Wednesday, September 25, 2013

"Balthus: Cats and Girls -- Paintings and Provocations" at the Met

Balthus, Therese Dreaming, 1938
Pedophilia is the idea that first comes to mind when Balthus is mentioned, and among the most gripping paintings in the Met's just-opened exhibit on the artist is a depiction of his prepubescent neighbor, Therese Blanchard, legs akimbo, white panties showing, with a cat suggestively lapping milk from a bowl at her feet.  The luscious earth tones and the warm reds and greens of the painting, "Therese Dreaming," 1938, are the perfect artistic complement.

By and large, though, "Balthus: Cats and Girls -- Paintings and Provocations" -- the first Balthus exhibit at the Met since his 1984 retrospective and the first devoted to this theme -- doesn't include the major works that both made his career and gave him this reputation.  With the especially sore omissions of "The Street," 1933, and "The Guitar Lesson," 1934, large masterworks whose sexual content created a scandal when first exhibited and established Balthus as an artist to pay attention to, we are left with an incomplete exploration of Balthus and his nymphets and confronted with often second-rate, sometimes vapid works.

The exhibit has 34 paintings arranged chronologically from the 1930s to the 1950s, the earlier part of his career.  (Balthus, born Balthasar Klossowski in Paris, worked until his died in Switzerland in 2001.)  About half the works are from private collections, many loaned anonymously.

Balthus himself consistently rejected the notion that his paintings of girls were erotic.  "That reaction is so boring and stupid," he told writer Richard Covington in 1994.  ". . . My young models signify an interior grace and an attempt to recapture a part of their lost paradise.  The idea I am trying to get across has to do with religion, not at all with eroticism."

Try keeping that in mind as you wend your way past Therese's panties, girls with the arched backs of sexual excitement, the hands of reclining girls poised over their genitalia, ready to masturbate, and girls with guitars, ripe fruit, pitchers, and other symbols of female sexuality.

Some are clearly painted as seductresses, as in the cringe-worthy crotch shot of "Girl with Cat," 1945.  But there are no full-on come-hither looks, which sets these paintings in an entirely different category from Lewis Carroll's near-pornographic photos of the young Alice Liddell.  In many paintings, if we didn't know Balthus's models were girls, we could assume they were young women -- they are full-breasted, which takes us far afield from Sally Mann's photos of her naked children that some find exploitative.

Frequently, there's a cat as voyeur, smiling commentator, or, as in "Therese Dreaming," eager participant.  The catalogue persuasively argues that it is sometimes a stand-in for the artist, and the Met has included a small self-portrait of the artist as a dandy from 1935 that bears the inscription "A Portrait of H.M. The King of Cats by Himself."

Balthus clearly had a special attachment to cats.  A highlight of the show is a series of 40 never-before-exhibited ink drawings that tell the story of a boy finding, loving, and then losing a cat, which the precocious Balthus drew when he was 11.  Fresh and moving, they display a disarming mastery of composition and a bold use of light and dark.

The show begins with portraits of his young Parisian neighbor Therese from 1936 to 1939, richly and realistically characterized as aloof, pensive, in a world of her own, and anachronistic except in the subject of Therese and her panties.  It ends with mostly vacuous works from the 50s, when Balthus had moved to the countryside.  They bear hints of Cezanne's fracturing of space and Matisse's patterned costumes against patterned grounds, but Balthus seems curiously uncommitted to the techniques of the Modernists except as decorative devices.

In between are paintings that would scarcely be noteworthy were they not painted by someone of Balthus's stature. An exception is a beauty of a painting titled "The Victim," a nude begun in 1939 and finished shortly after World War II.  The subtly colored, pallid skin against a white sheet recalls how the Old Masters depicted Christ taken from the Cross.  Largely self-taught, Balthus learned to paint by copying the Old Masters in the Louvre and Piero della Francesca in Arezzo.

"The Guitar Lesson" is probably Balthus's best-known and least-seen painting -- it was exhibited in Paris in 1934 and again in 1977 by his dealer Pierre Matisse in New York and hasn't been seen in public since.  "I didn't want it," said Met curator Sabine Rewald.  "It has an adult," she explained, which probably also accounts for the absence of "The Street" (it's at MoMA).  "This show is about children and cats."

Balthus was capable of startling achievements in works like "The Street" and the Met's own "The Mountain."  At his best he upsets expectations, creates mystery, and can simultaneously attract and repel the viewer.  Here we see him mostly as a second-rate artist and perhaps at his most divisive, a status that the narrowly conceived "Cats and Girls" will do little to change.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Russia Threatens to Sue Library of Congress over Books Loaned to Jewish Sect Chabad in Response to Court-Ordered Sanctions Against Russia

In the ever-widening ramifications of the Brooklyn-based Jewish sect Chabad's attempts to obtain a library and archive from Russia, the brawl is spreading from a private party's lawsuit -- and resulting in $50,000/day court-ordered sanctions against Russia -- to an intergovernmental one of Russia vs. the U.S.

Russia's Foreign Ministry has recommended that its Culture Ministry and Russian State Library sue the Library of Congress demanding the return of seven books the Russian State Library sent in 1994 to the LOC for the use of Chabad that have not been sent back.  The idea behind the threatened lawsuit -- to be brought in Russia -- is payback for the sanctions in Chabad's own ongoing suit, according to Moscow's state-run press.

Chabad's suit against Russia triggered Russia's more than two-year-old embargo on lending art to U.S. museums.  Read more in my latest article in The Art Newspaper.

Text (c) Copyright 2013 Laura Gilbert

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Met Reject, Listed as "Follower of Rubens" and Estimated at $20,000-$30,000, Sells for $626,500 at Sotheby's

Is this portrait of a young woman by Rubens?

A Metropolitan Museum reject, which was estimated to sell at Sotheby's for between $20,000 and $30,000, was auctioned off today for $626,500 (including premium).  Sotheby's listed it as by a follower of Rubens, but given how much the portrait sold for, it appears that some bidders may have thought otherwise.

In the first half of the 20th century, the painting was considered a Rubens, but scholars in the second half, including heavyweight Julius Held, disagreed.   The Met's own Walter Liedtke, curator of Dutch and Flemish art, thought the painting a copy of a work by Rubens.  It's been suggested that the subject is Rubens' daughter.

The portrait was one of sixteen paintings the Met consigned to Sotheby's to raise money for its acquisitions fund.

Photo from Sotheby's.  Text (c) Copyright 2013 Laura Gilbert

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

"Rediscovered" Bronzino and Botticelli Flop at Christie's

No sale:  Portrait offered as a Bronzino
The top dog at Christie's Old Masters sale didn't find a buyer today, when a portrait offered as a Bronzino failed to reach its low estimate of $12 million.  The high, unsuccessful bid was half-a-million below that.

Also left out in the cold was a Madonna and Child offered as an early Botticelli (not the so-called Rockefeller Madonna by Botticelli, which sold for a record $10.4 million).  This murky painting had been estimated to go for between $3 million and $5 million, but the high bid, $2.7 million, fell short.

The auction house had hailed both paintings as "rediscovered," their new attributions vouched for by prominent art historians.  (See my earlier post previewing the sale, here.) 

Other newly attributed paintings fared better.  An Annunciation now given to Annibale Caracci, estimated at $1.5-$2.5 million, sold for $3.44 million (including premium), and a rediscovered Watteau, estimated at $500,000-$700,000, sold for $602,500 (including premium).
Pulzone portrait that sold for $6.7 million
The work with the second-highest estimate ($10-$15 million), Fra Bartolommeo's Madonna and Child, sold for $11.5 million (without premium).

The true star of the show, though, may well be a portrait by Scipione Pulzone ("Il Gaetano"), one of the most sought-after portrait artists in 16th-century Rome -- clients included popes and secular rulers.  The portrait of Jacopo Boncompagni went for more than twice its high estimate of $2.5 million, finding a new home at $6.7 million (without premium).

The Fra Bartolommeo, Caracci, and Pulzone prices were auction records for the artists.

Text and photos (c) Copyright 2013 Laura Gilbert

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Metropolitan Museum Dumps 16 Old Masters at Sotheby's

Pedro Sanchez I, Christ Before Pilate (estimate: $120,000-$160,000)
The Metropolitan Museum is cleaning house again, this time deaccessioning sixteen Old Master paintings.  Truth be told, some of them you wouldn't want to hang in your own house, and most you wouldn't expect to see at a magnificent institution like the Met.

But there are a few I wish the museum would retain, especially the devotional triptych of Christ before Pilate by Pedro Sanchez I, a Seville artist active in the second half of the 15th century.  That it's survived intact is remarkable enough, but it also appears to be in excellent condition.

More important, it's an arresting image by an artist of great talent and compositional flair.  Look at Christ covered in blood from being tortured, wrapped in shroud-like drapery, and framed by individualized heads -- to say nothing of the rapidly receding floor.

I challenge anyone to name a single painting in the Met's European paintings galleries by a Spanish artist before El Greco.  Here's a prime example -- it doesn't fit the old-fashioned canon of "progress" in art as exemplified by the Italian Renaissance and Early Netherlandish painting, but it's marvelous.

Out of the Met's storerooms and onto the walls of Sotheby's

Text and photos (c) Copyright 2013 Laura Gilbert

Christie's Old Masters Sale Preview: Estimates in the Millions of Dollars for "Rediscoveries" on Public View for the First Time

Fra Bartolommeo, Madonna and Child
Christie's has a stupefyingly beautiful show of Old Masters on view now to be auctioned later this week.

Some of the highest estimates are for paintings previously ascribed to other names, or reappearing after decades in obscurity.  Such "rediscoveries" often raise questions about attribution -- which, after all, is largely a matter of scholarly consensus reached over time -- and the auction house has rolled out some big names to argue the new attributions.  Some of these big-ticket items are on public view for the first time.

Here are some examples:

Bronzino, Portrait of a Young Man, ca. 1525 (estimate: $12-$18 million).  This painting, with the highest estimate in the sale, spent decades in oblivion as a work by Bronzino's teacher, Jacopo Pontormo, and was even considered by some a copy of a Pontormo.  It's now making its debut as an early work by Bronzino, court artist to the Medici in Florence and one of the most admired of all portraitists.

The new attribution and the bulk of the Christie's catalogue entry are courtesy of Carlo Falciani, who organized the 2011 glorious, first retrospective of Bronzino's paintings.  Falciani said he saw it when he was working on the exhibition, which begs the question -- why didn't he include it in the retrospective?

Annibale Caracci, Annunciation, 1580s (estimate:  $1.5-$2.5 million).  A work of sensuous color, the Annunciation was "previously known only from a decades-old black and white photograph," according to the catalogue.  It had been given to Annibale's older, less adventurous cousin, Ludovico, an attribution some still accept.  The Met's Keith Christensen and Andrea Bayer support the attribution to Annibale, who's credited with turning Italian painting toward realism after decades of Mannerism.

Fra Bartolommeo, Madonna and Child (top), mid-1490s (estimate: $12-$18 million). The catalogue lists no exhibitions for this painting, which was unknown until it was published in 1992. It shows a tender moment when the Christ child is climbing up to receive a kiss from his mother, their faces framed against a luminous sky.

Botticelli, Madonna and Child with Pomegranate, 1460s (estimate $3-$5 million).  Formerly given to Filippo Lippi, the Florentine painter in whose workshop Botticelli trained, this "rediscovery" is now called an early Botticelli by Everett Fahy, former Met chair of European paintings and now a Christie's consultant, who wrote the catalogue entry.  The surface of the painting is so dull that it's hard to make heads or tails of it.

Watteau. The Declaration, ca. 1718 (estimate: $500,000-$700,000).  This tiny oil on copper -- in which a man seems to be copping a feel, was, according to the catalogue, "unknown to recent scholars and missing from the modern scholarly literature on the artist."  It's delightful, and will appear in the catalogue raisonne of Watteau's paintings currently in preparation.

Here are a few other standouts:

Chardin, The Embroiderer, 1730s, $3-$5m

Lucas Cranach the Younger, Madonna and Child with St. John, after 1537, $1.5-$2.5m
Antonio Joli, View of the Bay of Naples, ca. 1770, $400-$600k
Photo of Joli from Christie's.  Other photos and text (c) Copyright 2013 Laura Gilbert.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

In Major Victory for Chabad, Court Orders Sanctions Against Russia of $50,000 a Day; Ruling Is Contrary to U.S. Position

In a major victory for Chabad, the D.C. District Court has found Russia in contempt and ordered it to pay $50,000 a day until it obeys the court's July 2010 order to turn over to Chabad two collections of books and manuscripts.  The court issued the sanctions order yesterday.

The District Court rejected the Justice Department's argument that sanctioning Russia would interfere with the executive branch's conduct of foreign relations.

The U.S. had argued that sanctions would purport to dispose of property held by another state in that state's territory, which would be contrary to international law.  The court responded:  "The United States has conflated a court's issuing of contempt sanctions with execution or enforcement of an award by, for instance, attaching tangible property."

The court also criticized the government's argument that sanctions would undermine the State Department's attempts to resolve Chabad's dispute with Russia diplomatically -- it had engaged in such efforts going back to 1991.  "Though the United States may indeed be 'committed to continuing these efforts,' it provides neither any information regarding its future plans, nor any other reason to believe that its new efforts will be more likely to succeed than past failures."

Art Embargo

The Chabad case triggered Russia's embargo on lending art to U.S. museums, now well into its third year, and in its court papers the U.S. said sanctions would interfere with its efforts to end the embargo.  The court was not convinced:  "The United States fails to reasonably and specifically explain the connection between the proposed sanctions and its ability to negotiate a resolution to the moratorium."

Most experts contacted prior to yesterday's decision expected Chabad to lose.

The ruling comes at a time of deteriorating relations between Russia and the U.S., with the latest example being Russia's banning adoptions by Americans.

Text (c) Copyright 2013 Laura Gilbert