Contemporary Art

Artists in Dialogue: Modern & Contemporary Masters

By Julia Sylvester

A rtists often consider the influence of art history on their own practice, and the combined exhibition of Impressionist & Modern and Contemporary Art from our forthcoming sales – now on view at Sotheby’s New York – throws this dialogue into high relief. We took a comparative look at some of the highlights from the upcoming Impressionist & Modern and Contemporary Art sales.


Roy Lichtenstein and Pablo Picasso

(LEFT) ROY LICHTENSTEIN, FEMALE HEAD, 1977. ESTIMATE $10,000,000–15,000,000. (RIGHT) PABLO PICASSO, BUSTE DE FEMME AU CHAPEAU, 1939. ESTIMATE $18,000,000–25,000,000.

Among the subject matter that permeates the works of Roy Lichtenstein and Pablo Picasso, it is perhaps their female portraits that prove the most powerful for their formal development and power of expression. Both Lichtentstein’s Female Head and Picasso’s Buste de femme au chapeau reimagine the iconic subject of the female bust in sharp colors and angular planes, and both grapple with the artist’s place within the canon of art history. For Picasso, Buste de femme au chapeau was indicative of his simultaneous love for two women: the sensuous Marie-Thérèse Walter, and the fiercely intellectual Dora Maar. Picasso at this time was also deeply rooted in the study of Vincent van Gogh’s canvases, resulting in a bright color palette and virulent impasto.   

Just as Picasso drew inspiration from van Gogh, Lichtenstein was vocal about the influence Picasso’s own work had upon his practice: “Picasso’s always been such a huge influence for me that I thought when I started the cartoon paintings I was getting away from Picasso…I don’t think that I’m over his influence” (Roy Lichtenstein quoted in David Sylvester, Lichtenstein: All About Art, London, 2003, p. 58). Fracturing and reassembling movements such as Cubism, Surrealism and Pop, Lichtenstein reimagined his classic heroine of fictional and comic narrative as part of a Surrealist dreamscape.


Alberto Giacometti and Francis Bacon

(LEFT) FRANCIS BACON, THREE STUDIES OF GEORGE DYER, 1966. ESTIMATE $35,000,000–45,000,000. (RIGHT) ALBERTO GIACOMETTI, FEMME ASSISE (LA MÈRE DE L’ARTISTE), 1947. ESTIMATE $4,000,000–6,000,000.

“The human face is as strange to me as a countenance, which, the more one looks at it, the more it closes itself off and escapes by the steps of unknown stairways.” – Alberto Giacometti

Francis Bacon and Alberto Giacometti were both fascinated by the human figure. Images of family and friends make up a significant portion of these artists’ works, as the characters of their everyday life were their most accessible models. For Giacometti, this meant numerous depictions of his brother Diego, wife Annette and mother Annetta, who is featured in the present work Femme assise (la mère de l’artiste) from the collection of Jean Stein. Bacon’s images were more frequently inspired by lovers, notably Peter Lacy in the 1950s and George Dyer in the mid-1960s to 1970s. These canvases are often Bacon’s most potent images, including this presentation of George Dyer from 1966. The two artists even shared inspiration in Isabel Rawsthorne, a British painter who was briefly Giacometti’s lover and later Bacon’s close friend and muse. Both artists elected to layer multiple perspectives into their canvases, visually expressing the complexity of the human psyche in their sitters. For both Bacon and Giacometti art was an exceedingly personal endeavor into the minds and bodies of those close to them, as evidenced by the present works.


Jean Dubuffet and Fernand Léger

(LEFT) JEAN DUBUFFET, MAISON FONDÉE, 1961. ESTIMATE $12,000,000–18,000,000. (RIGHT) FERNAND LÉGER, ÉLÉMENT MÉCANIQUE SUR FOND JAUNE (CONSTRUCTION MÉTALLIQUE), 1950. ESTIMATE $2,500,000–3,500,000.

Respectively featured in the Contemporary Art Evening Auction and Impressionist & Modern Art Evening Sale, Jean Dubuffet’s Maison Fondée and Fernand Léger’s Élément mécanique sur fond jaune (construction métallique) provide radically different views on post-war France. Léger and Dubuffet had known each other in pre-war Paris, but on the eve of the war Léger fled Europe for New York. Dubuffet remained in the capital and pursued his family’s trade as a wine merchant, even claiming that the occupying German troops were some of his best customers. Léger returned almost immediately after the war, where his predilection for mechanical and technological subject matter found a wealth of inspiration in the setting of post-war recovery. Painted in 1950, Élément mécanique sur fond jaune (construction métallique) is a visual ode to the labor of the common man and mechanical heart of the modern city. Although painted nearly a decade later, Maison Fondée celebrates Dubuffet’s shock and joy in witnessing a truly revived city upon his return from Vence, where he had lived since 1955.  Both works celebrate humanity on a monumental scale, capturing the vibrancy of this post-war period through primary color and vibrant black line.


Alberto Burri and Germaine Richier

(LEFT) ALBERTO BURRI, NERO PLASTICA L.A., 1963. ESTIMATE UPON REQUEST. (RIGHT) GERMAINE RICHIER, LE GRAIN, 1955. ESTIMATE $700,000–1,000,000.

While shockingly modern in its use of plastic, Alberto Burri’s Nero Plastica L.A. in many ways carries forward the exploration of existential philosophy pioneered by Germaine Richier and her contemporaries Alberto Giacometti and Marino Marini. As stated by Bruno Corà in the catalogue essay he prepared for Burri’s work, “the reductive and nihilistic tendencies which lie at the heart of the Plastiche” series echo the fissured, ravaged surface of Richier’s Le Grain. Although traditional in her use of bronze, Richier’s works were groundbreaking in their expression of the post-war angst and existential condition of the 1950s. Burri sought to further this investigation of reduction and abstraction in his own work, but preferred to do so by embracing materiality as a purer vehicle of expression.


Philip Guston and Claude Monet

(LEFT) PHILIP GUSTON, THE VISIT, 1955. ESTIMATE $6,000,000–8,000,000. (RIGHT) CLAUDE MONET, LES GLAÇONS, BENNECOURT, 1893. ESTIMATE $18,000,000–25,000,000.

Painted more than 60 years apart, Claude Monet’s Les Glaçons, Bennecourt and Philip Guston’s The Visit share a central concern for light, color and atmosphere that traces back to the Renaissance. Depicting the icy banks of the Seine, the traditional subject matter of Monet’s work is reconsidered through the very precise character of the air, the light, and the appearance of color in the landscape, particularly when blanketed in white. Showcasing Monet’s ability to paint en plein air, the work’s brilliant brush strokes and dense impasto coalesce to reflect the play of water, sky and foliage. The Visit maintains the same concentration on the interplay of color and light, but is in this case wholly removed from recognizable subject matter.

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