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PICASSOS FOR THE MET
by Walter Robinson
 
The great Metropolitan Museum of Art has a lot of works by Pablo Picasso, and approximately 300 of them are currently on view in "Picasso in the Metropolitan Museum of Art," Apr. 27-Aug. 1, 2010.

Clearly, that’s not enough. A museum can never have too many Picassos.

Now is the time to buy. Why? Because the May auctions are here. And, as art dealer (and Artnet Magazine auction reporter) Stewart Waltzer likes to say, “Why not? There’s so much money about.”

A moony Picasso portrait of Marie-Thérèse, Nude, Green Leaves and Bust (1932), is the star lot at Christie’s New York evening Impressionist and modern art sale on Tuesday, May 4, 2010. From the estate of Los Angeles collector Frances Brody, the painting is already guaranteed for $70 million, and could sell for much more, perhaps setting a new auction record (now at $104.3 million).

Remember, as ace art-market reporter Lindsay Pollock recently pointed out, hedgie Steven A. Cohen was supposedly going to pay $139 million for Steve Wynn’s Le rêve before the clumsy capitalist put his elbow through the canvas.

But the Met already has three pictures of the lecherous old painter’s 17-year-old lover, and it hardly needs another one. So let’s take a pass on this one.

The Met could consider bidding on the sale’s macho portrait of Jacqueline, Picasso’s second wife (and final helpmeet), Femme au chat assise dans un fauteuil, done in 1964, when Picasso was 73 years old. The museum has only one, rather modest portrait of her, and this one combines an admirable serenity of countenance with a brutality of execution that features, embedded in the pigment, many bristles from the cheap brush that the artist made a point of using. The guy really had a magic touch. Plus, who can resist the cat? The estimate at Christie’s is $10,000,000-$15,000,000.

Jacqueline makes an appearance as well in an even grander painting, Femme et fillettes from 1961. Painted the year of their marriage, Picasso depicts his final bride as a queen on her throne flanked by her “ladies in waiting” -- that is, the children who came to visit on vacation: Picasso’s daughter Paloma (by Françoise Gilot) on the left, and on the right, presumably, since the face is smudged out, Jacqueline’s daughter Cathy Hutin-Blay.

Whether Picasso had some neurotic thing about painting the visage of his step-daughter remains unknown, though certainly many art collectors won’t like the unfinished face. Perhaps the price will stay on the low end, and perhaps we can argue, as the auction house does, that the defect is a modernist experiment, and that the picture belongs in a museum -- a similar painting, made the day before, is in the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

What’s more, as long as we’re talking family, the Met doesn’t have any paintings of Picasso’s kids. The estimate for the work, which is from the estate of the late novelist Michael Crichton, is $5,500,000-$7,500,000.

But the real must-have for the Met at Christie’s is Femme à la robe rose, a delicate and comic picture from 1917 that teeters on the threshold between Picasso’s Cubist and neo-classical phases. The Met has plenty of pictures of Olga, the conservative ballerina who became Picasso’s first wife, but nothing quite like this, and nothing from the years 1917-19. Bought by Crichton from Pace Wildenstein, Femme is estimated at $5,500,000-$7,500,000.

Christie’s, in its wisdom, has included both these Crichton works in its May 11 contemporary sale.

One more catch at Christie’s is the exceptionally late Picasso, Le peintre et son modèle from 1964. Though light and slight and altogether childlike (in both execution and in the apparent psychology of the two figures), it has the virtue of not being a painting of one of Picasso’s god damn girlfriends. The estimate is $10,000,000-$14,000,000, and the picture would go well with the two late Picassos currently in the Met’s collection.

At Sotheby’s New York Impressionist and modern art sale on Wednesday, May 5. 2010, the star Picasso lot is another portrait of Jacqueline, this one from 1965, Femme au grand chapeau. Buste, a sweetly pastel-colored and determinedly youthful image of his then 38-year-old wife. The picture was once owned by Patricia Kennedy Lawford, and is being sold by her son Christopher, a Los Angeles artist, who told the New York Times that the painting had become too rich for his modest lifestyle.

The estimate for Femme au grand chapeau is $8,000,000-$12,000,000. The Met doesn’t really need four pictures of Jacqueline, but with this last acquisition, it would own more pictures of Jacqueline than it has of Marie-Thérèse.

A final Picasso in the Sotheby’s sale is Portrait de Sylvette (1954), a gray-toned portrait of the artist’s 20-year-old neighbor, shown with a long pony tail, a look that Brigitte Bardot was soon to appropriate (according to Sylvette, who became Lydia Corbett when she moved to England in 1968). Downtown New Yorkers might recognize Sylvette as well from Picasso’s large concrete sculpture in the plaza at NYU’s Silver Residence Towers on Bleecker Street.

According to Sotheby’s, Sylvette was engaged at the time, and her fiancé never left her side while she posed for the rapacious artist. Smart man. That fact alone makes it worth having at the Met. The estimate is $4,000,000-$6,000,000.

What’s the total? A mere $62 million (plus the auction house premium, say another $8 million), if the pictures go at their presale high estimates. Surely, for today’s billionaire trustees, this sum is a “bag-o-shells,” as Ralph Kramden might say.

While we’re at it, the Museum of Modern Art should buy Sonia Delaunay’s 1908 Fauvist Portrait de Charles de Rochefort, offered at Christie’s on May 4. This little-known picture, animated and decorative (even if the man’s nose is perhaps too red with a cold) would help balance out the proportion of women in MoMA’s permanent collection galleries.


WALTER ROBINSON is editor of Artnet Magazine.



 



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