November 6, 2006 Edition > Section: Arts and Letters > Printer-Friendly Version

The Auction House as Accidental Museum

November 6, 2006
URL: http://www.nysun.com/article/42952

"Museum quality" can be a cliché, but this week it has an infallible footing: Works that previously hung in public institutions such as Berlin's Brücke Museum and Vienna's Austrian Gallery come under the hammer, thanks to the tortuous legal process that returned the works to the heirs of Jewish collectors from whom they had been expropriated by the Nazis. Before these works disappear back into private hands at Christie's Impressionist and Modern auctions starting tomorrow, NewYorkers have a rare chance to marvel at them for a few days in the meat market of an auction house that's also, as it were, an accidental museum.

The Brücke is losing Ernst Ludwig Kirchner's "Berlin Street Scene" (1913–14), one of a series depicting fashionably dressed nocturnal revelers. The Austrian Gallery had to part from four canvases by Gustav Klimt that had belonged to Adele and Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer, three sumptuous landscapes and his portrait of Adele from 1912. His 1907 portrait of the society hostess, now hanging in the Neue Galerie, became the most expensive painting ever sold when Ronald Lauder bought it for $135 million in March. Rumored to have been the artist's lover, Adele was also loosely the model for the archetypal symbolist femme fatale, "Judith I" (1901), a major Klimt still on public view in Vienna.

In the 1907 portrait, Klimt tested his fascination with decorative exoticism to its limit. In the later painting, however, vision and sitter are more starkly modern. There is a greater effort to integrate figure and ground, though with little letup in decorative intensity. The space is more credible than in the earlier portrait, although there is still considerable ambiguity in the division of the ground into rectangles of different color and motif. It can, however, be read as a patchwork of tapestries, carpets, and wall hangings. Behind her back there is an Oriental hunting scene or battle; at her feet a floral swamp that recalls Monet's contemporary water lilies. Gone is the gold, but vibrancy is achieved with daring contrasts of rectangles of blue, mauve, purple, and green. The decadent languor of face and flesh has given way to a vaguely menacing, gnarled expressivity.

Her dress, far from flattening out into metal armor, seems to grow organically from the ground up. Her fur wrap, a Wiener Werkstatte creation, is like a knotted tree trunk.

The Austrian government could console themselves on their cultural losses by bidding for the two Egon Schiele watercolors deaccessioned by the Neue Galerie to offset the cost of "Adele I." One is a typical bare-breasted figure stretched out with her arms behind her head, mouth gaping and eyes bulging as much out to the page as up to the ceiling. The other, more unusual work, uses watercolor with intense symbolic effect to meld the intertwined figures of two adolescent girls, a gloriously prurient observation of nascent sexuality.

Klimt's second Adele keeps company at Christie's with two other seminal symbolist portraits, which depict personages of very different rank. The nameless Tahitian in Gauguin's "Woodcutter" (1891) is dignified through labor — an experience alien to a Viennese industrialist's wife — holding a pose that balances muscular engagement and reflective calm. Like Klimt, Gauguin's canvas is animated by a knowing tension of flatness and volume. The compression of space gives the work its defining primitive charge, but the kinds of space depicted are complex and various. The awkwardness of the legs of the background woman in the boat makes the hidden recess of her vessel the more mysterious. The boat with its reflection in the water in the distance is very precise, whereas the ripples at the feet of the woodcutter are highly stylized arabesques. I'm not Gauguin's greatest fan, but if I had $45 million, this one would tempt me.

Not so the similarly valued Picasso, and there aren't many Picassos I'd turn down. The excitement surrounding the return to the market of his 1903 portrait of his poet friend, Angel de Soto, derives in part from the high price paid for it at auction 11 years ago, and in part from the rarity of Blue Period works by the master. For sure, the painting has a louche intensity and an energized awkwardness. It looks back to El Greco and Manet, and forward to Soutine and Kokoschka. But however much friendship Picasso and de Soto shared, it doesn't look like the artist loved this canvas. The contrasting painterly treatments of different passages, depriving the work of compelling unity, seems born of frustration rather than experiment.

For a mere $1 million (a fraction of the estimated value of the de Soto portrait) you might buy, instead, a gorgeous drawing of Picasso's first wife, Olga, from 1920. There's a similar value discrepancy between a marvelous late Matisse charcoal drawing and a ho-hum Nice period interior in oils. The relative cheapness of works on paper is the great mystery of the art market. It is odd, when people are paying more than the price of a house for a picture, that they still care about $25 of art materials when determining its value.

Other gems worth a trip to Rockefeller Center this weekend are a couple of rare 1942 Mondrian charcoal sketches for his painting "Broadway Boogie Woogie" (1942–43) from the estate of the late, great portrait photographer of artists, Arnold Newman. There are several Bonnards: Not the most expensive, but a sheer joy, is "Le Chemin jaune aux enfants" (1939), a gorgeous light-infused late landscape of children playing on a path under the Mediterranean sun. A polar opposite in terms of color, locale and the age of the sitter, Vuillard's "Madame Vuillard Sewing" (1895), has the artist's mother absorbed in her work and set within a subtle symphony of gray planes. But amid this tonal understatement there is a sliver of blue to her right, a ball of white, and the red of a picture frame obscured behind her that sings like a Mondrian.

Viewing today and tomorrow, 10 a.m.–5 p.m.; Wednesday 10 a.m.–noon (20 Rockefeller Plaza, between Fifth and Sixth avenues, 212-636-2000).

The numbers at Sotheby's won't be as spectacular as its rival's. But as art, the work measures up.

Poor Sotheby's. They have a roster of heavy hitters for their Impressionist and Modern Art evening sale tomorrow, topped by an impressive Cézanne still life from 1895, when the Provenćal master was arguably at the height of his powers. But there is nothing to muster the attention or unprecedented prices of the four major Klimts to be sold by rival Christie's, nor the press-friendly tales of restitution that accompany them. But if Sotheby's best offerings are viewed as art, not as commodities, the sale measures up to Christie's.

"Still Life With Fruits and a Ginger Pot" (c.1895) is something of a sleeper within Cézanne's oeuvre. It belonged for most of the 20th century to the legendary German dealer Bruno Cassirer — who bought it from French dealer Ambroise Vollard, subject of the current Metropolitan Museum exhibition — and his descendents in England. The painting was on loan to London's National Gallery between 1977 and 2000 when it first went to auction, but for some reason it hasn't been much sought after for major Cézanne exhibitions.

It is one of several canvases to make use of the blue ginger pot with its distinctive wicker handle; others are in the Met and Philadelphia's Barnes Foundation. In those pictures it kept company, respectively, with eggplants and apples, whereas here it is great hunks of sliced cantaloupe that offset its earthenware surface. Does this make it a juicier picture? There is more agitation in the background of this canvas than its peers, and the tablecloth spilling toward the viewer is partially unpainted, giving the whole work an alla prima character that goes with the choice of perishable fruit. (The exposed whites don't have the intentionality of his watercolors in the years that followed.) Somehow the work seems less concerned with the procession of planes that marks his late still lifes and proved so instructive for Picasso and Braque 15 years later. But the compensating factor is the exhilarating roundness of the fruit, and the secret passageways behind and between them.

If Cézanne was heir to a great classical tradition of still life in France dating back to Chardin, an equally self-conscious member of that line is Chaim Soutine, represented in this sale by a magnificent "Still Life With Skate" (c.1923–24), which looks to Chardin's 1728 masterpiece "Still Life" in the Louvre. Soutine dispenses with Chardin's startled cat, but he injects just as much exuberance and excitement in the red napkins, virulent in color and almost animated in the way they circle the gaping fish. In Soutine there is no such thing as an inanimate object: The gnarled baguette, the agitated jug, the swooning spoon, the tumbling fruits and vegetables, and the arching table are all swept up in a swirling gestalt that has the skate at its center. The painting was in the Museum of Modern Art Collection in the early 1950s (it was a quickly deaccesioned gift). As with Cézanne and his gingerpot, skates are a regular guest in Soutine's still lifes — there are examples, for instance, in the Metropolitan Museum, the Cleveland Museum of Art, and the Musée Valvet, Avignon, France. With a slightly gloomier cast to it than the Met's, this complex, quietly compelling composition slowly discloses inner light, especially in the glistening wings of the fish and its golden gills.

Soutine's dead fish is almost a portrait. His friend and fellow "école juive" Montparnassian Modigliani's portraits have the hieratic stillness of sculptural objects. Sotheby's has two top-notch examples in this sale. The big money is expected for "Son of the Concierge" (1918), a crop-haired youth with intense blue eyes and giant, flapping ears, his long neck sinking into the collared shaft of his torso. A smaller, slighter portrait of Modigliani's dealer, Paul Guillaume, is less ethereal and luminous, perhaps, but it is much more exciting as portraiture. At once caricatural and psychologically penetrating, it shows an engaged personality, talking perhaps, or sucking in breath while contemplating aesthetics or business schemes. The artist did several portraits of Guillaume: There's one hatted version in the Orangerie, where the dealer's head is titled back as he smokes a cigarette, and another in his library at the Toledo Museum of Art. In this work he literally and metaphorically takes his hat off, revealing a boyish insouciance.

It is rare for one genre to dominate an auction the way still life does at Sotheby's. But like Soutine's dead skate, Van Gogh's "A Pair of Shoes" pulsates with animate presence. Painted in Paris in 1886–7, it doesn't have the Provenćal sun of his other great still life motif, his humble wicker chair, although it also signifies his sense of selfhood and struggle. The shoes have northern gloom, recalling years of trudging through the mud to preach to bemused peasants, and also, in their dark physicality, his artistic roots in Millet and Rembrandt. The painting is a symphony of grays, browns, and blacks. But this isn't Whistler: Even in their muted tones, this is Van Gogh paint — lush, expressive, and somehow, at the same time, keenly descriptive and invested with a life of its own.

Viewing today, 10 a.m.–5 p.m., tomorrow, 10 a.m.–noon (1334 York Ave. at 72nd Street, 212-606-7000).