Several major Surrealist works that have never been sold at auction will go under the hammer tomorrow (16 March) in the 25-lot sale Surrealism and Its Legacy sale at Sotheby’s Paris, including a work by Francis Picabia with a Pulp Fiction aesthetic.
Picabia’s Nu de dos (Nude from the back, 1940-42, est €3m-€5m) was bought in 1989 by the current owner who “more than 30 years ago saw the strong legacy that Picabia left on contemporary art”, says Thomas Bompard, the vice-president of Sotheby’s France.
Picabia’s nude was inspired by erotic photographs seen in magazines. “We have been trying for more than 20 years to get the Nu de dos [for sale],” Bompard adds. “Painting a modern Venus to look like a movie star is exactly the kind of radical modernity that Picabia wanted to achieve.” Another key Picabia piece, Pavonia (1929, est €6m-€8m), also makes its auction debut, coming from a private Californian collection.
René Magritte’s Le Paysage Fantôme (1928, est €700,000-€1m), which shows the artist’s wife Georgette Berger with the word “mountain’ in French daubed across her face, also goes on the block for the first time. “It’s so original. It is a challenge to classical beauty,” says Bompard, who points out that the work was made the same year as The Treachery of Images (Ceci n’est pas une pipe, 1929).
Another Magritte work— Le Palais de la Courtisan (1929, est €2m-€3m) from the former collection of the Surrealist poet Joë Bousquet—also goes under the hammer for the very first time. Sotheby’s will be hoping to capitalise on the Belgian artist’s surge in market value after his L’empire des lumièrescanvas sold earlier this month for £59.4m, setting an auction record for the artist.
“We opened up the seed that Surrealism has planted in the contemporary art scene. The concept and the strategy [of the sale] which is pioneering and fresh convinced the owners that not only was it the right time but the right sale, to consign their historical paintings,” Bompard says. “Historically Surrealism has been seen by collectors as very intellectual, possibly as some kind of niche. Those times have gone. The power of the concept is aligned with the beauty of the execution and the appeal of the image.”
The sale also includes a number of works by important women artists associated with Surrealism such as Dorothea Tanning (Mêlées Nocturnes, 1958, est €300,000-€400,000) and Leonor Fini (Sphinx pour David Barrett, 1954, est €50,000-€70,000). “These artists have the same intensity, darkness and depth as Magritte. They are not at all sweet or ethereal,” Bompard says. A separate sale of works from the collection of André Mourgues, which includes works by Max Ernst and Salvador Dalí, takes place on 17 March at Sotheby’s Paris.
Surrealism, which originated in Paris in the early 20th century, chimes with the times, Bompard adds. “I think that Surrealism is probably an artistic movement of the 20th century that has been able to embrace how irrational, how ugly, and how challenging the modern world can be. Surrealism is not at all an ivory tower, deaf to what is going on in the world. It was a movement born from the ashes of the world destroyed during World War One. It took a lot of courage to face the contradictions of the new world.”
Other institutions are also re-evaluating Surrealism. Tate Modern’s current exhibition Surrealism Beyond Borders (until 29 August) charts the movement’s influence internationally beyond Paris while Bonhams in London held its 66-lot The Mind’s Eye Surrealist Sale earlier this month, which made £1.7m in total with 71% sold by lot and 99% sold by value.