22
Mar
10

Review of Portraits @ Menzies March 2010 Auction

Lot 26 - Brett Whiteley - John SingletonSunday, 21 March 2010

Dear Diary,

Given my interest in portraiture, I became more aware of portraits that appear in Australian auction rooms. Internationally, portraits by Old, Modern, and Contemporary masters at auctions form a very distinct group, and those by Rembrandt, van Dyck, Reynolds, Lawrence, Renoir, Picasso, Modigliani, van Gogh, Klimt (and my very own Winterhalter) have broken auction records and / or brought significant results.

The situation is dramatically different in Australia, where portraits at auctions are few and far between. This can be attributed in part to the fact, that the majority of portraits that appear in Australian auction rooms (but not all!!!) fail to progress from being a mere likeness of a person to that of a transcendent and sophisticated work of art of universal appeal. The former rarely make it to the market and largely continue lingering in artists’ studios or the homes of their sitters unless they are donated to public institutions or appear at lower-end art clearance sales. The latter however make their distinguished appearance at the upper end of the auction market, bringing good sales results, with some inspired bidding from both institutional and private collectors.

Lot 34 - Rupert Bunny - Portrait of Jeanne(Deutscher-)Menzies auction in December 2009 featured a number of interesting portraits. They had, for example, a striking in its originality portrait of John Singleton by Brett Whiteley (sold $55,000 hammer); a beautifully intimate portrait by Rupert Bunny of his wife, Jeanne (sold $396,000 hammer); a mask-like portrait of an African prince, Kininga Wunca, by Donald Friend (unsold); and William Dobell’s preparatory drawing for his celebrated portrait of Helena Rubenstein (sold $1,600 hammer).

The auction also had two remarkable self-portraits – a dark and brooding “Self-Portrait in a Country Town” by Rick Amor (unsold), and a rather irreverent in its larrikinism “Self Portrait (The Afternoon Walk, Dunmoochin)” by John Olsen (sold $70,000 hammer).

The portraits by Whiteley and Bunny, and the self-portrait by Olsen illustrate the point. All three are big-name artists; all three have produced portraits, which are very much in the style and manner these artists are famous and admired for; these works have brought accordingly good results. Admittedly, the paintings of female nudes by Whiteley and Bunny on a similar scale (or of frogs and giraffes by Olsen) would have brought more significant sums, but the universal appeal of these works speaks for itself and is reflected in their art market prices.

Lot 43 - Rick Amor - Self-PortraitHelena Rubenstein by William Dobell is a celebrated portrait in the annals of Australian art, so it is not surprising that it has found a buyer (not to mention at a very modest price). On the other hand, Donald Friend is perhaps more known for his watercolours of nude South-East Asian youths (and later still lifes which are also popular on the market). Hence a rather heavy, mask-like portrait failed to find a buyer.

Sadly, the same can be said of Rick Amor’s work. I deeply admire his self-portraits, which encapsulate the inner, psychological darkness that is so prevalent in his landscapes. However, it appears that the art buying public is able to take more easily to his landscapes, the physiological loading of which can be read ambiguously (or perhaps completely ignored by a certain cross-section of buyers). Not so with the self-portraits, which are more often than not direct, confronting, and uncompromising. It is sad – though not surprising – that this portrait did not find a buyer on the auction night.

Lot 142 - Artist Unknown - Portrait of a GirlI do acknowledge that the line-up of artworks is largely dependent on what an auction house is able to consign from its vendors, so chasing an impressive selection of portraits (or indeed any such “curatorial” agenda) would be far from the auctioneers’ mind – unless they strike a golden vein and develop the market and / or collectors’ following in this genre.

Therefore, I am saying the following as an observation rather than a recrimination or criticism – the representation of portraits in Menzies’ forthcoming auction is much thinner on the ground as compared to the previous auction of December 2009. In fact, it is limited to a charmingly naïve watercolour portrait of a girl by an unknown 19th-Century Australian artist (lot 142; est. $900-1,200). While the childish cherubic face is wonderfully, even sweetly resolved, the head is bizarrely out the proportion with the rest of the body. There is a beautiful lively glint in the girl’s eyes, but it does little to compensate for the inadequacy in the drawing of the rest of the figure.

Lot 35 - Norman Lindsay - Portrait of Rita(An argument can be raised that Norman Lindsay’s portrait of Rita (lot 35, est. $40,000-50,000), and Richard Larter’s innumerable depictions of his wife (for example, lot 110, est. $10,000-15,000) can be also treated and examined as portraits. However, the relationship between the artist and the model is quite different to that of the artist and the sitter. While the artists capture the general appearance, pose, and attitude of the models, their personalities and identities are more often than not sublimated (or even indeed sacrificed) in favour of the artists’ aesthetic approach and visual codification.)

[© Eugene Barilo v. Reisberg 2010. This article is copyright, but the full or partial use is WELCOME with the full and proper acknowledgment]

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Eugene Barilo v. Reisberg

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