Highlights of the Impressionist & Modern Art Sale, New York, 14 November 2017

Highlights of the Impressionist & Modern Art Sale, New York, 14 November 2017

Highlights of the Impressionist & Modern Art Sale, New York, 14 November 2017

Highlights of the Impressionist & Modern Art Sale, New York, 14 November 2017

At the heart of Bonhams' November 14 sale of Impressionist & Modern Art are three works from the middle years of the 20th Century which encapsulate the potential of that febrile time. Consigned from three very different collections, they come together in the auction to set one another in fascinating and unusual context. Giorgio de Chirico's Apparizone della ciminiera, acquired by the present private collector in Milan in the 1970s; Alberto Giacometti's Femme debout au chignon, from the collection of the American lawyer for Joan Miró and Galerie Maeght, from whom it was purchased on the year it was cast; and Max Ernst's Sedona Landschaft, owned by the family of the Arizona doctor to whom the artist presented it in 1957.

The earliest of the three is Giorgio de Chirico's Apparizone della ciminiera, painted in the early 1940s probably while the artist was sheltering in Florence with Luigi Bellini. De Chirico's instantly recognisable cityscapes grew out of a series of compositions developed in Paris in 1913-1915: echoing, empty vistas that drew on his reading of Nietzsche. While the early views, however equivocally, spoke of the alienation of the individual, Apparizone della ciminiera adds an additional element of hope which suggests that the human spirit could be renewed even when faced with the forces of industrialization and mechanisation that were devastating Europe as it was being painted.

De Chirico's intentional ambiguity drew on his enthusiasm for the subconscious roots of his painting, a passion for which the Surrealists retroactively claimed him as one of their own. Alberto Giacometti, whose sculpture Femme debout au chignon leads the auction, was also allied to the Surrealists in the first phase of his career. By the middle of the century however, he was intensely focused on the sculptures of the human figure which have made him perhaps the most recognisable sculptor of the 20th Century. Like de Chirico's piazzas, Giacometti's figures have been linked to Nietzsche, and more specifically to the Existentialist thinkers who applied the German philosopher's ideas in the shattered postwar world. While Giacometti enjoyed their company, however, he was as wary of 'movements' and labels as de Chirico was. The Existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre lauded Giacometti's sculptures as the quintessential expression of the loneliness of the human condition in the face of mutually assured destruction. By contrast, the sculptor himself saw them as reflections of living, breathing flesh, and of his quest to recreate the vision of his young wife Annette standing naked in front of him using only the inert clay and plaster between his fingers. The subconscious was a step too far, as he exclaimed to his biographer James Lord, 'I have enough trouble with the outside without bothering about the inside'. His tender figures such as Femme debout au chignon show him wrestling with the physical and very real problems of modern life.

Giacometti spent the Second World War between his studio in Paris and his native Switzerland. As a German, Max Ernst didn't have that opportunity. In 1941, on the run from both the French police and the Gestapo, he escaped to the United States. By 1945 he spent part of each year with his wife the American painter Dorothea Tanning in a remote house in Sedona in the Northern Arizona desert, an area famous for its otherworldly landscape and dramatic red rocks. While Ernst's response to the second global conflict of his adult life might be expected to have been nihilistic, he instead returned wholeheartedly to the ideas of chance and 'automatic' painting that had underpinned his own Surrealist investigations. Sedona Landschaft is both his reaction to Arizona, placing his hawk-like spirit animal against the brilliant umber of the rock formations, and a tour de force of the Surrealist décalcomanie technique. The seemingly random patterns this produces are read like tea leaves for a guide both to the direction of the composition and the state of the artist's subconscious. In the landscape-like paintings made since the German invasion of France, Ernst saw in these patterns both the world's collapse into entropy and the promise of hope found in the relentlessly fertile, clotted, burgeoning forms that fill the composition. This balance of destruction and construction, of chaos and order, was Ernst's response to his time, to match Giacometti's triumphantly present female figures and de Chirico's sun rising behind the towers of his city.

These three European perspectives on the predicament of humanity at the turning point of the 20th Century find a useful counterpoint in the Latin American section. This is led by three glorious works on paper by Diego Rivera which address the practical nobility of rural Mexico, works which carry the starry provenance of, respectively, legendary Rat Pack star Dean Martin, and José Ferrer, first Puerto Rican Academy Award winner. Meanwhile among the other highlights is a painting of Balinese elephants by the Mexican Miguel Covarrubias, a work which forgets theory to focus on the joyful act of making art.

Author
  1. William O'Reilly
    Author
    Bonhams
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