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Artists Collecting Artists

We're moving apartments in Chicago at the moment, and so we've spent weeks sorting through all our worldly possessions and deciding which ones to keep and which ones to turn into other-worldly non-possessions. Patty thinks that we have thrown out, recycled, or found other homes for about 100 boxes of stuff -- clothes, furniture, kitchenware, air conditioners, books, CDs, DVDs, old documents, and above all, photos.

So many photos. Hundreds and hundreds of them. Many of them duplicates from our wedding in 2002. You might be horrified at the idea of someone throwing even copies of their wedding photos,but really, how many shots of people standing around in a garden looking at the bride and groom do you need? The whole process of discarding so much accumulated stuff made us marvel at how much junk seems to accrue to you in a short space of time, and how much you really can live without if you just let it go.

Simultaneously I carried out the same kind of ruthless culling of the herd in my own studio. I ditched somewhere between 20 and 30 boxes of old prints, pictures, and materials. In doing so, I found a fair number of small pieces that I've bought from other artists, or which have been given to me. Some of them I've thrown away, but some I decided to hang on one wall in my studio, as shown in the photo above. I'm hanging them salon style, and I'll keep going until the wall is filled up.

The reasons I did this are: a) aesthetically, it looks nice; b) it's a way of reminding myself of the importance of artists looking out for other artists. The most I paid for any of these pieces is $50, but I think that if an artist is in the position to help out a fellow struggler in the trenches even a little bit, they should do it.

And this brings me to the real subject of this blog post, which is the long history of art collected by other artists. I mean the big league artists, the ones who have already left their mark on history, and who, one discovers, owned significant works by their peers (often as a result of an exchange of works when they were all poor) and great works from the past (bought with some of the riches they acquired after they became famous).

As this article in The Guardian newspaper shows, this practice goes back hundreds of years. The artist from longest ago cited in the piece is Antony Van Dyck, who in the 1600s spent some of his earnings as a portrait painter to build up a collection of paintings by Titian. One hopes the patrons who visited Van Dyck's studio appreciated the double honour, of being painted by a master of his art while being surrounded by the work of one of the greatest painters who ever lived.

Jumping forward a few centuries, Monet and his fellow Impressionists exchanged pictures when they were holding their first exhibitions in the 1850s, and bought work by other artists when they were wealthy enough to do so. One of the most prized still life paintings by Cezanne owned by the Metropolitan Museum in New York once belonged to Monet. Monet was an old man when he bought Still Life with Apples and a Pot of Primroses, and it's a testament to the old painter's sensibility that he was capable of discerning the greatness of a painting executed with a vision that differed so much from his own:

Paul Cezanne, Still Life with Apples and a Pot of Primroses (Metropolitan Museum New York/Bequest of Sam A. Lewisohn, 1951)

Degas, perhaps the richest of the late nineteenth century Impressionist/Post-Impressionist artists, owned significant works by Monet, Renoir, Manet, Delacroix, Ingres, and others. Many others, in fact: when he died, his private collection consisted of thousands of works of art, which he had at one time considered forming into a museum.

Matisse bought small paintings by Cezanne at a time when they were under-valued, and he and Picasso swapped paintings in the early 1900s when they were both friendly rivals (though, according to Picasso's biographer John Richardson, each man chose to give the other a painting from the second tier, an unconscious way of using a exchange of gifts to dis-prize each other, as if saying "you are not quite worth my giving you one of my masterpieces"). And Picasso, being the richest of the Paris painters by the time he was in his thirties, was an avid buyer of works by his artistic ancestors. Paintings and sculptures by Courbet, Renoir, Degas, Derain, Matisse, Miro, Balthus, and Giacometti were owned by Picasso, not to mention the African sculpture he acquired after he settled in Paris in the early 1900s.

Picasso in his Montmartre studio, c. 1907, with African sculptures hanging on wall

The influence of those African sculptures on Picasso's 1907 painting Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, and how they took him down the path that led to Cubism, is well documented. In fact, the Musee du Quai Branly in Paris is returning to that theme for a special exhibition later in 2017. I've noticed another aspect of Picasso as collector in the library of books about Pabs that I've read over the decades. It's related to the artist's belief that owning an object that belonged to someone else gave you a sort of magical power over them, that you owned or possessed their spirit in some way. It's a "primitive fetishism" that was part of his personal life and his artistic life. An example of the former: not just his possessive and domineering relationships with women, but that when he got his hair cut, he would have the barber come to his apartment in Paris, then save and burn the hair clippings afterwards in case they fell into the hands of someone who could use them to do him harm. (I'm reminded of Goya's late paintings and etchings illustrating all manner of rural Spanish folklore and witch-lore, and that Picasso was born in 1882 and was very much a nineteenth century man.) An example of his artistic fetishism: the way he would make a series of paintings based on a masterpiece (by El Greco, or Velazquez, or Manet, or Rembrandt), and enact a sort of battle with them on the canvas which was part homage to an honoured antecedent, and part consuming of their spirit as a way of vanquishing them.

Picasso's vampiric reasons for collecting art (that's a term used by his biographer John Richardson, by the way) is an exception among great artist-collectors, as far as I know. More common is the practice of contemporary artist Damien Hirst. He has a vast collection of art (diminished somewhat by a fire in one of his storage warehouses) -- 3,000 pieces, in fact, that he plans to show to the public in a new gallery. Whatever you think of the cutting-the-shark-in-half guy, Hirst is on record as saying that he amasses works by other artists because he loves it (Picasso, British abstractionist John Hoyland), but also as a way of helping out his contemporaries (Mat Collishaw, Sarah Lucas et al). It's an act of real generosity. Sometimes that can be in the form of an artist generously acknowledging the mastery of a fellow artist. And sometimes it can be a form of not forgetting to glance back down from the summit that you were fortunate/talented enough to attain.


  1. Great post--I especially love the young Picasso pic. So fascinating about his hair clipping disposal, and weird that in these days of genetic testing, it might soon become a good idea rather than mere superstition for us all to keep tabs on our loose hair.

  2. And that's given me an idea for another blog post, actually: a Jurassic Park style theme park where simulacra of long-dead artists are created out of bits of DNA found in their graves. You could have Praxiteles of Greece (c. 300 BC) making work next to Claude Monet...

    1. And Warhol or Cindy Sherman maybe? Yes, please!


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