Wednesday, February 3, 2010
Giacometti: The New World Record
A few hours ago, my friend PR forwarded me a link to The New York Times post by Carol Vogel that a bronze sculpture by Alberto Giacometti had broken the world record for the highest amount ever paid at auction for a work of art. Aficionados will recognize Giacometti's name, but he certainly doesn't roll off the tongue of most people who are justifiably more familiar with the likes of modern greats like Picasso and Matisse. Giacometti (1901-1966) was a Swiss-born Italian artist who made an early career for himself as one of the leading sculptors of the Surrealist movement. In 1935 he was thrown out by the Surrealists, or left on his own accord, because he felt like the abstract tone of his work was disconnecting him from the figurative form with which he felt a more natural affinity. After World War II, he was back in Paris producing work like Walking Man I, pictured here on the NYT site.
The 6-foot sculpture sold tonight at Sotheby's London for $104.3 million (approximately $12 million of that goes to Sotheby's in fees). The buzz, of course, is who the anonymous bidder was. Gallery owners are speculating it is a Russian tycoon with apparently lots of money to spend. Noteworthy on the blog post are comments from people who are horrified by the fact that one person has that much to spend while people are dying from starvation in the world. There is something to that, but for all we know this same tycoon may have given $500 million to charities in the past year.
To me, the most amazing part of this story (from an art historical perspective) is that the sculpture was only estimated to sell for between $19 to $28 million, which suggests Sotheby's underestimated its value. But is it really worth $104.3 million? These things are very difficult to say. After all, let's face it, a work of art is only worth what someone wants to pay for it. Furthermore, the instinct for some is to compare this skinny bronze guy to, say, the perpetually sublime magnificence of the Mona Lisa, but that is an unfair comparison, not only because it is a completely different type of art and appeals to a different audience, but also because the Louvre painting never has been up for sale so it's impossible to estimate how much it might be worth. Personally, I'm not convinced the Giacometti is worth that much money. The battle that went on between the two top bidders tells us that this became more about acquiring and really has nothing to do with the actual quality of the work itself. Still, this kind of price war will inevitably increase the value of Giacometti's work across the entire art market.
I actually like Giacometti's work a lot. When you look closely at his figures, you can see his fingerprints and handprints in the bronze. Originally these were marks he made in the clay or wax figure, which was then used to make the cast and then the bronze, so his imprint is actually two steps away from the original work. Yet, somehow, their existence on the sculpture's surface gives you a sense that his presence is still before you. Giacometti's attenuated figures like this one, or related works at The Museum of Modern Art like Man Pointing, demonstrate his expressionistic take on the human form. Like in the work of Mannerist artists from the late Renaissance (e.g. Bronzino and Parmagianino), the exaggeration of the human form emphasizes motion and emotion. The viewer's reaction to contorted forms is meant to be provocative, to make the viewer feel a sense of discomfort, a feeling one experiences through the reality of living but often cannot express or explain away. The philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre described Giacometti's figures as revealing the existential angst felt by Europeans after the devastation of World War II. Giacometti disregarded this interpretation, claiming instead that this new body type was simply a fluke based on experiments in drawing the human form. What strikes me about them is their sense of isolation and loneliness. This is especially true in his works where these attenuated figures are grouped together. The closer they are to one another, the more separate they seem. It's like a crowded NYC street, where thousands of people march together, but somehow never recognize another soul around them. They exist in their own bubbles, rushing from one zone to another, and missing the world that exists around them, as they move about in their neverending search for their place in the universe, wondering if they will ever find it.