Posted: 14 June 2011 by Sarah Greenberg, RA Magazine Editor
The word masterpiece is being tossed around the art world with abandon these days, with Christie’s calling the public show of its top lots ‘Masterpieces’ and a major London art fair called ‘Masterpiece’ opening at the end of this month. Is this hyperbole, or are there any works worthy of the name? I went along to the Christie’s view in their King Street headquarters to find out. It is open to the public free of charge through Wednesday, so go along to see some of these works before they vanish into private collections.
Henri De Toulouse-Lautrec, 'Miss May Belfort', 1895. Inscribed 'May Be' (Lower Centre). Peinture À L'essence And Gouache On Paper Laid Down On Canvas. 83 x 62 cm. Certainly the Christie’s show includes works by the great and the good of the art world through the ages: Picasso, Michelangelo, Stubbs, Monet, Degas, Goya and Renoir, to mention a few. What caught my eye, however, were the works from the estate of Ernst Beyeler, the legendary Swiss gallerist who helped found the Basel Art Fair in 1971 and represented everyone who was anyone in post-War modern art. The works from his estate, and indeed the jewel-box Fondation Beyeler he founded in 1997 outside his home town of Basel, bear witness to his discerning eye for modern, mould-breaking art and to his personal rapport with the artists he worked with. Picasso, often capricious with dealers, allowed Beyeler to come to his studio and choose whatever he wanted for his gallery shows. To put it bluntly, the man had taste – for his personal collection he didn’t choose the most obvious pieces, or the flashiest ones, but instead he picked interesting works that were open to discovery, that revealed the artist exploring new terrain and retained some ambiguity, abstraction and elements of the unknown.
I loved the Toulouse-Lautrec oil-sketch of Miss May Belfort, 1895 (est. £1.8m–2.4m) that still looks so fresh and modern that it seems as though the artist just finished it and stepped out of the room. It is worth having a look in advance of the Courtauld Institute’s show of Toulouse-Lautrec’s images of Jane Avril, opening later this week. I spoke to Giovanna Bertazzoni, Christie’s Head of Impressionist and Modern Art, about it:
Beyeler began his career as an antiquarian bookseller in Basel and staged his first art exhibition – a show of Japanese woodcuts – in 1947. Despite becoming one of the most powerful art dealers of his time, he continued to rent his idiosyncratic gallery premises from the city of Basel, increasing his space from one floor to three, as he grew increasingly successful. He had a monk-like devotion to art and artists – his gallery famously lacked of central heating, which probably helped speed up negotiations. His interest lay in discovering new and interesting works, even in the art of previous generations.
Claude Monet, 'Nymphéas', c.1914-1917. Oil On Canvas, 150 x 200 cm
He was one of the first champions of Claude Monet’s late work, seeing in it a resonance with modern abstract art. He showed it as early as 1962 and organised a major exhibition at the Kunstmuseum Basel in 1986 that reunited many of the Nymphéas paintings and led to the reassessment of Monet’s late period that was exemplified in the RA’s blockbuster ‘Late Monet’ exhibition of 1999. I spoke to Christie’s Giovanna Bertazzoni about the gorgeous Nymphéas 1914–17, measuring two metres across (est. £17m-24m), from Beyeler’s personal collection, with its blue and purple tones and evocative brushwork, verging on abstraction:
I discovered Beyeler’s gallery in the last ten years, on trips to the Basel Art Fair, where I made time to visit his museum-quality stand, always hung with such treasures by the likes of Giacommetti, Picasso and Klee that it was impossible to imagine they were actually for sale and not already hanging in art galleries. No matter who you were, Beyeler and his assistants would happily talk about the art and share their knowledge of these wondrous works. It is a privilege to have a glimpse into his personal collection, to see the work he kept and lived with and to witness a part of twentieth-century art history from the inside out. Since he and his wife had no children, the collection is now being sold to benefit the Fondation Beyeler.
Masterpieces: My top lots at Christie’s
Michelangelo: more than meets the eye. This recto/verso drawing offers a rare opportunity to see the last remaining sheet from Michelangelo’s legendary Battle of Cascina drawings in private hands and is the last chance for some lucky buyer to purchase a part of art history (est. £3m-5m). Michelangelo was famously commissioned to paint a fresco of this battle on a wall of the Palazzo della Signoria in Florence, which has become known as the greastest work of art that never was, because the artist was called away to Rome. All that remains of his vision are 24 sheets of drawings. Even his cartoon for the fresco became a victim of its own success when it fell apart because too many artists copied it. I spoke to Christie’s Old Master Drawings specialist Benjamin Peronnet about this once-in-a-lifetime drawing:
In the short clip below you can see the recto/verso in action:
The Duke of Portland’s copy of the original edition of John James Audubon’sThe Birds of America, the finest colour-plate book of ornithology ever produced. It is the world’s most expensive book, and one of its most beautiful (estimate: $7m–10m). I spoke to Christie’s expert Francis Walghen about how and why it was made and what makes it so priceless:
Edgar DegasAvant l’entrée en scene (Deux danseuses), c.1888 (est. £4m-6m), an irridescent Degas pastel and charcoal on paper of two dancers waiting to go on stage.
The shimmering pink pastel strokes both illuminate the dancers’ legs and indicate movement, a taste of what is to come in the RA’s forthcoming ‘Degas and the Ballet’ exhibition, opening this September.
Mythological Figure Supporting the Globe (est. £5m-8m) is a previously unrecorded 17th-century masterpiece by the Dutch master of mannerist sculpture Adriaen de Vries (1550-1626). This sculpture stood unrecognised for almost 300 years atop a fountain in a European castle courtyard.
This is a wonderful opportunity to glimpse a work by the favourite artist of the eccentric Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II. Visitors to the RA’s forthcoming Bronze exhibition in 2012 will see more from this extraordinary artist. (estimate: £5 million to £8 million)
The Imhof prayerbook by Simon Bening (1483–1561) is a personal prayer book and the earliest dated work by the artist recognized as the most celebrated illuminator of the Renaissance. Last seen at the RA’s ‘Illuminating the Renaissance’ exhibition (in 2003-4), it is a miniature marvel, whose first owner was Hans V Imhof (1461-1522), whose family had made immense wealth in the spice trade, and who was a friend of Albrecht Dürer (est. £1.5 million to £2 million).