Monday, November 29, 2010

How many Picassos does it take to change a light bulb?

Picasso: Photograph: Ralph Gatti
The news that Picasso's erstwhile electrician has been found in possession of a valuable store of works by the artist — apparently given as gifts by Picasso and potentially worth countless millions were they to come to market — has triggered renewed interest in the problematic status of gifts in the art world...and the uncanny knack of electricians to be in the right place at the right time.

Pierre Le Guennec, a 71-year old retired electrician from the south of France, claims Picasso gave him the 271 works, which include paintings, notebooks, drawings and prints — and even a Blue Period watercolour — as gifts. Smelling a rat, the omnipotent Picasso estate have sent in the legal rottweilers, filing a case for "alleged illegal receipt" of the works in question, according to the BBC. Merde, alors!

Of course, had Picasso been some anonymous artist, struggling like his local sparky to make a meagre living, the "gifts" would never have come to public attention. But Picasso was no struggling artist. He knew the value of what he made. And while that doesn't mean he wasn't capable of generosity, it does make one wonder whether he would have given a couple of hundred works to his electrician. I mean, how many Picasso drawings does it take to change a light bulb?

This brought to mind the 2007 case of the Francis Bacon canvases "rescued" from a dumpster outside Bacon's South Kensington studio after he had thrown them out. Who rescued them? Hey! An electrician!

Some years after the artist's death, they were entered into a provincial UK auction  where they fetched hundreds of thousands of pounds (a sale I reported and posted on YouTube here). Many of these works were portrait studies from which Bacon had removed the face with a scalpel, leaving a gaping oval hole where the face had been. Most of us expected that brutal excision would do for them commercially, but no. They went on to fetch extraordinary sums. Here's what I wrote at the time:

"The back story was that an electrician who happened to be working at Bacon's South Kensington home in 1978, 'rescued' the material from the rubbish skip to which, he claims, Bacon was about to consign it. According to the online account offered by The Daily Mail, the electrician, Mac Robertson, 75, 'persuaded the artist to let him keep some of the junk.' Robertson goes on to say, 'I was in the right place at the right time. I had no idea that the bits and bobs Bacon was about to throw away might one day be worth a fortune.' A £1 million fortune, to be precise. Why then, one is tempted to ask, did Robertson want the stuff — old cheque stubs, diaries, discarded photographs? Perhaps Bacon's fame (celebrity was not the concept in 1978 that it is today) was enough to make his daily rubbish seem 'interesting' or, dare one say it, potentially valuable?"

The subsequent appearance of the objects on the market (at Ewbank Clarke Gammon's auction rooms in Woking, UK) inevitably drew criticism from those who saw their removal from the skip and subsequent sale as a violation of the artist's moral rights (Bacon's consignment of the works into the skip was interpreted as a sign that he did not want them to appear as representative of his work as an artist.)

It is perhaps inevitable that mere mortals will seize upon the traces of a famous artist's hand as they might a relic of the True Cross. But whether their motives are to get closer to the source of spiritual nourishment, or merely to cash in on the artist's market value, is a moot point.

At the recent launch of his fine new book on Giacometti — In Giacometti's Studio — the writer Michael Peppiatt told how visitors to the sculptor's Montparnasse studio used to pick Giacometti's discarded sketches off the floor and take them away with them. The artist saw these drawings as insignificant, but clearly those around him viewed them as something more precious — in more ways than one.

Perhaps Monsieur le Guennec really did purloin these works from Picasso, as alleged. But somehow I find it hard to muster any moral indignation about it. At least Picasso's stuff was worth squirreling away. At least Bacon's dumpster detritus still bore the imprimatur of his very particular genius. At least Giacometti's scribbled heads were objects of genuinely compelling beauty.

Such illicit expropriation (if that's what it was) seems unlikely to occur with many of today's celebrity artists, few of whom can draw... or even paint.

As your average electrician might say, "No thanks. They lack that certain spark."

Christian Science Monitor version of the story