Following the alarming news of a woman’s brutal stabbing at Art Basel this past Friday, the atmosphere in sunny Miami Beach turned grey as a cloud of insecurity and hysteria settled upon the fair. In truth, the motives behind the attack have yet to be established and I would be surprised to learn the assault was a direct outbreak against the art establishment in general. However, I want to open my thoughts about the November auctions with this incident because it renders the palpable tension in the art world at present. Writing about results doesn’t always come easy, especially when the market appears to be in such a state of confusion. The New York auctions of modern and contemporary art were a highly anticipated test to ascertain the relative health of the market, and their general weakness – granted, many of the usual suspects performed well – prompted dealers, specialists and collectors to make the most extravagantly contradictory statements. I shall refrain from quoting them back to you.
But I do want to mention one painting that I keep coming back to as I leaf through the weighty catalogues gathering dust on my coffee table, and that is Balthus’s 1935 Lady Abdy sold by Christie’s on November 9th as part of their ‘curated’ sale The Artist’s Muse. It is rare for such an imposing work by the Polish-French artist to come to the market, and at just below $9,000,000 it set a new personal record, far surpassing Adolescente Aux Cheveux Roux, a small 1947 painting from the Taubman collection that sold for $1,810,000 with premium just five days earlier.
At the moment Balthus is the subject of an impressive retrospective in my hometown of Rome and I think my captivation with Lady Abdy is also attributable to the Roman personality I have given her in my head. Instead the painting is set in Balthus’ cramped studio at 4 Rue de Furstenberg, and the model Iya Abdy was a Russian émigrée who Balthus met in one of the salons he assiduously frequented. She is frozen in a moment of enigmatic tautness; will she open the window and jump? Is she drawing the curtain to look at something –or someone – below? The angle of her head might also suggest she is turning around, perhaps to behold an approaching assailant? In the abrupt spur of Iya’s contact with the windowpane her right hand has intertwined with the blonde curls of her hair. Antonin Artaud, a friend of artist, wrote in 1936 “Balthus depicts Iya Abdy as a primitive artist would have painted an angel.” And indeed there is something angelic in the noble dignity of her imposing figure, something out of Piero della Francesca, whose work Balthus sketched during one of his first trips to Italy. The painting is as tragic as it is arresting, conveying an inscrutable narrative that appeals to the senses and to the mind. Leaning awkwardly, Abdy’s figure – contorted even by Balthus’ standards – contemplates a visibly painful decision. The bright cataloguer at Christie’s opened the lot note with a stanza from Rainer Maria Rilke’s celebrated Window Poems, the Bohemian-Austrian poet being Balthus’ early mentor, and, for a time, his mother’s lover. I’ll leave you with it.
You propose I wait, strange window;
Your beige curtain nearly billows.
O window, should I accept your offer or,
Window, defend myself? Who would I wait for?
This article was written for the December/January edition for the paper. It features content appropriate to the intended date of publication, and hence it might not be possible to visit or see the events/objects mentioned anymore. We apologise for the delay in the publication of the article.