Wednesday 12 February 2014

The National Gallery's shiny new Bellows painting

I was reading an article on the Art Newspaper website regarding the new Bellows painting acquired by the National Gallery. The purchase is part of a concerted effort by the gallery to build up a collection of American Art from the early 20th Century representing a departure from their previous collecting patterns. Bellows was an American artist whose popularity in the UK was augmented by the Royal Academies retrospective of his work 'George Bellows (1882-1925): Modern American Life'. The exhibition was supported by the TERRA Foundation which seeks to actively promote the acquisition of art from this period and which is now heavily involved with the National Gallery.

There has been considerable backlash in America regarding Randolf College's decision to sell Bellow's Men of the Docks. However I can't help but have limited sympathy with their plight. As was demonstrated in this weeks 'fake or fortune' one third of Gainsborough's work including his most famous painting 'The Blue Boy' are owned by American galleries or private collectors. I do not feel that this has damaged the reputation of the artist in Britain or weakened our cultural heritage. On the contrary it has facilitated more research on the artist and an enthusiasm for visiting the country that his paintings glorify.

Furthermore, the sale has brokered a partnership between the two institutions which appears to have a largely one sided benefit. The association will create visits to Randolf College by curators and specialists from the National Gallery who will share their knowledge and expertise. It will also facilitate internships at the National Gallery given to their students. As I have experienced first hand significant internships are like gold dust and are increasingly few and far between and it doesn't get much more prestigious then experience working at the National Gallery.

With regards to the painting itself it is an interesting work showing the dock side on a freezing day in New York. Bellows shows a sensitivity for the plight of the working class men clustered together on the shore. They are huddled over with hands thrust deep into the pockets of heavy overcoats.

The men await the goods being unloaded from the ship that towers over them ready to transport these to the bustling city on the horizon. It seems likely that the workers are searching for ad hoc work hoping that some of the wealth and opportunity represented by the boat might fall their way. This impression is given by the suspicious and competitive seeming glances the workers are giving each other and the lack of communication or comradery between them.

Although the city is partially obscured by the pollution of the docks it is clear that it is a central part of the story that Bellows is telling us. There is something so recognisably New Yorkish about it that you would never mistake it for any other skyline and you can see when you compare it with the photo below taken in 1912, the same year Bellows painted 'Men of the Docks', how carefully Bellows has rendered it. As well as the inclusion of the skyscrapers which are so idiomatic of New York we can see how in order to identify the location he has painted with just a few brush strokes an indication of the distinctive rounded building top that can be seen on the right hand side of the old photo. Having never been to America and really having very little knowledge of New York I do not know the name of this building but to the contemporary New Yorker it would have been immediately recognisable. Even I, a New York novice can identify the outline of the Brooklyn Bridge just visible behind the great ship.

The painting is typical of the work of artist of the early 20th century who were drawn to representations of the, at times harsh, realities of modern life.

The painting is certainly a beautiful one and is on display in room 43 at the National Gallery.

Sunday 9 February 2014

Record Auction Sale results at Sotheby's

There is no denying that there is something about Impressionist and surrealist art that has wormed it's way into the hearts of collectors and the public alike. Perhaps it is the fact that most of us have grown up with tea towels and puzzles plastered with the most famous examples. Or perhaps it is the more cynical reason that these works seem to have an ever increasing market value and prove a good investment. I choose to believe that these paintings provide us with a peculiar mixture of nostalgia for a distant past and an immediacy that people can not help but relate to.

Whatever cocktail of factors is involved the popularity of these works was proved at a Sotheby's auction this week (5th February 2014). The auction's total reached a staggering £163.5 million.

When you see the paintings it is not difficult to imagine how they captured the hearts and cheque books of a myriad of wealthy investors.

The star of the sale was Camille Pissarro's Le Boulevard Montmartre Matinee de printemps which sold for £16.9 million.This made it the highest selling work by this artist by a significant margin.

 Le Boulevard Montmartre de printemps Pisarro

Pisarro painted a series of paintings of the view from the window of his hotel in Montmartre. The paintings show the scene at different times of day in a similar fashion to Monet's famous hay stacks series. A work from this series hangs in the National Galleries permanent collection and a postcard of it has graced the walls of my bedroom for years. Their painting showing the scene at night has a glow and radiance that shines off the canvas speaking of the warmth and vibrancy of Parisian night life.

Of course this was not the only work to make it's mark on the auctions grand total. The private collection of Jan Krugier went under the hammer including works on paper by artists such as Leger, Ingres, Degas, Cezanne and Picasso to name but a few. These sold incredibly well reflecting their outstanding quality and the keen eye of Krugier. The sale of this collection accounted for £74.9 million of the auction total.

 Composition au minotaure Picasso 1936