To have your portrait painted is to become immortalized. Think of the farm couple in The American Gothic, or Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. It’s a symbolic practice that has spanned centuries, yet its purpose remains the same today. To create such a piece is to create a memorial, preserving both a person’s likeness and the depths of their being.
Perhaps the most enticing part of a portrait is a person’s face. If painted well, a facial expression can transcend a canvas, taking on a powerful gaze capable of leaving generations of people to bask in its enigmatic smile. It’s for this reason, that tradition has favored realism. However, this is also where masters of modern art like Pablo Picasso have found an opportunity to innovate; intentionally obscuring the faces of his portrait sitters and exploring unconventional styles that would later influence great painters like George Condo.
“What is a face, really? Its own photo? Its make-up? Or is it a face as painted by such or such painter? That which is in front? Inside? Behind? And the rest? Doesn’t everyone look at himself in his own particular way?”
Though the two artists are generations apart, they engage in an undeniable dialogue. This connection becomes especially clear after seeing their art hung side-by-side at the latest Sotheby’s Hong Kong show, which is aptly named “Face-Off.” Pacing through the darkened space, curator Jasmine Chen prepares for her first wave of guests: “Let’s turn the lights down more, it needs to be even more dramatic.”
“A [Condo] painting that was estimated at $800k – $1.2M US ended up selling for $4M. This creates a lot of buzz, and a lot of headlines.”
A few steps into the exhibit and it’s evident that the selection includes a good number of pieces unseen by the average Picasso or Condo fan. Chen explains that to put the show together, she spent about a year contacting private collectors and dealers around the world to either loan or sell their art. Conveniently, she also knew a hand full of Picassos were making their way to Hong Kong, as the renowned Spanish artist has become exponentially popular in the Asian market. “In the past 3-5 years, Chinese collectors have really been looking to Western art, and Picasso being a household name, a brand name, he’s at the top of every Chinese collectors wish list. You see most paintings selling for way more than their estimate, and demand is actually way over supply right now,” Chen says.
Meanwhile, finding Condo paintings also presented a challenge thanks to a recent spike in the artist’s value. “For the Condo market, there’s definitely a frenzy happening right now that’s been triggered by a record sale at Sotheby’s New York last November. A painting that was estimated at $800k – $1.2M US ended up selling for $4M. This creates a lot of buzz, and a lot of headlines, so now people are aware of him and everybody wants him,” explains Chen. “Collectors who would agree to lend me his pieces would end up withdrawing, because their value went up after that sale and they’d sell them right away.”
Because “Face-Off” is a selling exhibit, the approach to curation is different than one you would see in a museum. Both have a commercial element with a strong consideration of profit and loss, but how they profit varies. The museum curator has to leverage strong storytelling throughout their show to drive ticket sales while a selling exhibit curator has to utilize storytelling to sell the works themselves.
“A lot of contemporary art these days is very concept driven. It’s very much about the process, it’s abstract, you don’t really know what’s going on.”
So what is the story behind the face-off between Picasso and Condo? Aside from the visual crossovers that are immediately recognizable, the two share a foundational openness toward style, which has allowed them to interpret reality in their own ways, and therefore redefine the art of portraiture all together. In describing the two artists’ techniques, Chen says, “For Picasso who pioneered Cubism, he would transform 3D forms into flat surfaces. So you would have a 3D box, but how Picasso would portray it, is every surface of that box would be visible on a 2D plane, that was his thinking, which is very sculptural. Condo’s painting on the other hand, he refers to as Psychological Cubism. Instead of breaking down the box and showing you every side of it at once, he’s trying to show you every side of human nature at once.”
The two are also very technical painters compared to most modern artists — a major drawing point for Asian investors who are used to buying more Classical artworks, intricate Chinese pottery, or contemporary ink and brush pieces. “A lot of contemporary art these days is very concept driven. It’s very much about the process, it’s abstract, you don’t really know what’s going on. But for these two artists, it’s not like that at all which is why people understand it and like it,” explains Chen on this advantage.
“A lot of [Picasso] paintings are specific individuals…[but] for Condo, it’s…always a character or trope.”
Not only do the similarities between the two painters make for a compelling face-off; their differences too are a key part of the exhibition. Because Picasso trained in the late 19th century, he was classically versed and came to admire masters like Rembrandt, Goya, Ingres and Velazquez. This set him up to understand realism so thoroughly that he would eventually lead new schools of abstraction, surrealism and cubism. On the other hand, Condo who was educated in America during the ‘70s worked in reverse. His introduction into art was through abstract painters like Picasso and Willem De Kooning. Not until later did he move into realism; as a result, his paintings often play host to a mashup of multiple genres.
The subjects of the artists’ paintings also differ massively — revealed to onlookers as they walk through the exhibit. Picasso was a bit more traditional in this sense that he’d honor people close to him through portrait. “A lot of his paintings are specific individuals – Dora Maar, Marie Torres, his daughter Maya, and you can really see the dynamic between him and his subjects, Chen explains. “Then for Condo, it’s not usually a specific individual or someone he knows, it’s always a character or trope. So a lawyer, a doctor, a priest, a princess, and it’s all a mix of traits he pulls from his memory from impressions.”
Art is always pushing the boundaries of convention, and to see two profound artists as Picasso and Condo in one room, who construct reality in such a unique way really puts into perspective just how far representation has come since the Classical era. It’s a progression of ideas and a dialogue between painters that stands to grow as future masters enter the market.