Wednesday 3 February 2010


There was a sale of Impressionist Art at Sothebys today. Yesterday my friend Michael Goldfarb and I skipped our usual weekly dim sum or pho or ramen lunch to check it out, and to see what was briefly one of best art museums in the world. The big publicity was for a wonderful Klimt, Church in Carcassone, looted by Austrian Nazis from the collection of the Jewish industrialist Viktor Zukerkandl, and it is a magnificent work whose shimmering quality suggests the sunlight on the landscape and river, and gives it a more romantic cast than much Impressionist work, which had obviously influenced Klimt when he painted it in 1913. The picture was actually taken down while we were there, whether for publicity shots or for private viewing by a high-roller, I don't know. The guide price was £18 million, which seems a bit out of my reach, at least, but I was struck by the thought that there were works on display I could have afforded to buy, especially if I hadn't just bought a house.

It was a hugely impressive display. Pissarro, my favourite of the Impressionists, had a lovely 1901 painting of the church at Dieppe in the morning sun, probably better value at a mere £2 mill. I recognised the landscape in Seurat's Hospice et Phare de Honfleur (1886) whose beauty comes from unusual understatement, both of the pointillism and especially the way the lighthouse is relegated to the fringes of the image. There was a 1907, very impressionist, Bonnard, of a field in front of a church, whose use of blocks of colour suggests things the Abstract Expressionists wouldn't be getting to for another forty years. There was an ink and brush drawing by Picasso of Arlequin, dating from about the same time, 1909, which breathed a new and shadowy life into that familiar image.

A Klee watercolour, Country House Near Fribourg (1915) is an almost perfect small work, and I found it and Max Liebermann's Flower Shrubs Near Wannsee (1919) somehow refreshing, as if one could recover from the thought of the Great War. I was also impressed again by Natalia Goncharova, a painting called Haymaking, done sometime between 1905-10. Her work seems to have been under-valued, perhaps because of its melding of Impressionism with early hints of Cubism, which you'd think would be a positive.

But it was as we were leaving, and I was hurrying to make sure there were no further crannies I'd overlooked, that I saw a painting that stopped me in my tracks, and made me re-consider yet again what it is that makes it special to be alive. It's a modest Vuillard, one of numerous portraits he did of Lucy Hessel, wife of his art dealer. Madame Hessel a Son Cabinet de Toilette dates from 1917, and is primarily done in a rich, peaceful green, into which Mme. seems almost to blend. All that sets her apart, aside from her bowed head, is the brilliant orange scarf around her neck. She is spotlighted by a white petalled lamp aimed directly at her, and another, red, scarf which hangs on the wall. Those brilliant colours provide hints, perhaps, of the person ready to step out of the shadows, or perhaps back into them; she is lost in her own thoughts, just a small step away from becoming one with her surroundings. It was profoundly moving, transcending its setting, and transporting me, for a while, with it, despite the efforts of London to intrude.

This piece appears also at Untitled: Perpspectives

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