Enter the Modern Renaissance

Enter the Modern Renaissance

E very work of art is a time machine. It crystallises a moment in history and preserves it for a waiting future. When many centuries later we behold it, we are transported back in time to the moment of its conception. So it is with Piero del Pollaiuolo’s ravishing portrait of a young man. Though he lived and died almost six hundred years ago, we meet him in an eternal present. He glares out at us with bracing immediacy — his hair tousled, his lips pursed, that haughty demeanour undone by the flushed cheeks of youth.

Not all portraits are likenesses. Or at least not all likenesses are alike. Let’s travel forward through the centuries to meet another anonymous person – not a haughty humanist but a helpless hostage. He was painted by Jean Fautrier while the artist was confined to a French psychiatric asylum during the Second World War. Hearing the screams of Hitler’s prisoners being tortured and executed in the woods outside his cell, Fautrier decided to commemorate them in a series of portraits called Les Otages (the Hostages). They are among the most harrowing images in modern art.

On the face of it, these two pictures couldn’t be less alike. Pollaiuolo’s pin-sharp portrait is a paragon of quattrocento precision, while Fautrier’s creation is a claggy clod of paint that – apart from eight crudely-drawn eyes – looks like a poorly-repaired patch of wall. I wonder what Piero would have made of his counterpart’s canvas (I suspect he wouldn’t have been impressed). But despite their superficial differences, both artworks are shaped by a strikingly similar ambition. Both artists were determined above all to capture the indexical trace of a close encounter; what it’s like to see, and be seen by, another human being.

Art historians, like auction houses, are obsessed with categorisation. We divide our vast, protean subject into regions, periods, schools and movements in a futile attempt to make sense of it. But when artworks of different times and places are brought together, as they are in this exhilaratingly expansive sale (itself a kind of time machine), you can’t fail to notice how much they have in common. The techniques, styles and mediums might differ, but the underlying preoccupations never change.

The sale is dominated by members of what we might call a modern renaissance – Munch, Picasso, Kandinsky, Klee, Magritte, Dubuffet, Warhol – who reinvented painting and sculpture just as radically as the artists of Pollaiuolo’s generation. It’s fitting, then, that its flagbearers are so impressively represented.

Van Gogh’s exhilarating painting of Montmartre captures the Florence-like crucible of the new movement, while Picasso’s grand portrait of Dora Maar is a twentieth-century take on a genre pioneered during the Italian Renaissance. He presents us with a large formal portrait of an enthroned sitter – a modern Madonna of sorts – then deconstructs her into a scaffolding of angular forms.

There are striking affinities in every direction. Alexander Calder’s white moths seem to engage in a lepidopterous conversation with Damien Hirst’s multicoloured butterflies; Antony Gormley’s seated man and Bahman Mohassess’ squatting Minotaur draw on entirely different traditions – one points to a metallurgical future, the other to a mythological past – but look like they were conceived as a pair; while Edgar Degas’ bronze dancer and Frank Auerbach’s painting of Juliet Yardley Mills are born of the same obsessive quest to understand the essence of a body’s deportment.

Other works travel back in time, pillaging the history of art for inspiration. Frank Dobson’s Female Torso – which might possess the most exquisite arms in all of modern sculpture – recalls both the voluptuous figurines of the Upper Palaeolithic and the truncated nudes of antiquity. Banksy, meanwhile, uses a famous photograph of a pregnant Demi Moore to create a fertility goddess for the age of celebrity – though one whose simian features and half-smoked cigarette suggest the offspring will be an abomination.

Louise Bourgeois likewise draws on the history of fertility imagery, but upends it with a feminist spin. Mamelles is a large pink frieze of scalloping breasts, designed to attract and repulse in equal measure. The work offers a clear critique of the objectification of the female body that so many male artists and viewers are guilty of. ‘[Mamelles] portrays a man who lives off the women he courts’, she once claimed, ‘making his way from one to the next. Feeding from them but returning nothing, he loves only in a consumptive and selfish way’.

David Hockney’s Tall Dutch Trees After Hobbema (Useful Knowledge) 2017, which recently graced the cover of The New Yorker magazine, makes more explicit reference to the past. Inspired by Meindert Hobbema’s perennially popular The Avenue at Middelharnis (1689) in London’s National Gallery, Hockney recreates his predecessor’s unforgettable row of poplars in shrill acrylic hues then chops it up into six oddly shaped canvases. His goal? To disclose the perspectival matrices that underpin not only Hobbema’s masterpiece, but much of western art since the Renaissance.

Arshile Gorky’s Garden at Sochi zigzags between past and present in a more intimate way. This incandescent yellow canvas, which irradiates its surroundings like a rising sun, is based on the artist’s memories of his childhood in Armenia – specifically to time spent in his father’s extraordinary garden. Look hard enough and amid the ebullient abstraction you’ll see boulders, tree-trunks and multi-coloured songbirds. The finest picture of a seminal series, it is the most important Gorky to come to auction in decades.

The same glow of juvenescent nostalgia pervades what for many is the sale’s star lot. No surprise, perhaps, seeing as Edvard Munch’s Summer Day was originally painted for a children’s nursery. What lucky children they were. A coastline palpitates in soft reflected light, viridian foliage dances in the wind, and a group of boys and girls gambol on the path and paddle in the water. It is, of course, utterly enchanting. But Munch’s art is never straightforwardly pleasing; in the foreground he later added an emotionally charged embracing couple, one of whom stares directly at the viewer. In Munch’s world, pleasure and pain are two sides of the same coin.

Over the last year we have all endured a great deal of pain, as a murderous pandemic – like the one that infected Edvard Munch and killed Egon Schiele a century ago – leaves our lives in tatters. But great art can be a great cure – a vaccine of sorts for the soul. Like dozens of homemade time machines, the paintings and sculptures of this modern renaissance have the power to liberate us from lockdown, to catapult us into a happier past, and to rebirth us into a brighter future.

Impressionist & Modern Art

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