Last week managed to sneak down to Sotheby’s for the preview of the Impressionist/Modern and Surrealist sales. I wandered in, doing my best impersonation of someone with £28million to spend (it’s not a very good impression).
The first thing that struck me on entering the galleries was the very peculiar lighting that was in evidence. There were spotlights with precision barndoors on them to illuminate only the picture. It gave the canvasses and drawings the appearance of light-boxes. I have never seen that done before, but it felt unnatural and hard to view the work as if it was in the same space that I was. These were works that did not need artificial enhancement to look distinguished.
There are still big beasts lurking out there, from Impressionist big hitters such as Monet and Renoir through Matisse and Picasso to Surrealist crowd-pleasers like Dali and Magritte. A mini museum of modern art that I had never seen before gathered in just a few rooms and then dispersed to private collections, many of it never to be seen in public again. These were works that were just short of iconic for the most part – good examples of signature styles. Egon Schiele looked fresh and still held some edge, while the Impressionists seem to have receded now into distant history – which is ironic as they were the painters of the modern world for whom immediacy and contemporaneity were hugely important. But now they are definitely historical. Picasso is still the biggest beast in the Art Jungle and his work on show here the £28m Femme Assise and the Nature Morte had kingly presence.
The works seemed to have more weight than contemporary ones, and not just that of art historians sitting on it. We cower in the shadow of the big beasts, unable to invent our own idioms and hoping that technology will provide us with a new one, but the artists of the 20th century carved out their own, and we are still just reacting to them. Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism, Conceptualism, Pop were so radical we are still struggling to digest them. Most artists today seem to me to be scraping the barrels of these idioms, looking for any stuff the big beasts – always the first to feed – left behind. Artists from the 19th relied on exotic cultural misapprehension to reinvigorate their idiom (like Gauguin), but in the 20th they really made it up for themselves. These two sales raised over £120 million – there is still some recognition of that, and the big beasts still rule the jungle.