Recently, the Picasso painting Nude, Green Leaves and Bust (seen behind the man himself in the photo above) sold for a record auction price of $106.5 million. The public outcry over this hefty transaction has been raucous. This is not an unpredictable public response to an anonymous rich dude dropping 100 mill on a picture of a naked lady, but the sale – and the mystery buyer – have been getting crap from every direction. That the painting may be a bit thin in canonical importance or artistic influence has critics balking. The questionably violent depiction of a nude, supine young mistress – being either caressed or decapitated by ominous shadows — has opinionistas up in arms. The worldwide economic downturn nevertheless bearing witness to such a public show of disposable wealth has “normal folk” aghast with either disgust or envy (perhaps a little bit of both?).
In light of this outpouring of negativity, let’s take a look at some of the other Picasso works that have made their way onto the list of the top one hundred most expensive paintings of all time. Is the painting really that atypical? Does it hold the same mystical allure?
One of the most striking things about this list of price busting paintings is how many Picassos there are on it. The man represents with 10 paintings — the most of any artist (second and third place, respectively, go to Van Gogh with 7 and Warhol with 3). Another striking thing is that almost all of these paintings were made in the last 150 years, with the bulk being from the 20th century. This type of collector confidence in Modern art – and particularly in Picasso himself – is the prime reason people are willing to pay so much money to have a good Picasso in their collection. Owning a work by the artist has become practically a requirement in keeping up with the Geffens.
The list below depicts the top five of these paintings starting from the most expensive (in 2010 dollars, to make their relative purchase cost more apparent).
Garçon à la Pipe – $119.9M
This painting, which sold for $104.2M in 2004, is an early Picasso. It was painted over the course of a couple months in 1905 when he was in his rose period. The model is some kid from the neighborhood that used to hang around the studio. The work is another that is considered pleasant but of minor importance. This painting, too, was bought at auction by a mysterious bidder (rumored to be Russian).
Nude, Green Leaves and Bust – $106.5M
This painting, which sold for $106.5M just a few weeks ago, depicts a 23-year-old Marie-Thérèse Walter, the mistress of a then 51-year-old Picasso. When this painting was made in 1932, the two were already six years into their illicit relationship. In another few years, Marie would give birth to Picasso’s daughter (boldly named María de la Concepción). The pregnancy would shine light on Picasso’s infidelities, causing his wife Olga (a ballerina) to leave him. To say that there is some drama behind the scenes in this painting is an understatement.
This sizable (64″ x 51″) painting was made in a single day, and Picasso really went for it on this one. He threw some Cezanne in there, some Classical bust action, some Matisse-ish plants, a lurking Picasso behind the curtain. All this in service to a the pink blobby Marie laying naked in the foreground, cradled ominously by shadows.
Dora Maar au Chat – $102.3M
This painting, which sold for $95.2M in 2006 to an anonymous Russian bidder, is another that depicts one of Picasso’s lovers – in this case, the 34-year-old photographer/poet Dora Maar. Picasso was 60 by the time he made this in 1941, but that didn’t stop him from seeing both Maar and the above-mentioned Marie-Thérèse Walter after divorcing his wife (you got that?). Maar sounds like kind of an intense woman. She suffered from sterility, cut herself, and was really into art, politics and intellectualism. This painting reflects a lot of that intensity and complexity with its multiple fractured planes, bold colors and patterns, and, of course, a little black kitty.
Les Noces de Pierrette – $85.3M
This painting, which sold for $49.3M in 1989 was created in 1905 during Picasso’s blue period (so named because of the blue colors often used in paintings from this time, and also because Picasso was depressed following the suicide of one of his friends). Paintings from this period, such as the famously torn work The Actor, are generally considered the most valuable, beautiful, and recognizable of all Picasso’s works.
After changing hands many times – from Picasso’s friend to Picasso’s son, from a Swiss banker to the French government – it was finally purchased for the aforementioned huge pile of cash by a Japanese real-estate developer. After his company went south, he was forced to give the painting as debt collateral to a construction company who then had to give it to a loan company. Currently, it rests unseen and unenjoyed – crated up in a bank vault somewhere in Japan. Unfortunately, a bunch of paintings have disappeared this way when Japan’s economy tanked in the 90′s. Mwah mwah….
Self Portrait: Yo Picas-so – $84.1M
This painting, which sold for $47.85M in 1989, is a blue-period self portrait made in 1901. It was purchased by the president of a hospital management company – someone who probably wouldn’t want to be flaunting his millions these days. It doesn’t seem like a particularly revealing portrait, but I like that it looks like he fell against his palette, staining his cravat orange. Not a bad look for a passionate artist. For a guy that painted so many self portraits, and included himself in so many paintings, it makes sense that one of them would have made this list. In my opinion, though, I like the ones where he appears as a minotaur better.
So the myth of Picasso endures, seemingly growing larger and larger as time passes – making his work all the more coveted. Even if a particular work isn’t his best or his most interesting – everyone wants a piece of the man. I think Jonathan Richman & The Modern Lovers put it best…