scale which surpasses human limits. . Both are distant precedents of Goya’s expressionism and can be compared as regards strength with his Kronos devouring his children, but we even see a link with the “Cry” by Münch and German expressionism. In all these examples, Berruguete, like Goya or Münch, expresses his evident disagreement with the world.
The choir-stalls of the Cathedral of Toledo is probably the most outstanding masterpiece of the Spanish Renaissance. Made in an incredible combination of alabaster, walnut wood and marble it forms a most original design. Berruguete, challenging the laws of nature, places on top of a “serliana” architecture, the “Transfiguración” a composition full of movement which is a precedent of the Baroque and specially of such consecrated works as the “Fontana de Trevi” by Bernini.9 I would point out from the walnut wood choir-stalls the tablet representing Job with his arms stretched out on high and in a completely unbalanced posture. In him we see Berruguete's sharp mannerist expressionism, his elongated boney hands, his goose-like feet, his unsteady bodies, his Laocontesque expression10; yet, what I most appreciate in this Job is his semi-obsequious, semi-protesting gesture, crying out to heaven against the trials which beset him as an ordinary human being, - the capacity to manifest the levity of our existence as opposed to the supernatural.
Finally, his small “lunetos” in the choir-stalls, where Berruguete opposes the whole Renaissance theory of linear perspective, representing the scene by means of a sequence of levels placed one on top of the other, when he makes them ascend and creates another type of space.11
His four “lunetos” are absolute gems since they can all be related directly to El Greco’s work , particularly to his well known “horror vacui” and the sense of weightlessness that he gives to his personages. Thus we find analogies specially in the small relief of the Last Judgement which crowns the Archbishop’s Chair and El Greco’s Laocoonte (National Gallery of Art, Washington), which, in turn, evokes to us Cézanne, creating a triangle of influences, all leading towards a renewal of Classical Art.12
Berruguete, however, even though an extraordinary artist, we cannot declare that he was an exception, inasmuch as he participated in a much broader and more far-reaching artistic movement promoted by the crown, the aristocrats and, above all, by the Church. To this movement belong a group of Spanish artists and also foreign hispanised artists who mark, in their Art of high international quality, a stamp which for the first time may be termed as particularly Spanish, laying greater emphasis on the conceptual aspect of the work than on purely visual aspects related to a naturalistic rendering of what is observed. His art is fundamentally religious, and its purpose is to rouse spiritual values which are conceived by the Spaniard with passion. Their technique, except in supreme cases, like Bartolomé Ordoñez or Diego de Siloé, is not so pure and, of course, cannot be compared with that of the Italians; for that reason Spanish artists will never be the best at representing what is natural; thus beauty in itself does not interest them unless inner values are perceived glowing underneath. However, Juan de Valmaseda, Diego de Siloé, Damian Forment, to mention as examples of other ultra-Spanish artists, know, as few artists of that epoch, how to transmit spiritual values and how to express the invisible forces which dominate Mankind. A good example is the San Jerónimo, in the IOMR collection. In this sculpture, Juan de Valmaseda, employing limited resources, simplifying forms and shapes, represents the absolute submission of the Saint to Christ. There is only expressiveness in depth of feeling, passion, devotion indicated by the diagonal line that the Saint represents. This simplicity, this submission of form to concept is the great contribution made by these eminent men of genius to Spanish Art, real land-marks in the evolution of our culture who mark the constant renewal of Art throughout the centuries13.
These artists need to express their inner spirit and let their temperament gush forth freely; in all this Alonso Berruguete surpasses everyone and makes himself connect with the patriarchs of Modernity: Goya, Picasso, Münch and even Jackson Pollock14.
I would like to conclude mentioning the surprising closeness between a design by Alonso Berruguete for a “Descendimiento” (Uffizi Museum) and the “Mural 1943” by Jackson Pollock, (University of Iowa Museum of Art),indicating that two men of genius, who are like two volcanoes, although separated by five centuries of time, can coincide in their creative process. No doubt, it is just a coincidence. Pollock never knew Berruguete’s work, though he did know Picasso’s Art. Nevertheless, this "parangone" makes obvious the evidence of Alonso Berruguete’s modernity.
Carlos Herrero Starkie
1 Following Longhi’s studies culminating in the publication of his innovative article “Comprimari spagnoli della maniera italiana” 1953, Mozzati, Zeri, Becheruzzi, Dacos, Waldman, Arias Martínez, Barbara Agosti and Anna Biscecla, amongst other researchers of the Italian style in Alonso Berruguete, coincide in considering the following documentary sources of prime importance: three letters by Michelangelo mention Alonso Berruguete with interest and affection as a “good young man” and indicate worry about his health; the first two letters refer to him only as “the Spaniard” and are addressed to his brother “Buonarrotti”, one of them is dated the 2nd and the other one the 31st of July 1508; the most surprising of these letters is the second one for its condescending, though not irritated, tone of Michelangelo due to Berruguete’s not having yet seen the cartoon of the battle of Cascina, and the last letter addressed to his father Ludovico in which he now refers to Berruguete by his name and makes a reference to his friendship with the painter Granacci in April 1512; a contract for a current account in the Salviati Bank, recently discovered by Wadman, 2002 page 29, which records Berruguete’s sharing a rented apartment in Florence with the painter G. Francesco Bembo from August 1509 till February 1510 when he travels to Rome; various references by Vasari include Berruguete amongst the painters who studied Massacio’s Brancacci chapel and Michelangelo’s cartoon of the battle of Cascina; Vasari also refers to Berruguete as one of the participants in the competition to reproduce in wax the Laacoonte in 1510 and as the painter who finished the picture of the Crowning of Our Lady by Filippino Lippi, just before returning to Spain in 1517- Vasari likewise indicates Berruguete amongst the painters who collaborated in Rafael’s workshop in the Vatican Loggias. “Il sogno di Giacobea” in the Vatican Loggias is attributed to Berruguete by Anna Biscecla. Nicole Dacos in 1985, 1986, 2012, p. 53-62 supports this interesting idea which is confirmed by Arias Martínez in 2011 and, on the contrary, is placed in doubt by Waldman due to excluding a later stay in Rome by Berruguete since in 1516 he was painting in Florence the “Coronation of Our Lady” and Berruguete did not exhibit amongst his works the last Roman innovations. Cagliotti in 2001 connects the picture “Madonna coll bambino” of the Uffizi with a document dated 30th Dec. 1513 indicating payment to Berruguete by Giovanni Bartolini.
2Antonio Natali in “Berruguete e Bembo e i compagni Fiorentini” studies the importance in Florence of the Santa Annunziata basilica, “Il Chiostrino de Volti”, as an authentic and intense centre in Florence of the “maniera moderna” propitiated by the followers of Andrea del Sarto, Pontormo and Rosso Fiorentino, revolutionary painters who, together with other ultramodern artists, constituted the “Scuola dell Annunziata” in opposition to the “Scuola di San Marco”. The former “Scuola dell Annunziata” must have been attended by Alonso Berruguete as his friends Francesco Granacci and Giovanni Francesco Bembo were also habitual members, due also to revealing in their later work the same innovative character. There is a similarity to Berruguete which is evident in their eccentricity and incisive expressionism which is still evident in Pontormo’s and Rosso’s development, once he returned to Spain (cat. “Norma e Capriccio”, 2014). Longhi and Arias Martínez reached similar conclusions. Mazariego Pajares, cap. II “Alonso Berruguete y el Manierismo” p. 50 and following pp. In accordance with Azcárate 1961 who expands repeatedly on the extraordinary influence which Berruguete exerted on Rosso and Pontormo who were much younger than him and who, together with the Sienese Domenico Beccafumi, formed the first generation of “manierista” painters. In fact, Azcárate considers Berruguete the first entirely and essentially mannerist artist due to his essentially gothic medieval roots which, in his opinion, is a key question in the mannerist renovation and its eclectic development which causes its opposition to the Renaissance.
3HAUSER Arnold, El Manierismo, La Crisis del Renacimiento y los origenes del Arte Moderno. Ediciones Guadarrama, 1965, pag208, 280.
4There now comes to mind what may be considered the origin of the Spanish Genius: the pertinent words of Azcárate 1961 p.14 and following pages, regarding the resistance of the Spanish people to lose their medieval tradition in favour of the cult of the pagan ideas which idolized apparent beauty. The Renaissance in fact opposed the religious and political ideas which were in force in the Spain of the Catholic Kings which considered itself the Defender of Christianity. This idea which was wrought throughout the centuries thanks to the determination with which the various Spanish kingdoms fought against Islam and which culminated in the conquest of Granada and in its own union as a nation and a State. This messianic sentiment continued with the evangelization of the recently discovered American territories, thus causing to rise up a fundamentally Christian Renaissance, in opposition to the Italian Renaissance which was basically pagan in its origin. This movement, however, has all the fundamental roots required to give a great impulse to the artistic renovation of the modern age which would lead to the mannerism of Trento and finally to the Baroque. This Spanish Renaissance, whose greatest representative in sculpture is Berruguete, and later El Greco, following in his tracks, scorns external form and subordinates all its valuation to the level of its expressivity in its desire to move its spectator’s soul which is led from the visible to the invisible by means of the intellectual perception of eternal beauty. All this partially explains the unreal suffering of Saint Jerome and the pathetism of his Saint Sebastian. Berruguete seeks refuge in the world of ideas, in the intellectual conception which is coherent with the neoplatonic currents of thought, though never loses contact with reality, with the world of sensations and sentiments, which is precisely where the “Barroquismo” and the modernity of Berruguete has its roots. It is this wilful deformation of visible forms in order to create a new world of forms which advances parallel to the schism of the cubist and abstract painters from the sensual vision of the impressionists.
5 María Bolaños investigates deeply in Melancholy in her article on the occasion of the catalogue for the exhibition of the National Museum of Sculpture in Valladolid “Tiempos de melancolía, creación y desengaño en la España del Siglo de Oro”, 2015. Here she alludes to how Berruguete lived through the decline of humanistic optimism in a sense which harmonised with the nature of the artist identified by Felipe Vergara in his comments on painting 1560 as “a melancholic, Saturnine type of man who doubtless was of an irate, bad tempered nature, and who, although he wished to paint angels and saints, his natural disposition .... forced him inevitably to paint terrible and heart-breaking situations.” María Bolaños, p.22 analyses deeply the culture of melancholy, a refined spiritual tragedy which is converted in the sign of the metaphysical talent of the modern creator of his mental energy, of that “pazzia” of which Michelangelo, Pontormo... and also Berruguete have left us evidence. The special anguish through which all the artists had to live after the sack of Rome in 1528 and which implied their exile is, doubtless, the cause of the decisive expansion of the exaggerated mannerist ideas throughout Italy, Bohemia, France and northern Europe, forming a second generation of artists who will gradually lose that profound sensation of suffocation and anguish of the early years of Pontormo, Rosso and Beccafumi in favour of a more decorative and superficial activity. These styles were convincingly and effectively rejected by the “escuelas emilianas” of the Carracci and the Caravaggists (Fig. 13).
6 María José Gainza comments on this movement which Berruguete shapes in art, for the first time, in the “Ecce Homo” at Mejorada de Olmedo; she refers to Winkelmann who considers it a symbol of affliction for ancient classical artists. This is the attitude with which Antilochus announces Achilles´death to Patroclus. Berruguete correctly takes his inspiration from this source to express Christ’s affliction.
 Parrado del Olmo sees many classical connotations in the altarpiece at Mejorada de Olmedo, specially in its composition which he believes was inspired by the drawings of Roman buildings done by Giugliano di Sangallo. These drawings also inspired Giacopo Fiorentino in the composition of the altarpiece of the royal chapel of Granada, according to Gomez Moreno and Parrado del Olmo “El retablo del renacimiento y los Jerónimos, Mejorada de Olmedo y el Parral de Segovia” (2000). This interest in antiquity is equally revealed for the first time in his “Ecce Homo” in a similar movement of legs as in the Mercury of the Uffizi which we have documentary evidence that it was at the Belvedere in 1536, so Berruguete could have seen it there beforehand. For a summary of historical opinions on the “Ecce Homo” in which all coincide in that it is supremely disconcerting and admirable the way he expresses moral suffering (see María José Gainza p. 20). See also Orueta 1917 and Azcárate “Alonso Berruguete cuatro ensayos”, Salamanca 1988.
7 J.M. Martínez refers to Winkelmann and Lessing on the expressive force of suffering in order to define the pain. Laocoonte expresses, the controlled suffering shown by his body and his face, but quite different from the rage and fury Virgil attributes to Laocoonte. Laocoonte’s sculpture does not utter any terrible cry. His open mouth indicates rather a controlled and smothered sigh. This is what Winkelmann considers regarding the poem which Saboleto wrote in 1506 on Laocoonte in which he expresses himself like Virgil in intense terms, which is the contrary of his artistic ideals. Lessing culminates Winkelmann’s interpretation based on “la noble sencillez y reposada grandeza del arte” in his Laocoonte or on the limitations in painting and poetry” (1766) and he wonders if suffering should be expressed with violence or with moderation and solves the dilemma considering that the poet allows himself to be convinced by anger whereas the artist is drawn by harmony in his search for beauty. The Laocoonte expresses suffering, but above all acceptance, which allows himself to be a correct model and a spiritual Christian. J.M. Martínez p.461. In this sense Berruguete is more a poet in his reaction to Abraham’s terrible suffering, but in his representation of Saint Sebastian he attains supreme beauty, such as that conceived by Winkelmann, when he expresses in a contained manner the silent and intimate suffering of the young Saint.
8 Orueta, p.55 It is emotion in nature which our artist’s soul perceives and places in his work with a fire which has no equal example in art..... the suffering Berruguete expresses is a universal sorrow which he feels as the result of having lived through years of unrest (sack of Rome 1528) and a crisis of humanism. Following F. Holanda, Orueta and Pajares write about the soul which pervades their sculptures, a sense of anguish and suffocation which has no apparent cause, but is something existing in the artist himself and which, according to Longhi, we also see in Pontormo and Rosso.
9 It is very appropriate to mention in defence of the “barroquismo” of Berruguete the constant references made by Orueta to the artist’s desire to act in accordance with the spectator’s sentiments and Mazariego Pajares’ allusion to this conception of space and composition, sublimely expressed in his “Transfiguración”, where the figures are free in space and where light plays a fundamental role. All this gives Berruguete his Baroque character. Georg Weisse, in one of his chapters referring to Spanish sculpture, extends himself on this question “Berruguete y otros maestros del Barroco temprano”.
10 Orueta makes reference to transversal ligaments in hands and feet which give great expressive strength to mechanical contraction and nervous force. Orueta. P.64 considers them an example of his work and usually marks them with a vigorous projection.
11 Arias Martínez (2014) studies deeply the fact that was most cherished in Spain by the Church, principally on account of its realism and naturalism; this gave Alonso Berruguete the opportunity of developing his genius in a complete synthesis of artistic areas, allowing him to imprint on wood concepts which the most revolutionary Italian painters of his generation, like Pontormo, worked on panels or on canvas. Arias Martínez connects preparatory studies by Pontormo for the frescos of San Lorenzo (1546) with small relief works “El Diluvio. “La serpiente de bronce” and the “Juicio final” in the Archbishop Chair of the Toledo Cathedral carried out by Berruguete in 1548, as he had not found any other example in the Spanish world of such daring composition, with no order or perspective. “La serpiente de bronce” and the “Diluvio” have an evident connexion with the cartoon of the “battle of Cascina“ by Michelangelo in accordance with M.C. García Gainza’s indications p.17.
12 The influence which Berruguete could have exerted on El Greco is corroborated by Orueta, Azcárate 1961, p.15 and by Julián Marías who, however, surprises us indicating the indifference and almost apparent dislike which El Greco showed towards Berruguete as he made no greater note in his book “Lives” by Vasari than just indicating the presence in Italy of El Greco “History of an exaggerated painter” 2013, p.290. His terse comments on the artist stand out in blatant contrast to the words of praise which Tristan inscribes in the book. Such coldness might perhaps be justified by El Greco’s proximity in artistic style to Berruguete which might have diminished El Greco’s fame as a revolutionary painter and initiator of new forms of art, all of which would turn contemporary criticism in favour of Berruguete. El Greco’s envy of the artistic gifts of others, as demonstrated by his apparent contempt for the frescos of the Capella Sistina are sufficient proof. The same occurred in Picasso’s case with his stubborn silence when facing Goya, his most immediate precedent in art. Nevertheless, the parallelisms between Berruguete and El Greco are evident in character, education, entrepreneurship, the cultural background where their creativity grew up and their determination to break with the traditional Italian models developed. Their temperament rooted in the Judeo-Christian world in contact with the Islamic world, their common combative characters as proved by the fact that both were accustomed to solve their disputes by means of litigation, the special importance both gave to a broad education, but after their sojourn in Italy both maintained themselves absolutely up to date regarding modern tendencies, the great importance they both gave to their rise in social standing and their right to social recognition, a characteristic also shared by Velazquez, their multicultural Castilian background mixed with fanaticism, their late development as artists of genius, combined with a special technique, their capacity as entrepreneurs to create an extensive workshop, and, above all, their absolute necessity to break with what was traditional, creating new forms which would claim the spectator’s attention: all this induces us to consider these two Masters as constituting a corpus of similar artistic connotations and permits us to view Berruguete as an evident precursor of El Greco, even though this would lessen the innovative character which for the last century is attributed to the Cretan artist. Nevertheless, the fact that Berruguete’s painting was not as revolutionary as his sculpture, would grant exclusively to El Greco the merit of being the first in the art of painting to break radically with the principles which guided the Renaissance, that is, breaking particularly with traditional perspective focused in depth and to introduce its typical “horror vacui”, all questions which El Greco could contemplate in Berruguete’s work, specially in the small relief works in the Archbishop’s Chair behind the choir- stalls already mentioned. Thus Berruguete’s style, still alive in the most cultured Toledan circles, specially in the ecclesiastical ones, could probably serve as an adequate cultural medium enabling El Greco’s painting to be understood and facilitating his acceptance as principal painter of the Archbishop’s city, due to the previous generation having already assimilated Berruguete’s exaggerations .
13 Santiago Amón, in his book on Picasso, wonders whether there exists a Spanish school or only Spanish Masters imbued with the Spanish genius, and arrives at the conclusion that, since they are all rebels, the key to them lies in their inimitability which prevents them from creating a school and makes it impossible for them to form a stylistic succession amongst themselves; regardless, of course of the rise of the “Berruguetesque”, “Velazqueño”,”Goyesque “and indeed of the “Picassiano”. Hence, we must deduce that the lack of disciples of importance left by these Masters is due to their possibility of being superseded only by other artists of equal genius.
14 In my opinion the line in common which unites Berruguete, El Greco, Picasso and Pollock is that which gives all the modernity to the Corpus of Alonso Berruguete and their perfect interaction, is the best demonstration of how up to date he is. What unites El Greco and Picasso is their obstinate urge to break away, to simplify forms and their imperious need to express their ideas and inner sensations through Art, which doubtless also applies to Berruguete and Pollock.
Rupture in Berruguete and El Greco means breaking away from all they had learnt in Italy, specially from Renaissance composition which was always treated in depth and perfectly balanced. As Malraux says with reference to El Greco “he freed himself from Italy”, substituting the figure of Apollo for that of Dionysios. Picasso breaks away from tradition as he is the one who “throwing a resounding stone, the “Demoiselles d’Avignon” at the face of traditional painting, changed figurative painting into an art based on concepts, separate from visual reality, distorted, which forms an authentic declaration of rupture. Pollock makes the break in his own way, giving creative priority to gestures rather than to their final consequence, liberating the subconscious as the only creative source. Simplification is a process observed in the design of Berruguete’s sculptures of the upper part of the altarpiece which are sketchy and where importance is only given to movement, so as to cause a greater impact on the spectator. El Greco follows this idea specially in his “Quinto Sello del Apocalipsis”, where appear unexpectedly in the foreground spectral, evanescent figures. Picasso reaches simplification destroying completely form by means of decomposing and recomposing new images dissociated from reality, questioning the spectator who, under the guide of the Master’s genius, must give them a meaning. In Pollock simplification is treated as part of the creative process in itself, in the first instance, with his bright idea of dripping, that is applying the paint in drops, or splashing it (by means of throwing cans of paint) on the canvas, stressing its casual nature which rises from his instinct imbued with ferocious intensity, and indifferent to its artistic result. Pollock in fact simplifies art, reducing it to its most essential expression of his psyche and depriving it of any intellectual or cultural content. The will to express oneself is common to all artists and, in the case of a genius, becomes an imperious necessity to reveal his preoccupations, his suffocating inner anguish, as Berruguete does in “Abraham’s Heraclitian cry, or in his San Sebastian’s mute groan”. Picasso expresses his intimate self in his blue painting, whose infinite sadness could only burst out in his “Demoiselles d’Avignon”, as an act of rebellion demonstrating his superiority as a genius and his Nitchean triumph over the misfortune and submission of the common people. In Pollock, his subconscious leads him to flood his pictorial space with a skein of nervous Berrugetesque lines, continual turns and obsessive rotative movements which, surprisingly, form a work equally great as Picasso’s, El Greco’s and Berruguete’s masterpieces. This, of course, has not occurred by chance, but is the consequence of a common volcanic psyche which forces them to break with all their acquired culture, and thus is the essence of their genius. For them creative inspiration and intuition have `priority over talent, technique and skill, regardless of the fact that, above all in Picasso, they may have these qualities in plenty.
VELÁZQUEZ VERSUS FRANS HALS, VERMEER AND REMBRANDT
At the point of closing the monumental exhibition on “Velázquez, Rembrandt, Vermeer. Miradas Afines ", organized by the Prado Museum in collaboration with the Rijksmuseum, it is perhaps the moment to comment on the contradictory sensations which this show has aroused in me; on the one hand, satisfaction at confirming once more El Prado’s capacity of gathering together masterpieces of Art, offering to us all the unique opportunity of comparing the quintessence of the Golden Age of Dutch and Spanish painting; on the other , a certain reserve at the idea transmitted to us regarding the similarities existing between both schools, something we must at least question, all of us who have grown up bearing in mind that they are a clear expression of two opposite poles of the history of European culture. Perhaps the intention of the organizers has been to surprise us with the suggestion of a dialogue which would have been very rewarding if the society of our time would have been ready to study this question in depth, or perhaps its purpose might have been to create a concept that reconciles these two antagonistic visions of the world as a final conclusion to the bi-centenary of El Prado’s foundation. From my point of view, I have tried strenuously to find these similarities, with the result that the prodigious peculiarities of the works stood out more evident than ever before.
In my opinion, beneath the conception of searching for the links between the finest arts of both nations lie questions alien to Art but related to the world in which we live. It transmits an artificial message which tends to disregard all that through the ages has been considered as belonging to a particular nation, contributing to give a uniform shape to western culture, although its richness is based precisely on its many contrasts; this idea, in particular, does not convince me because on freeing the work from its national origin, it separates the psyche of its creators from their roots, their harshness , their beliefs and what Ortega calls “su circustancia”, among which we must , of course, include the European artistic currents of the moment. All this irritates the artists and provokes their capacity to invent something new. We must not forget that what gives that special halo to genius is its irrenounceable will to show his difference through his work so that it may transcend to future generations as something eternally new and through its greatness may gain universality.
In a world as polarized as the present one, caught in a permanent dialogue between what is national and what is global, it is at least surprising that the idea of a national spirit in our painting has not been supported. Above all, a dialogue between different approaches would have enriched a comparative analysis of the Masterpieces exhibited. Because if it is worthy of interest to analyse their similarities, mainly technical, much more rewarding is to discover their differences which are the origin of their greatness. The Prado itself who knows that what really matters is the study of the masterpieces themselves, would have been interested in this debate. The reason for this silence can only be the lack of interest of society for the world of the past. A society who measures the success of exhibitions in the number of visitors, who considers it is positive to socialise art, even at the risk of giving priority to quantity instead of quality, whose individuals consider works of art like icons beside which to take “selfis”, and , therefore, shows a serious loss of an intuitive hunch when facing an Old Master; because the aesthetic experience we may have on contemplating an Old Master cannot be simplified down to pure forms, more tightly or loosely sketched, conforming to contemporary taste; an Old Master cannot be liberated from its history, nor from the psyche of its creator because that would deprive the work of the spirit that makes it great and must dialogue with the spectator.... A society so exaggeratedly uniform as ours cannot surprise us when it considers these debates useless as they have no connection with everyday life.
Even so, I cannot fail to engage in the debate and hereby divulge my understanding of this question:
In my opinion, a Masterpiece is greatly enriched when we analyse what it suggests to us, when we investigate its roots and its influences, but above all when we appreciate the capacity for innovation shown by its creator. The expression worn by a nation at a particular moment of its history is of no real importance compared to the degree of anticipation to his time shown by the genius who, rising above his roots and embracing a transnational culture, reinterprets or creates new models. We cannot forget that both Velázquez, Rembrandt, Frans Hals and Vermeer signify landmarks in the history of painting and have the capacity in themselves of establishing new routes. They advance with giants’ strides and that is what surprises us. If we try to fit them into a historical framework we risk underestimating the torrent of innovation they represent and we may be induced to make a superficial analysis of their work. This would distract us from the fundamental question which is to distinguish how far the masterpieces of these men of genius are the unique expressions of their individual creative soul that are able to make us approach a world that transcends reality and is sublime. According to my point of view, the analysis of similarities should only be an introduction leading us to an appreciation of the particular differences each of these masters present us . Because only by scrutinizing the various “nuances” depicted by each artist we may be able to appreciate his originality and his contribution to the history of painting.
To make my opinion more self-evident, I shall concentrate on comparing Velázquez, who is our most Spanish and most international painter, with Frans Hals, Vermeer and Rembrandt, the three greatest representatives of the Dutch Golden Age.
If we compare any portrait by Velázquez with those by Frans Hals we shall no doubt appreciate fundamental analogies in technique since both paint schematically, not drawing outlines, seeking more the appearance rather than the reality of things and showing how light transforms shapes and colours. What they describe in their painting are their visual sensations without being bound by any previous consideration, observing only what they see at one exact moment. For this reason they find in the sketching manner the method most suitable for them as it rises up quite naturally in them due to their particular artistic genius. The result calls our attention and must have surprised people very much during the artist’s lifetime since the painting seems almost magical because, when viewed close-up, only smudges or stains are visible, but in the distance the smudges appear real objects to our eyes...This feat transforming smudges into real objects, however, was not strictly a novelty because both Velázquez and Hals gathered the technique from Titian’s last years; though Velázquez derived it directly from the magnificent Venetian masterpieces of the Spanish royal collection and from his travels to Italy and Hals enjoys them indirectly through Rubens and Van Dyck during his stay in Antwerp. In fact, neither Frans Hals nor Vermeer, nor Rembrandt ever went to Italy, they only received a northern interpretation of Italian art. This important fact is most probably the reason for the many differences existing between them and Velázquez.
Velázquez uses a broader and more liquid brush-stroke, with not much paint; and creates transparencies which dry quickly. Frans Hals, on the contrary, employs more vigour in the action of painting , using with virtuosism a zig-zag brush-stroke, with more material than Velázquez, employing the “wet in wet” technique so as to render in a lively manner the true likeness of the sitter. Neither of them use preparatory drawing even in their big compositions and are evident forerunners of impressionism. Manet, Sargent and Sorolla derive more from Velázquez; Frans Hals, more advanced, is followed closer by Van Gogh and the expressionists.
Velázquez was a court painter and as such did not express the individuality of the persons portrayed, but rather their status. The greatness, however, of Velázquez lies in the veiled way he portrays his epoch and defines the soul of a nation. In all the personages he painted one can perceive the moral values of the Spanish monarchy, their innate nobility, distinguished air, formal manners, the sense of immutability and, in general, they give the sensation that the monarchy is at the mercy of destiny. Velázquez also captures something deeper, a sentiment that paralyses contemporary society, and is expressed naturally but with supreme elegance and transmits a profound sadness. Even when Velázquez portrays his dwarfs, he paints them capturing their universal human nature. That is why they don’t move us, nor make us pity them, nor does their deformity surprise us, but, on the contrary, we are entranced by their tenderness. Velázquez’ originality lies in observing what is generally imperceptible, loading on the external reality a subtle personal opinion and knowing how to express this in a pictorial language that enhances the correspondence between colours transformed by the play of light, and causing effects in the moods of the persons represented and, what is more important, inviting the spectator to participate in this symphony of contrasts. All this synchronizes with his sometimes frayed technique, where his brush-strokes appear blurred on the canvas, manifesting a sort of apathy which faithfully reflects his well known phlegmatic and indolent nature. The symbiosis between the message underlying his work and his manner of expressing it, thus creating a special link with the spectator, represents a landmark in the history of painting.
In Frans Hals, on the contrary, we observe that his portraits express individuality and vitality. They point out the values of a meritocratic society in good form, as wisdom, sagacity, firmness, intelligence with special emphasis given to showing the joy of children, full of laughter which has become an icon of the history of painting. Their scenes truly represent daily life in Holland, and are typical of a society entranced by its success and concentrated on living its life in the present. In Hals’ work there is no trace of a sense of nobility, or of a transcendental or moralising aspect, he only wishes to strike us with a direct tangible impact without launching universal concepts, but just to focus on one moment of common life. No doubt the immediacy of Hals is what makes him so modern to us, and what the impressionists, centuries later, appreciate in him. His painting, the same as Velázquez’, transmits liveliness; but if in Hals’ case this always appears as a result of movement or sharp glances between the protagonists , in Velázquez everything is less evident; life is sunk in a sort of tranquility and a slow tempo. Its representation signifies a real tour de force which Velázquez solves in a masterly way by means of one resource: the action of light in contact with matter and the surrounding void. That is why we say that Velázquez is the first painter who represents space or, even more, who knows how to suggest it to the spectator.... Thanks to this interplay of lights, Velázquez’ work comes to life at a much slower tempo but no less true to nature than Frans Hals’ work.
As the years go by, Frans Hals’ painting ,though becoming increasingly loose, abandons its Flemish origin; it takes on a certain monochrome effect in ochre tones; its human figures adopt a more self-absorbed and enigmatic expression. Here we find a Hals similar to a Titian in his final years, and to Velázquez and Rembrandt.
Regarding Vermeer, we find ourselves at another turning point that both approaches and removes us from Velázquez. According to my opinion on these three Dutch artists of genius, Vermeer is the one who follows closest the tradition of the early Flemish artists, reinterpreting many of their principles by means of a completely new technique. Vermeer’s greatness as a genius lies in his capacity to combine his respect for pictorial tradition with technical innovation, so as to describe what is natural as faithfully as possible. His paintings are a repertoire of domestic scenes where priority is given to showing the spectator the complacency felt in carrying out a daily task, thus praising the value of simple life. In Vermeer’s painting, as in Velázquez’ and Frans Hals’, we can distinguish a fusion between content and form, in this case between the care taken in representing human action and the meticulous pictorial technique, based on the one hand, in placing side by side tiny brush-strokes which appear uniformly smooth in the distance and, on the other, on a strictly observed preparation of pigments, as done by his ancestors, so as to show things just as they are :the jug, the milk when it is poured, the interplay of lights on the satin of the dresses, tapestries, furniture , the book or the letter and the water covering the bricks or limestone ; everything acquires a totally different sense of corporality from what Frans Hals, Rembrandt and Velázquez have represented. The latter artists only paint sensations, Vermeer, however, is much more intent on discovering and explaining how the actions have developed, the tactile nature of the objects, the fluidity of the liquids or the texture of the materials, not caring so much for showing us the expressivity of human people which in a way are objectified in his paintings; all this, however, is full of the touch of immediacy that links his painting to that of Velázquez and Frans Hals.
His obsession with representing natural phenomena induces Vermeer to analyse light as an action which decomposes matter and creates space, another affinity with Velázquez. Both artists are privileged observers of light, but if Vermeer innovates in this field, starting out from the tradition held by the early Flemish who describe light as a natural phenomenon which by means of its action strengthens the corporeal sense of matter and the tactile presence of the objects, Velázquez follows Titian’s studies on light, interpreting it as a source of purely visual sensations in constant change and of echoes which transmit a stimulating message to the viewer.
In Vermeer’s painting we find the same silence, the same serenity, the same tranquility, the same obsession with the space and air it contains, the same sensation of solitude, the same determination to include us in their scenes as Velázquez, though they each express these values in a completely different way.
Where Vermeer employs an extremely meticulous technique to decompose lights and shadows placing dots side by side, Velázquez shows the looseness of his painting in a broad, typically Spanish brush-stroke. Where Vermeer takes care to give corporeal solidity to objects, granting them significance and placing them in an exact position in space, following faithfully a northern tradition, Velázquez sketches them suggesting a sensation of reality which has nothing to do with reality itself. Whereas Vermeer is pleased to give visible form to a group of persons concentrated in a daily activity in order to show us life in its petty details, Velázquez delves deeper in the existential side of his scenes, transcending what is real, not caring whether there is activity or not, whether it concerns portraits where the personage simply poses or rather mythological scenes beyond real life; the fundamental question for Velázquez is the throb of life which his painting emits: the gaze of Baltasar Carlos, or a distaff of the spinners in the “Hilanderas”, or the dog waking up in “Las Meninas”... If Vermeer paints space starting off from his tradition, combining light with lines and synchronizing it all with the persons and objects included in the scene, Velázquez develops a completely new concept of spatial perspective based exclusively on the play of filtered lights and shadows which enter and leave the picture, providing a sense of gravity for the personages who exist as long as they are present in the pictorial space as if they were forming a kind a microcosm.
In order to illustrate my comments it is worth while studying deeper the comparative exercise granted by the exhibition, setting side by side the “Villa Medici” by Velázquez and the view of the houses of Delft by Vermeer.
In the view of the houses of Delft, Vermeer paints a landscape full of vertical and horizontal lines that acquires in itself a great harmony and simplicity and transports us four centuries later to another great Dutch artist, Mondrian. In the work the urban architecture stands out over the activity of four persons of secondary importance who give liveliness to the scene. The leaden sky and general opaque colour of the landscape give us a sensation of humidity strengthened by the cold light that bathes the picture. The darkness of the interior of the buildings coming out from hollow windows confirms our feeling of solitude.
In “Villa Medici” we find ourselves facing a picture of similar size where Velázquez, with equally limited resources, describes, in a slightly asymmetrical approach, a classical architecture set in a landscape of Mediterranean vegetation where the sunlight is the main protagonist. In this case the light falls down vertically causing faint gleams in the cypress trees and above all on the white cloth draped on the balustrade, the supreme touchstone of the picture. The architecture cannot be more classical as it consists of a hemispherical arch finished in two horizontal lines sustained by two ionic columns. Within the arch there is a mass of boards blocking the sight inside, which together with the old worn walls give us a sensation of the general decay of the building.
Both scenes have in common that they were most probably painted in the open air in view of the immediacy of the sensations they transmit and the originality of painting exclusively a landscape, which is almost absolutely exceptional in Velázquez who was a court painter. Besides, they share in giving a sensation of silence, tranquility and serenity that we have already mentioned and which on occasions we have noticed in urban landscapes. The manner, however, of approaching the scene of both painters and the echoes transmitted to the viewer are truly distinctive. If the “Villa Medici” view is effected “a la prima” using a clearly impressionist technique, tremendously free and thin brushstrokes, where the light gives the picture a brownish slightly warm tone, which makes us feel the sultry weather of the Mediterranean, Vermeer extends himself on the canvas with his particular technique of placing meticulously side by side touches of paint, giving the impression of not being led by a momentary inspiration, as in Velázquez, but rather by a much more premeditated idea.
Velázquez paints for pleasure, giving us the impression of someone wandering through the city till he finds a suitable model and sets his easel before it, so as to represent an architecture rather in ruins bathed in sunlight filtering languidly between the cypress trees. Velázquez captures and expresses to us the poetry of the passage of time through matter, transmitting to us the impression of a world in ruins, a monarchy in decline. As is habitual in him, all this microcosm is done in a subtle, elegant and beautiful way, but this time with no censorship. Vermeer is equally faithful to himself in his picture; he seems to scrutinize the very least details of the building, expressing on canvas in his trustworthy manner and with the utmost care of a person who is representing his own house; he also, like Velázquez, is alert at the correspondence of sensations to communicate with the viewer who feels the humidity, even the faint shine of water on the brick and the white lime-stone. It is evidently an urban landscape of the North thanks to the crystalline light that swamps everything after the rain and due to the intimacy it expresses,. There is something of a still life in the painting , if it were not for the four persons we observe in it, each one engrossed in his task, in accordance with protestant culture, and far from the entertaining conversation, typical of the South, of the two men wearing hats in Velázquez’ picture.
With the inclusion of Rembrandt, our comparative study becomes more complicated because the latter’s creative world is endowed with the same load of spiritual depth as Velázquez’. Although Rembrandt, like Frans Hals and Vermeer, differs in his manner of approaching the subject, both artists know how to paint the spirit enclosed in persons and things; both are capable of giving life to what is invisible.
In my opinion, Rembrandt is the first Dutch painter who breaks substantially with his northern tradition, creating a completely new pictorial world. At the beginning of his career he forms part of the school of Leiden, but soon abandons it, forming a magical world of creativity where he interprets what he observes in a completely personal style whose influences are difficult to trace; the most immediate being Frans Hals, thanks to his lively portraits, and Caravaggio possibly, due to the sharp concentration of light in his painting, and no doubt Titian again, thanks to his sketchy technique, are his precedents. Rembrandt, however, is so deeply personal and stamps so clearly his personality that his revolutionary spirit stands out supreme. In this respect, he differs from Velázquez who, endowed with a great pictorial genius, at an early age in Seville absorbs the Caravaggist tradition, followed later on by the Venetian influence in Madrid, reinterpreting them from the supreme pinnacle of his genius. No doubt he would have only been considered as the great artist who upheld the principles of the supremacy of colour established by the Venetians, if it were not for his revolutionary advances in rendering the sense of space and in the use of light consecrated in his last works “Las Meninas” and “Las Hilanderas” which raised him to the summit of the most complete genius in painting.
If Velázquez is the supreme artist thanks to his innate talent to paint and represent what is natural, in Rembrandt, however, everything is, or appears, complex, even at times confused, although always profound. If Rembrandt is a prodigy in the use of the chromatic scale of ochre, Velázquez alternates in his compositions a range of colours that, although limited, is greatly enriched by a myriad tones created by the action of light. Occasionally he floods the canvas with a pearl grey which contrasts with emerald green, pink and vermilion tones, or he enjoys playing with a scale of colours ranging from a misty grey to the brownish tones that Velázquez loves to use to render space. Rembrandt is distinguished by the sharp rays of light that he focuses with virtuosism on certain zones of the picture, giving a truly personal interpretation to Caravaggio’s style. It is a light that rises up from absolute darkness, and as it is strictly limited to certain areas of the picture, gives us the impression of being artificial. Velázquez, on the contrary, floods his works with a natural light which covers the whole of the picture, a light intimately united to our already mentioned aerial space, though employing vigorous strokes to render the effect of light concentrated in certain details of the dresses or jewels. It would appear that Velázquez’ work is born from natural daylight and Rembrandt’s art from the darkness of the night. If Rembrandt is the first artist to use dense layers of heavy impasto to create texture and volume with sculptural effects, Velázquez, displaying his extraordinary technical ability, employs very little, though, often extremely fluid painting creating transparencies directly on the priming with a technique that reminds us of a watercolour. On a personal level, if Velázquez only paints occasionally, without rushing, and alternates his art with other activities at court, irritating his King with his delays; Rembrandt, however, needs to create continually, employing diverse media, such as painting, drawing or engraving. This extraordinary ability has made his corpus immense, the opposite of Velázquez which consists of less than a hundred works.
As regards the spirit of their painting, both are Masters of the observation of the invisible and therefore at expressing the souls of their personages, ranging from the individual to the universal; neither of them is interested in the individual person as such, but only in the general values they manifest. Nevertheless, Rembrandt involves himself completely in his Art; he is more romantic, whereas Velázquez seems more distant, and, therefore, more classic. In the paintings of both artists their personages communicate with the spectator, though in Rembrandt’s case, even to the point of interpellating him, and in Velázquez, questioning the viewer in a more subtle way without compromising him, giving to his protagonists a sense of self-absorption so characteristic in his painting. If the source of Rembrandt’s particular spirituality lies in his enigmatic nature, in the aura of a mysterious intimacy which pervades his works; in Velázquez’ art we feel a profound and distant melancholy and to a certain extent bewilderment at the tragic destiny that always stalks his work, which is similar to what we feel when we contemplate the English portraits of Van Dyck.
I would like to end approaching the message transmitted by the Prado in this exhibition and emphasize the analogies revealed between the four masters.
Regarding the similarities observed between Frans Hals and Velázquez, both are artists of genius who attain the summit of pictorial modernity thanks to their innate talent for painting, their facility for rendering the external world with four brushstrokes, their always accurate line, and the true likeliness of their compositions which did not require any preparatory drawing. They offer us the best examples of “esprezzatura”, expressed in painting rendered with virtuosity and, above all, with great facility. As regard the trilogy, Velázquez, Vermeer and Rembrandt, the three of them are painters who seem to meditate and have the vocation to transmit a philosophical message. Velázquez is engrossed in the concepts of void, space and light, Vermeer is bent on questioning himself on the consubstantial nature of the objects surrounding him, and Rembrandt delves deep in his obsession with the existentialism of the human being. The paintings of Velázquez and Vermeer, technically so different, have in common that they are silent, serene, rather aloof, the opposite of the painting of Frans Hals and Rembrandt ,where movement carries us off to the realm of imagination and mystery in Rembrandt, and to what is simply natural in Frans Hals. If, however, there is anything in which the four Masters coincide, it is in how they were able to express in painting the immediacy of their message. The pictorial content appears always real, no matter if it belongs to the world of imagination or mythology, religion or common nature, whether it is carried out with a meticulous or a sketchy technique. These artists are the ones who have approached painting to the spectator. That is their great contribution.
Henceforth, the spectator will always be present at the work of art; the artist will grant him the fundamental role of interpreting the work which in turn becomes ever less explicit until it becomes nowadays completely unintelligible except through the mind or heart of the viewer.
That is why, returning to our initial consideration, what does it matter which of the two theories is closer to the truth, the national or the pan-European one? They are just two different points of view for understanding painting that help us to study more profoundly the peculiarity of each of these painters of genius. What is immutable and timeless is the uniqueness of the Masterpiece itself.
Carlos Herrero Starkie
Reflections and comments on Tefaf Maastricht 2019
Tefaf started off on Thursday 14 in all its splendour facing an environment of uncertainty which was kindling countless questions from all the collectors and lovers of Art who every year wend our pilgrim’s way to Maastricht.
It is therefore worth while, before simply enjoying commenting on the works which have caused the greatest impression on me this year, to make a digression on how I consider the state of the Old Masters Art market at this time.
Without any doubt, Tefaf is the Art Fair which gathers together the most distinguished dealers in classical and modern Art, so it can be pointed out as one of the most trustworthy barometers for registering the reaction of the market facing the evident change which has been taking place during the last few years and has affected Art collectors. If we exclude the highlight sale days of Christie’s and Sotheby’s there is no other event which causes more expectation in this sector.
It is a widely recognised fact that the collectors have made an absolute change, much sharper than could have been expected, catching unawares many dealers. Some of these have simply disappeared from the public scene due to being unable to adapt themselves to the change, partly protected by a golden retirement thanks to years of abundant profits; others have reacted immediately, though not as a result of a considered decision, but coinciding with a change of generations; and a few others have broken into the market taking advantage of the evident weakness of competition in this sector. The latter will be the great protagonists of the future. Because, although it may not seem to be true, now is the right moment to enter the Art market of the great Masters. I say that it is the most suitable moment because only now is the moment when one may calculate exactly the magnitude of the change and of the errors committed due to a hasty reaction by the market operators confronted by sociocultural events which have overwhelmed them. The dealers are going through an identity crisis due to their lack of confidence in the future of their profession and due to having left aside their passion for Art which characterised them so much, partially due to having remained without qualified clients with whom to communicate and partially due to having participated in artistic styles alien to their tradition. Disappointment or just resignation has defeated many of them who thought they saw in their revolutionary actions the solution to the problem of the Old Masters Market. Facing the evident risk of fatigue caused by excessive action off the point and with evident lack of results, we should at least beg the question if they have given the right answer to the challenge which the world of Art issues today.
If we analyse the situation of the Old Masters market, it would be a therapeutic exercise of humility to begin by declaring that it has not at present the capacity to create a tendency, at the level it was doing it at the end of the XXth century, due to a lack of demand and offer of Masterpieces. Furthermore, its market previously was international although its scope was really reduced to two continents and to a few purchasing countries. The Old Masters dominated complacently the western world and the sophisticated collectors of those days fought amongst themselves for the Masterpieces. That is why we cannot be surprised that the Old Masters are exhausted; it is not just the case of a change in taste but, to a certain extent, that we have forced classical art to a globalization which on account of its own nature it cannot offer, nor all cultures understand; this is a question, however, to which contemporary Art adapts itself perfectly and for that reason the investors have selected it as a real panacea. This present trend towards globalizing everything so as to widen the markets, though it has been welcomed by some dealers in Old Masters as a solution for the shortage of traditional clients, is one of the basic reasons for the stagnation of the Old Art market which is directed to an intellectual and financial “élite”, not towards the millionaires of today who make their presence felt in the Art world as a real social class which imposes its criteria, its manners and its archetypes, which mostly have very little to do with the subtlety of eternal Art.
In the long run, the solution of this problem will come by linking the financial and the cultural factors; and thus were created the great western Art collections. The idea spread by contemporary Art that its market is a limitless well, with boundless demand and offer on a global scale and based on supermillionaires who guarantee its price more from investment criteria than from a passion for Art, is a financial entelechy which, at the risk of explosion, has led to the disappearance of Artistic genius, such as we understood it, and its extrapolation to classical Art is an illusion which leads to frustration. Only by means of promoting culture in collectors, can the latter wish to have access to classical Art. All efforts must be focussed on this. At first sight it would appear that the world of picture galleries can do little to confront this situation which clearly overwhelms them, although if we examine a bit deeper, it certainly can be done much better than just adapting to the new situation searching only in the financial side of the potential clients for a solution to all the problems.
In the first place the actions should be directed to market niches where one can operate and not confront the market from a global perspective. The best approach to a client is through his close cultural connection with art. The response must not rise from a surrender of our ideas, in short, from a renunciation of our identity as lovers of classic Art in confrontation to new art, but rather from a conviction of the importance of what they represent, adapting their business to a new reality which will lead to preserve the past and to transmit its essence to the new generations. Furthermore, the Art lovers, collectors and dealers in Old Masters we ought to be prudent regarding how to survive, be true to ourselves, and not kill ourselves with crazy ideas which the market nowadays is in no condition to carry out without an irreparable loss of quality ....All this would lead to frustration.
We must not forget that everything changes and that only by keeping the sector safe and sound and by “cultiver son jardin” for the enjoyment of just a few, a true valuation of the past will arrive, because the world advances looking forward to the future, but does not fail to look back sometimes to the past, analysing those moments in a completely autonomous manner. For this moment, which will surely take place, above all one must still be there alive, and prepared to understand the new collectors who will arrive wishing greatly to know about Old Masters, with great interest, but also armed with new types of knowledge, new concepts and ways of appreciating Art. For that occasion, we must have made a big step forward in our understanding of the Contemporary world, searching in our art what the new collectors want to see in it. This advance in our comprehension will not occur if we are not open to new ideas and if we do not try to understand the society we live in and the Art it produces. Only in this way, we will be able to influence all these collectors in the right direction and they in turn will begin to look back to us, full of modern ideas such as immediacy and conceptualism...
I would like to end this digression contributing at least one idea which might straighten the Old Masters Market and to some extent revive the vitality of Fairs like Tefaf: give a greater protagonism to collectors as a way of promoting the offer and demand of masterpieces.
The idea which I suggest is to study how we can give more space to the great collectors, inviting them to have a stand with at least a work up for sale. Not only showing the works of art, but demonstrating how collections are formed and, if possible, getting the collector himself, or his heirs, to explain their reasons, and passions shared with other colleagues. This is an idea which auction houses have been doing for countless years when they present a whole collection for sale. Only this year the auction of the Rockefeller Collection at Christie’s is a landmark in our history. Why don’t we include in Tefaf a section for private collections? Why don’t we grant the urge of protagonism to collectors?
Anyway, let’s cease pondering on abstract concepts which bore the lover of classical art, who is much more sensual than intellectual. Let’s now enjoy a stroll through Tefaf.
First of all, we must congratulate Tefaf for the magnificent vertical flowering garden with which they greet us at their Entrance Hall every year. This time it is a homage to Monet. Here amongst ushers sent by the galleries to lead in the longed-for clients, are gathered crowds of persons who respectfully await the moment to have their photograph taken before the floral tapestry of cloudy tones of mauve, grey and white.
Immediately afterwards, acting as a “repoussoir”, Daniel Katz’ stand presents to us a relief work: the arrest of Christ which strikingly claims our attention. This is a “pièce unique” of Florentine late XVth century Art, with reminiscences of Verrocchio and Donatello, the great artists of the Italian quattrocento. What strength, what immediacy these founders of the modern manner offer us! The scene is expressed with such a sense of drama, in such simple lines, such sober colours; the patina which time has left is such that at first sight it seems to us to be bronze and only when we approach closer do we distinguish that it is wood covered by polychrome painting worn out by the hand of time. As it was to be expected, the work was sold a day later, just like three or four others belonging to this representative of the veteran guard of Tefaf which is Danny Katz.
Just opposite, we find ourselves at the Parisian gallery of J. Kugel where, we distinguish a room decorated with wall-panels by Sert. That great Catalan artist who in mid XXth century created an artistic formula which captivated American and European sophisticated millionaires. Following on Tiepolo’s footsteps and influenced by Chinese screens, he was able to transfer to wall-panels the representation of persons rendered in “grisaille” on gold backgrounds and framed with vermilion curtains, all painted in metallic colours. Sert’s compositions, both on account of his drawing and the “bravura” of his paintbrush, are by no means less striking than the Venetian painters from whom he received plentiful influence as also from the Spanish “veta brava” style. Now, however, endowed with a refined cosmopolitan air which leads us to the interior decoration of Rockefeller Center in NY and to his palaces in Paris or Buenos Aires which belong to this group of decorative work. How much we miss the refinement which the “élites” of that epoch have left us.
I am now turning left, “noblesse oblige” along the “Champs Élysées” where four imposing stands greet us side by side, presented by today’s Tefaf patriarchs, Richard Green, with his traditional and highly didactic presentation of the best Flemish painting in one room, and the most attractive examples of pre-impressionist painting, such as Eugène Boudin and a trilogy of Pissarros, in another room. We continue strolling and stop at the stand of the Tomassos Brothers who again impress us with their magnificent presentation, this time completely diaphanous, with transparent curtains which filter the light, like sky-lights, and mark out the space for their splendid sculptures. A small panel by Gérard David and Studio captures, however, my attention amongst pedestals and statues which remind me of the Grand Tour. I am enchanted by the simplicity of the presentation, its small size, the quality of his pictorial calligraphy, his rendering of the tears which we scarcely perceive with very fine veiling and the skill with which he foreshortens Our Lady’s arm. It is a pity that there are countless versions of the same work and that its value depends on a most difficult operation of connoisseurship carried out by debate between the scholars Peter Van der Brink and Till Horcher Borcher.
Next door, and in complete contrast as regards presentation, we enter the shadowy stand of Colnaghi where we are entertained by an interesting live representation of clearly Spanish faces, commanding looks, high pitched voices, downright affirmations in conversation with other people of a northern physique, a smiling face and diplomatic attitudes. All worthy of being rendered by Velázquez. This magnificent performance is interrupted when an exceptional composition by Mattías Pretti appears at one side of the stand; this is, in my opinion, one of the best works I have ever seen by this Neapolitan caravaggista. In this work he surpasses himself using tones of colour of a delicacy comparable to French painters like Georges Latour. We move away from these young stars of the Market to rub shoulders with another young representative of the new generation of dealers who dominate Tefaf, Filippo Benappi, fourth generation of the celebrated family of Old Masters and fine Art dealers of Turin. Benappi’s physiognomy surprises me, as it is so similar to the Venetian portraits, specially those by Lorenzo Lotto, with that penetrating look, which is both tense and, at the same time, self-absorbed. In Italian art there is always an elegant softness which enchants us, whereas in Spanish art we feel dominated. Filippo presents to us a fine choice of fundamentally Italian paintings set in a sober blue frame which bears the stamp and brand of Benappi’s style. One work, a magnificent Valerio Castello, specially captures my attention: it is a paradigmatic composition of mid XVIIth century Genoese painting where we can see the traces left by a Genoese Van Dyck, blended with the Venetian and Bolonian influences creating a magnificent example of Baroque painting, full of balanced movement and warm colour.
I must cease rendering homage to this “allée” but, first of all, converse with my friends CD Dickerson and Andrew Butterfield who are much in demand here for being the organizers of the exhibition of Verrocchio and Alonso Berruguete at the NGA, real land-marks of the American artistic Fall. Before losing myself in the labyrinth of Tefaf, I give a sideways glance and see a monumental panel of the early years of this century, a magnificent example of European modernism with Klimt and Shiele as their prime artistic examples. Of course, I couldn’t be anywhere else but facing the stand of Sascha Mehringer Kunsthandel, an old Bavarian gallery of Austrian origin. Next to the panel stands Sascha like a page in a Nativity scene by Dürer, wearing a perfectly close-fitting suit of Viennese tailoring and with a completely relaxed manner and the complacency of a person presenting an authentic work of Art, which is an example of one of the periods of greatest cultural flourishing in Europe. I asked Sascha who was the artist of the work and he replied that it belonged to Jean Dunand, a Swiss decorator, who had settled in Paris at the beginning of the XXth century.
From that moment on I decided not to follow any logical order because, in my case, logical systems reduce inspiration. Soon after, I focus my attention on a small size portrait which I know well due to its appearing recently in the Spanish auction market. It was by Sanchez Coello or perhaps by Sofonisba Anguissola and represented a young princess. I look around and find myself surrounded again by sharp looks, full of fieriness. No doubt, I am now in another of the historic stands of Tefaf, Galería Caylus. A sharp eye and courage are what José Antonio de Urbina has shown with this picture for it isn’t long in selling at a splendid price thanks to the label which humbly only attributes to Sanchez Coello the work. The Fair smiles and rewards those who are courageous. I greet Mark Weiss; to me he is an ikon and the indisputable dealer of the European Old Masters portrait. This year, as it couldn’t be less, he is exhibiting a very attractive portrait by Villen Van Mierevelt which presides the cover page of the Tefaf catalogue.
I continue wandering and begin to appreciate how the Fair has wished, with a great sense of opportunity, to render homage to Rembrandt on the fourth centenary of his birth. A monumental Willem Drost is already sold at the preview and I see close to him a well known picture by Aert de Gelder in the stand of another of the patriarchs of Tefaf, the Swiss Koestler gallery; a work exhibited publicly on many occasions. I have always been surprised by its capacity for showing the excellence of this disciple of Rembrandt who, without reaching the depth of the Master, moves us by the modernity of his brushstroke, and his simplicity, far from the rich soft texture of many Rembrandts and closer to what Goya will do centuries later. His play with light is simply entrancing. Yet no sooner do I arrive at Nicholas Hall’s stand than I become conscious of the greatness of the Dutch Golden Age. In the best possible environment, which is both modern and sensational, combining walls of titanium white with others of Hermes orange, he presents to us two “pièces majeures” of Tefaf: one personage with a beard, painted in profile, wearing a turban of an indetermined tone and mother-of-pearls shine and bearing an emerald green cloak. It could not have been painted by anyone else but the only rival of Rembrandt during his early years at Leiden, Jan Lievens. On another wall hangs the portrait of a peasant woman which is technically a “tour de force”, as if the painter wished to astonish us by using all the resources at the disposal of pictorial art: a real masterpiece of its own “genre”,
Returning to the “rond point” of the Fair I pause before two pictures: a magnificent portrait, autograph work by the great painter of the Habsburg family, Alonso Sanchez Coello, whose tradition could only be surpassed two generations later by the modernity of Velázquez. We are at the stand of Robilant Voena, the representative of the finest tradition of Milanese dealers, where we observe the physiognomy and demeanour of their Milanese hosts, manifesting an elegance worthy of French XVIIIth century portrait painting as found in Ingres, David or Baron Gérard. Now, at the end of the tour, wishing to have a coffee and worn out by so much excitement, I stop before a composition of “genre” painting representing children blowing up a balloon. How skilful the painter is in depicting the children’s expressions, and how excellent his mastery in showing to us the moisture on their lips! How their looks kindle when they start to dialogue, uncertain whether to smile or be astonished, as only at a very particular age can a human being be in doubt. There is something of Chardin and his children’s lost-in-thought glances, also something of Terbrugghen and Coster; and of Shalcken and his “tour de force” with lights; but, without any doubt, there lies all the tradition of English portrait painting which begins with Van Dyck in his representation of children, which, in this case, takes the form of a “genre” picture of clearly Dutch influence. This nature, so hybrid in its fusion, could only have been painted by the very refined English painter David Wilkie, unknown to the general public, but tremendously sought-after by connoisseurs and lovers of English culture. The painting was taken down after only a few days of exhibition. We can only congratulate the purchaser and the dealer who granted us those unique moments of artistic satisfaction.
What a show we have been attending! Next day I shall return with my friends and patrons of IOMR, Verónica Rivas and Ignacio Lasa, so we can continue enjoying it all...
Can we renounce to enjoying such beautiful works of art, such an authentic environment, even in its golden decline?
Not at all, we neither can nor should renounce to any of this, on the contrary, we must protect it so that it will never disappear. The best way, as Voltaire said in the years preceding the Revolution: ”il faut cultiver son jardin". So when the world of Art turns to look at us we shall captivate it again…
CARLOS HERRERO STARKIE
Alonso Berruguete and Bartolomé Bermejo universalize the Spanish Renaissance Art
The exhibitions of Bartolomé Bermejo in London’s National Gallery and of Alonso Berruguete in the National Gallery of Art in Washington programmed for 2019 offer a unique opportunity for raising up from the oblivion into which the Spanish Renaissance Art has sunk, something surprising bearing in mind the enormous interest aroused by Goya and our great Masters of the XVIIth century.
Our Golden Age is, however, the climax in the process of forming the Spanish artistic soul which initiates at the end of the XVIth century coinciding with historical events which influenced a generation during which Spain changed the course of the western world. This process led by artists risen up in a world completely different from the European Renaissance, a society founded in what had become a symbiosis of Christian, Jewish and Moorish cultures, where arose the artistic genius which, from a present day perspective, we perceive as Spanish. A genius characterized by its expressive strength, its starkly simple shapes, giving priority to concept rather than to appearance. A modern genius since its origin, in the sense that it has grown in rebellious hearts, strident personalities which need to express themselves, without adapting to any moulds except those that rise from their subconscious.
In this world, first Bermejo and later Berruguete, rise up as the bearers of the Spanish artistic DNA which will survive in El Greco, Ribera, Velázquez, Goya and Picasso, a gen which seems to make them immune to external influences ; although they affect their artistic work, they never conquer their soul that rises up in an absolutely particular way, sometimes stridently, as in Bermejo, Berruguete, Goya or Picasso and at other times with a delicate melancholy and with the most advanced pictorial technique which captures sensations in a magical way, as in Velázquez or even Murillo.
We thus find ourselves facing two paradigms of Spanish artistic genius. Both are eccentric with regard to classical rules; Berruguete, together with Pontormo and Rosso Fiorentino, is the founder of mannerism but, at the same time, forerunner of the Baroque and direct precedent of the great Bernini. A passionate Master of movement as the expression of the inner energy which his personages radiate. Berruguete and Bermejo, both essentially vanguard artists, inasmuch as they practise a kind of rebelliousness, an art which rises up with the intention of causing an impact on the spectator, and of creating in him feelings of anger, passion, devotion, oppression, or a stifling sensation which are precisely the feelings which surge up from his subconscious. Both of them are great interpreters of the repertory of gestures in use at the time, classical in Berruguete’s case, and northern in Bermejo`s case.
Because the Spanish manner is above all a particular vision of universal concepts which assault a tormented soul and which Berruguete expresses, in a stormy way. This character, so essentially Spanish, based on a rough rock-like temperament which the artist bears when he follows foreign models, makes him never copy, but rather interpret their artistic language. There lies the eternal modernity of the Spanish genius, in the way in which he questions his artistic background. In this sense the great Spanish genius does not create schools, it is unique and sets unrepeatable standards; for that reason we talk about “Berruguetesco”,”Velazqueño” and “Goyesco” when we refer to artistic styles, and not to exact followers ; and yet their influence is universal inasmuch as it brings with them a modern slant, a renovation in Art which only repeats itself when another equally great genius arises.
In this respect the IOMR has since 2015 been forming a collection of Spanish Renaissance sculpture because if there exists a medium in which the artistic genius of our nation has flourished it is surely that of sculpture. You only have to observe the altar-pieces of the churches which crowd Spain. In "La Rioja" there are dozens of churches with Renaissance altar-pieces, all of immense sculptural wealth. This is generally ignored and should be made known during this year.
In accordance with our objective to rescue from oblivion old Masterpieces, using our roving eyes as the main incentive to discover the excellence of a work which usually is covered by brown varnish and successive restorations which mask its high quality, stands IOMR’s vocation to rediscover periods of the history of art which are at present ignored or undervalued, giving back to them their lost gloss, turning them into an endless mine of future Masterpiece discoveries which we intend to spread internationally. This is no doubt the case regarding the Spanish Renaissance.
The idea of entering in this period coincides with the discovery of a pair of sculptures of Alonso Berruguete, Saint Peter and Saint Paul, to which must be added the information we had that there was going to be organised in the National Gallery of Art in Washington an exhibition on this great figure of Spanish Art. This is a fundamental question for us, as we are conscious that nowadays the world of classical Art needs to vitalise itself with the rediscovery of new figures which have this halo of modernity which permits them to impact on new collectors or on simple spectators who belong to a global multicultural world and are ever more easily captivated by immediacy and by the universal conception of artistic shapes. Alonso Berruguete fully responds to this profile and for this reason we coincide completely with the NGA in the purpose of rescuing him from an exclusively Spanish world and giving him a more global extension , because his figure transcends national boundaries, as he represents the origin of a new concept of Art which has been blossoming for centuries up to now and reaffirms itself in an exclusively Spanish slant of modernity and whose milestone marks we find in El Greco, Goya and Picasso.
Armed with this international vocation, our project starts with the aim of turning the IOMR into a reference not only to Alonso Berruguete, but also to the Spanish Renaissance as a whole, as the expression of a particular vision of Art which, due to its very particular interpretation of the Italian canon, anticipates the new currents which would triumph later, created as a result of the Council of Trento. We are surprised at the analogies found in Berruguete’s work with artists as revolutionary as Bernini, El Greco, Goya and even with others belonging to more modern times, such as Picasso, Munch or Jackson Pollock.
The collection which the IOMR has formed throughout three years, in whose development Spanish experts have fundamentally participated, has risen from the discovery of a pair of sculptures by Alonso Berruguete. This has been the source of our inspiration and has established our quality standard which will have to be maintained by the rest of our discoveries. This continuous search for what would best accompany our sculptures and which would explain Berruguete’s transcendency, his Alma Mater, has come to us containing with a surprise when we appreciate that Berruguete was not an isolated genius working in an artistically hostile world. He was not an exception. His vehemence moderated in Italy did not rise up by chance, but responded to a particularly Spanish spirit blended into something which made him different from the rest of Europe ; that is, the fusion of the three cultures, on top of a rock-like temperament created by years of warfare and by the firm conviction that our truths were the only ones. This was the special way of being of a Spaniard at that time and his Art could not avoid this particular psyche when shaping it according to a completely unique and original interpretation of the Italian Renaissance models. The purest example of this innovative spirit is found in Juan de Valmaseda’s sculpture, specially in our "San Jerónimo", which is his Masterpiece. Both Berruguete and Valmaseda were Castilians of probably Basque origin; Berruguete’s work reflects a conflict between his Italian experiences and the atavistic principles which lie beneath his ego and finally blossom forth in the works which best define his Art: his San Sebastián, his Saint Jerome and the Sacrifice of Isaac, situated on the altar-piece of" San Benito" , all of them reveal suffering, anxiety, uneasiness, all infinitely human sentiments. Valmaseda, is a pure Castilian man, certainly rough and totally devout who in his Masterpieces, like the “Calvario” in Palencia cathedral, or our San Jerónimo, show his capacity for transmitting religious sentiment which we will only see generations later in El Greco.
The collection of sculptures which we have gathered together during these three years is a faithful reflection of our conviction that the sculpture of the Spanish Renaissance is the starting-point of what Spanish Art means today, the moment when it contains a special significance of its own. That is why this Corpus responds to our strong interest to reveal ,by means of the quality of its works , the excellence of this period. On the other hand, it intends to be an evident demonstration of the Institute’s capacity to discover and catalogue work in sculpture and is our best accreditation to present us to world Museums as a reference on this period, so as to assist in bringing up-to-date the cataloguing of their stock and to help them to acquire new important masterpieces, since their stock of Spanish sculpture is very scarce compared to Italian, French or North European sculpture.
In this task of rediscovering what is different in the Spanish Renaissance and of spreading it internationally, we intend to collaborate intensely with Spanish museum institutions, and universities, promoting cultural agreements, specially between scholars of sculpture whose Spanish colleagues are not sufficiently recognised, probably due to their research not being translated. Only thus, as occurred, with Murillo, Velázquez or El Greco, will Alonso Berruguete be able to enjoy the consideration of an exceptional figure of universal Art.
We understand that Spanish heritage, and specially something so disregarded as the sculpture of the Spanish Renaissance, if we intend its knowledge to be spread in a fairly proportionate extent to its importance in the development of the history of art, its works must be much better represented in the principal Museums of the world and even in private collections.
Only thus, by encouraging international collections of this period of art , will traces be laid , so that it may be justly valued on an international scale and enjoyed by future generations. The impact of Spanish Art would have been much less intense if it were not for the great lovers of our Art that were Omazur, Stirling-Maxwell, Steward Gardner, Huntington, Hearst, Meadows and nowadays Jonathan Ruffer, not counting the diaspora created by the sale of the Collection of King Louis Philippe to many world collections, nor the discovery of El Greco by the Germans at the beginning of the XXth century, promoted to a certain extent by the polemical" Marqués de Vega Inclán". It is true that this reduced our patrimony, but the final result has been enormously positive for the transcendence of Spanish Art. In this sense, El Greco is perhaps the greatest rediscovery of the XXth century and has exerted the greatest influence on modern artistic trends.
The presence of Spanish works of art abroad, specially belonging to the Spanish Renaissance, is something which should be promoted as a priority by Spanish authorities, even, I would suggest, within the framework of the project “Marca España”. Exhibitions like those which are going to be organised this year on Alonso Berruguete at the NGA in Washington and at the Meadows in Dallas, or the exhibition on Bermejo at the National Gallery in London, or those programmed by the Hispanic Society in various U.S. cities, should not only serve to study more deeply and from a more universal standpoint the work of an artist or a period and to spread it to the public in general, the more the better, but also, to promote public and private collecting and kindle an interest in other important examples of Spanish Art, so that they may form a part of foreign collections and thus contribute to the permanent enjoyment of the general public.
In this multicultural and ever more internationalised world, the Art of the Old Masters cannot be overprotected because this would prejudice its transcendence, its cultural impact, and it would find itself at a clear disadvantage compared with contemporary Art which has no frontiers. In this respect, what would be best for Spain would be to find a just balance between the determination to maintain its Heritage intact regarding what is fully representative of this patrimony, and the no less important responsibility of divulging it to other countries, facilitating the export of works of art, whose representation in Spain is already guaranteed by the presence of the most important works made by its artists. Of course, a painting like the “Condesa de Chinchón” by Goya must be declared not exportable and immediately afterwards be purchased by the State as was exactly done. It is certainly the most excellent jewel of Spanish portraits, by its most universal modern painter. It is, however, worth asking oneself if all the Goyas, Murillos, or even the Velázquez have the same status. I was glad to hear the other day that a basket of flowers and fruits by Juan de Zurbarán was acquired by the National Gallery of London coincidind with the purchase by the Prado in 2016 of another work by the same painter. Only thus, carrying out in a reasonable way the reciprocal principle of free movement of Art , does one nowadays enrich collections, fill historical gaps and give collections a more universal scope. In this respect, an over-abundant representation of minor examples in public collections, even though the works are by the most celebrated artists of each country, is not justified in the present day; nor does it contribute to internationalisation that only those works which do not bear the Master’s stamp of quality are exported, because in that case, they would not be authentic examples of the creative richness of our Art. The success of a correct policy regarding the conservation of our Heritage will depend on our deliberate consideration between protecting our patrimony or giving it its indispensable internationalisation.
Following along these ideas, one of IOMR’s priorities is to assist in internationalising the stamp of Spanish Art and specially of those periods which at present do not have an impact on the cultural media corresponding to their importance in Art history; included among these neglected periods is Spanish Renaissance Sculpture.
With this objective in mind, IOMR will undertake the following actions :
1.- Continue adding new works of Art to the Corpus of sculptures which constitutes our collection , by means of searching for other pieces of sculpture which may offer the most complete and truest vision of the Spanish Renaissance, sharpening our eyes in our quest for the excellence of artists fallen into oblivion, finding examples of the characteristic Spanish expressivity which rises up from religious fervour.
Since our whole collection turns around the figure of a genius like Alonso Berruguete, our intention is to show how far he was in advance of his time, a real forerunner favouring an artistic language of his own, as founder of what was later named “Mannerism”. In this respect, what reason is there in leaving to the Italian artists Pontormo and Rosso Fiorentino the aureole of being the only founders of this sophisticated anticlassical movement ? and, in any case, even if they were, didn 't Alonso Berruguete participate with them in their blossoming forth in the “Chiostrino della Santa Annunziata” in Florence ? as he contributed with such a particular interpretation of the classical models that his designs in Spain become the clearest precedents of El Greco and Bernini. Why don’t we challenge this trophy so well saved by Italian historiography? Why don’t we delve deeper in its modernity, in its capacity to express the sensation of drowning, of stifling, of giving life to one’s soul, to the human psyche, a sentiment so applauded in other Spanish artists at present considered stars of modernity, like Goya and Picasso ?
2.- With the object of leaving documentary evidence of a collection whose pieces, due to the international vocation of our project, will certainly end up dispersed in public collections throughout the world, the IOMR is, on the one hand, active in making the collection visible through audiovisual means and, on the other, in editing, in collaboration with the maximum Spanish and international experts, a catalogue in which special importance has been given to obtaining exceptional photographic material. Finally, we hope to publish by the end of the year a monography in English on Alonso Berruguete.
3. - Continue publishing periodically in our web the results of our research and our discoveries, as we have just done regarding the sculpture of “Our Lady and the Child” by Juan Bautista Vázquez el Viejo and will be done regarding the sculpture of the prophet by Gabriel Yoly, recently integrated in the collection.
4.- Coinciding with the Berruguete year, we would like to propose to the Curators of sculpture of the Museums to sign up for the artistic visits along the routes where there are works by Berruguete and his followers, that is, visits to Valladolid, Palencia, Toledo, Úbeda, Sevilla, Aragón, La Rioja.
5. - Finish forming a library representing all that has been published on Spanish Renaissance sculpture, including an archive of articles, studies ... etc, with particular emphasis on the artists represented in our collection and specially on Alonso Berruguete.
6. - Arouse the interest of Museums by establishing contact with their Old Masters Departments so as to promote the acquisition of sculptures of the Spanish Renaissance and the revision of the cataloguing of the works in their collections.
7. - Observe the Market identifying works of the Spanish Renaissance whose quality could allow them to be considered of Museum interest for the purpose of acquiring them or intervening in their acquisition with the object of guiding their restoration and adequate cataloguing.
8. - Continue in contact with all the great experts of the Spanish Renaissance so that they may participate in the cataloguing of the works and, if possible, obtain that they participate in forums leading towards a greater impact of the Spanish Renaissance.
9. - Financial aid for the publication of works on the great figures of the Spanish Renaissance.
10. - Give special importance to maintaining permanent contact with the directors of the exhibition on Alfonso Berruguete in Washington, C.D. Dickerson and Manuel Arias, and also with Mark Roglan, Director of the Meadows Museum, due to the enormous repercussions derived from a knowledge of Berruguete. The IOMR, on having widened its collection of works of art to include other artists of the Spanish Renaissance, will be able to contribute a more ample vision of the transcendence of Alonso Berruguete in his epoch.
There was a time in our history in which various writers, philosophers and scholars of Art devoted themselves to dig deeply in the essence of the Spanish spirit, in the origin of our history, in its roots; those were the days of intense debates on ourselves. Our project also wishes to pay tribute to the generation of the ’98, of the ’27 and to the generation who lived in exile, to Unamuno, Ortega y Gasset, Americo Castro, Claudio Sánchez Albornoz, Marañón, Gómez Moreno, Azcárrate, Cossío, Orueta, Camón Aznar, and to so many more who strove to find an identity for our culture. They lit up with their wisdom the Art hidden in our cities, our Cathedrals and our Museums, giving significance to the Art sheltered therein. Because there is no more rewarding way to live Art than to comprehend its “raison d’être”, only thus will we feel the throb of the creative impulse of our Master creators. The IOMR has reserved a special space in its library for these patriarchs of Spanish culture, because on reading their writings we have been able to go back to our origins and has served as a guide to our task of reinterpreting the Masterpieces of Spanish Renaissance sculpture.
Art without passion has no significance, and although some people may try to convince us of the contrary, without culture Art does not attain its fullness. Even Contemporary Art, no matter how rupturist it may be, follows faithfully this principle; perhaps that is the clue to understanding it... That is what we are trying to do, but meanwhile, I propose something simpler, let us enjoy everlasting Art, the beauty of our historical cities, the landscapes which surround them, in short, all that has been kept unchanged or which is covered by the patina given by the passage of time.
Carlos Herrero Starkie
San Sebastián, Retablo Mayor de San Benito el Real, hacia 1526-1532
© Museo Nacional de Escultura, Valladolid.
Foto: Javier Muñoz y Paz Pastor
Reflections on the market: Art or Performance
I would like to inaugurate with our readers the year 2019 with a few reflections on what have been the most significant events of the year just ended.
Without any doubt it has been less glamorous than the year 2017 if one bears in mind the sale of the “Salvatore Mundi” by Leonardo at 450 M $ in Christie’s; a coup de scène played by an Old Masterpiece in a market permanently dominated by impressionist, modern and contemporary Art. An event which, however, had no continuity during 2018; indeed, on the contrary, with the capacity for self-destruction which sometimes features the Old Masterpieces market, we have reached the point of openly speculating on its attribution, giving credit to certain doubts held by a small group of scholars, when the debate should have been resolved before its spectacular sale. All this may have contributed to the fact that the work is not yet exhibited in the Louvre of Abu Dabi, although we all hope to see it in 2020 on the occasion of the 5th centenary of the death of Leonardo.
Furthermore no high-light has appeared this year comparable to “Lot and his daughters” by Rubens, sold in December 2016 at 50 M£ in Christie’s as the result of a market characterized by an ever-growing scarcity of masterpieces, which is, together with the change of taste of succeeding generations, the principal cause of the decline due to starvation which Old Masters market suffers since the outset of the last century in opposition to Contemporary Art.
Which have been the milestones of the year 2018? I would indicate from my point of view two positive and one negative.
The auction of the Rockefeller collection, symbol of the wealth, but also of the good taste of the XXth century, has been the event of the year, monopolising the current interest of its first few months. Christie’s took the greatest pains over what has been considered one of its best Art collections still in private hands; the result was a great success although the magical figure of a thousand millions, which the market considered possible, was not reached; this did not prevent four works from reaching prices included in the “top ten” of the year: one of the best Picassos of Blue Period, a sculpture masterpiece by Brancusi, a version of the “Nympheas” by Monet sold at almost 85M $, (which beat an individual record of the artist) and an odalisque by Modigliani.
The second milestone appeared in November when two successive records were broken at Christie’s by two of our most important figurative artists of the XXth century, Hopper (91,9M $) and Hockney (90 M $), who cast an almost hypnotic attraction on collectors, like that which Bacon continues to do, whose triptych was another of the star sales of the Rockefeller collection. Three artists whose roots lie deep in the study of the old Masters, each one with its own particular analogies, Hopper to Vermeer, Hockney to Piero della Francesca and Bacon to Velazquez. In this respect it is important to indicate as highly significant three revealing data regarding the Top Ten sales during 2018: First of all that there are only two works which are purely abstract, one by Malevich and the other by De Kooning; second, the fact that a figurative work by Hockney “Pool with Two Figures” stands as the most highly priced by a living artist and finally the record of the year reached by Modigliani’s “Nu couché” selling at a rather disappointing 154 M $ in Sotheby’s New York. This return of figurative Art merits a reflection on my behalf as it may signify that contemporary market Art is beginning to look back to the spirit of the great figures of eternal painting.
The modern artistry vanguards in their urge to break with tradition have removed Art, specially painting, from line and shape, rejecting representation, and this has brought with it the decadence of the plastic arts in favour of other means, such as the so-called “installations” or “performances”. Following on this development, deep artistic knowledge has been lost, as well as technique, drawing, the capacity to criticize the execution of one’s work, the sense of quality in shaping; all these qualities have been sacrificed with the excuse of giving priority to the idea, the conception of the work, to its message whose interpretation nowadays is left almost entirely to the spectator, as if he were the only person who grants to the work its real value. We have arrived at the point that anything can be considered as Art, that anyone can be an artist, that in New York there are more artists than lawyers. In short, Art has been socialised profiting from the arrival of new technologies which have completely withdrawn the hand of the creator, and from the cultural globalization and massification of ideas which turn into stereotypes their content and messages.
All this avalanche of artistic work is sifted by the market; only a few privileged artists gain access to the most sophisticated marketing strategies created by the principal auction houses, fairs, art galleries, and Museums with their monographic exhibitions. The interplay between all these actors creates a force which launches the quotations of the artists and converts contemporary Art, on the one hand, in a lively investment asset open to speculation and, on the other, in a prize coveted by multimillionaires due to the status symbol conferred by its acquisition. The art market has created value around contemporary Art which History has not confirmed and thus it may not be worth anything in the future, but while it is supported by a favourable consensus the market will consider it a safe investment whose value is likely to rise.
The modern and contemporary Art market acts increasingly in a similar way to other investment assets, seeking stable values which may grant immutable worth to the artistic work such as transparency in business transactions, absolute guarantee of authenticity, exact registration of the exhibitions organised, of the provenance, information on artist’s sales, “catalogues raisonnés” effected on the artist’s work, etc... All these data accepted as infallible by the market are a safe defence for contemporary Art work against the judgement from History which could reduce the true artistic value, and, in consequence, its economic value. This reveals the need to substitute the ideas of quality, beauty, uniqueness of a Masterpiece, all of them values which are the true essence of classical Art. On the other hand, current creative process is closely linked to Art business where the artists adapt their tendencies to the market, who search new ways of increasing the volume of business without diminishing the value of individual works, maintaining a constant offer so as to increase prices. Therefore such traditional concepts as the uniqueness of a Masterpiece or the priority of the original against a replica have been substituted by the idea of series and furthermore the recent idea of dividing the property in microshares which would in the end explode the traditional concepts of collectors as possession and personal enjoyment of Art. This strategy has culminated recently with the integration in the Art market of the new technology, block-chain, already used for the bitcoins market, which guarantees the immutability of all the consensuate truths and data in encrypted files.
Has Contemporary Art become a virtual reality?
A reality created by the market to satisfy the speculative urges of man nourished by his self-worship which previously he would satisfy with his capacity to discover beauty and possess Masterpieces and now is centred in an almost obscene obsession with prices and financial value, the more the better. That is how Christie’s and Sotheby’s, thanks to their exceptional capacity to call us together, due above all to their eminent prestige and universal brands, manage to assemble together all over the world a selected audience where the trillionairs carry out their sensational purchases.
There is a consensus among scientists that the world is destroying itself, that we are ruining the ecosystem; well, something similar is happening to Art which is today being supervalued due to factors which are external to itself and pervert it. This prevents one from distinguishing what is really good.
In consequence, it is reasonable to ponder over what I consider the third milestone of 2018, that is to say, Banksy’s performance during Sotheby’s Night Sale in October when, before all the public gathered at the auction, he destroyed his own work “Girl with balloon” which had just been “knocked down to him for 1,2 M £”.
Was that a market strategy to raise the painter’s price? Arranged only by the artist?, as he confirmed. Did Sotheby’s know this? Was the buyer, who saw that the work he had bought was self-destroyed, informed of the strategy? It has been thought that the seller, or even a gallery, may have been the owner of various Banksys and was who decided to sacrifice one of them so as to raise its price. Many reasons are possible, but nevertheless there exist certain questions which cannot be easily explained. The fact that the work was not destroyed at the exact moment when the picture was knocked down, but just after, and that this picture was the last item presented at the Night Sale, that its estimated price was rather high, that it had passed all the security tests of an auction of Sotheby’s level, raise more doubts than certainties regarding the participation of various actors, and not just Banksy, in this performance.
What is serious is not that this show would have been produced, after all it is one more of those to which Banksy has accustomed us, but that the market had valued positively the public destruction of a picture, doubling the value of its remains the selling price knocked down at Sotheby’s. If this is really true, we take it seriously and not as a new virtual reality of the market created for increasing the price of the artist. Then there will be people who would agree that this performance is the clearest indication that contemporary painting as such has no value and that it can only rise up through ideas and actions more or less correct, including among these its own destruction.
In conclusion, I would like, entering the zone of pure science fiction, to imagine what would have been the reaction if the “Salvatore Mundi” had been destroyed by its owner as a reaction to the doubts which have risen up recently on its attribution to Leonardo. Assuredly the world would have assaulted him because this indeed is a great work of Art, one of those which remain and will always be admired, although, as often occurs to Old Masters, we cannot have absolute certainty regarding its attribution, due to the sequence of its provenance not being perfectly linked up. What is beyond discussion and immutable is the pictorial quality of the work, even at the risk that the consensus of the scholars of Leonardo may for one moment be broken.
CARLOS HERRERO STARKIE
The most Human Image of Jesus is triumphant in Sotheby’s Night Sale
A study in oil painting of a youth portrayed as Jesus by Rembrandt is sold at 9,5 million £ and a Child Jesus asleep by Murillo is the protagonist of the most spectacular rise in price of the night.
The auction of Sotheby’s Old Masters Night Sale on December 5th, although not the most successful one due to its volume of sales, has represented a surge of optimism in the Old Masters market which seems to show symptoms of resistance against the pushing glamour of contemporary art. I will just indicate that 85% of the pieces were knocked down, that 30% rose above their highest estimated price, and that none of the star lots failed to be sold. It is, without any doubt, the result of the diligent work undertaken by the specialists in Old Master paintings of this centuries-old Auction House that, without renouncing to their traditional values, they managed to bring together a selection of pieces of exceptionally high quality, confident that there still exists a level of public and private collectors who appreciate the magic subtlety of eternal Art.
In Christie’s, however, the Night Sale of December 6th had a higher global total of sales which nevertheless left us with mixed feelings since the bids rose with greater difficulty. Though achieving two world records prices thanks to Frans Hals’ unsurpassable pair of portraits and Judith Leyster’s very appealing genre painting, many works of arts, including even some of the most important ones, were sold at their initial valuation price and more than 30% of the lots remained unsold.
On Wednesday night, Sotheby’s inaugurated its sale on Bond street with one of the most important rises which reached its climax with a Mary Magdalene by Ambrosius Benson at more than 730.000 £, which is more than double its highest estimated price, thus confirming the value of this painter considered as second rate in the last generation of early Flemish painters. For me, of course, it was the cause for rejoicing that night, since from the first moment that I contemplated the picture I became fascinated by the peacefulness which emanated from the painting, by the originality of its composition where the person is portrayed with a slight foreshortening; I was also enchanted by the brilliance of his pictorial technique, shown both in his manner of painting the flesh and in the finishing touches of his brushwork on Magdalene’s jewels and her prayer-book. The way of presenting the picture for sale, in what appears to be a good state of condition, free from any recent restoration, yet showing a light shade of rusty varnish, is, in my opinion, the ideal way of doing it, leaving to the buyer the decision to go deeper in cleaning which might brighten the tones of colour, or continue the more Mediterranean tradition of maintaining the shading left by time.
Included among the list of works presented in the section of Spanish painting, a magnificent Child Jesus asleep by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo stood out in a wonderful state of condition. The fine blending of the general colouring of the work, which ranged between a greyish white of the drapery around him and a background of Venetian garnet, bathed in glowing light, very much according to Spanish taste; all treated with very delicate transparencies and veilings, authentic touchstone of Murillo’s technique, as observed in the Master’s best works during the decade of the 60’s when Murillo enters in contact with the royal collections in Madrid. No doubt the collectors appreciated in the picture the recognised and exceptional capacity of the Master to express the figure of Jesus in the gentlest form of a child, the result of natural observation, and, at the same time, they were spurred even more by the exceptional royal provenance of the work, which granted it the most sensational rise of the night, trebling its highest estimated rate and it was sold at 610.000 £.
The star bid of the night reserved its pre-eminence to one of the most human representations of Christ that have ever been made. Rembrandt’s work, small in size, caused an impact on the spectator in a wonderfully arranged solitude. Boldly estimated by Sotheby’s at between 6 and 8 million £, together with its sketchiness and its relatively doubtful state of condition, all these factors were no hindrance for its being sold for 9,48 million £. This fact confirms the stability of a market which is constantly raising not only the estimated prices of masterpieces, but also , from a much more modern viewpoint, the value of works which are the true expression of the special creative process of the great figures of European painting. In this respect, this small-sized study painted in oil made directly from life of a youth, represents the dauntless search carried out by Rembrandt, to show us the human figure of Christ which we find in an unsurpassable series of seven sketches among which most experts coincide in considering this sketch as one of the two most convincingly autograph by Rembrandt.
The presence on the market of this work is also a magnificent example of the silent work of the historians and curators of Museums which culminated in 2011 in the exhibitions Rembrandt and the image of Jesus at the Louvre Museum, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Detroit Institute of Art; it reflects the value of new aspects discovered in a genius of painting so universally studied and recognised as Rembrandt , all of which provoked the sensibility of the collectors of Old Masters leading them towards new paths of great modernity.
No doubt there is no image more modern than this one that Rembrandt chose to represent Jesus Christ, a Jesus that is close to us, humble, specially human and imbued with the inherent weakness of a man conscious of his original sin which, however, has the unique capacity of raising his spirituality thanks to his capacity for devoting himself in such a wonderful way as represented by the look of absolute generosity and deep pathos which only Rembrandt knows how to express through his pictorial sensitivity which can adapt itself to the emotional state of a young man and thus moves us with the immediacy of a monstrous modernity. The psychological undercurrent of this series of oil sketches lies in the painter’s obsession to detect and express in his painting the goodness of Man, the anguish felt by his existence and his need of transcendence. Thus, this work is one of those which can rouse passions among new collectors because it corresponds to any period and any place in our universe and reveals to us the most profound depth in ourselves, in our soul... It is a work which should make us oblivious to relative values, such as those connected with economy, finance, or status in Art and would take us back to a more absolute way of understanding Art, such as that of admiring the exceptional capacity to create beauty as the supreme expression of spiritual values; because if we lack that passion for beauty in itself which should act as an inner driving force in the collector, Art would then fail to attract us and would lose its exceptional capacity to renovate, to free us from the daily routine, enabling us to enjoy our life, in short, make us happy...
We hope to be able to contemplate this work of art next year in one of the exhibitions which will take place in various cities in Holland on the occasion of the 350th anniversary of Rembrandt’s death.
Other great protagonists of the night were the two portraits painted by Anton Van Dyck during the last months of his dazzling and successful life, which was on the point of being cut short when the disaster of the civil war in England and the overthrow of Charles I were approaching. For this reason an air of sadness pervades both works in which are expressed the painter’s anxiety due to his rapidly developing illness mingles with the agitation caused by historical events. The first picture to be auctioned, the portrait of Charles II as Prince of Wales, very delicately painted and in an excellent state of condition, a completely autograph work by the Master, was sold for 2,6 million £, thus confirming the rating of the best works of the most prolific portrait painter of the Monarchy and, with due proviso for his distance from Velazquez, the greatest portrait painter of the XVIIth century. The other royal portrait auctioned that night at Sotheby’s represented his sister, Princess Mary, just after her marriage to William of Orange in 1641, by Van Dyck and workshop; it was sold within its estimated price. This work had a special significance for connoisseurs due to coinciding with another version, this one totally autograph by the Master which was presented at the same time by Christie’s with an estimated price 10 times higher. The almost morbid nature of the technical comparisons between both works caused a stream of visitors between Christie’s seat in King Street and Sotheby’s in Bond Street, such as I cannot recall even on few occasions, and gave rise to real debates on the subject between experts and also mere lovers of art, all of which is certainly the best way to sharpen the eyes of connoisseurs and encourage the love of Old Art amongst visitors.
Christie’s night of December 6th shone brilliantly due to the presentation of the unsurpassable portrait by Van Dyck previously mentioned, and also, above all, due to the excellent quality of the lots from the Erick Aldama Jelgersma collection, whose star pieces were the incomparable pair of portraits by Frans Hals. Yet in spite of all the merit due for such a distinguished list of works presented, the high price estimates adjudicated by the auction dealers House may have discouraged collectors who failed to bid with the enthusiasm expected.
The star Lot, a magnificent pair of portraits painted by Frans Hals in 1639, his best period, and perhaps the highest example of this Master still in private hands, achieved a world record price for these paintings though selling at its low estimate of 8 million £, the same as a copper of the finest velvety make and of a good size by Jan Brueghel the Elder, sold for 3,6 million £. It was a pity that a magnificent seascape by Willem Van de Velde, the best I have lately seen for sale, was withdrawn at the last moment. The highlights of this auction ended with the sale of a Peter Brueguel the Younger at the by no means disdainful price of 7,3 million £, which is excellent news for the work by this artist, so sought after by Russian collectors a few years ago, that after their exit from the Old Master's market, his rating was affected by various resounding failures in auctions.
The portrait of Princess Mary by Anton Van Dyck, presented with all due pomp, dominates the view at the end of the magnificent staircase in Christie’s seat at King Street, and was the object of constant scrutinity by visitors. Its absolutely exceptional quality is reinforced by its supreme state of condition, which encouraged Christie’s to give an estimated rate which may have been excessively high. The excellence of the portrait could not be greater, and its general view on arriving before it encouraged us immediately to study it with special optimism. The subtle delicacy of the way Van Dyck painted the sitter, who though representing the royal bearing of a woman, was still a child and therefore timid in her look and gesture, was absolutely enchanting. Only if one might have had the opportunity previously to contemplate it and take a photo of the other version on sale at Sotheby’s, we could have appreciated the difference in quality, not in face and hands, both painted by the Master, but in the rays of light reflected on the orange satin of the dress, and in the various beams shining from the pearls, of the lively painter’s touch on the bows, on the lavish display of material and energy employed and even in the way the green curtain in the background is treated.
Both pictures were sold, but they did not surpass their estimated prices, and yet they were the main attraction for the visitors to both auction houses, thanks to the enthralling game of interpreting the techniques of painting; free, downright and bold are the brush-strokes of the Master; rather monotonous and repetitive are those of his workshop. A real exercise of connoisseurship which attracts and educates collectors and lovers of the painting of the Great Masters.
It would be worthwhile, in homage to these two legendary Auction Houses who bear the responsibility of maintaining the market of Old Masters, to do a monographic blog on both versions, pointing out their similarities and differences, with the purpose of sharpening the eye of our readers.
I extend in this blog my praise to all those who collaborate in making these auctions possible thanks to their care and passion in integrating these works which rightfully deserve their aid, under the pressure encountered in difficult environments, with problems of stagnation if not recession of the market. Their efforts on many occasions are not sufficiently recompensed nowadays by some collectors who have turned into investors, more closely related to contemporary taste than to a passion for Art itself. The specialists, educated in a love of Art, are those who maintain alive the flame which illuminates the Old Masters for the collectors, and seek occasions for dialogue with modern taste, as we have seen in some presentations by Christie’s, or advancing deeper in very carefully selected, constantly more up-to-date presentations by Sotheby’s, who do not reject tradition which is one of the vital essences of Art.
CARLOS HERRERO STARKIE
Link a Sotheby's - Old Masters Evening Sale - Auction result
Link a Christie's - Erick Albada Collection - Auction result
Link a Christie's - Old Masters Evening Sale - Auction result
Bartolomé Bermejo: The first Genius of Spanish Painting
The monographic exhibition of Bartolomé Bermejo is no doubt the best prologue to the acts of homage to the bicentenary celebrations of the Prado Museum inasmuch as this artist is for many people the first genius of Spanish painting. A genius who has risen up from the centuries-old living together in Spain of Christian, Moslem and Jeewish, cultures, all of them dominated by religious fanaticism, and who has reached artistic excellence when he absorbs the XVth century Italian and north European ideas and techniques. Bartolomé Bermejo’s greatness is rooted in his particular capacity of continuing to be faithful to himself and, at the same time, assimilating better than anyone else the most advanced foreign artistic influences, confronting them with his strong realism and religious expressionism, employing his capacity for idealizing human forms and creating deep, translucent colours which are only comparable with the transparencies of the great Masters of Art of northern Europe. There is no doubt that the originality of the Spanish Renaissance rises up from this duality between an art rooted in an absolutely theocratic society and the taste for foreign artistic currents enjoyed by eminent patrons of Art who favoured the important transit of Flemish and Italian artists who brought with them the new concepts of the Ars Nova.
We therefore celebrate that the London National Gallery has programmed this exhibition for 2019; the year when the National Gallery of Art of Washington will organize the exhibition of Alonso Berruguete. Both exhibitions give to these two Spanish geniuses the glory they deserve, rescuing them from oblivion. Two geniuses not sufficiently acclaimed in the international world who are imbued with an absolutely personal interpretation of the Renaissance models and whose closeness to us and capacity for communicating with the spectator are the reason why their works of art seem to us so contemporaneous.
The exhibition is organized with the habitual thoroughness of the Prado Museum, showing 17 of the 18 works which constitute Bartolomé Bermejo’s catalogue, including three outstanding works about which I take the liberty of expressing the thoughts they have inspired in me.
The Saint Michael triumphant over the Devil with the Donor Antoni Joan (1468) of the National Gallery is definitely a pièce majeure and represents better than any other the decline of the gothic principles which give way to the Renaissance. This work is pervaded by a sense of melancholy so characteristic of transitional periods and shows the ostentatious pomp expressed in its rich colouring as well as in its fluctuating shapes, so as to make the spectator feel a purely aesthetic experience; it is a work lacking in intensity regarding the traditional values concerning religion and warfare which still held their sway in the Hispanic kingdoms and attains all its greatness thanks to the beauty of its forms. An Archangel Saint Michael whose origin we may probably find in the one painted by Hans Memling in the triptych The Last Judgement (1466), but which I prefer to compare with another work which, though it is of a later date, has a similar meaning: Young Knight in a landscape (1510) by Vittore Carpaccio, in the Thyssen Bornemisza Museum. Both scenes seem to be episodes of the same story, with a soldier in armour as the only protagonist, surrounded by a symbolical vegetation which defines the aesthetics of the medieval knight who has lost all his war function, the decline of an arch-type which was treated for the first time in such a masterly way by Simone Martini in her Portrait on horseback of the Condottiere Guidorriccio da Fogliano (1328).
The Saint Michael Archangel by Bermejo symbolizes the triumph of the new values brought to life in the representation of the scene where the beauty of the saint overwhelms the stereotyped ugliness of the demon. This devotion of Bermejo to beauty in itself as an expression of Divine Grace placed in contrast to the horrifying monster, symbol of evil and heresy, represents, in its artistic aspect, something absolutely new in the Hispanic environment which the painter himself only occasionally offers; as, for example, in the central panel of the Triptych of the Virgen de Montserrat in the Cathedral of Acqui Terme. In these two exceptional works the passionate sentiment of tragedy, so Spanish as northern, surrenders before another one which is purely aesthetic, more Italian in style, rather colder, and even announces a certain mannerism which I would even attempt to relate to works of the Pre-Raphaelite movement of Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882) and Edward Colley Burns-Jones (1833-1898) with special reference to Saint George killing the Dragon. In this respect, it will not be by chance that at the end of the XIXth and beginning of the XXth centuries Bermejo was rediscovered and converted into the Spanish Gothic painter par excellence.
The triptych of the Virgen de Montserrat (1483-1489), whose central panel is outstanding due to the modernity of its composition, inasmuch as that following the models of Bouts, the landscape shares protagonism with Our Lady and the donor. A painting dominated by two converging lines leading to a maritime view which is, in my opinion, more Italian than Flemish and reminds one of the Mediterranean with its bright light and its calm, and is in perfect accord with the nationality and activity of the donor, the well known Italian merchant settled in Valencia, Francesco della Chiesa. The landscape, though rendered in great detail in which Bermejo carefully represents the multi-coloured flowers and two monasteries built according to a complicated architectural style, mixing romanesque and gothic features, is composed in an idealised way and quite different from the standard rocky models of other Virgen de Montserrat paintings.
In this work Bermejo conquers us with an idealised conception of beauty in harmony with the diaphanous light which bathes the whole composition transmitting spiritual values. The beauty of Our Lady attracts the spectator like a magnet and symbolizes Divine Grace; the two paths represent the essential part of the message, the camin di nostra vita, the dilemma of Man’s life, to which the painters of the North continually refer. The path which sets forth from the Virgin Mary symbolizes our advancing decline which frees us from the material world and leads our soul towards a calm and silent sea which, after merging with the sky, ascends to eternity amongst the glorious clouds. The other collateral path rises up to a ridge and leads us to a cliff, a precipice which may threaten the end of our life. Two interpretations of a scene which nowadays conveys us to a universe belonging to Dalí where the elements, both real and symbolical, only make sense thanks to the subjective interpretation granted by the spectator.
La Piedad Desplà, painted for the Cathedral of Barcelona in 1490 under the patronage of the Archdeacon Luis Desplà is for many people Bermejo’s Masterpiece employing in this work all the resources which as a genius of painting he has experimented throughout his life. It is his last known work and the climax of his artistic talent.
This large work (175 x 189 cm) breaks into the spectator’s scene with an absolutely present-day rotundity and immediacy due to the highly correct combination of the protagonism given to the Virgin Mary, deeply sunk in grief, and to an immense landscape which serves as a frame and, at the same time, grants overwhelming greatness to the scene.
Our Lady captures immediately our attention by her agonising expression to the point that the recumbent Christ would seem a secondary figure if it were not for the gash on his side from which flows thick and deep garnet coloured blood which the Virgin Mary seems to show to us so as to move us even more. The composition reflects certain iconographies and above all the aura of melodramatic expressivity of Roger Van der Weyden. I would, however, like to point out analogies between this work and the Pietà of Villeneuve-les-Avignon by the French painter Enguerrand Quarton due to their predominantly horizontal forms, and specially to the particular position of Christ with regard to the Virgin Mary. Luis Desplà, portrayed as the donor, situated in a masterly fashion two steps behind the Pietà, seems to be imagining the scene, deepening its dramatism with his profoundly self-absorbed expression. Saint Jerome, on the Virgin Mary’s other side, is a supreme feat of artistic virtuosism thanks to the sumptuous folds of his garments, the colour of his cloak and his special expression of a scholar deeply absorbed in his Bible; all this, in fact, duly accentuated by the spectacles which the saint wears in his careful reading and by his delicate hand which seems to point to an episode in the book.
If the Pietà moves us by its dramatism, the landscape gives a cosmic greatness which manifests to us the immensity of God’s work and the reason for Christ’s sacrifice. It is difficult to find a precedent, the closest ones being the Crucifixión painted by the Flemish artist settled in Valencia Louis Allyncbrood, and the San Jorge painted in Mallorca by Pedro Nisart; both paintings have high horizons and the sea is protagonist; they remind us of the landscape of the Virgin Mary of Montserrat. It is, however, the kind of atmosphere found in some landscapes by Memling which is closest to this painting by Bermejo, although none possesses the immensity which years later will appear in the work by the great Master of landscape, Joachim Patinir, or in the water-colours of Lake Garda, painted by Dürer on his first trip to Italy in 1510, or later on, in 1529, in the magnificent Battle of Alexander (1529) by Albrecht Altdorfer. In all these works we reach a virtuosism in painting representing the universe in all its extent which combines a telescopic and a microscopic effect, reaching in the case of the Pietà de Desplà an intellectual content due to the symbolism expressed in each of the scenes described in the composition. In the foreground there are all the flowers and plants, each with their own symbology. In the middle-ground two paths lead, one to Babylon, the city of evil, sunk in a storm, the other to Jerusalem, bathed in a luminous dawn, both cities separated by a mysterious flock of birds. All this is an enigma which is impossible to solve, but which doesn’t lessen an inch of the realism of the scene.
In conclusion, I can only express my deep satisfaction and my most sincere congratulations to the Prado Museum, the Museo d’Art de Catalunya and specially to Joan Molina Figueras, for the great result of this exhibition which shows ever again that Art, with its capacity to create enthusiasm and express our culture, can smooth out our differences and explain so many things... Manuel Azaña has said indeed: El Prado es más importante que la República y la Monarquía juntas.
Carlos Herrero Starkie
Link to the Prado Museum - Bartolomé Bermejo's exhibition
A Watteau for Auction at Christie’s, New York
In Christie`s-New York October Old Masters Auction and coinciding with Tefaf Fall, there appears a work which has captured my attention more than any of the rest. What, however, was most surprising was that it starts at an estimated price of only 60.000-80.000 dollars. This is a portrait by, in my opinion, the greatest genius of French painting and without doubt one of the most outstanding artists of world painting: Antoine Watteau.
Few figures can even approach the level of pictorial sensibility of Watteau and very few have been able to reveal visibly in their work the essence of the epoch in which they lived, in Watteau’s case, the Regency of the Duke of Orleans after the death of Louis XIV, initiating the century during which the highest level of refinement has been reached and which was, at the same time, affected by a premonition of abyss and barbarism, reflected in the arts in a melancholic optimism; a century which had many features similar to our past XXth century, with its blind faith in progress and knowledge combined with a permanent sensation of a fatal destiny and the lack of adaptability of the individual persons to social changes. Very few artists attain a Master`s level in their work from which to represent the culture of a period or a nation at a specific time. Velazquez is perhaps one of those, with regard to the Spanish XVIIth century, also imbued with that aura of sadness and melancholy of the decadence of the Austrias; Van Dyck, during his English period, also knew how to express to the same extent this premonitory aspect of decline of certain values that only men of genius with a sensitive soul and the finest technique have been able to capture. Goya and Picasso, endowed with a personality and artistic resources so different from Watteau’s, both capture the catastrophic magic of their respective epochs, and closer to us, Hopper and Bacon are those who have known best how to represent the loneliness of ordinary persons, which was the deep-rooted illness of our modern, falsely optimistic society of the second half of the XXth century.
Yet Watteau’s pictorial work, like that of Velazquez, has perhaps something which is more desirable for the collector, since his artistic life was cut short by an early death. How many indisputable Watteaus are there in the world? The maximum number must be about 100 paintings, almost all gathered together in the Recueil Julienne, and fortunately many more drawings. Therefore the appearance in an auction of a painting by Watteau should be hot news, but unfortunately it is not all the more so, bearing in mind its low estimate at 60000 to 80000 $.
This doubtless should make us think...
What’s happening in the Art Market? Why is a world organization so supposedly well informed, so flagrantly mistaken? Why is the present Market so opposed in such a disrespectful way to the stamp that the History of Painting has given to a Master such as Watteau? Is it a question of taste? Or of the state of condition of the work? Is it because it is not a work sufficiently representative of the artist? As it is a portrait and that few people nowadays like to have the effigy of an unknown person in their sitting-room...
All this, may be correct, though certainly not entirely so, and, in any case, what does it matter? It is a Watteau!!!
And the Museums... How many of them haven’t even got a drawing by this Master? Are they waiting for Godo, that is to say, waiting for the work to come in a perfect state of condition, something almost impossible for a Watteau, and that it is comparable to his most eminent works like his Pèlerinage à l'île de Cythère which inspired so deeply Proust, or his famous Gilles, both in the Louvre; meanwhile they allow an opportunity such as this to pass by disregarded, with arguments which, in my opinion, are questionable since this picture is the unique and unrepeatable testimony of the best interpreter of the Century of Enlightenment. They are all mistaken... I don’t mean the Louvre, or the Gemäldegalerie of Berlin, obviously, but definitely the non-European Museums, almost all of which haven’t a single work by the artist. They should all take advantage of the opportunity presented to them in this Market dominated by private collectors who are ever richer and supposedly better informed, though massively imbued with the taste of our time which seems to reject what is sensitive, subtle, hidden, merely suggested yet beautiful, and for that reason they completely ignore the century of delicacy in favour of immediacy and what causes an impact in Art.
While I am writing this blog, I am even more convinced that the IOMR ought to be present at the bidding of the auction and therefore I am conscious of the great contradiction to our interests to spread information on this opportunity. But does that matter?... Paris vaut bien une messe...and Watteau certainly deserves it... Anyway we ought not to be successful because our resources, which are strictly concentrated on other projects, do not allow us to surpass the estimated price announced by Christie’s and that would mean that the work would have been badly sold. That is not fair for Watteau. We would, however, be delighted if one of our wealthy friends and patrons of IOMR would acquire it.
But let us get back to the picture and try this time, if our love of Watteau allows us, to be more objective. In this attempt to free ourselves from our passion, let us analyse whether the objective reasons that have driven an auction house as prestigious as Christie’s to assign to this picture such a low rating are really valid at the present moment.
The first and most important reason is the at least questionable state of condition of the work because this affects the work itself. The painting has zones which show erosion to the extent that in many places the imprimatura is evident and the top layer of the marvellous transparencies, so characteristic of Watteau’s clothes, has disappeared and we can glimpse drawing underneath and flashes of light. There is also, undoubtedly, overpainting due to two restoration campaigns which, at first sight, do not appear excessive. But none of all this conceals the composition. The drawing and the colouring, although lessened, are there: Watteau’s fluid paintbrush is still there; the melancholic expression of the portrayed lady captivates us just as much, and the dog which gazes at us with a fixed stare so typically Watteau’s has not lost a whit of its strength; the other hound pokes its snout affectionately in the delicate hand of the lady, seeking a caress and creating a fusion of delicate communication which so captivates us in Watteau. Furthermore, the state of condition of almost all Watteau’s paintings is, to say it benevolently, precarious when not actually bad, to the extent that Museums almost prefer not to intervene in restoration. Their colouring does not usually correspond to the tone of the time of creation, and usually have excessive craquelés due to the use by the painter of too much material (obtained by blending ground pigments), though, in other areas, the contrary is what occurs, caused by using too fine transparencies which consequently disappear, leaving visible the imprimatura, as is the case of the painting we are now commenting. Its state of condition is therefore not an exceptional case, nor does it prevent us from perceiving the enormous quality of the work.Though it is a fact that from the present market’s point of view works in an excellent state of condition are what above all are appreciated ,in Watteau’s case, however, it is almost impossible for a work to appear thus and anyway we have flagrant cases like the Salvator Mundi by Leonardo, with a much more important loss of the original paintwork, which reached 400 million dollars this year, precisely at Christie’s.
The second reason is based on the fact that XVIIIth century painting is considered at the lowest rating of contemporary taste. This prejudice is absolutely real at present, though, in my opinion, the works of the great Masters should be considered above the artistic tastes in fashion during every epoch. The great Masters have a quality granted by history and that is their value.
Lastly, the third reason lies in the fact that we are dealing with a portrait, a subject which is not at all the preferred object of contemporary taste and furthermore is not representative of Watteau’s great Masterpieces which are, without any doubt, his Fêtes Galantes. In my opinion, this portrait goes beyond the special iconography of a portrait, in strictu senso, inasmuch as Watteau paints a huntress with her hounds, her shotgun and her trophies. The picture bases its excellence in the way he paints the interplay between the primary and secondary elements of the painting. The dog on the left which gazes out fixedly is what gives all the mystery to the scene and the communication with the portrayed lady, shown by the other hound, is what confirms Watteau’s similarly fine delicacy in the highly sought-after Fêtes Galantes. In my opinion, the composition in itself is a feat of originality, with the woman seated at one side, and the intimate communication between its elements, the sky, and the hounds, which is more characteristic of a genre picture than of a portrait; this is the touchstone which describes the autographic character of the work. On the other hand, we find ourselves facing one of the two indisputable portraits by Watteau which, according to Christie’s catalogue, is the only one representing a woman resting after a hunt. All this should increase its artistic value and in a normal world which respects quality and uniqueness, these criteria should be reflected in its market price.
In conclusion, this work is an opportunity for anyone who wishes to enjoy a unique work in his collection or hanging over his mantelpiece in his house, as well as making a magnificent long-term investment; and no doubt for Museums which don`t have a Watteau in their rooms, it is a real bargain. I would recommend them not to mind bidding high. I would, however, advise those who have only a short-term vision, both art gallery owners and investors, they should only be interested if the work keeps within the estimated value because its prospects of revaluation unfortunately may be smaller than what is desirable.
Carlos Herrero Starkie
Notes on a Lamentation of Christ by Francisco de Goya y Lucientes
It is no doubt unusual for a work of Art by Goya, already included in all the pertinent catalogues raisonnés, to be selected for study by IOMR since our mission is precisely that of rediscovering forgotten works of Art, and restoring to them their recognized authorship and lost splendour.
In the case we are now commenting we are facing a picture representing a Lamentation of Christ whose authorship is unanimously assigned to Goya in the catalogues by Gudiol 1970 n8 /1980 n5; Gassier & Wilson1970 n8/1984 n12; De Angelis 1974 /76 n19; Camón Aznar 1980 pág. 42; Xavier de Salas 1984 n9; J.L. Morales 1990 n6 / 1997 n3; Arturo Ansón "Goya y Zaragoza" 1995 pág. 61; catalogue online Fundación Goya y Aragón, año 2012. All these authors coincide in dating this work between 1768 and 1770, just before his journey to Italy, and in considering it one of the devotional paintings young Goya carried out at Fuendetodos. This would coincide with his origin of having belonged, according to Gudiol, to a family of Fuendetodos.
We all, however, know that Goya’s work has lived for the last twenty years, through a period of constant revision urged by the Prado Museum; and even works as deeply part of Goya’s oeuvre as the portrait of Marianito, in the Albuquerque collection, or El Coloso belonging to the Prado itself, which has now been down-graded to an anonymous work, or La lechera de Burdeos, recently investigated for doubt regarding its authenticity as a Goya, although up to the present it has not lost its attribution to the Master. Furthermore, as a result of the exhibition Goya and his Aragonese roots 1746-1775 held in Zaragoza in 2015, Manuela Mena, Head of Dept. of XVIIIth century Art, Prado Museum, ratified the recent revision of Goya’s work carried out during his youth. On the one hand, she has supported the opinion of the recognised professors Juan Carlos Lozano and José Ignacio Calvo that certain specific works assigned up to that date to Goya’s authorship, such as the pechinas of San Juan el Real of Calatayud and the Hermitage of La Virgen de Muel painted before his journey to Italy as well as the pechinas of the church of San Juan Bautista of Remolinos and the groups painted belonging to the palace of Sobradiel carried out immediately afterwards, were not painted by Goya; yet various new discoveries corresponding to the period of Goya’s return from Italy acquire the status of works effected by the hand of the Master, principally due to reasons based on his style and pictorial technique. All this leads us to the conclusion that there is a predominant idea among contemporary scholars which rejects attributing to the young Goya works previous to his journey to Italy, dated the end of 1769 when he was already 23 years old and when we may suppose him to have gained some artistic experience mainly because they consider that there do not exist sufficient reasons to make a pronouncement on his authorship. Such a situation is the cause that this period, which is biographically relatively well documented, is almost completely an untracked land from an artistic point of view since there are scarcely any works to represent it. From this restricted viewpoint only three works are recognised as belonging to the period, including one which is lost.
We are thus lacking a project of catalogue raisonné which would make Goya’s oeuvre up to date, and the institution responsible for this task can be no other than the Prado. This project could encourage curators to give their opinion regarding works historically considered by Goya and would grant security to collectors and the Art market, who are too dependent on experts who are often reluctant to respond in writing or even to emit their judgment orally. We have two fortunate examples of cataloguing projects on artists as prolific as Goya in the Corpus Rubenianum and the Rembrant Research Project.
With regard to the Lamentation of Christ we are now commenting, I cannot conceal my first impression as a lover of Goya’s work when I first held in my hands this small picture; it was like a hunch, feeling that this work goyeaba at one’s first glance. After this intuition, I embarked on an exercise of attribution, doubtless not free of risks, and set myself to analyse in depth the reasons which, according to my understanding, were the basis for my initial enthusiasm.
May this analysis serve as an example of how a collector-connoisseur observes, has an intuition and connects an artist with a specific work of Art:
The immediacy and reality with which the painter treats the scene so that one may feel it close to life and real, where the artist reveals the human pathos of death with no conventional mannerisms, excluding figures of the celestial world, such as angels, which might confuse his pure sense of reality so that what first surprises one in the picture and what, in fact, makes it closer to Goya and therefore reminds one of the engraving, Desastre Nº 26 No se puede mirar and Nº 14 of the same series, Duro es el paso in which Goya treats death with a completely contemporary closeness.
The sensation of vigour, dynamism and natural movement shown by Saint John, the assistant who covers Christ with a shroud, is dressed according to modern times and reminds us of so many peasants in the tapestry cartoons and the series of engravings and of whom we only find precedence in the spontaneity of some of the lads of Luca Giordano. All these figures are in contrast to the monumental strength of the soldier or apostol, who stands immobile behind Christ; this figure presents certain similarities to the ones painted in the frescoes of the Church of the Cartuja Aula Dei and to certain classical sources, probably inspired in the Hercules of Farnesio; the hieratical character of the torso and neck of the recumbent Christ, free of any mannerism, representing death simply as it is, with scanty concessions to any conventionalisms typical of Corrado Giacchinto’s style, and whose dead countenance slightly set in relief by light is so typically goyesque that it reminds me of the picture of the etching Agarrotado (1778) and the moribund person in the picture San Francisco de Borja y el moribundo impenitente (1788); such a work as this, full of changes of rhythm and dramatic movement, typical of Beethoven 's symphonies, we do not find in other painters of Goya’s period, least of all amongst those of Zaragoza totally influenced by the Rococo movement and Italian Classicism and yet, we decidedly perceive it in Goya’s paintings in all its epochs when he endows his work with this lively spirit which makes him the best documentalist of his time and even a forerunner of the cinema.
The creation of a sense of space , fostered by the fusion and interaction of resources perfectly integrated in a work of such small dimensions presupposes to some extent a technical feat which does not save it from certain errors which are also typically Goyesque and characteristic of an artistic spirit not yet mature. This question is perhaps that which most facilitates the comparison of our picture with his work during the years 1771-1773, such as Anibal, Santa Bárbara, the frescoes of the Cartuja de Aula Dei and the recently discovered Huida a Egipto . On the one hand, the holy men, so correctly diffused and subtly illuminated with an inner glow which seems to spread out from the background at the right, with a halo which is more akin to Tiepolo than to Giacchinto and certainly similar to the figures which appear under an archway at the left of the Desposorios de la Virgen at the Cartuja Aula Dei, (1774); furthermore, in the background, to the left, some soldiers who are merely sketched, render a sense of distance to the scene; these figures are given importance in a marvellous way by a feature which Goya frequently uses, marking them out with a pale line as in the sketches of Aníbal (1771) and in the Santa Bárbara (1772) which surprise us. On the other hand, the recumbent Christ, placed in an almost foreshortened position, and represented with a tomb-like rigidity, appears natural and very different from the mannerist code which ruled the artistic circles which Goya frequented and which only in the way he would cross his legs, there could be perceived a certain mannerism of classical sources, or even derived from Bernini (Cupid and Psyche). All this, as Goya does in his engravings, giving priority to the foreground, as well as imbueing a sense of reality and immediacy which is so inherent in Goya’s painting and whose closest precedent can only be found, perhaps, in Tiepolo. The composition is the result of a great technical originality following what Goya himself said in his brief autobiography, written in Bordeaux, that in his youth, after copying the Masters and the models of Luzan, he let himself be led by creativity.
The combination of a light which rises up within the picture towards the exterior, out of that deep darkness already so characteristic of Goya in the seventies on his return from Italy, created by certain transparencies painted in oil over the reddish imprimatura in harmony with the flashes of another vertical light overhead which is separate from the rest of the scene and which falls on the Cross and above all on Christ, specially on his lifeless features and on the brutal spasm of his body, such as only Goya would do; all this is what definitely gives the sense of drama to the picture and is our touchstone when we study the authorship of the work.
The colour palette is an essential element of the picture, as long as it does not correspond to the cold, mother-of-pearl tone dominating the rococo Giacchintoesque style, followed faithfully by José Castillo, the Bayeu, the Gonzalez Velázquez and Maella; on the contrary, it is dominated by a range of warm colours much closer to Luca Giordano and to late Baroque Neapolitan painting. In this work earth-coloured tones can be appreciated under a greyish nocturnal sky, which is partially lightened by streaks of blue. Both these tones blend with the reddish imprimatura that surges up from the canvas, (This effect would be strengthened by an opportune cleaning of the picture), favouring the funereal atmosphere and setting corresponding to the Lamentation of Christ. What, however, really captures the attention of the viewer is the contrast between the typically Giordanesque yellow and blue of the cloaks of Mary Magdalene and Our Lady which stand out all the more thanks to the red touch of St. John’s sash, creating a special foreground view which gives this particular goyesque closeness and scenographic sense.
From a technical point of view the way he illuminates the salient pleats of clothes so as to draw attention to them, alternating real chains of light with hollow shades, giving the composition the monumental grandeur which we always appreciate in any work by Goya. Finally, the special bravura when he treats with only four brushstrokes St. John’s red sash, reminds me of the one he painted in the full-length portraits of the Duchess of Alba years later.
All this makes us believe that we are facing the work of a genius, not of a mere follower of Italian rules, but rather of someone intent on creating the reality of a scene, just as he would have seen it if he had been present like a privileged spectator. In this sense Goya was doubtless a forerunner and this picture, if its dating is confirmed, would be the first in which Goya shows his authentic artistic individuality, marking his distance from not only his Masters Luzan and Bayeu, but also from Corrado Giaquinto and even Tiepolo, surpassing them all in originality and modernity.
Carlos Herrero Starkie
View the image/ Discoveries
In Homage to the Prado Museum on the occasion of its Bicentenary: Goya and Modernity
The opportunity of studying at the IOMR a Lamentation at the Death of Christ, attributed to Goya, has given rise to finding myself facing this genius of Spanish painting and making me conscious of the outstanding importance of the Prado as an institution, not only for preserving the works it treasures, but for safeguarding and spreading the spirit of Spanish painting. I have returned to the halls which hold most of Goya’s masterpieces with the special predisposition to value how the Prado has assumed its historical responsibility to transmit the visual message, both particular and universal, of Spanish pictorial genius which we find par excellence in Francisco Goya, its most modern painter and thus confirming even more the extension and the immense vitality which the Prado Museum exerts in the international artistic field.
In no other Museum do we have the chance of contemplating almost the entire Corpus of an artist as occurs in the Prado with Velazquez, Goya and, to a certain extent, with Rubens and Titian. In no other museum does one feel a more complete sensation of the pictorial taste of a nation when one visits the Prado, how the Spanish artistic genius develops, how it breaks models, and how the great foreign Masters influence it, and in fact how develops a national artistic identity. In no other Museum does one perceive a similar clash of Titans, not only because of the excellent way each Artist is exhibited, allowing us to visualise the real landmarks in the history of our painting, but also showing how they are united by means of a common slant which makes them belong to the same root, much more than to a school, inasmuch as, since they are unique and unrepeatable figures, they do not have disciples, but only followers; this perhaps is because their talent is essentially rooted in their spirit, in their capacity to anticipate and in their revolutionary character which guarantees that eternal modernity which is their distinctive feature. It is for this reason that we say Velazqueño or Goyesco as if their followers have no personal identity since they lack the aura which distinguishes the Master. In the Prado, the foreign schools turn around the Spanish genius since their two main axes, the Flemish and Venetian schools, are inexhaustible sources which have nourished Spanish painting. On this firm coherence rests the identity as well as the universality of the Prado and in this respect it differs from the MET, the National Gallery of London, the National Gallery of Art of Washington and the Louvre.
The Prado fosters its own identity concentrating itself on enriching its own idiosyncrasies rather than filling the vacant spaces which are evident in some of its foreign schools, especially its Dutch and English schools. Since the Prado received in 1991 the legacy of Manuel Villaescusa, most of its purchases, save in the case of great exceptions such as The blind man and the Zanfonia by Georges LaTour (2001), Wine and the Feast of San Martin by Pieter Brueghel, the elder (2000) and Our Lady and the Pomegranate by Fra Angelico (2010), have been guided by the wish to encourage in scholars, the connoisseur or simple visitor a greater knowledge of Spanish painting. I shall only mention the works which directly come to mind: The flight to Egypt by El Greco (2000) which shows clearly his amazing pictorial change on arriving in Spain: The Pope’s barber by Velazquez, acquired because the Prado lacked a work belonging to his Roman period; Goya’s Italian notebook (1993) which has facilitated a deeper study and cataloguing of Goya’s young period; The Resurrection of St. Lazarus by José Ribera which explains his youthful work, only recently discovered (2001); the portrait by Goya which without doubt most enchants us, La Condesa de Chinchón (2000); the purchase of a panel by Alonso Berruguete whom many consider the first representative of Spanish artistic genius, and yet there was no example of his work in the Museum (2017). The Prado has not neglected artists considered less important and, just recently, has acquired, amongst other purchases, the small picture A woman asleep, magnificent example of eighteenth century melancholy by Luis Paret (2013), or the portrait which best represents the elegance and candour of Agustín Esteve (2017) and one of its latest acquisitions, the wonderful portrait of the Marquesa de la Espeja by Madrazo (2018), outstanding painting of the Spanish XIXth century. To this vision corresponds the Prado’s objective of connecting with the historical past of its collections incorporating El salón de los Reinos of Buen Retiro Palace*, in the artistic triangle constituted by the Prado, the Thyssen and the Reina Sofía Museums which can only be compared with the Museumsinsel of Berlin. Perhaps the idea of opening itself to the present and future of Art is what guided its most daring projects; some of these culminated in success such as that of inviting Caí Guo-Quiang to develop a completely innovative project as was his spirit of painting and others which failed, however, at their outset, such as the idea defended by Miguel Zugaza of receiving permanently the Guernica, a project which many of us considered the best homage to the eternal modernity of the Prado, but which weighty considerations such as the state of condition of the picture and its being the principal icon of the Reina Sofía Museum rendered inadvisable.
For all these reasons and coinciding with the bicentenary of the creation of the Prado Museum we must offer a just homage to all its directors and curators, with a special mention to its patrons for how they have carried out their role of guardians of the temple of Spanish painting. This recognition should be reflected in an increased patronage since, incredible though it may seem, this immense heritage counts on ever diminishing state support*; moreover, the world of business and the Prado are also distant one from the other. Perhaps we ought to seek in that area the clamorous lack of external financing. In this respect it is admirable to socialise Art with the purpose of making Art reach everybody and everywhere, but, in my opinion, one of the Prado’s priorities should be to strengthen the links with Spanish business firms, arousing the interest of their leaders in Art, in the significance of the Prado and Spanish painting in the world today; making them see the benefits they may obtain, not only financially, but also in the valuation of their image, as well as in the cultural enrichment of their employees so as to strengthen their creativity and capacity of observation. This difficult activity of convincing is not simply a question of tax exemptions, but rather of arousing individual emotions, appealing more to one’s heart than to one’s mind and this can’t be done in the office, nor at cocktails, nor in lecture halls, or press conferences, but rather sharing with these leaders the collection, inviting them to the Prado to enjoy enthusiastically the masterpieces exhibited. We must not forget that Art has always been linked with patronage and without patronage it would have been difficult for Art to reach excellence.
If there is an artist to whom the Prado has devoted all its attention for the last few years that is Goya, and the reason for this is largely due to the fact that Manuela Mena, with her strong personality, has been head of Goya’s department since 2001. Now, doubtless, a few months before her retirement, is the time to recognise that, beyond all discussion, Goya’s fame has been greatly reinforced due to the number and the quality of the acquisitions of his works made by the Prado during the last twenty years, the countless conferences that Manuela Mena has given, spreading knowledge of Goya’s genius and, although here we are embarking on troubled waters, we must appreciate her systematic study of his paintings, drawings, and graphic works, bringing up-to-date Goya’s catalogue; in short, her turning the Prado into the indisputable and, by all generally accepted guardian of the quintessence of Goya. There are, of course, those who will agree and others who will definitely disagree with the removal from the catalogue of certain works by Goya, with the use and abuse of his name as the creator of modern artistic currents, but no one can criticise the care, sensibility and closeness with which the Prado has approached Goya during the last few years.
In this respect, on my return to the halls which exhibit the works by Goya I could not fail to be surprised by what is for me fundamental in a Museum; namely, the way in which these treasures are exhibited, a subject which is often neglected by institutions in spite of the fact that this is one of the aspects where the creativity and sensitivity of those responsible are clearly manifest. The Prado has been able to combine in a masterly fashion both the aesthetic and didactic criteria without following a strictly chronological order in its presentation. The Goyas to which one has the tendency to approach first, on entering by the Jerónimos door, are two of his closest works to us and of great modernity, the El dos de Mayo and Los fusilamientos de la Moncloa el 3 de mayo. In both pictures the scene occupies our vital space as if we were part of it. From here we pass to a rectangular hall where all his frightening black pictures are exhibited; these are the origin of the veta brava which is so Spanish and the source of the European expressionist movements. In a room situated on the floor above, as if pertaining to another painter, at the end of a central gallery where the Rubens and Italian baroque paintings hang, we arrive at a room over which presides the family of Carlos IV, which, noblesse oblige, marks clearly the end of one of the principal outlooks of the Prado Museum. In other rather narrow adjoining rooms we find Goya, the portrait painter of the aristocracy and the majas; the latter, we must admit, claim, with all their rights, but with no success, the privilege of enjoying a more intimate space, even a room reserved for themselves , as they had in their previous abode, Godoy’s Palace, which, like the Prado, was accustomed in the old days to exhibit Masterpieces. Finally, we have to go up one more floor, by lift, to reach the celestial world of Goya and his cartoons. There we instantly have a premonition that we shall be immersed in something superior, difficult to explain, Goya’s play with light; an almost scientific study of how humans become alive by means of light; in this case, simple everyday scenes are transformed into vital axioms. This is something which Goya will continue to do till the end of his days in different ways, in his portraits, his caprichos, his disparates; he will give form, better than anyone else has ever done, to the dark inside-out world which are our dreams, our nightmares transferred to real life in the disasters of war where reality is greater than fiction. The Prado has treated with special care these rooms and for this reason we say that it looks after Goya, it loves him, it feels that he belongs only to the Prado and that is why it understands him better, empowering in a real triumphant exhibition these cartoons of tapestries; although they are not the most significant collection which can facilitate a comprehension of the modern Goya, it certainly is the one which allows us to approach the daylight world of his painting, and to some extent, get closer to him though not yet penetrate his anguish. Everything here is broad daylight, the neutral colour of the walls, the general daylight which bathes the rooms, the diaphanous texture in which the work is presented to us in a world of perspectives, combining axes, forming pendants, creating groups of cartoons which correspond to specific commissions and different subjects. We even remember how well appeared in the Pardo Palace the tapestries for which these cartoons were made. What better homage could be offered to the Age of Enlightenment, so optimistic in all its fragility; and how wise that we should have been induced to view just before, in an inverted chronological order, his horrors of War and the black paintings, in a sequence which I would describe as Picassian, contemplating the beginning of Goya’s work after having lived through his conclusion, in a new kaleidoscope outside time or type.
I would finally like to express what remains in my mind when we finish our visit to a museum like the Prado or after contemplating the work of a painter like Goya. We have enjoyed sensations which remain in our visual memory; now we must think over them and entertain ourselves with the ideas transmitted by the painter, interpret them and, in my case, wander about in that Proustian wilderness which spurs my sensitivity to seek new slants that Goya, the painter, may have in common with other painters. The first question I ask myself then is:
How does Goya outshine other great geniuses?
Goya is considered by all one of the great artists consecrated by the History of Art, by lovers of painting and by simple visitors who once in a while walk around a Museum. There is not an instant of doubt. Everyone knows his name which is synonymous with modernity, change, rupture, as are equally El Greco or Picasso. His revolutionary character is only comparable in painting to that of Giotto, Leonardo, Michelangelo, El Greco, Rubens, Caravaggio, Rembrandt, Velazquez or Picasso, in the sense that all of these felt the need and broke up against the conventionalisms of their epoch, creating a new language. In Goya, however, there is something which makes him closer, more up-to-date, or to say it somehow, make him the last of the Old Masters, the only one who was able to imagine the future, who brings along with him the development of later painting of the XIXth and XXth centuries. In this sense, most of the isms trace their origin back to him: romanticism, realism, impressionism, expressionism, surrealism, even dadaism... Perhaps only cubism, due to its conceptualism, seems to have escaped, though, of course, the expressivity inherent in Picasso gives him an eminent space apart.
Goya inaugurates a new way of transmitting a pictorial message giving priority to expression as opposed to the natural form which is usual in the external world, whether this is describing a personage or the action effected in the picture, thus involving the spectator who becomes the principal protagonist of the scene. This brings us to the immediacy of his representations, which are so alive and real. On the other hand, Goya is always present in the picture, his mind dominates all his work and an authentic need to express himself lies underneath, something which is doubtless the key to an analysis of his modernity. Like Picasso or Pollock, Goya reveals his subconscious and shapes it in his picture in an almost Freudian exercise which gives greater force to his expressiveness.
Goya’s personages may sometimes lack strict corporal likeness and, even when he was still painting cartoons for tapestries, the figures may appear just like puppets and nevertheless how real they are to us. Everything about them is energy, light, movement, and expressivity. This is something which we appreciate continually in all his work. Reality is not perceived for what it is, but rather for how we feel it and in Goya we always feel it very present.
Another constant in Goya is the almost bestial expression hovering between panic, surprise and furious impact encountered in the expressionist pictorial world and specially in Münch; it represents in some ways disagreement, a declaration contra mundum something which is tremendously contemporary; it will turn into disillusion, from satire to the grotesque, without any censure and in accordance with its new language, like Picasso later on with Demoiselles d’Avignon or his Guernica.
How shall we describe the light which floods all his work and becomes the touchstone of his originality in pictorial technique. A natural morning light which rises up from the suffocating sun of Spain which bathes the everyday scenes of the tapestry cartoons. A nocturnal light, dramatic and full of premonitions like that of the Fusilamientos de la Moncloa el 3 de Mayo, sometimes zenithal as in one of his first caprichos, Vuelo de brujas painted for the Palace of the Dukes of Osuna. A light which creates space as in Velazquez, but more expressive and perhaps for that reason less natural, because it is a light which goes beyond its purely pictorial function and is bent on transmitting a message to the spectator.
It is in this intimate fusion between the viewer, the artistic work and the spirit of the genius that lies the problem of the modern understanding of Goya’s painting. He never tried to adapt himself to the taste of his epoch; not even when he paints cartoons does he completely adapt himself, although he follows Meng’s and Bayeu’s instructions. In his work there always underlies that special halo of expressivity so typically Goyesque and, even when he paints portraits, he never manages to disconnect from himself. Many of his portraits of royalty have a particular smorfia which instantly distinguishes them from those copied by Esteve, which are always a bit rigid and have rather mouse-like features. Only children and the portraits of friends are free of this rather caricaturesque style. This tendency is emphasized when Goya becomes deaf after a long illness and there rises up in him the need to give visible form to the thoughts which assaulted his mind during his recovery in Sanlucar de Barrameda, underlying strange, incongruous dreams, which human reason cannot explain and which gives rise to Goya’s most modern phase. His art evolves, on the one hand, on his questioning reality, in so far as he perceives it through his satirical and grotesque spirit and, on the other, in revealing to us our human subconscious. His genius takes shape and his work becomes ever more introspective and profound. He paints and engraves caprichos as a diversion, but in all of them he transmits a message. Goya, unlike Velazquez, has an absolute need to express himself through his pictorial language and to give his opinion about the world surrounding him. In this period his work reaches the climax of his modernity in art. Just as Pablo Picasso or Jackson Pollock will do later on, he frees his subconscious in painting made for himself alone. For this reason Goya’s works belong to the world of dreams and are perceived as nightmares, and as expressions of a fantastic universe, lived or imagined in the introspective world of a deaf person. A deafness which was like a premonition as his dreams foretold the most terrible reality to mankind: war, cruelty, panic...
In conclusion, it is no exaggeration to affirm that in the history of Western Culture, with the exception of our protagonism in the discovery of America and the importance of our language, there is no other aspect in which Spain has exerted greater influence than in the development of the visual arts. El Greco, Velazquez, Goya and Picasso are considered today the pillars on which is founded the conception of Modern Art, inasmuch as they constitute the spiritual poles which gradually separated the world of natural shapes and forms from the pictorial world, ever more autonomous and dominated by the mind of the artist, which acquired at the end of the XIXth century, a universal dimension which turned it into its principal innovative force and has impelled Art onwards to our present day.
For this reason the Prado, as the shrine of the flame of modernity, manifests a privileged position in the recent history of painting and its bicentenary is a magnificent opportunity to recognise the true value of this artistic genre in its present day creative context, in which for the first time its historical supremacy in the world of the visual arts is placed in doubt due to the appearance in the digital era of new alternative media and in consequence the progressive loss of pictorial talent among our youth. We ought to bear this in mind because as long as the Prado maintains this flame alive it will continue to be the source of inspiration for future artists and the principal safeguard of pictorial genius in our contemporary world.
Carlos Herrero Starkie
* Yesterday the government announced that it would contribute in four years 30 million euros to finance the extension of the Museum. We shall wait to celebrate the inclusion of this magnificent news in the next State budget.
Dialogue between Old Masters and Modern Art
The IOMR has the firm intention of participating in the polemic debate which is raging at present between classical Art and Modern Art. For this goal we must sharpen our eyes so as to find associations, exchange of ideas, elements in common so as to be able to appreciate similarities, sometimes created on purpose, sometimes occurring only by chance or discovered when one tries to analyse their origin.
Visual Art contains a special language and vocabulary based on elements which are commonly valid in all the epochs. Space, material, volume, colour, tone, texture, scale, balance, light and movement are elements which are common to all works of Art and we would add mass and sense of gravity as special elements in Sculpture. As for the approach and the particular combination each artist may have regarding these elements there lies the consequence, no doubt, of his talent, inspiration and on them will depend the final artistic result of his work, marking tendencies according to every epoch, country or artistic movement.
Following on these elements common to modern and classical Art, although consisting of artistic interpretations almost completely opposite, we may extract from what is apparently antagonistic the common grounds of the two Arts, which is what we are interested in pointing out. Thus, taking Picasso, for example, as the supreme modern genius, consecrated during his lifetime and historically, with a greater capacity for looking back to the past, we distinguish (among many others) a link between his “rose” period and the work of Louis Lenain which consists of a similar use in his compositions of different scales and masses for the persons depicted though they do not correspond to a natural reality but are used only to attract the spectator’s attention. The persons in both works are as if turned into stone and have a sort of halo of sadness. Another parallelism in Picasso, which Miguel Zugaza calls “geometrical”, we find in his relation to Ingres’ painting, due to the importance both artists give to the line, to the outline of the persons depicted, to the edges of objects; an element, certainly, which is very decisive in the valuation of the quality of a work of Art by those of us who consider ourselves “Connoisseurs”. It is needless to mention the widely commented link between Picasso and Velazquez, their obsession with space, with their conception of void and also with the solidity and sense of gravity of objects.
On the other hand, there also exist sociocultural factors and the dynamic force itself liberated by the creativity of genius which indicate its own landmarks and tendencies, distinguishing, in my opinion, a classical form ( in the widest significance of the term), based, to a great extent, on the technique and manual skill of the artist and, on the other hand, what we may call modern Art which grants priority to the concept and to creative process, giving less importance to the final result. These two ways of conceiving Art are not exclusive of an epoch or a territory, but are, of course, perfectly identifiable and only on very few occasions do we find artists imbued, to the same extent, with both qualities: Leonardo, Michelangelo, Velazquez, Rembrandt, Vermeer, Picasso and Anselm Kiefer are magnificent examples of this special symbiosis.
Thus the modern tendency in Western Art evolves by means of a progressive simplification in the forms which tend to illustrate the visual appearance of things, giving greater importance to the concept of the work of art, under the influence of its daily use, which leads finally to the elimination or even breaking up of the form, thus creating a new visual language, as opposed to the classical one, much more intent on reflecting the natural existence of the external world. From the Renaissance we perceive various artistic currents which are opposed to the traditional Art which had risen in Italy and the territories of northern Europe, and it was in Spain, due to its special idiosyncrasy and attachment to the concept, as opposed to the form, that we find a greater association with modern and contemporary Art where simplification and conceptualism have become a rule.
In the history of Art various geniuses stand out for their revolt against what is traditional, for their anticipation and their capacity for creating rupture and, when they are great figures, they create new forms and become in themselves new landmarks. Phidias, for being the first to humanise Art; El Greco, for his exaggerated expressionism; Velazquez, for his ability in painting what is apparent and in creating a new concept of aerial perspective in which the emptiness of space is revealed; Rembrandt, for his mystery and rough impressionistic technique; Vermeer, for being the first to reflect mimetism between a person and his environment by means of an almost “pointilliste” technique and the use of light and space which was absolutely revolutionary at his time; Goya, for being the first modern painter in all the meaning of the term; and Picasso, for inventing a new language and for hurling the Stone which smashed to pieces the concept of Art held up to that time. All of them are consecrated geniuses, creators of tendencies and recognised as such in the history of Art.
In post-war and contemporary Art, artists like Pollock, Rothco, Bacon, Kiefer or Zao Wou Ki, to give as examples artists consecrated during their lifetime, must still face History in order to clarify to what extent their work is relevant. In their capacity to renew the artistic panorama and, at the same time, to be integrated and link up with the great Masters of the History of Art, lies the very essence to be considered great for all eternity. Artistic geniuses, both classical and modern, whose creative personalities, their need to express themselves and their will to break up forms and create new ones, do not vary essentially among themselves. For this reason it is important to distinguish common grounds, to discover geometric similarities which in their volcanic creativity, link Alonso Berruguete with El Greco, Goya, Münch, Picasso and Pollock, or that which with its insinuating melancholy is distinguished in a Giorgione, Tiziano , Van Dyck, Watteau, Turner and Zao Wou Ki, or the translucent colour of a Van Eyck, El Greco, Rothco, or the fully integrated introspection of the viewer of a Velazquez, Manet, Picasso or Bacon, and the intimate association of a Vermeer with a Hopper, both enclosed in a tomblike silence, because each of them responds in a particular moment to the same type of artistic sensitivity. For this reason it is important to analyse the capacity of the Old Masters to be forerunners, but also, conversely, to look backwards to the traces of the past in the modern genius. In our opinion, in this ambivalent potential to invent and to look back to the past, lies the touchstone for distinguishing the Masterpiece which will survive as such throughout ages.
In short, the authentic genius must feel free and has always been independent; this isolation, this, in certain cases, almost autistic nature of the genius is essentially what, in my opinion, protects and safeguards him against influences and, doubtless, for this reason he would hide himself, as Vermeer and Van Gogh, or, in another context, as Rimbaud did. In fact they hid themselves so as not to be corrupted and to continue to be authentic. On occasions, the artist may only appear a genius in some of his works which, thanks to History’s judgement and his almost divine character, will be considered Masterpieces. This lack of comprehension which has usually plagued some geniuses during their lifetime may be even greater in the present world which in one moment globalizes everything, spreads knowledge universally so as to influence it and not to let anything escape; but the authentic Genius is the one who, in many cases, without having even sought it, establishes the guide lines and rhythm of Art, the Art which survives; the genius is that which opposes what is established from his artistic wealth and the freedom of his creativity so as to surprise us all, crushing and subduing us by something really great due to its novelty and depth. To Art critics, to Art collectors, to viewers of Art, it corresponds the humble, though fundamental, task of comprehending these forerunners, of analysing their reasons, their classical or contemporary backgrounds, something which to the genius, as Picasso affirms, is of little importance because of their obsession with their work, their stamp, a work which surpasses themselves and society and is engraved forever in history. Thus, the present challenge consists in knowing how to distinguish what is unique, what is outstanding, what will really remain as Art in a world which has the pernicious tendency of trying to govern the artist’s creativity and his inspiration by means of imposing styles closely linked to the luxury market, to high prices, promoting brands, all of which belong much more to the decorative arts than to Art itself, where the quest for beauty, the urgent need to express oneself, to break with the present and to create something absolutely new, are the principal forces which impel it, and not its commitment to society or to the taste of collectors.
The IOMR proposes “revenir à nos moutons”, to the classical parameters of the great eternal Masters , searching for common grounds and where one can link with those whom we consider the points of reference in the history of Art, with the purpose of counteracting the present tendency of banalising Art, that anything is worthwhile, and, on the contrary, of raising up the category of Art, but not to influence its creative process, which must, above all, be free and intuitive, but to give a critical, personal and totally partial opinion of the Present Artistic World.An opinion which may hopefully favour the discovery of this Genius who, we have just said, wanders freely on his own, or of those works which have been ignored or not sufficiently valued and which due to being imbued with the lustre of the past, perhaps for just that reason, have today been laid aside.
For this purpose the IOMR counts on the inestimable collaboration of Veronica Lasa, who is herself a painter and a Bachelor of Fine Arts and contributes to the project the fresh sap, and, in a way, the Alter Ego that this project requires with its interest focused on the daily needs of contemporary art, that is to say, first-hand knowledge of the world today, a world full of labyrinths, spirituality and anxiety, which confuses us with its variety, with its kaleidoscopic nature.
A portrait attributed to Dürer captures my attention during London’s Old Masters Week
London, Wednesday 4th July 2018
I am writing this blog in Gatwick airport without knowing yet how Sotheby’s Night Sale auction has developed. When the blog is published tomorrow we shall have been able to verify the prices effectively reached by the pictures here mentioned. I prefer however, to maintain the authenticity of my commentaries without giving the up-to-date information which all readers can check in Sotheby’s Auction Results.
Included amongst the auctions which are taking place in London this week, I would like to point out first of all a work presented in the Sotheby’s Night Sale of June 4:
Portrait of a man attributed to Albert Dürer (lot 11).
This work appears to me in itself exceptional, its attribution to Dürer cannot be disregarded and therefore the most up-to-date scholars of this genius should declare their considered opinion on this matter. Sotheby’s catalogue gives us Anzelewsky’s view (1971) that it is an autograph work by Dürer and I wholeheartedly share his arguments. Brodo Brinkmann, however, in 2005 suggests Martin Caldenbach as an alternative attribution, a painter who has left us very little work which, in my opinion, is definitely inferior to the quality revealed in the picture under discussion. According to my humble understanding as a connoisseur, the face, dominated by those eyes whose specially marked lacrimal and pupils pierce the spectator’s heart, is very similar to the ones depicted in the portraits painted by Dürer. It is indeed difficult to find other artists who paint with that profundity the look of a man in anguish.
On the other hand, in our picture, the very transparent pigments perhaps a bit worn, employed by the painter in a fluid way, allow us to see the way in which the Master uses a concise and free, but extremely assured drawing to make the features of the person depicted more individual, using as well relatively sketchy, though equally true, brush-strokes; all this induces us to think that the portrait may have been done directly ad vivo and represented a person very close to the Master. Nevertheless, the lack of quality in the treatment of the sitter’s hair, above all in the part surrounding his head, the absence of any trace of naturalism in the way the fur collar is represented, in a rough and clumsy manner, with dull repetitive brushstrokes on a monotonous background which has no depth or play of transparencies, all this calls my attention for its striking contrast to the quality shown in the countenance and makes me think that the Master might have painted only the face of the sitter, leaving the rest unfinished. The lack of quality in the depiction of the suit and the background is so astonishing that even the work-shop of any Master would have painted them better and the use as support of vellum on walnut would corroborate to some extent this hypothesis, since the painters of this epoch frequently used this support in their preparatory work. Studies by means of infra-red and x-ray are obligatory if one wishes to ascertain the lines of the excellent underdrawing of the portrait. If the underdrawing were limited only to the face, and we could have rubbed out the rest of the picture, the portrait, in my opinion, would gain greater strength and would appear to us less confused, better composed and more convincingly attributed.
To whom should it be attributed? This decision corresponds to the great authorities on Dürer, but, as a simple lover of the art of portraiture, I wonder which painter can render that look which reveals a nature both introspective and irascible? Who would be able to express equally well the tremendously complex human nature indicated by the person portrayed? To my way of thinking only Dürer, or perhaps another great portraitist like Michel Sittow could have done it, but never a lesser artist.
In this respect, allow me to express a simple opinion. When a work shows such outstanding aspects of quality, our study of its attribution should be as positive and brave as possible, not simply negative and ultraconservative, which is a comfortable position to adopt and without doubt saves us from the responsibility that attribution imposes. In my opinion, and even at the risk of being mistaken, the attribution of a work to a Master is the faithful recognition of his inherent and everlasting quality. Attribution to various Masters forms part of the historical richness of Art. This play of attributions increases our love of Art and the economic value of the work should correspond principally to its exceptional quality which is evident and not placed in doubt. These are, of course, merely wishes of a connoisseur collector, a lover of Art and artistic genius. In real life nowadays to catalogue a work as by a great Master is to grant it economic value, and, except in the case of documented works, its attribution may change in the course of time and thus its economic value may fluctuate, though not its artistic value which is only subject to its state of condition and is even superior to the variable tastes of every epoch.
It is now 8 p.m. and the work will probably have been already sold. I prefer not to check and to continue believing in my own reasoning. In my opinion, if one has the financial capacity, this is a type of picture for which one can confidently bid. Though this may appear presumptuous, I sincerely hope that the buyer has paid about a million pounds because this would mean that the market trusts that this work may really be a Dürer; a much better investment, though this may seem paradoxical, than if it had remained at around the more prudent estimation given by Sotheby’s of £300.000 to £400.000 because for really good works the higher the price paid the greater the prospects of its being revalued.☆
I only wish to add two short notes, one referring to Baron Van Dedem’s collection (lots 22 to 38), also presented by Sotheby’s, which due to their very high quality and good taste should have sold very well, (in particular the sketch by Rubens, worthy of being shown in the Prado’s present exhibition on the subject), and the other one on the magnificent picture attributed to Ribera (lot 56) whose exceptional quality in both pictorial technique and composition gives me absolute confidence in its attribution. I have not, however, completely understood why Sotheby’s does not grant full attribution to this work and gives it a relatively low estimation (£100.000 - £150.000) in spite of it being evident that the painting required the determination of a restorer who understood well the work of this Master.☆
Lastly, in Christie’s auction two works caught my attention: on the one hand, Our Lady with the Child by Gerard David represents in a sublime manner the aesthetic values of this great painter: tenderness, intimacy and softness; On the other hand, Portrait of Rubens’ daughter, Clara Serena, an authentic testimony of the tragic sentiment Rubens felt for this most beloved daughter who died a few months, or perhaps days, after being painted. This is a work which strikes us deeply and I hope the great collectors will comprehend it and that its undeniable quality will counteract certain doubts existing regarding its capacity to rise high during the auction due to a lack of absolute unanimity amongst Rubens’ scholars on its attribution, in spite of the fact that it would be included in the Corpus Rubenianum as an autograph work by Rubens. Although this painting gathers together in itself all the virtues of a Rubens, the collectors, frequently more investors than lovers of painting, are more eager to bid in unanimity with the experts than to follow their own feelings inspired by this great work☆☆.
☆Note written on the day after Sotheby’s auction on 4th July 2018.
The portrait attributed to Dürer starting at an estimated price of £300.000 /£400.000 was sold at £1.150.000. The Ribera portrait starting at £100.000 to £150.000 reached £430.000.
☆☆Note written on the day after Christie’s auction on 5th July 2018.
The painting Our Lady with Child by Gerard David was sold at the excellent price of £4.886.250 nearly 3 times the estimate but the “Portrait of Rubens’ daughter” unfortunately was not sold.
Visit to Tallinn for the inauguration of the exhibition “Michel Sittow. Estonian Painter at the Courts of Renaissance Europe”.
My trip to Tallinn on the occasion of Michel Sittow’s exhibition has been a wonderful opportunity to experience the efficacy of a small and recently constituted country like Estonia, which, indeed, is firmly rooted in Europe thanks to its capital city Tallinn, formerly Reval, having belonged to the Hanseatic League, historic precedent of the European Union. Following on these considerations, I feel particularly pleased to observe directly the enthusiasm their inhabitants show at belonging to the EU, no trifle matter in these times of growing European scepticism. I cannot therefore fail to thank Peter Van Den Brink for having given me the opportunity of knowing this magnificent country and of enjoying an insuperable group of paintings by Sittow.
Concentrating myself on the exhibition itself, I would like to draw attention to the imagination shown by the organizers in their use of space, situating the pictures at the innermost centre of the exhibition, within a great oval, and outside of this we can read all the historical and biographical explanations regarding Sittow and his epoch. We reach this octagonal hall after descending a stair-case and following its surrounding wall which rouses in me an impatient urge to arrive at the paintings, which was amply satisfied a few moments later on viewing them all together. This solution exhibitionwise helped visitors to enjoy the pictures shown like gems set in a wonderful greyish-blue background with only the painting’s label showing and thus enhancing its view in an incomparable setting.
Sittow was a peripatetic painter like many others of his time and travelled in 1484 from his native city, Reval, to Bruges in order to train with Hans Memling and afterwards work for the various European courts. His historic fame is due to "Isabel la Católica", as he was her favourite painter together with Juan de Flandes, and to the circumstance that his only two documented works were included in "Margarita of Austria’s" collection, when she acquired many of the panels of the celebrated altarpiece of Isabel la Católica. Thus Sittow is the paradigm of the travelling artist who arrives in Spain in 1492 attracted by the vitality of the kingdom of Castilla and where he remains until at least 1502 when he travels to Flanders to be the painter of "Felipe el Hermoso", (Philip the Fair) and almost certainly to London where he paints a portrait of Henry VII. In 1506, on Philip’s death, he returns to Reval and in 1514 he travels to Copenhagen in order to do a portrait of King Christian II and afterwards returns to the Low Countries as Court Painter of Margarita and to Castilla to collect debts and probably be painter of the Regent, King Fernando el Católico. On the latter’s death, he returns to Reval where he dies in 1525.
Comparison with Juan de Flandes is a passionately enthralling exercise for anyone who has a connoisseur’s eye which is accustomed to the alternative attributive options arising when one compares the two famous panels of the polyptic altarpiece of "Isabel la Católica", representing The Ascension of Christ (cat.4, private collection) and The Assumption of Our Lady (cat.3 National Gallery of Art, Washington), both documented as by Michel Sittow and painted between 1500 and 1504, with the rest of the panels attributed historically, though not documented, to the painter Juan Flamenco. Their differences, generally speaking, lie in that Sittow has a more independent style, his paintings are much more sculptural in his hand-writing and his personages have more serious expressions, following the models of the first generation of Flemish painters, specially Roger van der Weyden and, according to what Peter van den Brink suggests during the visit to the exhibition, are close to other contemporary Flemish artists like Jan Provost. Juan de Flandes, nevertheless, has a softer style, similar to the second generation of Flemish painters, such as Hans Memling and Hugo van den Goes and to contemporary Flemish painters like Gerard David. Both coincide in their carefully meticulous finishings which we appreciate in their gleaming jewels and brocades and in how they use light for outlining the faces, though we must point out that Juan de Flandes is rather repetitive whereas Sittow’s faces nearly always maintain their own individuality.
Following on Peter van der Brink’s commentary, we remain pending to go deeper into the attributive debate already opened by Matthias Weniger regarding the oeuvre of painters belonging to Sittow’s generation due to searching for new works by Sittow which may arise, specially religious compositions painted during his prolonged visits to Tallinn and Flanders before his journey to Spain and during the period when he was painter at the court of Margarita of Austria. Regarding the Spanish period, debate is focused on his participation in works also attributed to Juan de Flandes like the altarpiece of Saint John the Baptist in the Cartuja de Miraflores Monastery and in the altarpiece of the Chapel of the Condestable Alvaro de Luna in Toledo Cathedral; the panels of this altarpiece representing Saints Catherine and Mary Magdalene as well as the two Saint Johns are certainly imbued with the gravity and monumentality granted to Sittow’s work. We know many facts of his life, including that he was paid 50.000 maravedíes by Queen Isabel, which gives one an idea of the importance Sittow must have had before 1492 when he was about 24 years old, and nevertheless the work firmly attributed to him during this epoch, up to the present, does not exist.
As a portrait painter Michel Sittow, thanks to his technical quality but, above all, due to his capacity to represent human beings, admits few comparisons. His portrait of a gentleman, dated 1510, at present in the Mauritshuis Museum of the Hague (cat.14) has the strength and the psychological acumen of the portraits by Van Eyck, the sharpness of the few portraits that we know of Jean Fouquet and the depth of the self-portraits of Albert Dürer. The immediacy of Sittow’s portraits is far superior to that of his contemporaries, Gossaert, Joos Van Cleve or Juan de Flandes, who are technically insuperable and have an inherent humanity, though they are often rather repetitive; he is even superior to the portraits of Memling himself, one of whose works is included in the exhibition (cat.7 National Gallery of Washington), an absolute gem of pictorial virtuosism, but lacking in soul, as if one were just representing, and that indeed splendidly, the human body. If we search for comparable examples which may approach the expressive strength and modernity of Sittow’s portraits, we can only find individual masterpieces such as Quentin Metsys’ portrait of a woman (1520) and the portrait of Jean Clouet by Guillaume Budé (1535) both in the Metropolitan Museum of New York, also the portrait of a young student in the Boijmans Museum of Rotterdam which has an equally scrutinising look, similar to the possible self-portrait of Sittow, Young man in a red cap in the Detroit Institute of Arts (1490)-cat. nº 2.
Included among the unbeatable group of works by Sittow which I have seen, I would like to point out the two which have conquered me:
Let us begin with the supposed portrait of Mary Tudor (1514)-(cat.9 of the Kunsthistorisches Museum Gemäldegalerie, Vienna). Facing it, I feel immediately the shock of modernity in the way he concentrates all the spectator’s attention in the face by means of a beam of light which falls directly from the left that reminds me of Antonello de Messina and Leonardo, effacing her absolutely frontal position.
The very original design of the composition, based on a series of fine geometrical, almost cubistic lines which form the portrait, could be the development of a composition derived from other painters like Roger van der Weyden, in his portrait of a Woman (1484) in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, or Petrus Christus in his portrait of a Girl (1470) in the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin, but with a difference which makes this work, if possible, even greater: to portray a person facing front is indeed a real tour de force. A perfectly rounded head-band outlines the oval of her face, meticulously adorned with a superbly embossed gold necklace which ends in a square décolletage which cuts out a mauve coloured dress, now unfortunately darkened. The sitter’s way of looking downwards, as if lost in thought, rendering that air of introspection, so characteristic of Sittow, gives the picture a sign of intimacy suggesting prayer. The soft lines and the point of light on her nose, the excellent technique the painter demonstrates in his rendering of gold work and jewels are done without the least sign of repetitiveness, all this is a true touch-stone of the quality of Sittow in this work.
Another exceptional work considered by connoisseurs as one of the best Flemish portraits of the epoch is the portrait of Diego de Guevara by Sittow, 1515/1518 (cat. 13) in National Gallery of Art, Washington, which is part of a diptych whose twin side is a Madonna and Child, 1515/1518, now in Berlin the (Gemäldegalerie Berlin (cat 12)) and which is situated just beside it in the exhibition. In Guevara’s portrait we find an expression of infinite sorrow and melancholy of the sitter, an extremely authentic and spontaneous, though controlled, feeling of pathos, which can only be compared with what we feel viewing Christ’s Descent from the Cross by Roger van der Weyden in the Prado Museum where José de Arimatea has evident similarities to Guevara. We are thus facing a devotional portrait where the painter does not try to express individuality or human personality, as seen in the aforementioned portraits of the Detroit Museum or the Mauritshuis, or in the portrait of a man (cat.16, private collection, on loan to the Hertogenbosch Noordbrabants Museum), but rather, in accordance with Roger van der Weyden, this is where Sittow seeks to express the depth of religious feeling as something essentially human. Sittow, with the exceptional simplicity which characterises great Masters, in this diptych, sets up against Death, representing Guevara’s look, life, personified in this wondrous Virgin and Child, full of sweetness and majesty.
Without any doubt, one of the principal achievements of this exhibition is to have managed to hang side by side both these pictures because precisely here, in the way Sittow represents the greatness of human sentiment, resides his own stature.
Arnao de Bruselas and Roque Balduque: two Brabant sculptors who triumphed in Spain
The discovery by the IOMR of a relief work representing the prophet Nataan rebuking King David by Arnao de Bruselas and another one of a Lamentation at the death of Jesus Christ by Roque Balduque offers us a magnificent opportunity to give its corresponding importance to the transcendental influence which the artistic currents of the Brabant region have exerted on the development of Spanish Renaissance sculpture, specially two of the richest and most important movements of sculpture which have developed in Spain from the 1530’s: the Navarre-Aragonese-Riojan school and the Andalusian school. This important group of artists coming from a Brabant, already flourishing from the concluding years of the XVth century onwards, became even more fertile during the first half of the XVIth century. In my opinion this is a field of study which should arouse the same interest among researchers of the Low Countries as in Spain where it has always been an object of unanimous recognition.
At the beginning of the XVIth century the exquisite Flemish tradition in sculpture , whose origins spring from Claus Sluter, educated in Brabant and from the work-shops specialised in small altar-pieces of high quality developed in Brussels, will survive and even have a second blossoming in Spain, promoting a symbiosis between the wealth of Italian artistic canons, brought by their artists imbued by the mannerism of the North, and the strength of the local Spanish religious temperament; all this will lead to what is the polychromed sculpture of the Spanish Renaissance, the origin of an artistic tradition, which is almost unique in the European artistic panorama and which will survive until well into the XVIIIth century. This resolute Spanish artistic interest in religious expression by means of polychromed sculpture, born at the outset of the XVIth century, gained greater strength from other currents, such as the Romanism of Gaspar Becerra at mid-century and will continue to evolve till there in the school of Navarra with its Master Ancheta, the school of Seville with the great Martinez Montañés, the school of Granada, with Alonso Cano and Pedro Mena as principal leaders, the school of Castile, always favouring the Italian influence brought by the Eagles of the Renaissance and Gaspar Becerra with his Michelangelesque nuances, who reaches his apotheosis with Gregorio Hernández and concludes in the XVIIIth century with the Murcia school magnificently represented by Francisco Salcillo.
The influence of the artistic movements of Brabant in the kingdom of Spain was not a novelty. During the XVth century Castile was one of the principal importers of Flemish panels and later of painters like, Michael Sittow (1492), Juan de Flandes (1496), favourite painter of Queen Isabel, and Juan de Borgoña, specially patronised by the Church, so that in painting the Hispano Flamenco style and in architecture and sculpture the Isabelino style prevailed, whose greatest exponent was Gil de Siloé, also called Gil de Amberres, a native of Brabant, according to the majority of his distinguished researchers.
This influence was accentuated during the first thirty years of the XVIth century during the reign of Charles V, by the political union of Spain and the northern territories and the notable increase of commercial relations with Spain due to the consolidation of the discovery of America, much more than the monarch’s support whose artistic taste was more closely linked to Italian art than to Flemish style, as may be observed in the unfinished work of Charles V’s Palace at Granada and his own special predilection for Titian.
Therefore, the main causes of the emigration to Spain of Flemish talent in sculpture-making at the beginning of the XVIth century were the religious fervour of the Spanish people, in addition to the wealth of a powerful Church who paid much better, a growing lack of interest for sculpture as a form of artistic expression precisely in the Northern regions caused by a change in the aesthetics of the altar-piece and, above all, due to the growth of a certain repulsion for the representation of sculptures as images of religious cult and a gradual cultural separation in the Brabant. So the kingdom of Spain becomes providentially the principal magnet for European sculptors who seek the important artistic commissions of Charles V and, specially, of the Spanish church; at the same time a profound crisis is created in the Brabant sculptural medium where there only remain active dynasties such as the Duquesnoy or the Verbruggen. During this period their domination in the sculptural field disappeared in favour of painting which prevailed and produced great figures like Frans Pourbus the Younger and Rubens and Van Dyck in the following century; the foreign artists came to Spain like a windfall. From Italy were Pietro di Torrigiano, Domenico Fancelli, Giovanni da Nola, Giacopo Fiorentino, Juan de Moreto and the Leoni family; from Burgundy and Loraine, Felipe Bigarni, Michel Perrin, Nicolas Lyon, Gabriel Joly, Jacques Bernal, the Breaugrant brothers, the Beauvais brothers,the Imberto family and Juan de Juni; from the Territories of the Lower Rhine, Rodrigo Alemán, Simón de Colonia and his son Francisco de Colonia and Alejo de Vahia; from the Brabant zone the most documented were Copin de Holanda, Guillen de Holanda, Cornielles de Holanda, Juan de Bruselas, Domingo de Amberes, Arnao de Bruselas, the Bolduque brothers and Roque Balduque among a number of minor artists. They all brought to Spain, who was just emerging from the Reconquista and from discovering America, the technique which the Spaniards lacked since manual work was exclusively reserved to the moriscos and a virtuosism which amazes the comitents. They established the organization of work in a studio and the idea of specialization of crafts, which had only been initially developed in special cases such as Gil de Siloé and, finally they promoted the recognition of the Master’s hand in works of art, as the sign of the final quality which works must have and which only in the XVIth century begin to figure in contracts in Spain.
Arnao de Bruselas, the most representative sculptor of the Navarre-Aragonese-Riojan school.
If in a first instance we concentrate ourselves on Arnao de Bruselas, the author of the relief representing the prophet Nataan, recently discovered and profoundly studied by Professor Jesús María Parrado del Olmo, we shall realize that he was without any doubt the most representative sculptor of the Navarre-Riojan Renaissance, a region which, as Georges Weiss declares, assembles in scarcely 100 square kilometres a group of the richest and most original examples of European Renaissance sculpture which is maintained in altar-pieces and shows signs, to some extent, of protobaroque style. The figure of Arnao de Bruselas stands out as a result of a documental discovery which vouches that he worked as an official for Damian Forment from 1536 for four years. This would credit him with working at the Cathedral of Santo Domingo de la Calzada in 1537. Furthermore, he is attested to have worked in the churches of Genevilla (1549), Alberite (1550), in the imperial church of Santa Maria de Palacio in 1553 and in the Monastery of Veruela in 1556. Success with these projects permitted him in 1557 to embark on the contract of the Cathedral of La Seo at Zaragoza and later on the contract of Aldea de Ebro in 1564 before his death in 1565. These works are meticulously documented and have been carefully studied by historians of Riojan art, specially by Professor Julián Ruiz-Navarro (1981) and later on by Francisco Fernández Pardo and Jesús Parrado del Olmo .They have been managing to assemble the corpus of his work, entirely concentrated in that area of Spain, which is completely coherent, of high quality and may be considered as a result of the fusion of the author's Flemish roots with the influence of Damiant Forment and of Alonso Berruguete whose genius he attempts to emulate.
We are aware that Arnao de Bruselas is active as a sculptor of images in the work-shop of the Beaugrant brothers and Andrés de Araoz. That is the reason why many of his works before being documented were attributed to Andrés de Araoz who signed the contracts with the clients. Araoz was a entallador who was very active in the Basque-Navarre zone; as a sculptor his artistic gifts were more limited than Arnao’s whose difference between their respective talent was distinguished clearly by Georges Weiss in the altar-piece at the church of Genevilla. The confusion of the work of Arnao with that of the Beaugrant brothers who had a work-shop in the Basque-Navarre zone , which competed with Araoz's and the Beauvais' studios, is a different question altogether. The Beaugrants were very well studied by José Angel Barrio Loza regarding their altar-pieces, with paradigmatic examples like the Piedad of the parish church of Ezcaray, which show an entirely Flemish style without autochthonous influences and an exquisite technique characterized by the excessive movement of his compositions, in rounded and blown up clothing, highly dramatic expressions full of the mannerism of the north ; the opposite of Arnao who is more Italianate and favourable to local influences. Though we have evidence of the work carried out by the Beaugrants for Margaret of Austria's court in Malines in 1526 and from 1529-1532 in Bruges where he makes the famous Franc Fireplace, regarding Arnao de Bruselas we can only assume that he came from Brussels as indicated in the contracts discovered in Spain. In them it is stated that his first documented works were effected as a craftsman in Damian Forment’s work-shop where he was surely introduced by the Beaugrants on the occasion of the construction of the altar-piece for the Cathedral of Santo Domingo de la Calzada in 1537; due to Forment’s sudden death in 1540 Arnao had to finish it basing his work on the highly appreciated designs left by the Valencian Master. In accordance with Parrado del Olmo's considerations, Arnao de Bruselas worked as an independent "imaginero" during long periods of his life which allowed him to have freedom and artistic independence which he openly enjoyed, and which was sought after by the great contractors of the zone, the Beaugrants and the Araoz. In fact, Arnao acts like another great sculptor of French origin, Esteban Jamete, who worked as a travelling sculptor in Toledo and Andalusia until he settled down in Cuenca.
Arnao de Bruselas' style, in his first epoch, reminds one of Damian Forment's with its balanced and leisurely rhythm, and very Italianate whose best examples are his sculptures in Santo Domingo de la Calzada (1537-1540’s). The altar-pieces of the churches in Sonsierra, Abalos and Elvillar belong to this period in which he worked with the Beaugrants around 1545. In 1549 he worked at the church in Genevilla contracted as "imaginero" by Andrés de Araoz; he also worked on contract for the churches of Lapoblación (Navarre) and Busto where, although he still followed the designs of Forment, we can already appreciate signs of Berruguete.
Arnao's second period coincides with his artistic meeting with Alonso Berruguete. Although we do not believe he met personally him, as we only know that Berruguete was in Zaragoza in 1518 on his return from Italy, but probably Arnao may have entered into contact with his style through the Castilian polychromer, Andrés de Melgar, who worked with Alonso Berruguete and who had an important collection of drawings by the Master. Melgar polychromed many of the sculptures of the altar-piece the Cathedral of Santo Domingo de la Calzada and of the church of Lapoblación. From him Arnao de Bruselas will receive his expressionistic mannerism, his original designs, the helical line, the serpentine figure, the rotatory position of figures with hunched shoulders, the importance of foreshortening, half-open lips, frowning brows, longing expressions, grasping hands , which we shall see at the end of the 40's and, above all, from 1550 onwards, but always reserving to certain persons in their compositions an air of solemnity, a sense of majesty which is in contrast with the nervousness of the rest of the figures. He might also have received the influence of Berruguete through Burgos which exerted a strong impact on the sculpture of Rioja and is also very open to the influence of the school of Palencia, particularly of Manuel Alvarez, who worked, when scarcely a youth, on the choir-stalls of the Cathedral of Toledo. Finally Arnao could have also received the influence of Gregorio Pardo, the son of Bigarni, who entered Forment's studio and worked actively in these territories. We cannot overlook the increasing movement of his figures which would point towards a possible influence of Juan de Valmaseda and the excessive movement of his Madonnas, so characteristic of his style; moreover we have evidence of Valmaseda's activity in Burgos during that period. We know that during this second period Arnao rents a residence - workshop in Logroño in 1552 and he carries out works in the churches of Aberite and in the Imperial church of Santa María del Palacio (1553); the latter is one of his principal masterpieces and its altar-piece is insuperably beautiful, not only due to the design of its compositions which are more tranquil and foretell a change of rhythm in his style and carving, displaying a most refined technique, but also due to the magnificent polychromy carried out by Francisco Fernandez Vallejo who, as a matter of fact, was the artist who made the polychromy of the relief recently discovered by us.
From 1556 onwards Arnao begins his third artistic period, a a result of a visit to Zaragoza and his almost certain meeting with Gaspar Becerra who was returning from his journey to Italy, imbued with the canon and rhythm of Michelangelo. During these years Arnao de Bruselas carries out the reliefs of the chappel of San Bernardo at the Monastery of Veruela in 1556 and the trascoro of the Cathedral of La Seo de Zaragoza in 1557. These are Masterpieces in which Arnao softens the movements of his scenes where his personages acquire a greatness and a stature thanks to the form in which there are presented to us, in the foreground, with a slight contraposto which blends delicately with the folds of their robes which become continuously soft and flowing, and their faces show Michelangelesque expressions of self-absorption and contemplation. His compositions give special importance to the inter-play of looks and corporal gestures which announce in a restrained way the Baroque. Our relief is a magnificent example of this epoch in which Arnao de Bruselas made his last works: for the Cathedral of La Seo of Zaragoza, the Monastery of Veruela and for the church of Aldeanueva del Ebro. Professor Jesús Parrado del Olmo, in his study of our work, describes how the characteristics of the relief are specially related to San Vicente Mártir of the cathedral of La Seo of Zaragoza and to various reliefs in the Monastery of Veruela.
Roque Balduque, origin of the Golden Age of Sevillian Polychrome Sculpture
The second relief presented in this article is by Roque Balduque according to the study made by Professor Parrado del Olmo. This is a sculptor born in the capital of northern Brabant, Bois-le Duc, nowadays Hertogenbosch, or Den Bosch.
There exists a certain discussion regarding whether he may have belonged to the same family of sculptors, the Bolduque, who emigrated to Spain in mid XVIth century; according to García Chico, part of this Bolduque family remained in Medina de Río Seco where their supposed brothers, Juan Mateo, Pedro and Diego, who first appear in 1558 in documentary form, as having created in Castile important altar-pieces in the Romanist style of Gaspar Becerra. Following on García Chico’s research, we may presume that one of the members of the family must have chosen to make his way in Sevilla where, in typical Andalusian fashion, they modified the name to Roque Balduque. In any case, in 1538 he appears in documents, much earlier than the Bolduque family, as resident of Sevilla and married to Isabel de Bolduc, though his first works only appear documented from 1550 onwards. Anyhow his artistic importance in this city was decisive and for this reason artistic scholars are unanimous in considering Roque Balduque together with Isidro de Villoldo as the creators of the Andalusian School of Sculpture and Roque Balduque as the first representative of the Golden Age of Sevillian Sculpture, followed by Juan Bautista Vazquez the Elder and reaching its climax with Martínez Montañés.
Roque Balduque’s widespread reputation and artistic transcendency are due to the commission by the Archdiocese of Sevilla, documented in 1554, to make a series of sculptures of Our Lady for the many parishes and sororities of the city. The Madonna of Nuestra Señora del Amparo of the Magdalena parish, where it is known he resided , and the Mother of God, Our Lady of all the Saints of the Omnium Santorum, the most important sorority of Sevilla, are two examples of the Renaissance splendour displayed by these most beautiful Madonnas who, steeped in melancholy, offer an air of modernity hitherto unknown in this land and who nowadays constitute in themselves a prototype recognised throughout the world as the finest representatives of Sevillian art; Madonnas who spend the winter in the parish churches and once a year, during Sevilla’s Holy Week, are taken out in procession by the various fraternities as the sign of identity of a unique cultural heritage . Roque Balduque is also the creator of many images of Christ amongst which stand out the Christ of the Concatedral Santa María la Mayor of Cáceres, work similarly documented, and the Christ of Veracruz in Alcalá del Río; the latter is only attributed to Roque Balduque, but is no less exceptional. In all these works we perceive a gentle and beautiful dramatism which is also observed in the recumbent Christ of our relief “Lamentation at Christ’s Death” where Christ appears to be asleep rather than dead.
Roque Balduque’s participation in various reliefs in both wings of the altar-piece of the Cathedral of Sevilla is also documented; this is certainly one of his first works and gives one an idea of the importance this sculptor must have had in the city. The reliefs Saint Paul’s conversion, Jesus amongst the doctors, The Conversion of Saul and The Last Judgement are all by him. As Parrado del Olmo declares, various styles have been assigned to Roque Balduque which he employs according to the institution from whom he had received the commission; his sculptural images are sometimes carved according to a more primitive pattern, even ignorant of the Flemish mannerism, such as the Madonna in Nuestra Sra. de la Cabeza and the relief of Santa Ana, la Vírgen y el Niño of the church in Alcalá del Río where a deliberate rigidity is perceived which follows closely the lines of the feminine figures of the recently discovered relief. In all of this, however, there is a tendency to create the prototype of a beautiful Virgin Mary, with perfect oval face and features which reminds us even, in its stately majesty, the Madonnas of Bellini, whose countenance is subtly framed by a cloak of finely gathered folds. Included in his ample work, duly documented, but partly lost due to the ravages of the Napoleonic wars and the Spanish civil war, one cannot fail to mention the imposing High Altar-piece carved in wild pine and not polychromed in the Concatedral Santa María la Mayor of Cáceres, where he collaborated with Guillén Ferrán between 1547 and 1551 and whose reliefs work have certain similarities to the Lamentation at Christ’s death which we are presenting here and which both coincide in being carved in similar wood.
Finally, Roque Balduque is recognised as being one of the first sculptors who exported works of art to territories overseas. It is almost absolutely certain that the Virgen del Rosario of the Convent of Santo Domingo in Lima was carved by his gouge which caused his iconography of Our Lady to spread so successfully through the Hispano-American territories, where his influence on local iconography is amply recognised. In 1561 he died leaving various disciples who followed faithfully his style and spread even more his iconography amongst the people; the most important of his followers was the Dutchman Juan de Giralte who concluded Roque’s unfinished works due to his sudden death; other followers were Juan de Villalba, Pedro de Heredia and Domingo Ortega who sculpted Madonnas & Christs which are considered today typically Sevillian works, but whose origins lie 3000 kilometres to the north, in what is nowadays one of the principal cities of Holland, Hertogenbosch, which is also the birth-place in 1516 of a genius of painting, El Bosco, who has left us a message which is poles apart from Roque Balduque.
In my opinion, the enormous capacity for adapting themselves of these artists, how they were able to capture the Spanish religious fervour, making this alien message their own, contributing their technique and artistic talent and absorbing the autoctonous influences, assimilating a culture which at least initially must have seemed foreign to them; and they did all this so perfectly that centuries later they are considered great Spanish artists, though forgetting which was their original country.
In this respect, since the IOMR has a centre in Helmond, a city now belonging to northern Brabant, it feels bound to recue from oblivion these illustrious artists who left behind them their culture, their family, though not their genius nor their talent, in search of new opportunities. Artists who enriched with their artistic gifts a country which at that time was rising up after centuries of struggle to reconquer their country from the Moors and at the same time determined to discover America; a nation which received them and gave them a project which inspired them to embrace their culture and create works of art which have reflected the harshness of the Spanish spirit and for this reason have not been completely understood or valued in its native country. CHS
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ALBARDONEDO FREIRE, Antonio J.:” Un crucero del taller de Roque de Balduque, procedente de San Isidoro del Campo en la colección del Museo Arqueológico de Sevilla”. Laboratorio de Arte, 19, 2006, 85-99.
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Commentaries concerning TEFAF 2018
Tefaf 2018 has a very special importance for IOMR in as much as it permits us to share with our patrons and friends a collection of first class works.
At first sight, many changes as regards other years, mainly due to the absence of two galleries which are emblematic of Tefaf, as are Johnny Van Haelften’s who, people say, is semi-retired, and that of Fabrizzio Moretti, for unknown reason... By the way, I thought it was a very good idea to have two previews, one on Thursday 8th only for collectors and curators and another one on the following day, in general. This permitted avoiding the crowding of other years at the preview.
From the point of view of the design and presentation of the stands, I would point out the modern minimalism and good taste of the Rob Smeets Gallery, where a Velazquezian greige blends the walls in with the floor, making his always correctly selected masterpieces stand out in contrast and thus creating favourable surroundings for individual viewing. But, above all, it is Tomasso Brothers’ stand which captivates us. An absolute ode dedicated to the Grand Tour is offered to us in the exceptional and privileged space traditionally reserved for Johnny Van Haelften, where walls covered with painted paper representing Pompeian frescoes are the background for a splendid collection of marbles of the XVIth and XVIIth centuries, among which I would point out a pair of monumental sculptures by the Baroque artist of the Medici Court, Gian Battista Foggini, which were in fact sold on the first day of the Fair, together with a Roman bust of the XVIth century, representing a middle-aged man whose exceptional patina evokes poetically in us the spirit of the irremediable passage of time.
As it has occurred to me many times with Tefaf, on my first visit I cannot conceal a certain disappointment which is partially relieved by various masterpieces which call my attention: A Gian Domenico Tiepolo 's portrait of the highest pictorial quality, and in a state of condition not frequently found amongst Venetian XVIIIth century works of art; a portrait by Joaquín Sorolla representing very well his Art, and where one can appreciate his mastery of the paintbrush in representing an instant, which is so characteristic of this Master amongst Masters; a superb Bernardo Caballino which makes us evoke an Italianate Zurbarán, and an enormous equestrian portrait of the Count Duke of Olivares, which will cause a great impact to any lover of the Spanish XVIIth century , a work of art by the still not well known great Flemish painter, Gaspar de Crayer. This picture, worthy of being exhibited in the Velazquez Room of the Prado Museum, en pendant to the equestrian portrait of the Duke of Lerma by Rubens, merits a special digression since it represents a magnificent example of how the privileged and intuitive eye of a picture gallery dealer like Mark Weiss restores the value corresponding to masterpieces which have been disregarded by auction houses. This portrait appeared at the end of 2017 in the Paris market at an absurdly low price. Mark Weiss courageously bid up to over 700.000 €. It was presented at Tefaf in a top state of condition and, bearing in mind its absolutely certain provenance from the Collection of the Marqués de Leganés, it will certainly become a landmark for this important court painter of the Cardenal Infante don Fernando whose fame has been historically lessened due to being a contemporary of Rubens, Van Dyck and Velazquez, men of genius in painting who caused a revolution in the concept of Art at that time.
On the second day of my visit to Tefaf 2018, following on the commentaries made to members of IOMR, I discover various works of art which rouse in me a feeling of passion for this Fair. Such sudden changes of mood are frequently felt by collectors and curators visiting a particular Tefaf. We start off at Richard Green’s stand where various scenes of the beaches of Normandy by Eugène Boudin catch our attention; a landscape by Monet confronts another one more weakly painted by Alfred Sisley. All this leads me to transmit to my companions how one can distinguish the quality of a work, why one work captivates us and why other works do not enchant us so much; the importance of scrutinizing certain details which often determine the stamp of the artist; how a characteristic Boudin is that of a beach crowded with people enveloped in a breeze which blurs colours and outlines, creating a sensation of space in depth; how Monet’s sky and sea, blended together in myriads of colours, take the shape of a moment of light in a morning which, however, is not expressed in the same way in Alfred Sisley’s picture, hanging next to it, with its rougher brush-strokes and solid, prosaic colouring. As we leave this stand, at the corner, an impressionist landscape by Gustave Caillebote suggests to me to insist on the importance that this painter and patron gives to shadows in his works and how this picture, thanks to its diagonal line of perspective, reminds one of certain compositions of the Dutch Golden Age of painting and specially of Meindert Hobbema and Jacob van Ruisdael.
We continue our visit and we stop facing a Lucas Cranach, a high quality portrait, but considered by the vetting committee as painted by Cranach the Younger and Studio. This permitted me to wonder how one distinguishes the hand of the Master from that of the Studio. In this case the work has all the characteristics of a Cranach, due to the sinuosity of the line which draws the physiognomy of the sitter, the stereotyped acuteness of his look lacking in psychological depth, due to the flatness of the colouring dominated by the aquamarine blue of the background which makes the outline of the flat face of the person stand out without making the slightest concession to naturalism. Nevertheless, if one continues scrutinizing the picture, on reaching the person’s hands, the quality of the lines seems to fail, the outlines become clumsy, the lines of the fingers are not drawn with adequate rotundity and they haven`t got the slightest strength or expressivity and therefore do not carry out any function in the portrait. The hands are, without any doubt, the cause that the vetting committee would have considered that the picture was partially made by the studio.
We arrive at Michael Goedhius’ stand, a picture gallery dealer for whom I feel special admiration because he is a true lover of Art who was able to reconvert himself twenty years ago. After being a distinguished reference in the world of Oriental Archeology, Assyrian and Mesopotamian Art, he became an authentic head hunter of contemporary Chinese talent. This type of symbiosis and personal conversion, based on the intuition which leads one to anticipate change and have the capacity to distinguish artistic genius, whatever the epoch or country to which it belongs, is something very difficult to find nowadays. In Goedhuis’ stand, a drawing by Emilie Pugh effected with a technique which is both ancestral and modern, based on the use of burnt incense, invades my field of vision. The subject is an abstract representation of the invisible energies of the Cosmos, of continuous movement which is not visually perceived. The work arouses in me a sudden presentiment evoking in my mind Leonardo and Rustici, inclining me potentially towards a dialogue on contemporary Art with the most innovative genius of History and, for that very reason, capable of representing in the best way the energies inherent in the human being, Nature and Cosmos.
Now already at the point of terminating our visit, a work attributed to the Master of Half-length Figures catches our attention. It is a portrait of a young woman carried out with a magnificent trompe l’oeil technique, with enamel colouring and very detailed brush-strokes, characteristic of the early Flemish painters. There is, however, something in this picture which transcends the stereotyped nature of painting by the Master of Half-length Figures and which grants a special uniqueness to this work: the beseeching nature of the young girl, is naturalistic, and reminds us of Jan Gossaert and turns it into a most desirable work for a collector who appreciates these nuances.
On Wednesday I managed to visit Tefaf for the last time so as to rescue from oblivion the works which are always disregarded due to my not keeping to a desirable and correct order during the previous visits. In fact I am surprised that on my successive visits to Tefaf, I always find novelties worth mentioning. Three pictures enchant me: a small Corneille de Lion, the portrait of a French King; another one by the Genovese painter Alessandro Magnasco who is a forerunner of the typical XVIIIth century scenes plenty of small figures; and a Masterpiece by Jean Baptiste Oudry, the great French painter of hunting scenes at the end of the XVIIth century. Regarding the Corneille de Lion picture I am deeply touched by the delicate melancholy expressed by the King, a symbol of French sentiment. With Magnasco the scenes of everyday life are doubtless those in which he shows himself a greater genius and innovator. In these pictures his brush strokes are comparable to those of Guardi and indeed I would say that his pictorial calligraphy is more neurotic than the one of Watteau, demonstrating a modernity which has not yet been sufficiently studied. The Oudry picture in the Stair Sainty Gallery, a true sanctuary of French painting, is a real Masterpiece, according to all the meanings of the term, which moves between a classicism which was dying out and the first rays of dawn of the XVIIIth century Rococo, the most unmistakably French style, as recognisable then as it is now out of fashion; which makes you realise that in not more than a generation everything has changed...
Christie’s announces for this spring the auction of the famous Rockefeller collection in the centre of New York City. To this effect, they have organized a travelling exhibition consisting of a selection of what they consider its best works. Starting at Hong Kong, it will stop off in London and Los Angeles till its final destination in Rockefeller Center. Needless to say, in view of the display of the communications media and the good health of the Art Markets, we imagine record prices will be met.
In compliance with Peggy’s and David’s will, the funds obtained will go entirely to benevolent institutions in which they participated in the past. In this way, the auction gains double its value; on the one hand, it will allow the new purchasers to enjoy the aesthetic pleasure and the possession of works recognized as masterpieces and with this transaction what is most noteworthy and where it is clearly demonstrated the philanthropic nature of this family which is to finance initiatives benefiting Science and Education, thus giving the most direct social service.
In the ample review which Christie’s suggests we should read in its web is described the birth of this collection which shared the principles of the MoMa inauguration, the feverish purchases of the Guggenheims, Hay, Whitney and so many anonymous North American buyers who sought in the recently liberated Paris the basis on which to establish the growing Museum of Art of their own country. An important part of this auction corresponds to the collection which belonged to Gertrude Stein who, together with her brother, with Ezra Pound, John Dos Passos, Ernest Hemingway and so many other writers, musicians and painters of the “lost generation” crossed the ocean to drink of the artistic movement in the between-wars Paris and contributed to strengthen the myth of the “Avant-Gardes” whose claims still survive nowadays and which in the culture of the western world have almost the category of a religion.
From the lengthy catalogue of this collection the eminent auction house has emphasized a list of works as its highlights and on these I shall allow myself a moment’s reflexion. At first sight, with reference to the visual arts, this selection covers the limited range of twenty years’ production, saving the presence of Edward Hopper and Georgia O’Keefe, both disciples of the subtle colourist William Merrit Chase, a fervent lover of Venice, of the Venice of Francesco Guardi and Giorgione, where he stayed for long periods of time, leaving us a wonderful legacy of "vedute" and portraits immortalised in that city.
If we start making comparisons, I think of the exquisite selection of masterpieces belonging to all the epochs that Henry Clay Frick did which any lover of the arts may enjoy just approaching 70th street, facing Central Park. Also, going a little higher, entering deep into Harlem, we find the extraordinarily wide collection of works of Archer Milton Huntington in his Hispanic Society, which covers such an ample range of periods, although obstinately centred in Hispanism. It is, no doubt, certainly true that both these collectors belonged to a previous generation when Utopias were still considered mere intellectual exercizes and did not guide the artists’ paintbrushes.
Nevertheless, going back to the auction, in the lots devoted to porcelain and Art and Crafts, I see objects belonging to different centuries living together. This increases the resounding volume of my claim: Does the Pontificate of “Avant-Garde” artists employ a sort of dictatorship, since having been born between doubt and the trick played by Paris and then made legitimate by the purchases of North American magnates, is it capable of arriving at the present day as a blinding deluge so that we are prevented from differentiating between the essence of the Artistic object, a daring search made by German idealism for the Marxist idea of added value, which has nothing to do with that object, but is a mixture of sociology and the technical capacity for reproducing works of art?
One of the attributes of the “Avant Garde” movement, which it obstinately insists in presenting as its variable external appearance, is its immediacy (hence also its liability to appear out of date), assuredly derived from the cult of speed which dominated the XXth century. It is enough to remember the speeches of Marinetti and D’Annunzio, the race in space, the development of photography, cinema, television, etc..., antagonistic inertias against the true, slow and attentive communion with the objects the genius of humanity has given us, irrespective of dates.
Because I am conscious that the angle of vision is wider on the complete map of time, including the future, I wish that this XXIst century were less urgently pressed for time.
Facing the ceramic plate of little fishes by Picasso, I remember an episode known to everybody. On that afternoon when Ernest Jünger, wearing the regulation uniform of the Wehrmacht, paid his visit to the studio of the “witch”, the following was the definition that came to the mind of the entomologist of Heidelberg when he opened the door. After showing to him the works which were there, Picasso confessed to him:”My pictures would cause the same effect if I wrapped them up and sealed them after finishing them, without showing them to anybody. This is about declarations made immediately”. No doubt this affirmation inspired Piero Manzoni to close the tins and to present on 12 August 1961 in Milan his eschatological contribution to the Arts, foreseeing, quite correctly, that it would end up in a Museum. Thus, open and shut, “abracadabra”, Tracey Emin, nearly forty years later, was kind enough to turn down the sheets of “My bed” and was on the point of winning the Turner Prize of 1999.
I would have liked to find in the “highlights” of the Rockefeller auction a panel of Cimabue, a warm evening by Claude Lorrain, or a portrait by Sir Thomas Lawrence together with another perhaps by Thomas Eakins, the most North American of the painters, since Singer Sargent and McNeill Whistler were Europeans, as DeNittis was French. Some of the innumerable list of masterpieces which were at the disposal of such powerful collectors.
But I shall have to conform and be thankful for the good health of the Arts, once we have collected the money, ascribing to these works of Art their value in cash and even admiring them as they grow greater in our esteem. Just the same as happened with that slight walking figure of Giacometti which as soon as it got into the tight-fitting corset of the thousands of dollars, it seemed to us a youth of much better appearance.
Because there are hours in the day when the shadows produced by objects, due to the particular angles directed by the sun-beams, seem to us “more real” than the objects themselves to which these shadows belong.
The “Avant-Garde” posed fundamental questions to our intellect and opened new paths along which we could continue our search, but it comes accompanied by great noise. This is the task of sifting which we are force to do now, if not, History will take charge of doing it.
We know that a river at its birth spouts up with a thousand skips and gambols, but when it reaches maturity and is loaded with the water of all its tributaries, we see it flowing slow and majestic along the plain.
Art is like a great river which carries on its back, impassive and in silence, centuries of wise decisions
-Miguel Angel Ruiz
Art Contemporary in Spain in ARCOmadrid
The IOMR Institute attends the annual meeting of Contemporary Art ARCOmadrid
Happiness sometimes runs freely through art fairs, sometimes it lies still and sometimes it overflows completely; this edition had a bit of everything: “very contented” picture gallery owners, like the Portuguese Pedro Cera who had sold all the works by the United States conceptual artist Adam Pendleton; curators bored on seeing the stream of creativity at a standstill, but with not entirely negative results; collectors like Jorge Pérez, a Cuban-Argentinian patron who came to the rescue on account of the controversy on freedom of speech in Spain by buying works in a few hours’ time in dozens of galleries; and also the public which always flows enthusiastically voicing different opinions on the artist’s imagination and intelligence, virtues which from our IOMR’s point of view were present this year at ARCO.
Visual arts today advance along the path of provocation and a proof of this statement is Folkert de Jong with his work “The Immortals 2012” (Luis Adelantado Gallery). This is a superb work as regards size, colour and figures, made from polyurethane foam which renders it absolutely unchangeable, like all plastics which are precisely so human for being so contaminating and everlasting as they are.
This work leads us to Flemish painting of the XVIIth century, to Rubens and his “Three Graces” due to his composition, to Watteau for his colouring and his delicate neck-line. Indeed, if we close eyes a little we might be viewing a Spanish polychromed altar-piece of the XVIth century.
Another discovery made in ARCO were the examples of masterly veiling by oil on wood of the abstract painter Adolfo Estrada in his work “Painting 1741” 130 x130 cm. (Dan-Brasil Gallery). In this painting one can see the traces of the Old Masters which, although this is a thoroughly abstract painting, has a profundity of colour and subtly transparent brush-strokes, which is the veiling done by a great Master, as belonging to another epoch. We do not wish to fail to point out in this blog a work by a Brazilian artist Lucía Koch who has been presented in ARCO in such a spectacular fashion by US Gallery Christopher Grines with her work “In No more things”. They are photographs of the insides of cardboard boxes, empty packages and bags which reflect the light architectonically and are based on the novel by Paul Auster “In the countries of last things”. Koch explores the feeling of emptiness, vacuity, when things become obsolete and only leave their space behind, letting us see the inevitable fall of a materialistic society. At the same time as we were filled with the conceptualism of these photos, we experienced again in this fair an outburst of happiness at being able to enjoy internal spaces which have windows proudly open to light, despite being poor and naked. Koch’s work transported us immediately to Vermeer and the camera obscure causing in us the astonishment which Art, from the earliest times until today, only occasionally provokes in us.
- Verónica Rivas
Colloquium - dinner with the Spanish painter, Lita Cabellut
Seldom has a meeting had such an impact on me. I met her a few days ago in her home/studio in the Hague, Lita, the great Spanish Gypsy Painter.
Her house, with very high ceilings, low sofas and endless Persian rugs, consisting of wide, open spaces, yet all together warmly welcoming, is an ode dedicated to Velazquez, to air seen in perspective, to the grey of Christian Dior, filtered by the light which falls like a cascade through the countless skylights, sometimes lead-coloured, sometimes blurred, leaving traces in the “greige” of the floor which remind us of the “Meninas” and of some of Sargent’s pictures. This light also enters through French-shaped windows, forming a horizontal space with diagonal rays of light. Lofty windows open onto a patio where the murmur of fountains and the scent of plants evoke Spain, Seville. Little remains now of the factory which it was in the past and which Lita transformed in only six months. She, very proud of her work, showed me a book which is an illustrated account of this transformation and which demonstrates the many-sided nature of her genius, as well as her endeavour, determination and her great love of details.
Lita is seated in her drawing-room in a position which is so characteristically hers that it will be fixed for ever in my eye-sight; she presents herself like Mother Nature and perhaps there is something atavistic in her manner of showing herself and this is what attracts us like a magnet. Our meeting is most like the meeting of two copious rivers on the same bed along which they flow and will continue to flow until they reach the sea. From the very outset it was love at first sight between two twin souls. She is overflowing with passion, self-assurance, sensitiveness, full of drive to achieve projects, responsible undertaking, but also a great professionalism, in short, a lavish amount emotional intelligence. Our conversation continues for several hours rolling in an ocean of artistic interpretations, common grounds, correlations and parallelisms which range from Piero della Francesca to Vermeer, from Velazquez to Goya, Bacon, Klimt,... all this under the vertex of her work which integrates the traces left by the Old Masters. We talk about how Art is purely evolution from which no artist can stand aloof; a work made by all humanity in which there are landmarks indicated by genius, culminating points and more monotonous periods; we also talk about respect for the past and about the occasional arrogance of the ultra-modern artists.
We decide to enter her studio and view her pictures. There they are like military banners, portraits of personages of universal importance and world power; her sweeping brush-strokes, representing a modernity corresponding to their proximity to us, along with her courage in showing to us reality without humbug, emphasizing occasionally the individual characteristics of a genius such as Charlot or Einstein, but above all, the universal nature of a personage who is the emblem of an epoch, a caste, a lineage, a country, or a race... Everything in her work has the overwhelming stamp of the Old Masters. From Goya of the Black Paintings period until Klimt, who is actively present in some of Lita’s ladies due to her way of swamping the canvas with a thick material colour which by the movement of the robes steeped for years in this hue, shapes the style of the personage, its class, or spirit from whom bursts out a face like a vapour; this is a touch-stone of Lita and sometimes reminds us of Bacon in his way of shaping the figures or alternatively, allows us to perceive an example of Japanese style, filtered to a certain extent by Dutch XVIlth century tradition and specially by Vermeer. All of them indicate a wish to paint what is behind the personage, his spirit, that which is not seen and this is what makes Lita identify herself with the Old Masters, great Magicians of communication.
Lita concludes showing me what she is today proudest of all, and which is a reinvention of herself, a change of language. Because in Lita even what is most complex is made simple. From her profound, stimulating faces rises another picture, which is its echo, or trail, free of lines and bonds, where only colour rules, without any known limits, the spirit of persons and things. This alternative is, no doubt, courageous since we recognise Lita through her faces and due to her closeness to us we recognise her as quick as lightning. Nevertheless true artists do not pay attention to what the external world requires, they are only guided by their impulse or even more by their instinct. Lita, like Picasso in 1920, needs renovation for fear of boredom, of what is accommodating, her genius demands a change. Time will tell us which of her two forms of Art will prevail as a sign of identity of her Mastery.
Picasso, on hurling a stone at the mirror of figurative realism, broke with an Art capable of expressing infinite sensitivity, countless nuances in figurative representation which only his blue and pink paintings have been able to achieve. But this clash was produced with the purpose of creating a new artistic language which caused a revolution in the history of Art, producing a Beforehand which goes back to the cave paintings of Altamira, and an Afterwards, whose consequences, many of which were not desired by Picasso, we are now experiencing.
Lita’s work perfectly represents the values defined by IOMR and we consider them the goal to which the visual Arts should today aspire:
1.- Regarding the classical Masters, the Old Masters, we should seek their stamp so as to innovate, that is, to create new models from that base.
2.- We should seek excellence in the line drawn, in the visual quality, in the sense of genius expressed in the line, in the beauty of the forms which are not necessarily present in the figures.
3.- We should search and reveal the deepness of the work inasmuch as this gives profound significance to all Masterpieces which are distinguished by their combination of technical excellence and the spirituality which pervades it all. Great painters know how to represent what is not visible and which the spectator perceives thanks to his sensitivity, his wide knowledge, his experience and his capacity to create correspondences.
The impact of Lita’s soul, her genius and her work, together with the warm feeling she has created by her message has led the IOMR to organise a dinner in her honour which we shall immortalise with this video.
Revealing Spanish XVIth century Sculpture
Due to the discovery of the Alonso Berruguete pair of sculptures, St Peter and St Paul, we began to be deeply interested in XVIth century sculpture, pinnacle of Spanish History, in which coincide, in less than a generation, the end of the Reconquista, the discovery of the New World and the constitution of the Spanish Empire under Carlos I, three events which change European History. This extremely Spanish influential political period would have an immediate effect on the blossoming of the arts and very specially on the Art of sculpture characterized by a special fusion between a very particular local Gothic style, a mixture of naturalism and expressionism, with a magnificent carving technique, brought by a group of Northern artists who came to Spain in search of the numerous commissions to carve altar pieces paid by the Spanish Church, and with the quest for classical ideals brought from Italy by three exceptional artists, Diego de Siloé, Bartolomé Ordoñez and Alonso Berruguete. The latter, one of the first mannerist artists protected by Michelangelo and close to the Florentine "enfants terribles" Pontormo and Rosso Fiorentino who, once Berruguete returned to Spain, showed his particular artistic genius in extremely expressive and flaming polychrome sculptures, transforming Toledan artistic taste and preparing the path for understanding El Greco’s Art eighty years later.
Due to this convergence of factors, which is a characteristic peculiar to Spain, a sense of national conscience begins to take root and this will create what is named “lo español”, which in Art, and specially in Sculpture, expresses itself in a particular and different way from Italian or North European Renaissance Art. It is an Art which always illustrates religious subjects, in which expressiveness and concept are of supreme importance, instead of being a search for natural human beauty. It is an Art in which Gothic survives as it expresses better the concerns of Spanish artists whose genius is the result of the cultural clash between Christians, Moslems and Jews; an Art supremely national in its origin, which was being polished and refined, as mentioned previously, by the influence, on the one hand, of Flemish, Burgundien and German artists who were forced to emigrate due to cultural changes in their countries of origin and, on the other hand, influenced by the assimilation of the principles of the Italian Renaissance, gathered by the “Aguilas del Renacimiento Español” during their sojourn in Italy. An Art which, in spite of these influences, nevertheless remains faithful to its roots, as long as the Spanish genius prevails by simplifying shapes and lines. This gives to Spanish Art a modern “allure” whose best examples are Juan de Valmaseda and Alonso Berruguete; two artists completely Spanish genetically, although they are different from one another due to the circumstances of their lives, since Berruguete knew the most advanced Italian Renaissance currents “in situ” and Valmaseda never left Castilla in all his life.
Since we have been deeply imbued with the spirit of this period, we have developed an eye which enables us to select other good examples of sculptures from this period, always guided by an obsession to distinguish remarkable design and quality in execution. Thanks to this devoted quest, we discover several other Masterpiece sculptures which form a Corpus which we hope to extend with new discoveries and plan to exhibit during 2018 in our new social address in Helmond (Holland). We therefore propose to undertake the project of revealing Spanish Renaissance Sculpture to Museums, scholars and curators who would invite to visit and inspect our collection and consult our library specialized in XVIth Century Spanish sculpture.