Saga on canvas

Different strokes

Saga on canvas

Forty-two years, one month, and three days after his death, Pablo Picasso (October 25, 1881 – April 8, 1973) might have found a reason to turn in his grave.

On May 11, 2015, after 11 minutes of fierce competition at the Christie’s Auction House in New York, his painting ‘Les femmes d’Alger’ (Version ‘O’) realised a staggering $179.4 million, setting a new world record for the most expensive artwork to be sold at auction.
While the ecstatic auctioneer walked away with a handsome commission of slightly over 12 per cent, the identity of the successful telephone bidder among five tough competitors remained a secret. Subsequent media speculation led people to believe that it was Hamad bin Jassim bin Jaber Al Thani, the billionaire former Qatari prime minister, who had staged the bidding coup.

A dramatic auction

“I bid early on in the process,” said hotel tycoon Steve Wynn who had kept his own interest alive until the price surpassed $125 million. “But I think $179 million is a price you sell a picture at, but not the price you buy it at.” (His former wife, Elaine Wynn, incidentally, was the successful bidder of Francis Bacon’s triptych ‘Three Studies of Lucian Freud’, which held the previous record at $142.4 million).

Amidst thundering applause and exclamations, there were also those who were appalled by the price Picasso’s 1955 painting had managed to attract. Writing in The Guardian, Jonathan Jones averred that splurging £102.6 million ($179.4 million) on Women of Algiers — “a late, ungreat Picasso” — was simply insane. “And that is the idiotic level on which art collectors operate, to judge from this sale,” he lamented.

In a rather comical aside, Fox 5 News, New York City’s local Fox affiliate, ran a segment on the Christie’s sale by blurring out the breasts of three female figures in Picasso’s erotic painting. Facing widespread criticism, Fox5NY later admitted to its mistake, and shared the painting “in all its glory” on its Facebook page.

Inspired by Delacroix

Apart from all the hullaballoo it generated in the auction room, the painting’s 60-year life journey has several twists and turns. The story begins with the 19th century French master Eugène Delacroix painting ‘Les femmes d’Alger’ twice; the first version — a monumental one — in 1834; and a second, smaller piece in 1849. An ardent admirer of Delacroix, Picasso reportedly would visit the Louvre Museum in Paris almost every month to study the 1834 masterwork depicting a harem scene. So impressed and inspired was he with Delacroix’s painting that in 1954-55, he set out to make his own series of paintings on the same theme.

Picasso’s series comprised 15 paintings which he chronologically designated as Version A to O. He began the series on the afternoon of December 13, 1954 with two canvases, A and B; by February 13, the penultimate version, canvas N, was ready; and the following day, the stunning, sensuous Version O (oil on canvas / 45x58 inch) was completed.

Art historians have observed that throughout the series, Picasso had borrowed freely from both of Delacroix’s versions, intermingling their elements. Version O is hailed as the most painterly interpretation in the series, thanks to the splendid balance of line and colour; vibrancy of the palette; exceptional patterning and embellishment of surfaces. It is also seen as a Cubist and sculptural masterpiece which embraced the major currents of modernism and a recollection of Picasso’s own revolutionary break in ‘Les demoiselles d’Avignon’ (1907). Once the series was finished, it was left to Picasso’s dealer Henry Kahnweiler (1884-1979) to locate the prospective collectors. While the artist himself wanted individual works in the series to be owned by different collectors, Kahnweiler (without telling Picasso) made it a condition of sale that a single buyer should purchase the entire group. American husband-wife duo Victor and Sally Ganz agreed and acquired the whole series in June 1956. However, they sold 10 paintings almost immediately, while keeping Versions C, H, K, M and O for themselves.

Victor and Sally made an interesting couple. The low-profile Manhattan collectors bought their first Picasso, ‘The Dream’ (1932), in 1941 for $7,000 from its then owner who had just escaped from war-torn France. For the next 20 years, they bought nothing but Picasso. Later on, they expanded their collection by including artists like Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Frank Stella and Eva Hesse. In all, they supposedly invested $2 million in their lifetime on art collection.

Collecting for love

“The Ganzes didn’t buy to decorate their apartment,” explains art market correspondent Geraldine Norman (‘Living with Picasso’ / The Independent / September 28, 1997). “They bought out of love, took the works home and hung them up. The art had to rub shoulders with photographs of the children, vases of flowers, books and bibelots.”

Victor died in 1987; Sally, a decade later. In 1997, unable to “take on the social and financial responsibility of hanging great art in their homes,” Ganz’s children decided to sell off their collection. Thus, on November 10, 1997, the very best of Ganz collection (58 lots of paintings, drawings, sculptures and prints) was put up for auction at Christie’s. The response was tremendous; surpassing the expectation of about $125 million a record, $206.5 million was realised. 

One of the attractions of the sale was Picasso’s ‘Women of Algiers’ (Version O); it came with an estimate of $12 million and realised $32 million. After 17-and-a-half years, the wheel of fortune turned again last month when the same painting realised $179 million, shattering all existing auction records!

As the dust and din settles down, one might recall the words of eminent art critic Robert Hughes. “Art prices are determined by the meeting of real or induced scarcity with pure, irrational desire, and nothing is more manipulable than desire,” he said delivering the Harold Rosenberg Memorial Lecture in Chicago on May 13, 1984. “The auction room, as anyone knows, is an excellent medium for sustaining fictional price levels, because the public imagines that auction prices are necessarily real prices.”

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