Saturday, 20 June 2009


Lee Sang-Hyun, Diplomatic Trade Delegation of Joseon, 2008, Sun Contemporary Seoul

Art Basel 40 reports its highest attendance figures ever and unexpectedly good sales. Less spectacular than former editions, the art fair caters again to the connoisseur, rather than the impulsive cell-totting speculator of recent years. But gone too is the cutting-edge excitement. The museum-like quality of many works on display, including by Picasso, Matisse and Chagall indicate a return to safe values.

When the 40th edition of Art Basel closed this weekend after four days of intense showcasing, visitors were left to wonder: does the annual get-together for the art glitterati still make sense when over-inflated prices can no longer defy market forces and the numerous satellite events that have sprung up around the fair are more exciting?

Reporting its highest attendance ever with 61,000 visitors to the 300 galleries that exposed over 2,500 artists, Art Basel announces “solid business”, “surprisingly strong results”, “huge success against sober expectations”.

Creating a buzz during the first days, the international trade journal for the art cognoscenti, The Art Newspaper claimed “Surprise success: Art Basel dispels credit crunch blues”.

“We came with no expectations, but it went really well for us. There were many pleasant surprises and we connected with many new people” said Tim Blum from Blum and Poe in Los Angeles.

For just under $1m, film star Brad Pitt, who for the second year running attended the VIP exclusive opening, snapped up a work by Neo Rauch, a painter from the Leipzig school, whose paintings were worth less than a quarter of the price three years ago.

Like many other gallery owners, Gilli Stampa, of the eponymous Stampa Gallery in Basel is convinced that this year’s edition of Art Basel is of better quality. And indeed, if quality is to be measured by the quantity of works by modern masters, the ground floor of the fair was like walking through a museum of fine arts.

But no matter how upbeat the exhibitors and their enthusiastic buyers wanted to appear, the event appeared uncharacteristically subdued. The fact is, Basel Art is now 40 years old and beginning to show that it has reached middle-age. Although galleries from Spain (see Elba Benitez and Soledad Lorenzo in Madrid) and India (see Nature Morte / Bose Pacia in New Delhi) are contributing fresh and exhilarating art, there was nothing much else on show to send your pulses racing.

As a consequence, younger events have sprung up all around Art Basel and because they take place at the same dates but in different areas of Basel, a dedicated enthusiast will spend a lot of time just getting from one venue to the next.

Volta, Basel’s Contemporary Art Fair for new and emerging art, was started in 2005 and now occupies the spectacular Markthalle at a stone’s throw from the train station. The art on display was irreverent, sometimes messy and often fun. I’m betting on a South African artist by the name of Deborah Poynton, whose tormented nakedness is a female version of Lucian Freud, but with an unabashed dash of self-interrogation thrown in.

Deborah Poynton, Detail from The Lesson, Michael Stevenson Gallery

Deborah Poynton, The Right Place, Michael Stevenson Gallery

LISTE, the Young Art Fair in Basel, has been around since 1996 to introduce galleries that are in general no more than 5 years old and who present artists under the age of 40, most of it oddly conceptual. It is presented in cells surrounding the unfriendly gridded staircase of the community workshop Warteck pp. The artist who retained my attention was Glasgow-based, Henry Coombes who will soon have a solo exhibition with Sorcha Dallas.

Henry Coombes, The Little Man Would Like You to Document the Approaching Debauchery, 2007

SCOPE, a global art fair that takes place in several cities, including New York, London, Miami and the Hamptons, is in Basel for the third time, but it almost didn’t make it this year. Fierce opposition to its choice of a sports field on which it pitched a tent close to the main venue jeopardized arrangements until the last minute. Unlike Volta, Scope is not curated and therefore presents art that can perhaps be qualified as mainstream experimental.

My own favourite is The Solo Project in the southern suburb of Basel. The labyrinth itinerary brings you into close contact with the works of the individual artists. The Dutch media artist Sylvie Zijlmans’ startling water-inundated photographs were totally captivating.

Sylvie Zijlmans, z.t., 2008, inktjetprint/aquarelpapier

From Korea, Lee Sung Hyun, represented by Gallery Sun Contemporary demonstrates the cross-fertilisation between Asian and Western artists at its best, but with a personal magical lightness.

Also at cultural cross-roads, the Turkish artist living in Germany, Nezaket Ekici is a multimedia artist who uses her own performances to create works of haunting imagery and powerful poetic impact.

Nezaket Ekici, Blind

And then there was Stephan Reusse whose delightful laser figurines make you want to dance with them.

Friday, 19 June 2009

French modern masters dazzle at Gianadda museum“From Courbet to Picasso”, a collection of masterpieces from the Pushkin Museum in Moscow, is on loan t

“From Courbet to Picasso”, a collection of masterpieces from the Pushkin Museum in Moscow, is on loan to the Gianadda Foundation in Martigny over the summer months. Covering 60 years of intense artistic activity in Paris from 1858 onwards, the exhibition is an instant art history lesson with works from just about all the great painters of that time, including Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec, Matisse, Cézanne and Picasso.

From the period immediately preceding Impressionism to the one just short of Abstract art, the exhibition that runs until November at the Gianadda Foundation tells three interesting stories. It is a marvelous introduction to the beginning of modern art, bears testimony to the history of Russia over that period and speaks of the destiny of two enlightened collectors.

Ivan Morozov and Sergei Shchukin, whose collections form the backbone of the exhibition in Martigny, belonged to a new generation of art collectors at the end of the 19th century whose wealth came not from aristocratic lineage but from the Industrial Revolution. However, unlike Paul Mellon or Solomon Guggenheim whose art legacies in the US have survived, their fortunes ended with the Russian Revolution in 1917.

Before then, the two Russian textile barons dedicated their wealth to amassing and occasionally commissioning innovative French art.

Ivan Morozov was the more conventional of the two. His choices were rarely impulsive and he is recognized as the first art collector who carefully selected works from the different French schools, including Impressionism, Fauvism and the Nabis. Masterpieces by Renoir, Degas, Cézanne and Denis made up his collection, of which many are on show in Martigny.

Henri Toulouse-Lautrec Woman by a Window, 1889, 71 x 47 cm, Musée d'Etat des Beaux-Arts Pouchkine, Moscou, © The State Pushkin Museum of Fine Art, Moscow

The more flamboyant Sergei Shchukin developed strong infatuations for arresting and colorful works by Monet, Gauguin and Picasso (whom he referred to as “the demonic Spaniard”), endeavoring to collect their paintings with a zeal that bordered on the obsessive.

Paul Gauguin Her name was Vaïraumati, Vaïraumati tei oa. Son nom est Vaïraumati, 1892, 91 x 68 cm, Musée d'Etat des Beaux-Arts Pouchkine, Moscou, © The State Pushkin Museum of Fine Art, Moscow

Shchukin also formed a long association with Matisse whom he commissioned to create Nasturtiums and the Dance for his mansion in Moscow, a painting that is one of the star attractions of the exhibition.

Henri Matisse Nasturtiums and the Dance, Les Capucines à la danse, 1912, 190.5 x 114.5 cm, Musée d'Etat des Beaux-Arts Pouchkine, Moscou, © The State Pushkin Museum of Fine Art, Moscow

Both Morozov and Shchukin turned their palaces into private museums of modern art. Shchukin’s private gallery became “a place of pilgrimage where the young artistic elite of Moscow was able to see the creative innovations from Paris even before they became acknowledged in France” explain Anna V. Poznanskaya and Alexey V. Petukhov, authors of the magnificent catalogue that accompanies the exhibition.

The Russian Revolution brought a brutal end to private enterprise, including in the arts. In 1917 Lenin issued a decree that transformed the Morozov and Shchukin collections into public museums. Their owners fled the country.

Henri Rousseau Muse Inspiring a Poet La Muse inspirant le poète (Portraits de Guillaume Apollinaire et Marie Laurencin), 1909, 131 x 97 cm, Musée d'Etat des Beaux-Arts Pouchkine, Moscou, © The State Pushkin Museum of Fine Art, Moscow

When Stalin declared that the bourgeois art was “ideologically corrupt” and “anti-national”, the paintings from the two collections were dispatched to the Hermitage Museum in Leningrad and the State Pushkin Museum of Fine Art in Moscow, where they lay hidden until the beginning of this century.

It was thanks to the infatigable efforts of the current Director of the Pushkin Museum, Irina Alexandrovna Antonova, that the Russian collectors and the paintings that they chose so carefully are being rehabilitated today. Her long-standing friendship with Leonard Gianadda, the Director of the Martigny museum, is the reason for this rare show in Switzerland.

Martigny is conveniently located on the path from Geneva or Lausanne to Verbier, Italy or Zermatt and is worth a stop. However, as is often the case in the concrete sanctuary that serves as the Gianadda showcase, the exhibition looks like the works have been hung in someone’s kitchen. The stark lighting against the grey walls and the dull chronological hanging allow very little poetry to expand from the paintings.

Nevertheless, there are some wonderful works of art to be admired, not least of which a painting by Gauguin from his Tahiti period and a very unusual Van Gogh showing prisoners walking in a circle with bowed heads, except one, who engages the onlooker and who bears a striking resemblance to Van Gogh himself. Two tiny butterflies flutter in the oppressive environment.

Vincent Van Gogh, The Prison Courtyard, La ronde des prisonniers, 1890, 80 x 64 cm, Musée d'Etat des Beaux-Arts Pouchkine, Moscou, © The State Pushkin Museum of Fine Art, Moscow

The 56 paintings on show at the Gianadda Foundation are a sample from the collections of the State Pushkin Museum of Fine Art in Moscow that only the ones in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris and the Met in New York are said to rival.