Wednesday, July 05, 2006
Lloyd Webber’s "De Soto" is No Star Vehicle
So let’s argue!
The painting in question is the artist's distorted depiction of his wild and dissipated close friend. In a drawing of the same notorious libertine, Picasso portrayed him more pornographically: A naked prostitute raises de Soto's penis in one hand and a champagne glass in the other. Cheers!
Before Andrew Lloyd Webber’s purchase of the more decorous portrait at Sotheby’s in 1995, the auction house made sure everyone knew what it had going for it: rarity (one of only a handful of blue-period pictures of any importance not owned by a museum), a colorful subject (complete with absinthe and pipe) and prestigious provenance (star lot from the collection assembled by the late Donald and Jean Stralem---she, the scion of the legendary Robert Lehman art-collecting dynasty).
Not mentioned was the only strike against it, which proved no deterrent to the bidding: It’s not a great picture. That’s not just my own verdict. At the time of that sale, I solicited opinions from world-renowned experts:
In deciding which works to include in the Museum of Modern Art’s landmark l980 Picasso retrospective, William Rubin, then the museum’s director of painting and sculpture, and Dominique Bozo, then curator-in-charge of the Musée Picasso, Paris, deemed the painting of insufficient quality to be included in their 1,000-work show. Experts whom I interviewed right after the 1995 sale (before they knew the identity of the famous buyer) called the portrait “just okay,” “not such a great painting,” “too exaggerated” and “caricature-ish.”
Even William Lieberman, then chairman of the department of 20th-century art at New York’s Metropolitan Museum, who (as a close friend of the Stralems) had long been intimately familiar with the painting, said that although he admired it, it did not “tell you about the anguish that is in most of Picasso’s paintings of that period.”
Auctioneers, trying to get the best price for consignors, have to try to make buyers believe that their goods are the best things since the “Mona Lisa.” But when collectors, dealers and auction houses blur distinctions of artistic quality, they not only distort the market; they also cloud the public’s understanding of art.
That’s what also happened with the “wish-you-were-Vermeer”---the $30-million "A Young Woman Seated at the Virginals," which was newly authenticated before it was auctioned by Sotheby’s two years ago. Two Vermeer authorities, whom I consulted after the sale but did not wish to be identified, opined that it doesn’t belong in the master’s canon. To my mind, that gawky girl, with her dull eyes, vacuous expression, slumped posture and stiff, clumsily rendered arms and fingers, could only be Vermeer on a bad day. Or not.
As for the Andrew Lloyd Webber Foundation's Picasso, it owes its stature not to its high quality but to overheated hype and the cachet of its celebrity buyer, whose art collection had previously consisted largely of Victorian pictures---the lush, saccharine productions that moderns like Picasso energetically rebelled against. Thanks to the hit musical composer's $29.1-million purchase of “de Soto” (now estimated by the auction house to bring $40-$60 million), it rocketed up the charts to become one of the artist’s best-known works.
Lloyd Webber recently suggested to Bloomberg that his sale announcement would be "the biggest news in the art market in 30 years." Why does it matter if someone actually falls for such hype? After all, the proceeds will reportedly go to a good cause---the education of young performers. The problem is that feverish prices pose a threat to the longterm health of the art market. The acquisition of lesser works for exorbitant amounts is the art trade’s version of “irrational exuberance.” It can only set the stage for the next correction.