Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Making a good impression

There’s nothing like old art from abroad to get foot traffic through the museum doors. Te Papa has stubbornly refused to exhibit international contemporary art since being bitten on the bum by a virgin in a condom on opening day and preferred to reach back into more comfortable times for their blockbusters. And so we’ve been bathed in the warm glow of Constable, Moore, Holbein to Hockney, The Queen’s Pictures (Sorry Jackson, we’ll get right back you Willem, they’re great Louise but have you done anything with some sort of UK connection?).

On Saturday Te Papa another exhibition in its old-art-from-Europe series, this time via the United States. Monet has drawn crowds in New Zealand before and you can understand why Te P, who dance across the headcount/funding continuum, figure that the Impressionists are ready for another outing.

Of course the interest museums show in the Impressionists is simply following the money, driven on by that darling of world economics, Market Forces. Usually Impressionist paintings come into public collections via rich collectors, and this is the case with all but a couple of the works in the Te P show. It has also been those same collectors who have raised both the profile and price of Impressionist paintings over the years. In the 1950s the price for Impressionist works jumped as wealth accumulated in a post war boom. This surge of buying coincided with the rise and rise of the auction houses. In 1957 Margaret Thompson Biddle’s collection went under the hammer with Gauguin’s Still Life with Apples tripling its estimate at $297,142. The same year the William Weinberg collection with its five Van Goghs continued a round of record smashing prices that went on for the rest of the year. By 1958 the police were being called to control crowds trying to get into Sotheby’s salerooms.

Fifty years later Impressionism still fuels fires in the hearts of the rich and famous. In June last year Monet’s Le Bassin aux Nymphéas sold for $NZ115.5 million and Nymphéas for $NZ52 million. Who knows what the paintings in the Te P show are worth. Fortunately, as with our banks, the Government guarantees against loss.

Other OTN posts on this story here and here.
Image: Monet the collector with a selection of his Japanese prints.