Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Picasso’s Nude Grabs the Spotlight

Today’s art world is replete with big personalities – and even bigger egos. It goes with the territory in our celebrity-obsessed society. Fame, and occasionally notoriety, have become a by-product of artistic success: remember how Tracey Emin became front-page news when the most reclusive of art dealers, Charles Saatchi, plucked her and her unmade bed from relative obscurity?

Unfortunately, the cult of personality that springs up around successful artists often has a diminishing effect on the work they produce. The art is left to languish in the shade, while the artist soaks up the spotlight: the artist outshines the art. One only has to look to artists such as Damien Hirst and Banksy for proof - they are classic examples of those who have built a brand around their legendary name rather than their actual work.

This is not a new phenomenon. In fact, it is a trend that can be traced all the way back to the early 20th century, past Warhol and even Dalí, to the granddaddy of infamous artists – Pablo Picasso.

Let’s think about this for a minute. Picasso was a huge celebrity during his lifetime, famous not just for his ground-breaking work in Cubism, but also for the unorthodox life he led, his tangled love-life and the bohemian company he kept. (Picasso forged friendships with the likes of Chanel, Serge Diaghilev, Jean Cocteau and Stravinsky, and courted controversy by joining the Communist Party in 1944.) Eventually, inevitably, the Picasso legend surpassed the Picasso art, and this has remained true right up to the present day. Most people have heard of Pablo Picasso, but how many have seen his work?

Admittedly, there have been a couple of works by the Spanish cubist master that have emerged from the shadow of their creator, most notably Guernica. The artist’s harrowing and haunting depiction of the brutal bombing of a small rural town during the Spanish Civil War inspires an immense depth of feeling among those who see it, with the result that the painting has become legendary in its own right. This is a work that stands alone, unburdened by the infamy of its creator, but laden down with the terrible legacy of a cruel war.


But now, another Picasso creation has been grabbing the headlines, albeit for entirely different reasons. Nude, Green Leaves and Bust, a 1932 painting of Picasso’s sometime mistress Marie-Thérèse Walter, is fast gaining an infamy to rival that of the master himself. Having been hidden away from public view by a private collector for many years (it was only exhibited once, in 1961, to commemorate the artist’s 80th birthday), the painting resurfaced recently after the death of its owner. Understandably, the resulting auction (at Christies New York) attracted much attention, with a projected sale price of $80 million. After a bidding frenzy, the gavel finally came down on a bid of $106 million (£65 million) and Nude, Green Leaves and Bust entered the history books as the most expensive painting ever sold at auction.

When it transpired that the deep-pocketed buyer was an anonymous bidder, the most expensive painting in the world seemed fated to languish in a private collection yet again, to be viewed only by the privileged few. And so, it is hardly surprising that the painting once again garnered headlines this week when Tate Modern announced, with much fanfare, that the work had been given on loan to the gallery by the mysterious owner.

Nude, Green Leaves and Bust
No doubt, Nude, Green Leaves and Bust will attract countless visitors, keen to see the world's most expensive painting. But will it fall victim to it's own success? The heavy price-tag will carry with it a heavy burden of expectation. Undoubtedly, the painting is a wonderful example of Picasso's genius, but as we all know, being the most expensive does not necessarily equate to being the best ...

The painting’s infamy means it has emerged from the shadow of it’s equally famous creator … but will it ever escape the spectre of it’s gigantic price-tag? Ultimately, it will be up to the viewing public to decide ...

"Nude, Green Leaves and Bust" can be viewed in the Poetry and Dream wing of the Tate Modern, London. Admission free.

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