In the Dutch Golden Age, rich patrons would acquire some of the world’s most expensive flowers – such as the Semper Augustus tulip, now extinct – and hire the best artists to paint them. With the addition of a hovering mayfly, a bubble, or a dropped petal, they were pitched and are still widely discussed as vanitas pieces – artistic reminders of the transience of life and the futility of amassing worldly goods. Of course, they were also an exceptionally lavish way of showing off your worldly goods, long after the bouquet had withered.
Jeff Koons’ ‘inflatable’ steel bubble of a Balloon Dog is, surely, the tulip painting of our age. Big, shiny, appealing and – particularly after this week’s auction, where it sold for $58,405,000 – famously expensive, its engorged form looks (but isn’t) ready to pop. Koons’ work notoriously ‘comments on’ the excess of consumerist society without really morally critiquing it, and it’s become a sought-after bit of cultural capital for the ultra-rich – a ‘self-aware’ acknowledgement of the nature of the game, and a clear indication that the owner is winning.
It’s hardly news to say that contemporary art is having a moment. Last week’s blockbuster auction at Christie’s, the latest in a string of extraordinary sales, achieved the record price for a living artist (Koons) and the highest price ever paid at auction – $142,405,000 – for Francis Bacon’s 1969 triptych, Three Studies of Lucian Freud. Sotheby’s, meanwhile, had to settle for a personal best and the second highest price achieved for a contemporary work (Warhol’s Silver Car Crash: Double Disaster, $105,445,000) in their evening sale. Even when it directly addresses the absurdity of today’s wealth, art has emerged as an increasingly important way of safeguarding it.
The news has prompted the usual flurry of exclamations, condemnations and breathless gossip in the press. Speculation abounds as to the immediate provenance and new ownership of Francis Bacon’s triptych. It’s been suggested that it was brought to market by a triumvirate of savvy dealers. Mooted buyers, meanwhile, include Roman Abramovich, the Qatar Museums Authority, or a Chinese collector, which might explain the last-minute reassignment of the lot to the lucky number 8A (ground-breaking detective work, which handily completes a familiar list of geographical heavyweights; Russia, the Middle East and China).
The painting is undeniably important to the history of British art: it is a rare, triple, full-length portrait by one important late artist of another – and a good one at that. But this is flagged up as a sort of economic formula to explain its enormous monetary value. Whether or not it will be displayed again soon within this art-historical context remains to be seen.
What might Bacon himself have made of the furore?
‘I think that only time tells about painting. No artist knows in his own lifetime whether what he does will be the slightest good, because I think it takes at least 75 to 100 years before the thing begins to sort itself out from the theories that have been formed about it … Fashion suggests that you should be moved by certain things and should not by others.’
[Francis Bacon in an interview with David Sylvester, 1966]
Bacon may have been addressing the aesthetic theories rather than the currently pertinent economic ones, but his comments about fashion, hype and chatter surely still hold true: they can stir up a maelstrom around an artist’s work. Already experts are questioning whether Bacon’s paintings can ever command prices like that again, and what it means for the artist’s legacy either way.
Conveniently overshadowed by last week’s spectacular was Sotheby’s announcement that Noortman Master Paintings, a dealership acquired by the auction house in 2006 and renowned for its Dutch Old Masters, was to close by 31 December 2013. A beautiful Semper Augustus tulip adorns its homepage, but apparently those particular delights are out of fashion.