London Eye: January 2011
LONDON – There will be opportunities aplenty in the coming weeks to check the art market’s continuing resistance to the contagion of economic turbulence. Nurse has already closed the screens on many art businesses and yet there is plenty of evidence that money is still being spent and collectors and still collecting. One can never be sure what proportion of the generous bonuses paid to bankers — again the source of pungent debate in the UK media — will trickle into the art market, but some of it surely will. Fortunately, buying art has always had a certain therapeutic function, so even when times are tough it may still be one of the few things that dispels the gloom.
The first art market health check will be at the London Art Fair, which opens this coming week at the Business Design Centre in Islington (18 to 23 January). This event always provides a useful thermometer with which to test the temperature of the middle market and is particularly popular among the middle-earning middle classes who see it as a user-friendly alternative to the intimidating ‘white cube’ galleries. There is always a strong offering of Modern British art at the fair which this year gets a further boost from an exhibition of Modern British sculpture at the Royal Academy.
Other opportunities to test the market come from the winter instalment of the Decorative Antiques & Textiles Fair in the marquee in Battersea Park (18 to 23 January) and the Affordable Art Fair, also in the Battersea Park marquee from 10 to 13 March. However, it will be The European Fine Art Fair in Maastricht (TEFAF), from 18 to 27 March, that will offer the most reliable indicator of the extent to which the blue-chip end of the global market is bearing up against the recession.
As we’ve seen from auction results in New York, London and even in the UK provinces over the past year, it is the genuinely rare, high quality objects that remain in keenest demand. We are only in mid-January, and yet already we have been treated to a sneak preview of some of the more important objects appearing at this year’s TEFAF. One or two of these are truly extraordinary discoveries and none more so than the polychrome wood sculpture entitled Ecce Homo attributed to the Greek-born Spanish artist El Greco (1541-1614) which will be on the stand of Spanish dealer Deborah Elvira. Very few sculptures are ascribed to El Greco, but this one bears his signature, which lends it great scholarly interest.
Although made a full four hundred years later and expressed in the semi-abstract language of modern sculpture, Henry Moore’s monumental bronze Mother and Child: Block Seat of 1983-84 is as emotionally expressive in its own way as El Greco’s Christ. One of an edition of nine cast in 1983, it will be brought to Maastricht by Landau Fine Art of Montreal and will lend a certain grandeur to one the fair’s squares where it will be located for the duration of the event.
So much for some of the more prestigious sculptures at the fair. In the paintings and works on paper section, the great Impressionist Pierre-Auguste Renoir will be represented by an important oil on canvas entitled La Leçon (Bielle, l’institutrice et Claude Renoir lisant) of 1906 to be exhibited by Hammer Galleries of New York. The painting has been in private collections for decades and so, all-importantly, comes to the fair ‘fresh to market’. Elsewhere in the fair, London dealer Stephen Ongpin Fine Art will be celebrating his first appearance at TEFAF’s recently introduced Works on Paper section with an important Renoir watercolour, Study of a Bather, which is a preparatory work for the oil on canvas Bathers in the Forest, which hangs in the famous Barnes Collection in Philadelphia. The watercolour will be for sale at £125,000 ($198,350).
Finally, before moving on to other attractions coming up in the weeks ahead, one other interesting offering at this year’s TEFAF is two extremely rare late seventeenth-century German amber and ivory altarpieces on the stand of Kunstkammer Georg Laue. The Munich dealers can always be relied upon to unearth the kind of treasures that would once have graced the early European princely cabinets of curiosity and these two exquisite altarpieces are supreme examples of that. Probably commissioned by the Prussian court in Danzig as gifts for visiting ambassadors, they will be offered at the Maastricht fair with a combined price tag of €500,000 ($670,000).
With 260 exhibitors from 16 countries, including Korea, Hungary and Uruguay, this year’s TEFAF reflects the increasingly global nature of the art market.
Nineteenth-century British painter William Etty is largely neglected today, appreciated it seems only by art historians and critics interested in the racier side of Victorian culture. Whether his reputation will change in any way as a result of the forthcoming exhibition of Victorian watercolours and drawings at the Courtauld Gallery seems unlikely. The exhibition, entitled ‘Life, Legend, Landscape: Victorian Drawings and Watercolours’, running from 17 February to 15 May, includes Etty’s chalk on paper study, Female Nude with a cast of the Venus de Medici, circa 1835-37. Playing on the Victorian male’s erotic fascination with nude statues and real naked female flesh, it is one of the more intriguing works in an otherwise somewhat conventional exhibition of landscapes, animalier studies and domestic genre pictures. Other notable works in the show, which draws on a largely under-exhibited section of the Courtauld’s collection, include a delightful, recently acquired watercolour and gouache work by Frederick Walker (1840-1875) entitled The Old Farm Garden, 1871, showing the artist’s sister standing knitting outdoors; Edwin Landseer’s masterful Head of a Lion, circa 1862, in chalk and wash over graphite on paper; and Aubrey Beardsley’s whimsical, Servant Carrying Slippers of 1893 in pen and ink on paper.
One other notable event happening this month, particularly within the context of the growing interest in Indian art, is the exhibition of Indian miniatures from the collection of acclaimed American film director James Ivory (of Merchant Ivory fame). Organised by London dealer and former Christie’s specialist Francesca Galloway, the exhibition at her 31 Dover Street gallery has been so successful that it has been extended until 28 January. The exhibition offers a rare opportunity to see around 100 miniatures from the collection, which Ivory began collecting while studying as a film student at the University of Southern California in the 1950s. Ms Galloway points out: “The underlying theme of the collection is a fascination with India and an acute observation of Indian life, both secular and religious, combined with a delight in some of the peculiarities of human nature, as they were expressed on the Indian subcontinent and seen through a highly refined and, as we now realize, ‘cinematic’ eye.”
Finally, a feather in the cap of Adam Kennedy, a 23 year-old Glasgow-based painter who recently graduated from Edinburgh College of Art. Adam has just won the Aspect Prize, one of Britain’s largest, independently funded arts prizes and widely regarded as the most important award for Scottish artists. His award was announced on 10 January at a reception at The Fleming Collection, which has become the spiritual home of Scottish art in London. He was presented with his prize by leading Scottish stage, film and television actor Bill Paterson.