Saturday, January 27, 2007

Gallery fever

To Cork Street, Mayfair, for the exhibition Picasso La Californie and many subsequent pleasant surprises.

First, the surprises. In my art naivete I hadn't realised that the Helly Nahmad Gallery was in fact one of those galleries which sells its works, i.e. more a Fortnum & Mason for the eyes than a Royal Academy. Hence it was with some interest that I saw the price tags for the Picassos. $15,000,000? I'll take two!

The second surprise was more of a set of surprises - little Russian dolls emerging one after the other. It turns out that Cork Street is in fact famous for having a dozen commercial galleries on it, each having as its exhibition its stock and each open to the public. So if you want a cross-section of modern art, you could do far worse than visit these galleries.

But back to Picasso. The paintings are taken from the period 1955-61, when the master lived in a villa called La Californie near Cannes. They are Matisse-like in their palate, springing from electric blues to canary yellows to hungry reds, all of which (certainly on one level at least) may reflect domestic and artistic contentment. There is little sign of struggle or anger; they are perhaps the paintings you would expect someone to produce in the south of France.

I found the series of atelier paintings particularly thought-provoking as reflections on the nature and process of artistic creativity. "This is where I work - how do I conceive of it?" In one painting (to the left), a blank canvas is the focus of the scene - Picasso is struggling with his conception of what painting should be and thus cannot fill it. Or perhaps it's a joke - a blank canvas in the midst of such productivity. Or perhaps it's just a holiday snap, admittedly much slower than a polaroid but nicer too.

After Helly Nahmad, we took in some more little treasure boxes on Cork Street, each with their own collection of shiny jewels. At the Waddington Gallery was Peter Blake's wonderful Marcel Duchamp's World Tour: Playing Chess with Tracey, where the art world collapses in on itself as Blake paints Tracey Emin in a series about Marcel Duchamp. The painting is worth having for its hallucinatory qualities alone. There are also John Chamberlain's twisted and painted rolls of steel, which to me seem even more relevant and meaningful in the post-9/11 world as a symbol of metal as defeat, not strength.

The Mayor Gallery had a wonderful exhibition of Joachim Mogarra's photos of Smurfs (that's right, Smurfs) done up as modern artists. As well as being a little witty (e.g. Christo Smurf in bandages, Francis Bacon Smurf with an egg), they are genuinely funny for the shock value. It's worth walking past these, too, since there's much of interest in the back section of the gallery, including some oddly expensive bent paperclip-like works.

Finally, Robert Sandelson, where they have what might politely be described as the world's most painful artwork: one of Victor Vasarely's pieces of geometric abstract art, or as it appeared to me, a migraine on canvas.

Imagine the painting to the right but in reds, purples, greens and blues all at once, and with squares, not circles. Trying to take in even a section of the work around the bulge gave me head pains. On the plus side, this wasn't some numb piece of painting; the very opposite, in truth.

So head to Cork Street - nowhere else will you find such various and exquisite collections. And who knows, with $15,000,000 to spare, you could own some of them too.

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