Written by: Haomin Li
Exciting news for Modern and contemporary art lovers — it is May, a month to celebrate modern and contemporary artists at auction. Sotheby’s is bringing art lovers the sale series of ‘Impressionist, Modern & Contemporary Art’, and Christie’s is offering a series of ‘20th / 21st Century’ auctions. Indeed, with Jean-Michel Basquiat, Pablo Picasso, and Xu Beihong (徐悲鸿 / 徐悲鴻), all the big names are landing around the globe — mainly in Hong Kong and in New York City — at auction in the coming weeks. After two consecutive articles on rather abstract subject matters, it is time to get back to enjoying individual pieces of art, so I have decided to bring you all a preview of three upcoming blockbuster auctions. Enjoy!
Sotheby’s New York - Contemporary Art Evening Auction
Following Christie’s 21st Century Evening Sale one day earlier, Sotheby’s own Contemporary Art Evening Auction will commence on 12 May. This evening auction features only the top dogs — Willem de Kooning, David Hockney, Banksy, and not least Jean-Michel Basquiat, the brightest star of the sale. What an enthralling line-up! All the excitingly high estimates also portend exhilarating biddings on 12 May.
(fig. 1) Jean-Michel Basquiat, Versus Medici, October 1982.
Acrylic, Oilstick, and Paper Collage on Three Joined Canvasses, 214 x 137.8 cm. Private Collection
On 26 March, Sotheby’s first revealed Basquiat’s Versus Medici (Oct. 1982; Lot 105; fig. 1), the star highlight of the sale, which is estimated at 30,000,000-50,000,000 USD. Having sent this painting on an international tour to Taipei, Hong Kong, and Los Angeles, Sotheby’s has so far carried out a matching social media campaign for this enthralling evening auction, gradually but steadily building up to the climax: Versus Medici.
The subject matter is comparatively clear for a Basquiat. In this painting, Basquiat directly challenges the orthodox paragon of Western Art History, the Medici family, and simultaneously crowns himself as the successor to the great Italian Renaissance masters. The artistic language used in this painting is, indeed, evidently referential, with the most significant feature being the time-honoured triptych format. Furthermore, the art world tends to associate Basquiat particularly with Leonardo da Vinci, claiming that Basquiat is much influenced by Leonardo da Vinci’s artistic thinking, not least the anatomical complexity. (Disclaimer: from this point on until the end of this paragraph are strictly personal thoughts) Well, I do not find this convincing at all. Every literature on Basquiat mentions the proximity between Leonardo’s artistic thinking and that of Basquiat; nevertheless, none of them provides any rationale, clarification, or elaboration at all, let alone any well-argued, persuasive one. In Sotheby’s introductory article on Versus Medici, for instance, the author juxtaposes Leonardo’s anatomical drawings, including the iconic Vitruvian Man, with Versus Medici and other Basquiats — with no explanation whatsoever (Link: https://www.sothebys.com/en/articles/jean-michel-basquiats-phenomenal-versus-medici-comes-to-auction). There is no evident formal similarity between the nude in Vitruvian Man and the central figure in Versus Medici; possible iconographic similarity, which is retrospectively and speculatively assigned, is tentative at best. Admittedly, Basquiat highly regarded Leonardo, but that does not provide the necessary ground that supports the laughable claim that Basquiat’s art has anything to do with Leonardo’s. This ludicrous analogy between the two artists is not only wildly anachronistic but is also completely ungrounded and actually unfair to both artists. As far as I am concerned, this arbitrary, preposterous analogy helps mystify Leonardo as the ultimate prototype (read ‘stereotype’) of an outcast-genius, which could not be further from the truth; Leonardo is, in turn, used by the white-owned art world to ‘whitewash’ Basquiat, thus burying Basquiat’s own unique artistic style and philosophy, robbing the black artist of his own independent agency — all the while making huge fortunes in his name. Typical.
(fig. 2) Jean-Michel Basquiat, Untitled, 1982.
Acrylic, Spray Paint, and Oilstick on Canvas. Private Collection
Back to the painting, a meaningful work of art in its own right. To visually analyse Basquiat’s Versus Medici, the three phases proposed by Richard Marshall (curator at the Whitney Museum) come in handy. Versus Medici is a liminal work between Basquiat’s first phase (1980-82) and his middle period (1982-85). The relatively limited palette and the easily readable skeletal figure with the head en face are characteristic of the artist’s first phase. The inclusion and crossing-out of words as well as the employment of three panels in Versus Medici, however, all appear to betoken the artist’s large polyptych compositions representative of his second middle period. The work is, perhaps, best described with the epithet — ‘seminal’ — as later spectators may retrospectively identify the ‘evolution’ of the Basquiat artistic thoughts and practices in this painting. By contrast, an untitled work by Basquiat also executed in 1982 (fig. 2) is more characteristic of the his first phase — the visible painterly gestures, limited palette, single legible skeletal head en face, etc.. Four years ago on 17 May, this untitled work reached over 100 million dollars (110,487,500 USD with buyer’s premium, to be exact), a jaw-dropping price, at the Contemporary Art Evening Sale at Sotheby’s New York. As reasoned previously, Versus Medici is definitely a critically acclaimed and academically invaluable piece of art, but would the art loving / buying public appreciate this processual aspect of the work, or would they simply prefer an iconic, ‘quintessential’ Basquiat like that untitled picture? We shall see.
Link to Contemporary Art Evening Auction @ Sotheby’s New York:
Christie’s New York - 20th Century Evening Sale
(fig. 3) Pablo Picasso, Femme Assise Près d'une Fenêtre, 30 October 1932.
Oil on Canvas, 146 x 114 cm. Private Collection
On 13 May, two days after the 21st Century Evening Sale, is Christie’s 20th Century Evening Sale. Again, it is an evening auction that conglomerate all the biggest names in the history of Avant-Garde art — Claude Monet, Vincent van Gogh, Barbara Hepworth, Mark Rothko, Andy Warhol, Zao Wou-Ki (赵无极 / 趙無極). However, boasting the higher estimate at 50,000,000 USD, Picasso’s Femme Assise Près d'une Fenêtre, or Woman Sitting by a Window (30 October 1932; Lot 15 B; fig. 3), is undeniably the brightest star of the evening.
The paining depicts Picasso’s underage lover, Marie-Thérèse Walter. As is widely known, Picasso and Walter, who was underage when they began their affair, had a problematic relationship. Walter has thus become the inspiration for some of Picasso’s most sought-after drawings, paintings, and sculptures. While this young lover frequently appears as a nude woman lying passively in repose, Femme Assise Près d'une Fenêtre shows a woman who is very much self-aware, present, and alert. Nonetheless, the audience can still sense the sensuality just oozing from the painted surface; nonetheless, the female figure in the picture is still ultimately controlled and manipulated by the ‘puppet master’…
While female nudes by male ‘masters’ (in both senses) are still wildly sought after (by heterosexual men) as ever, when one looks at all the 51 lots included in the sale, one would find only a handful of woman artists that have been given a voice. The patriarchal ridiculousness that has permeated throughout history is still raging. When is it going to stop?
To enjoy this auction and to further ponder upon the underlying significance, here is the link to 20th Century Evening Sale @ Christie’s New York: https://www.christies.com/en/auction/20th-century-evening-sale-19809-nyr/?filters=&page=2&searchphrase=&sortby=lot_number.
Christie’s Hong Kong - Xu Beihong: Slave and Lion
(fig. 4) Xu Beihong, Slave and Lion, 1924. Oil on Canvas, 123.3 × 152.8 cm. Private Collection
On 13 May, the same day as the 20th Century Evening Sale, there will be a separate auction for just one lot: Xu Beihong’s Realist oil painting, Slave and Lion, or 奴隶与狮 / 奴隸與獅 (1924; fig. 4). Estimated at 350,000,000-450,000,000 HKD (45,000,000-58,000,000 USD), this internationally acclaimed painting is crowned as ‘Treasure of a Nation’ by Chinese art lovers. Only very few oil paintings by Xu Beihong are still circulating on the market; therefore, the estimate for this Xu Beihong is extremely high.
Xu Beihong’s Slave and Lion was executed 1924 in Germany, the fifth year of his studies in Europe. This painting is perfectly characteristic of the artist’s dexterity. The audience could readily perceive the convincing perspective, the strong chiaroscuro, the vibrant colours, the ingeniously designed stances of the two figures, and, above all, the artist’s controlled yet expressive brushstrokes. With such skillful execution, the artist cleverly brings out the tension within the pictorial frame. The subject matter of this history painting ultimately comes from Aesop’s Fables, but this episode is also widespread amongst the Catholics. Towards the end of the 19th Century and the beginning of the 20th, the subject was well established in the Academic repertoire. This is partly the reason why Xu Beihong chose it as his theme, but Xu Beihong’s personal pictorial preference and historical context also played a part.
(fig. 5) Xu Beihong, The Injured Lion, 1938.
Ink on Paper, 110 x 109 cm. Beijing, Xu Beihong Museum
As Xu Beihong is best known for his paintings of lifelike horses, people oftentimes neglect the fact that his lions are just as vivacious. Some great examples are The Injured Lion, 受伤的狮 / 受傷的獅 (1938; fig. 5), and Joining Forces in Tokyo, 会师东京 / 會師東京 (1943; fig. 6). Xu Beihong imbued his lions with patriotism, and lions became his preferred symbol that stands for the comeback of China as a great nation. This patriotism, far from the repellent Nationalism that we nowadays too often and too hastily assume, should be placed within its proper historical context. Historically, the early 20th Century was not exactly a roaring era for China. Partially colonised by the West and other Imperialist powers (e.g. Japan), Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan had become colonies, settlements and concessions in Shanghai kept expanding, and China was left destitute. The two aforementioned examples, furthermore, were executed during the Second World War when China was struggling to defend itself from Japanese Imperialist invasion. Therefore, the strong patriotism in his paintings cannot be faulted; nay, they cannot be more suitable.
(fig. 6) Xu Beihong, Joining Forces in Tokyo, 1943
Chinese Painting, 113 x 217 cm. Beijing, Xu Beihong Museum
The Xu Beihong auction is not yet available for online preview, but the event is already listed on Christie’s auction calendar, which is relatively easy to find. I am very excited about all three auctions, and I cannot wait to share my thoughts regarding the auction results in three weeks:) Stay tuned! Cheerio!