Masterpiece — or male and stale?

Once venerated as the founders of Western art, the Old Masters are losing their allure

Michael Prodger

Cause for pessimism: The sale of the “Salvator Mundi” skewed the Old Master market massively

A look at the major galleries’ exhibition schedules for 2019 confirms what the auction world has known for several years now: the Old Masters are old hat and all the attention is on modern and contemporary art. Two shows mark big death anniversaries: Rembrandt’s 350th at the Rijksmuseum and Leonardo’s 500th at the Louvre. The National Gallery, meanwhile, has just one proper Old Master exhibition — examining the little-known 15th-century Spanish painter Bartolomé Bermejo. The Royal Academy yokes Michelangelo to the American video artist Bill Viola and has a show of Renaissance nudes — a reliable draw — but no monographic exhibition. Tate Britain reaches back only as far as William Blake.

Unless you are talking the very biggest of names,  the Old Masters are a difficult proposition. This is not just because of their expense and fragility, but for conceptual reasons, too. For centuries, they were the ne plus ultra of art; but today they are often seen as too difficult. For example, the advertising material for last year’s superb National Gallery joint exhibition of Mantegna and Bellini showed a close-up of the face of a beautiful girl and a hand clutching some drapery against a brilliant blue sky. The first was, in fact, Mary Magdalene from a Bellini Virgin and Child and the second one of the angels supporting the dead Christ by Mantegna. The reason that the whole paintings, or even larger details, weren’t used was, a National Gallery curator told me, that religion simply doesn’t sell. In this instance, God isn’t in the details and neither is  that other off-putting theme: classical antiquity.  Hence for its first contact with the public, the gallery felt it had to divorce the painters from their spiritual and intellectual context (though once viewers had been enticed in, this pretence was swiftly dropped).

A great chunk of the gallery-going public, the curator continued, no longer has the grounding in religion, the classics or Renaissance and courtly culture that makes the Old Masters rewarding. And so they have fallen out of fashion. According the latest annual art market report by Art Basel/UBS, global art sales reached $63.7 billion in 2017, a rise of 12 per cent from the previous year. The largest sectors by value were postwar and contemporary art (46 per cent) and modern art (27 per cent). In fact, the year saw an increase in value across all sectors, including European Old Masters, which rose an impressive 64 per cent to $977 million. Surely then, the auction houses and dealers are wrong to be pessimistic about the Old Master market? No so: $450 million of that total was down to Leonardo’s record-pulverising Salvator Mundi — a sale that was a one-off aberration. Without it, sales of Old Masters would have fallen no less than 11 per cent. The year before, the fall was 33 per cent.

The Leonardo is, in fact, the only Old Master painting ever to have topped the blue riband $100 million mark. Behind it come works by Willem de Kooning (about $417 million in adjusted prices), Cézanne ($278 million), Gauguin ($222 million), Pollock ($211 million), Klimt and Rothko (both $197 million), Picasso ($190 million) and Modigliani ($180 million). No Raphael, no Rubens, no Caravaggio, no Velázquez. So dominant is the taste for 19th- and 20th-century work that only nine pre-1875 pictures feature in the top 90 most expensive paintings sold. Before 1987, the record had always been held by an Old Master. However,  when Van Gogh’s Vase With Fifteen Sunflowers sold that year for £24.75 million (about $64 million today),  the rule of art’s founding fathers was effectively over.

Of course, the lack of supply is a major issue. Incontestably great Old Masters rarely come on the market. But even when good examples appear, they fetch relatively modest sums — which suggests the taste for modern works is a matter of  fashion. Last year, for example, a Rembrandt study of a young man as Christ, which hadn’t been seen on the market since 1956, fetched £9.5 million; a pair of Canaletto Venetian views made just over $4 million; a Van Dyck portrait of Charles II as Prince of Wales realised £2.6 million (in 1906 Van Dyck was the most expensive painter in the world when his portrait of the Marchesa Grimaldi Cattaneo sold for $500,000). For these sums a collector would struggle to get a decent Picasso or Warhol.

Another factor is that the overwhelming majority of Old Masters were white men, which does not sit well with today’s mores. Perhaps that’s why one female painter, Artremisia Gentileschi (1593-1654), might be thought to buck the trend.  Her fame rests not just on her rarity as a professional female painter, but also because she was a woman raped by a fellow artist who took her assailant to court — an act of courage that has seen her adopted as a proto-feminist heroine and prompted her rediscovery. When, last year, her c.1640 painting of Lucretia stabbing herself to death after her own rape came up for sale in an Austrian auction house, it caused some excitement. Here was a dramatic nude with inescapable autobiographical overtones by one of the Baroque’s big names. It  sold for just $2,149,500. The National Gallery’s recently acquired Artemisia self portrait as St Catherine cost £3.6 million.

In an interview, Edward Dolman, the head of Phillips auction house, described the shift away from the Old Masters in the bluntest of terms: “The new client base at the auction houses — and the collecting tastes of those clients — have moved away from this veneration of the past . . . They want to be associated with the new and the now.” It is not the job of auction houses and dealers to have a care for global cultural heritage, that’s the task of the world’s great museums. Outside their doors, that heritage is rapidly losing its cachet.

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