“Savior” For Sale: Is This Da Vinci Painting Worth $100 Million?

Most of the time, art news doesn’t get front page treatment in general interest news outlets, but occasionally one comes across exceptions. Such an exception cropped up just yesterday afternoon, when both the art press and the mainstream media reacted to the announcement that the “Salvator Mundi” (“Savior of the World”), the only known painting by Leonardo Da Vinci remaining in private hands, will be auctioned next month at Christie’s in New York, with an estimated sale price of $100 million. Rediscovered and authenticated by experts only a few years ago, this extremely rare work is attracting the kind of public attention and curiosity that those of us who plod along following developments in the art world almost never get to see.

Salv

As Christie’s explains in a very thorough press release and accompanying video announcing the sale, the painting dates to around 1500, and represents Christ as the Savior of the world. The pose and imagery in this picture have a long history in Christian art, but Da Vinci’s particular take on this subject is somewhat startling; while Art Net called it “spooky”, I think the more appropriate word here would be, “intense”. (If you want genuinely creepy, Da Vinci’s “St. John the Baptist” takes the cake, as far as I’m concerned.)

Baptist

Now that the “Salvator Mundi” is on the public radar, there is going to be an enormous amount of interest in both the picture itself, and what it will ultimately sell for. As to the former, take for example the following excerpt, from an instant message that I received overnight:

“Is it my imagination, or is Christ’s face bisected vertically by shadow and emphasis for artistic effect? Indeed, the impression was so strong that I had to draw a line on my monitor to determine that his eyes were on the same level, so disconnected they seemed.

If my impression is accurate, I’d imagine this was an intentional reference to His divine and human natures. Thoughts?”

To be fair to my interlocutor, I’m not versed enough in Da Vinci’s methods or intentions to be able to state with any certainty that what he describes was the artist’s intent, particularly given the artist’s somewhat heterodox views on Christianity, but it’s certainly a plausible argument. We know that Da Vinci was one of the earliest Renaissance artists to remove any haloes or emblems of royalty from the portrayal of religious subjects, which would fit in with the notion of emphasizing Christ’s human nature. We also know from his many notebooks that Da Vinci studied areas of science which had a direct impact on the final appearance of his work, such as human anatomy and linear perspective. His “Vitruvian Man” drawing – another extremely well-known work of his that pops up all over the place – most clearly demonstrates this.

Vit

Part of the issue with the “Salvator Mundi” however, is that it’s not exactly in good nick. The face has clearly suffered from over-cleaning, so much so that the eyes are not nearly as intense today, in their faded state, as they would have been when they were new. That penetrating gaze which captures and holds our attention would be even more intense, if the painting was better-preserved.

As to the $100 million price tag, this seems to be a figure based more on rarity rather than overall quality. Despite being (arguably) the most famous of all Old Master painters, Da Vinci’s artistic legacy rests largely upon a handful of paintings, and of course his famous sketchbooks. He was never a prolific artist, too often experimented with technical methods that failed, and worse still he was easily distracted by other, non-artistic projects. He was also infamous for starting pictures that he never finished, as in his painting of “St. Jerome in the Wilderness”.

Jerome

Yet despite his relatively tiny output, many of Da Vinci’s surviving works have had and continue to have a profound influence not only on art, but also on theology, philosophy, psychology, fashion, literature, science, film, music, and so on. Just think of all the pop culture references you still come across on a regular basis recalling the most famous portrait in the world, his “Mona Lisa”, or the most well-known Christian painting in the world, his “Last Supper”, more than five centuries after they were painted. Da Vinci may not have created a lot of art, but of what he did create, he has no rival in terms of penetration and saturation of the popular imagination.

Mona

Last

Now truth be told, I’ve never liked Da Vinci’s work. I find his androgynous figures unappealing, his coloring murky, and his inability to see a project through to completion to be a character flaw, rather than a mark of great intelligence. There does come a point at which, whatever inherent genius someone may have, their inability to complete the task before them within the time allotted becomes a stumbling block, rather than a trifle to be overlooked. You’re of course welcome to disagree, but I’ve always been more impressed with the almost celestial combination of genius AND facility in the work of Raphael and Mozart than I am with the tortured writhing of Michelangelo and Beethoven.

At the same time, I don’t think that $100 million is too outlandish a sum to name for the sale of the only known Da Vinci painting that is, in fact, available for sale. While the “Salvador Mundi” is never going to become as famous as some of the other Da Vinci images that are part of our collective consciousness, it is nevertheless a hugely significant work from an art history perspective. As a rare object, even one that is something of a shadow of its former self, it will no doubt attract a and deserve a lot of attention from those who could afford the exceptionally high price of becoming its next owner.

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Thought-Pourri: Art And Architecture Stories For Your Perusal

Event: The Future Of Architecture

The National Civic Art Society will be hosting a discussion at the ultra-posh Cosmos Club here in the Nation’s Capital on Tuesday, November 14th, titled “”Dramatic Cultural Change and the Future of Architecture.” The speakers, Duo Dickinson and Michael G. Imber, are not only both practicing architects, but journalists as well, each having substantial experience in writing and speaking about a variety of topics and trends in the field of architecture. They will be looking at the role which architecture ought to be playing in contemporary society, and the question of whether it should be embracing, rejecting, or otherwise adapting architecture of the past to the needs of the future. The event is free and open to the public, but you must register by following this link.

Dalí, Disappeared

Check out this absolutely fascinating story from Allison McNearny at The Daily Beast about the mystery surrounding a lost Salvador Dalí painting of Jesus. In February 1965, the great Catalan Surrealist was scheduled to visit prisoners on Rikers Island, the New York City incarceration facility well-known to viewers of the “Law & Order” television franchise. Too ill to attend, he instead sent a painting of the Crucified Christ, which he quickly executed that morning in his suite at the St. Regis Hotel. What happened next would be perfect fodder for an investigation by Jack McCoy, et al., including forgery, larceny, official corruption, and multiple trials. To this day, no one knows whether the painting still exists.

Magritte, Illuminated

Speaking of the Surrealists, an iconic work from that art movement is up for sale, if one of my readers wants to buy me an early Christmas present. “L’empire des Lumières” (1949) by René Magritte is one of a series of similar works which the Belgian painter created to tickle the mind’s fancy. The lower part of the picture depicts a street scene at night, illuminated only by street lights or unseen lamps burning within the buildings; completely incongruously, the sky depicted above is that of a bright, sunny day. Magritte painted several variations on this theme into the early ‘50s, and these are currently in display in various art museums around the world, including both the Guggenheim and MoMA.

This particular painting however, which is the very first in that series, was acquired by Vice President Nelson Rockefeller in 1950, and has never come under the hammer before. It’s being auctioned by Christie’s New York during its Impressionist and Modern Art Evening Sale on Monday, November 13th. The sales estimate is $14-18 million, but this is such a famous and important work of Modern art, and carries such an elite pedigree from a provenance point of view, that I would expect it to fetch a far higher price.

A Fool And His Money?

And in fact, a deep-dive into trying to understand the prices for Modern and Contemporary Art, versus those paid for Old Master and Romantic Art, are the thing in this interesting article over on Blouin ArtInfo. Michael Podger examines in detail a phenomenon which I’ve often written about in these pages: the comparatively paltry sums obtained at auction for Old Master paintings, as compared to works by Modern and Contemporary Artists. Podger takes the proverbial bull by the horns, digging deeply into the wealth of sales data on works by major artists such as Raphael and Titian.

He concludes that while many of the Old Masters are comparatively immune from the vicissitudes of trendiness, current monetary values may reflect not only a lack of appreciation for the skill employed in the creation of these older works, but also a lack of knowledge and sophistication on the part of current collectors when it comes to the subject matter of these pictures. “What this suggests is that the market sets no real store by the craft evident in Old Master paintings or by the care with which they were painted,” he notes, before comparing the work of Agnolo Bronzino and Peter Paul Rubens to that of the (grossly-overrated) Jean-Michel Basquiat. “Or perhaps many Old Master paintings are simply too subtle for contemporary tastes and require study and knowledge before they reveal themselves fully. Because of this they fail to offer the instant visual hit that many collectors crave.” It’s a long analysis, and as a blog post it can’t possibly touch on all of the causes for the present state of the art market, but it’s well-worth reading.

Mag

 

Suffering As Joke: The Horrors Of The Contemporary Art Press

As regular subscribers know, I read about a dozen or so outlets of the art press every day, so that you don’t have to. Most of the time, I focus on following stories that I like: fascinating discoveries, interesting exhibitions, and so on. For the most part, it’s actually a very difficult and painful task, for this particular corner of the media is primarily focused on the world of Contemporary Art, which the art press worships and makes excuses for in ways that, at times, can be truly sickening.

Take the Chapman Brothers for example. Jake and Dinos Chapman are two middle-aged British brothers who enjoy creating adolescent art in extremely bad taste, in order to shock their viewers. I’ve written about them before, as you can see here. Suffice to say, they create garbage art which they are able to sell for significant amounts of money, largely because the art press is able to persuade major art collectors that they ought to do so.

In their new show at Blain Southern in London, the Chapmans bring together both sculpture and graphic art. We will ignore the unbelievably bad taste that characterizes the former (which are, if you can believe it, bronzes representing terrorist suicide vests), and instead concentrate on the latter. For the Chapmans, you see, are obsessed with “The Disasters of War”: the hugely significant, nightmarish images of atrocities engraved in the early 19th century by the great Spanish artist Francisco de Goya (1746-1828).

Goya is a monumental figure in art history, whom one might describe – as I did last week to a curator from the Musée d’Orsay, who did not disagree with my assessment – as the Beethoven of Western art. He straddles the world of the Old Masters, from the early part of his career, and the development of what we now call Modern Art, which he helped to usher in. His personal experiences and observations during Napoleon’s invasion and occupation of Spain radically changed what had been the work of a sly, cunning follower of fashion, highly conversant with all of the frippery and mockery of the Rococo era, into a bitter old man who was a brooding, haunted genius, pursued by thoughts and images of evil, suffering, and death.

The Chapmans on the other hand, would be more at home straddling a dirty urinal in the loo of a fast food restaurant. They became famous roughly twenty years ago by deliberately destroying Goya prints in order to make their own art. And that pretty much sums up a good 50% of their output over the past two decades.

Mind you, these Goya works are not the sort of prints you might order from Zazzle at $1.99 a pop, i.e., digital photographs of existing images. Rather, they are printed from the original plates etched by Goya himself, using carefully-chosen inks and papers, and drawn from the printing presses by artisans trained in the skill of producing high-quality, museum-level images. If you wanted to buy one of these prints from an art dealer or at auction, each would cost you hundreds if not thousands of dollars.

Bearing this in mind, let’s take a look at Apollo Magazine, which used to be a stalwart publication for the promotion of connoisseurship, good taste, and culture for art and antiques enthusiasts. Unfortunately it decided quite some time ago to follow the Tina Brown formula for the revamp of The New Yorker, by cheapening itself for the sake of popularity among the high rollers and hangers-on of the Contemporary Art world. Nowhere is the decline of this particular media outlet more obvious than in its reaction to the latest Chapman expo.

In a piece out yesterday, Apollo described the latest Chapman Brothers show as “superb”, naturally glossing over the fact that Goya’s art is being destroyed in order to create it. It describes as “pleasure” what it terms “the subversion of the horrible to the hilarious.” It observes how, in the Chapmans’ defacing of the etchings, “Goya’s hussars become disco pirates; the dismembered corpses of Grande hazaña! Con Muertos! look like they are wearing leotards or yoga leggings.”

How very “hilarious” it is indeed, to not only destroy great works of art, but to mock the suffering and death of thousands of people. Particularly at a time when Spain is experiencing so much political upheaval and violence, Goya’s prints seem painfully redolent of that country’s bloody past and present. But never mind: in the eyes of Apollo, if the Chapmans can belittle the experience of human suffering, so much the better, because the end result is so amusing.

Unfortunately, the Art Newspaper is no better. In describing the defacing of Goya’s work, the publication explained how the Chapman brothers “have superimposed images of artists such as Jackson Pollock, clowns’ heads and other ghoulish features on to the etchings, which have been reworked in various media (The Disasters of Everyday Life, monochrome collage set; The Disasters of Yoga, glitter set; and The Disasters of War on Terror, watercolour set).” One wonders what Pollock, much as I loathe his work, would think about destroying Goya’s art just so his face could be superimposed upon an etching of a corpse.

While granted, the Art Newspaper’s piece is more of a bland bit of reporting, rather than an exhibition review, like Apollo it fails to question why a reputable gallery, art publication, or the like should even take the time to consider these pieces. In the Chapmans’ empty-headed appropriation of both the hard work and sufferings of others, neither publication appears to hold any qualms. And of course, the greatest irony here is that not only do publications such as the Art Newspaper and Apollo routinely call for the preservation of artists’ rights in their own works, they are the same publications which champion works of Contemporary Art created to draw attention to the suffering of refugees, illegal immigrants, and so on. Perhaps it’s easier for them to overlook the rights of both artists and suffering people who have been dead for quite awhile, since they won’t be posting rejoinders on Instagram or Twitter.

One of the Goya prints defaced by the Chapman Brothers for their latest show is titled “Bárbaros!” (1810), which from the first series of the artists “The Disasters of War” etchings. The original shows a man tied to a tree, facing the trunk, who is about to be shot in the back at very close range. It is one of the many images which Goya created based on what he saw, read, or heard about, during the effort to overthrow Napoleon and his troops. The artist wanted to make certain that the world did not forget what had happened to many innocent people.

Unfortunately it seems that the art media, which gives succor to mental defectives such as the Chapmans in the first place, finds all of this terribly funny: forgive me if I don’t get the joke.

Barbaros