American and European 19th and 20th Century Works of Art
with a special focus on the art of california
Sunday, March 29, 2009 - San Francisco Chronicle Article by Kenneth Baker
Opportunity knocks at European fine art fair - Maastricht, The Netherlands
As in years past, some of the most desirable artworks and antiques available for purchase anywhere, in a dozen categories, graced the European Fine Art Fair, the grandest event of its kind in the world.
Yet on the day of press and private previews, everyone was thinking about money.
Many dealers, particularly newcomers, had gambled heavily to participate in the fair. Prospective buyers hoped that a teetering global economy might up their bargaining power (and in some cases it did). Even nonplayers there to report on the fair or content merely to look and be overawed by it took avid note of price lists.
Would the stressed world economy cause dealers to withhold their best offerings until times improve? Or would they go all out in the hope that high-end buyers would see unprecedented opportunities?
Only a few major American museums (none from the Bay Area) were represented by visiting curators, directors or trustees. Two San Francisco dealers - Anthony Meier Fine Arts and the Montgomery Gallery - gave the Bay Area a presence.
A vendor who boasted an astonishing carved ivory panel of "Susannah and the Elders" by 17th century sculptor Francois van Bossuit said he hoped that a private collector, not a museum, would acquire it. At a museum, committee meetings might delay payment by months. The work's 3.1 million euros (or $3.9 million at the time) asking price no doubt dampened institutional interest.
In the fair's early days - it ran March 13-22 - a number of things priced in seven figures sold, including three bronzes by Louise Bourgeois, each tagged at $1.3 million.
Much of the heavy traffic, though, took place in the Old Masters painting area, for which the fair is renowned.
A painting by Peter Paul Rubens sold for more than $5 million. An American collector bought a pristine small painting by a lesser Dutch master, Gabriel Metsu, for more than $4 million. (Dealers willingly provide asking prices but tend to go vague when talking of sale prices.)
But on the preview and opening days, all eyes at the fair went, at some point, to what may have been the most expensive thing on offer: Vincent van Gogh's "The Park of the Hospital Saint-Paul" (1889), a painting seldom seen in public since its Swiss owners acquired it in the early 1960s.
Vendor: Dickinson of London and New York. Asking price: 25 million euros (or $31.5 million at the time).
Van Gogh made the painting while voluntarily resident at an asylum in the Provençal town of Saint-Remy.
Consensus at the European Fine Art Fair - whispered at first, then spoken aloud - seemed to be that "The Park of the Hospital Saint-Paul" is not an outstanding example of van Gogh's late work.
Knowing that van Gogh killed himself eight months after he made the painting inevitably colors our view of it. We cannot help wondering whether it holds some foreshadowing of the artist's self-destruction or some sign of self-soothing that might have helped forestall his final mental crisis.
From their correspondence, we know that Vincent's brother and patron Theo looked at his pictures anxiously, though also appreciatively, in the same spirit.
But what do we expect to see?
By van Gogh's standards, the painting's palette appears muted: Pale blues and greens define much of the foliage and sky. The tree trunks snaking across the foreground have an abraded look that sets the eye on edge, but their violet and umber tones suit the picture's color harmony.
The characteristic staccato brushstrokes reflect the fact that his ink drawings seem to have modeled his approach to painting. Cumulatively, the writhing, broken touches produce the sense of a landscape - or a vision, or both - coursing with energy. The symptom of an overwrought sensibility, of a mystical epiphany objectified? Or descriptive shorthand goaded to a novel briskness and self-assertion by the most radical work of his contemporaries, in which van Gogh took a vivid interest?
We know that the artist suffered from mania, depression and attacks of epilepsy that involved visual and auditory hallucinations. But his letters tell us he felt that working kept his demons at bay.
So might we see in "The Park of the Hospital Saint-Paul" a sort of stalemate between the vexations to which he was prone and the calming effect of work at his easel?
Perhaps, as Louis Sass has suggested, van Gogh's work still feels like art of our moment because the tremors of incipient breakdown pervade modern culture, as well as our private selves.
Most maddening to us, though, may be the disconnect between the values to which van Gogh's art gives traction - hunger for spiritual lucidity, pleasure in the transcription of experience - and the prices the market assigns it.
(E-mail Kenneth Baker at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article appeared on page 20 of the Sunday Datebook in the San Francisco Chronicle on Sunday, March 29, 2009)
Link to the San Francisco Chronicle Article