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August 01 2012

Tehran exhibition reveals city's hidden Warhol and Hockney treasures

Paintings collected with help of Iran's last queen, Farah Pahlavi, and safeguarded in museum basement, on show for first time

It is the finest collection of modern art anywhere outside Europe and the US, boasting works by Jackson Pollock, Francis Bacon, Andy Warhol, Edvard Munch, René Magritte and Mark Rothko.

But the pieces have been stacked in the basement of Tehran's Museum of Contemporary Art for more than 30 years, gathering dust in storage. Censors in Iran classed some as un-Islamic, pornographic or too gay, and they have never been shown in public. Others have been displayed only once or twice.

But now a number of the collection's paintings are on show for the first time in Tehran as part of the museum's Pop Art & Op Art exhibition, featuring works by Warhol, David Hockney, Roy Lichtenstein, Victor Vasarely, Richard Hamilton and Jasper Johns.

"Many of the works in the exhibition are shown for the first time," Hasan Noferesti, the museum's director for art programmes, told the Mehr news agency. "The exhibition aims to show the evolution of these artistic movements."

More than 100 pieces from the museum's remarkable collection are on display, according to Mehr, along with a series of works from Mexico that have been dedicated to the museum in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the Mexican revolution and the 200th anniversary of the country's independence.

James Rosenquist, Jim Dine, Larry Rivers and RB Kitaj are among other artists whose works are in the exhibition, which runs until mid-August.

Iran's unique hidden treasure was bought before the Islamic revolution, under the supervision of Farah Pahlavi, the former queen of Iran, who fled the country with the late shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in 1979.

The 38-year reign of the shah, self-proclaimed kings of kings, came to an end after Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini returned from exile to Tehran receiving a hero's welcome and founded the Islamic republic.

The collection includes Pollock's Mural on Indian Red Ground, considered to be one of his most important works and estimated to be worth more than $250m, as well as important pieces by Picasso, Van Gogh, Monet, Pissarro, Renoir, Gauguin, Toulouse-Lautrec, Degas, Whistler and Marcel Duchamp.

There are even pieces by artists whom the former empress met in person, including the Russian-French painter Marc Chagall and the English sculptor Henry Moore. The collection is thought to be worth more than $2.5bn.

Speaking to the Guardian, Pahlavi explained that the collection was bought during Iran's 1970s oil boom. "Our oil revenue had significantly increased and I spoke to [the shah] and Amir-Abbas Hoveyda [then prime minister], and told them that it was the best time to buy some of our ancient works both internally and from outside.

"I thought how good it would be to have a museum where we could put the works of our contemporary artists. Later I thought, why shouldn't we include foreign works. This is how it all started … at that time our curators and collectors were mostly interested in traditional art and not so much in the modern art."

Pahlavi's interest in western art is believed to derive from her education in France.

Kamran Diba, an Iranian architect and a cousin of the queen, was commissioned to design the museum in the heart of the capital and later selected the works with help from various people, including the presidents of Christie's and Sotheby's.

Pahlavi said: "I was very worried for the fate of those paintings during those events [at the time of the revolution], I was worried that the revolutionaries would destroy them. But fortunately the museum staff protected them in the basement.

"Some years ago the director of the museum showed some of the pieces and made a catalogue listing the works. I'm happy that people have realised what was hidden there for years."

Between 1997 and 2005, during the mandate of the former reformist president Mohammad Khatami, when restrictions on art were temporarily relaxed, Alireza Samiazar, then head of the museum, struggled to secure permission for the first display of some of the works.

In 2005, to the dismay of the regime's hardliners, a large number of the paintings were brought out for an exhibition. That show sparked controversy. Francis Bacon's Two Figures Lying on a Bed with Attendants, with seeming homosexual content, was deemed inappropriate and removed from the exhibition. However, many contentious works survived the censors. Andy Warhol's portraits of Mick Jagger and Marilyn Monroe are in Tehran and his paintings of Mao Zedong have been put on display in full for the first time in the pop art exhibition.

Despite the contempt of Tehran's rulers for western art, the collection has been safely guarded – bar a Warhol portrait of Pahlavi herself, which, she said, had been cut with a knife.

In 1994 the museum exchanged one of its many remarkable paintings – Woman III, by the Dutch-American expressionist Willem de Kooning – for a rare illuminated volume of Shahnameh, an ancient Persian poetry book, which belonged to the American art collector Arthur Houghton, because the painting had shown too much nudity in the eyes of the authorities.

The swap infuriated many, including Pahlavi. "If they were really interested in Shahnameh, couldn't they pay $6m and keep De Kooning's painting? The US businessman David Geffen, who bought the painting for some $20m, sold it for $110m few years ago. The De Kooning exchange is the sole exchange they've done so far and I hope it remains the last one."

Of the many ironies surrounding the artwork is the fact that Iran's powerful Guardian Council, a group of clerics, intervened a decade ago to forbid the selling or exchange of the works because, they said, trade in un-Islamic and pornographic works was prohibited.

Ali Amini Najafi, an Iranian art critic based in Germany, said: "The works in the collection are not randomly or arbitrarily chosen, it is clear that people involved in selecting them had a consistent plan to pick relevant and significant samples to depict the evolution of modern art and also to make sure that all movements from impressionists to pop art are represented.

"This collection was gathered at a defining moment of our history when Iranians were taking distance from their traditional past and were showing curiosity with modern art." © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

May 07 2012

The Gunter Sachs appeal – life and legacy of the playboy art collector

Sotheby's to auction off trove of art treasures and memorabilia owned by the renowned playboy. Mark Brown, meets his son Rolf

Picture the scene. A ruggedly handsome, impeccably dressed man is enjoying a snack with his superstar wife, Brigitte Bardot, in St Tropez's Gorilla bar in the late spring of 1967. A pale, odd-looking white-haired man with a large entourage notices him and marches straight over, complaining that the Cannes film festival, of all places, has refused to screen his film because of its nudity. The man agrees to see the film, Chelsea Girls, and everyone bundles into speedboats and heads for the Carlton Hotel on La Croisette.

That chance meeting between the millionaire playboy Gunter Sachs and artist Andy Warhol had a profound effect on both men. For Sachs, a serious collector, it led to a sea change in his art buying; for Warhol it marked a vital first foothold in Europe.

Sachs became an assiduous collector of pop art and in 1972 opened a gallery in Hamburg. The Warhol exhibition he staged there was one of the first in Europe, although as Sachs's son Rolf recalls: "Nothing sold. My father was highly embarrassed, and he bought most of the exhibition himself – which was of course the best investment he ever made."

Rolf Sachs spoke to the Guardian ahead of a dazzling auction of artworks and objects that belonged to his late father. The Sachs family is selling following Gunter's death last year when, at 78, he turned a shotgun on himself.

Over two days, Sotheby's will sell a collection estimated to be worth more than £20m that includes art spanning surrealism, new realism and pop art, as well as furniture and personal objects. They shine an often fascinating light on a man who liked, perhaps more than anything, to enjoy himself.

"He had a great creativity for life, combined with a joie de vivre and an ability to live it," says Rolf. "He was interested in the zeitgeist."

Categorising Gunter Sachs is tricky. Sotheby's describes him in the catalogue as a "playboy, businessman, gallerist, museum director, art collector, film-maker, celebrity, photographer, astrologer, director and sportsman".

Certainly he was the man of a thousand stories. He created the Dracula Club, an exclusive private members' club in St Moritz; he was vice-president of the Cresta Run, an epic skeleton bob run also in St Moritz; he encouraged Salvador Dalí to shoot a gun in his penthouse and, of course, he married one of the most famous women in the world. He proposed to Bardot by dropping hundreds of roses on her villa from a helicopter before diving into the Mediterranean and emerging from the sea.

Something beautiful

Was it really like that? "I wasn't there," says Rolf, smiling. "It gets embellished every time, but so what? It has something beautiful about it. Stories should have a poetic, dreaming effect." The couple married in Vegas, honeymooned in Tahiti and divorced as friends in 1969, both of them having had affairs.

Born in Germany in 1932, Gunter Sachs inherited fortunes from his mother's side of the family – she was daughter of Wilhelm von Opel of the car-making dynasty – and his father, who owned Fichtel Sachs, one of Germany's largest automobile suppliers.

He located to France in 1958 which in itself was a brave move, says Rolf. "It took a special character to go and live in Paris in 1958 – which was 13 years after the war – as a German. It probably was quite difficult."

At the time, Sachs did not have huge amounts of disposable cash so he would spend his afternoons playing cards – at which he was extremely good. "He wasn't that wealthy then. Father would play ecarté with friends in the afternoon and he would invest his profits in art. At the time nobody was really buying art, people were building up their businesses, everything had been shattered."

Sachs began buying works by the likes of Yves Klein, Jean Fautrier, César and Arman, who are far better known today than they were at the time. "He bought it for the love of the art."

Sachs collected with passion and skill; he was an aesthete, says Rolf, who is a professional artist and designer himself partly as a result of his upbringing. "I was very much aware of the art in the house and as an eight-year-old I knew every painter, I knew every painting. I had a very strong relationship with all the art we had."

Sachs is mentioned in Warhol's memoirs as one of the young Europeans who went to New York and had the whole Studio 54 experience. "At the time you didn't think much of it, but it was fun. You don't appreciate those moments enough because you don't realise."

Surrealist work

Sotheby's has described the sale as "among the most desirable single-owner collections ever to come to market", but it is only part of what was an extraordinary collection. Sachs collected surrealist work by the likes of Dalí, Yves Tanguy, René Magritte and Max Ernst. He owned important pieces from the new realism school including Klein, Jean Tinguely, Arman and Martial Raysse. And there were works that could be described as art informel, including pieces by his friend Fautrier whose studio in the early years of the war was a refuge for intellectuals and artists associated with the Resistance.

Sachs decorated his homes and hotel penthouse suites with the most fabulous art and furniture. He had Lichtensteins in his bathroom, a Warhol Campbell's Soup in his kitchen, a Mel Ramos Banana Split in the guest bedroom. He commissioned a table direct from the sculptor and designer Diego Giacometti and was a big fan of Allen Jones, a star of 1960s British pop art, and had a set of his furniture that used fetishistic female mannequins.

Jones once recalled staying in Sachs' St Moritz Palace Hotel penthouse. "It was the most ritzy place I had ever been in. One wall of the apartment seemed to be entirely glass, with a breathtaking view of the Alps. There were Lichtenstein panels around the bathroom, a flock of Lalanne sheep on the carpet and the set of my sculptures."

If he had stayed at another time he would have seen Warhol's 1974 portrait of Bardot taking pride of place in a kind of pop art concept apartment. One of the last Warhol's Sachs bought was in 1998 – Self-Portrait (Fright Wig) which Warhol produced in 1986, a year before his death – and it is being sold for between £2m-£3m.

Another talking point in his penthouse suite was a bulletproof glass panel which Sachs would cheerfully stand behind and ask guests – Dalí was one – to shoot.

Works in the sale include Les Feux de L'Enfer, a piece Klein made using an industrial blowtorch at a state-owned gas research facility near Paris; pieces by Max Ernst, Magritte and Dalí; and a thickly painted gold canvas by Lucio Fontana, Concetto Spaziale (1961), estimated up to £900,000.

"There was never a thought of it being an investment," says Rolf. "In fact, he stopped collecting in the 1970s because he was disillusioned with the art market – it became so aggressive. It had a strong business component."

Not that he entirely lost his love for it. "He always wanted to find the new, and even at 72, he started collecting graffiti art. We have tons of it," says Rolf. "It shows a curious mind, a young mind, looking for what is the next thing and what is the next trend."

Speaking of his father's death, Rolf says: "It came as a big shock to us all, but as a family we are not bitter towards him … I admire the courage."

It has been suggested that he feared the onset of Alzheimer's: "Perhaps in his mind it was speculation. Whenever something like this happens, obviously, there is chemistry involved. Chemical imbalances, which do things to your mind."

The decision to sell the works was taken as a family, and Rolf stresses they are keeping the items that hold the most importance for them. "People have said, 'Oh my god, you're selling the collection,' but the real core of his collection is staying in the family." He adds that they want to do a museum exhibition at the Villa Stuck in Munich in October.

Fond memories

Rolf Sachs has many fond memories of growing up. He remembers Bardot as his step-mum – "she was very kind to me, very sweet. I have only the fondest memories of her." He remembers one of Sachs' girlfriends, the Swiss biscuit heiress and champion water-skier Marina Doria going back and forward, back and forward in front of the house, pulled by Riva, a speedboat that is also in the sale.

He remembers the parties his dad would organise. "He made some of the most spectacular parties. Everyone would dress up, there was always wonderful music. Once he did a party where he played as if there was a hold up and everyone was surrounded [laughing] and people were getting frightened.

"A lot of fun people surrounded him, people who were spirited, who were good laughs."

Rolf Sachs has taken on some of the responsibilities his father had such as being vice-president of the Cresta Run and on the day the Guardian talked to Rolf he was beaming with pride at a purchase he had made at auction that day: a vampire killing set from around 1900 which he can't wait to show fellow members of the the Dracula Club. It is meant to be the most select club in St Moritz but Rolf says it is full of fun-loving. "Father created it and it is a very nice group of friends. Every member loves being part of bloodlessness."

Gunter Sachs was also interested in astrology, publishing a bestselling book on the subject and creating the grandly titled Institute for the Empirical and Mathematical Examination of the Possible Truth of Astrology in Relation to Human Behaviour.

Two months ago Rolf floated 3,500 candles on the lake in St Moritz in the shape of Scorpio in memory of his father.

There are clearly things going into the sale tinged with regret but Rolf says the family tried to create a rounded sale that was also fun, so there are pieces of art estimated in the hundreds of pounds up to one of Warhol's Brigitte Bardot canvases, estimated at £3m to £4m.

The auction will be held at Sotheby's on 22 and 23 May. Highlights go on show in London from 18-22 May and in New York from 5-9 May. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

January 29 2012

The fine art of Barbie-sitting

How does the Barbie doll compare with the models who inspired the old masters? Artist Jocelyne Grivaud set out to discover

July 08 2011

Art Weekly

For your art-world low-down, sign up to the Guardian's Art Weekly email and get all the latest news delivered straight to your inbox

Jonathan Jones's top shows this week

Thomas Struth: Photographs 1978-2010
When is a documentary photograph not a documentary photograph? When it's by Thomas Struth. The German artist's epic studies of people marvelling at sites of such profound cultural value as the Pantheon in Rome cause you to wonder what these places mean to their modern visitors.
• At Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, until 16 September

The Cult of Beauty: The Aesthetic Movement 1860–1900
Seize the last chance to see the best London exhibition of the year so far, a subversive visual essay on the true nature of our ancestors – the Victorians. Nineteenth-century British artists, designers, and writers are revealed as radical hedonists whose luxuriant worldview helped to shape the modern imagination.
• At V&A museum, London, until 17 July

Urs Fischer and Georg Herold
The most compelling works at this year's Venice Biennale are life-size wax sculptures by Urs Fischer which, you come to realise, are actually slowly melting giant candles. Here Fischer collaborates with German sculptor Georg Herold in a two-man show with an equally surprising twist – there is a life model present in the gallery at all times.
• At the Modern Institute, 14-20 Osborne Street, Glasgow, until 3 September

Devotion by Design: Italian Altarpieces before 1500
Many paintings that we look at in art museums were once part of carved wooden multi-panel altarpieces. In this free exhibition, the National Gallery recreates the original contexts of some of its oldest paintings so that they are shown as they were meant to be seen.
• At the National Gallery, London, 6 July to 2 October

René Magritte: The Pleasure Principle
One of the true modern greats, René Magritte fascinates because he so poignantly questions the power of painting to create illusions. With irony and finesse, his works portray objects and spaces with a deadpan realism that is undermined by sheer impossibilities.
• At Tate Liverpool until 16 October

Up close: artworks in detail

Simone Martini, Christ Discovered in the Temple, 1342
If you are heading to the Magritte exhibition at Tate Liverpool it is worth a detour to the city's outstanding Walker Art Gallery to see this masterpiece of medieval art. Simone Martini rose to fame in 14th-century Siena as an artist of sinuous beauty, and his celebrity took him to Avignon (home of the schismatic Pope at the time), where he painted this gorgeous work. It is a very rare survival of his Avignon works and contemporary with his lost portrait of Laura, the beauty to whom the poet Petrarch wrote hundreds of verses. One of the most important medieval paintings in Britain.
• At Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool

Francis Picabia, Fille née sans mere (Girl born without a mother), about 1916-17

An eerie prophesy of our digital age, created a century ago. In the years before and during the first world war artists were fascinated and spooked by the idea of humans as machines. Picabia's techno-child is one of the most compelling of these science fiction modernist images, along with Jacop Epstein's Rock Drill and Marcel Duchamp's Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even.
• At Dean Gallery, Edinburgh

Henry Moore, Standing Figure: Knife Edge, 1961
If visiting the popular new Hepworth gallery in Wakefield you should also treat yourself to a stroll around nearby Yorkshire Sculpture Park where, among a huge variety of modern sculptures set in rolling green spaces, the works of Henry Moore are particularly impressive. This towering yet whimsical figure and other organic forms by Moore take on a dreamlike quality against grass and sky. Is Moore a truly great sculptor or a soft imitator of Picasso? In the Yorkshire landscape, Standing Figure has a romantic character that argues powerfully for the former.
• At Yorkshire Sculpture Park

Andy Warhol, Jacqueline, 1964
A Warhol portrait of Blondie's Deborah Harry recently sold for several millions, yet this moving image of Jackie Kennedy at President John F Kennedy's funeral is a far more powerful work from Warhol's most creative years. You can see it, for free, in a Midlands public collection. Warhol claimed he was left cold by the assassination of JFK, but his portraits of Jackie in mourning ache with the pain and rage of a nation bereft.
• At Wolverhampton Art Gallery

GF Watts, Paolo and Francesca, 1872-75

George Frederic Watts was a Victorian symbolist, whose paintings shared with contemporary European artists an urge to dig below the surface and illuminate the world of imagination. This painting of doomed lovers from Dante's Inferno is in the collection of his works at the Watts Gallery. It explores the same intense imagery of death and desire as French artists such as Moreau and Redon, and is a rich insight into the mythic ambitions of 19th-century British art.
• At Watts Gallery, Compton, Surrey

What we learned this week

The real reason Habitat went bankrupt

Exactly why artists think Cy Twombly was a knockout

Why no one will pony up for Mark Wallinger's giant horse sculpture

Why Hipstamatic became the weapon of choice for photojournalists in Afghanistan

Final proof that Hollywood has always been heavenly

Image of the week

Your Art Weekly

What exhibitions are you going to see this week? Have you been to any of these shows? Did you agree with our reviews? Give your review in the comments below or tweet us your verdict using #artweekly and we'll publish the best ones next week.

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June 22 2011

Secrets and surrealism

As Tate Liverpool's new retrospective opens, Adrian Searle investigates the strange world of The Secret Player

June 18 2011

René Magritte: enigmatic master of the impossible dream

On the eve of a major Magritte exhibition, artists with an eye for the peculiar reveal why they love the witty Belgian surrealist

TERRY GILLIAM Film director and former member of Monty Python

It wasn't until I'd seen Magritte's work collected together in an exhibition at the Tate, at the end of the 1960s I think, that I realised just how incredibly funny his stuff was. People walk around these exhibitions in a religious state of awe and I just walked round this one laughing uncontrollably. Until then, I'd always thought of Magritte as having an interesting and intriguing mind – the way he would turn things inside out or make that which was solid suddenly not solid. But suddenly here he was, this wonderfully dry joke teller. The work that really struck me that day was The Man in the Bowler Hat [1964]. He'd spent months painting a guy in a bowler hat and then, for his last brush strokes, paints a dove flying in front of the man's face. What's happened there could happen only in a photograph and he's done a painting of it. What a comedian! I thought he was so clever. If it wasn't for the ideas I wouldn't say he was a great painter because others have a better technique. But he does what he needs to do and does it so well.

All of the surrealists got into my head, but Magritte was so direct. I liked how immediate his work was, whereas the others were more abstract. His work can be complex but in a sense he takes cliché images and puts them together in ways that surprise you. There's a night scene, but the sky is day [The Dominion of Light, 1953], there's a pair of shoes that are actually feet [The Red Model, 1934]. His work has an initial gag, but the stuff sticks with you because it's in some ways profound.

He is so firmly lodged in my brain that frequently I'll see something and think, "Oh, that's a bit Magrittean". I'll look out of my window at dusk and see the house across the street catching the last bit of sunlight, except the sky behind it is already night. He captures moments of light in the day that are just odd. I used to think it was a fantasy of his, but I now find it happening all the time. Like every good artist, he makes us see the everyday differently but he does it without the pretension of so many other artists. That's another thing I like about him, that he didn't have this serious "I am an artist" approach. He went to work with a suit and a briefcase, everything about him was taking the piss out of art yet at the same time he was a wonderful artist.

In my work, I can never find a direct line between what I've done and where it's come from, but I do know where the influences are and they all end up in a kind of Irish stew in my brain. I would never want to say: "I nicked that from Magritte", because that's criminal investigation time! But it would be fair to say that with the landscapes and blue skies in the Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus I could've been stealing from either Magritte or Microsoft Windows. What Microsoft did was a direct steal from Magritte! Other people paint more elaborate skies, but it's the clarity of his painting – the perfect blue sky with the perfect clouds floating in it – that's just so appealing.

Were the other Pythons influenced by Magritte? No. I'm not sure what the word is for being illiterate at art. Maybe blind. That's what they were. Years ago, we were in a hotel in Munich and John [Cleese] called me and said: "I'm going over to the Pinakothek. Do you want to come and explain art to me?" So I went along and I didn't explain art to him because that's not what I do, but I did get him looking at a thermostat on the wall and discussing it in great detail. We managed to gather quite a crowd.

I suppose with my work I'm always trying to get people to see what the world is capable of, to show how it can be seen in a very different way and Magritte did that all the time. When you start thinking differently like that, reality becomes a kind of game. In the 60s, people took drugs to achieve that state, but for a lot of people it was enough to go and look at a Magritte painting.


Whenever I drive in any mountainous region and look at the line against the sky, I think of Magritte. And whenever I see beautiful, perfect clouds in the sky, he's the first thing that comes to mind. I think there is a humanity, a generosity and a kindness to others in Magritte's work. He takes the viewer into account. And I have always found the economy of his images very moving. They communicate very purely and directly. One of the most profound pieces of Magritte's is Discovery [1928]. It is an image of a woman whose flesh resembles the grain in wood. There is this aspect of Magritte which is about dealing with the world around us, and there is a certain materiality, a reality about that world that he creates, even though he makes these strange juxtapositions.

It is hard to imagine a lot of the computer programs that we work with in daily life, such as Photoshop, without the influence of Magritte. We owe to Magritte the many ways that we see the world through transparency or gradation. So I hold him in high esteem for showing us how images can be overlapped, or how they can be gradated into each other. I wouldn't say I've ever made a piece in direct response to his work, but I can see there are works that show an interest in what he was doing. Take Les Idées Claires [1955], one of the two Magritte paintings that I have loaned to the Tate exhibition. Here, you see a rock hovering over the ocean underneath a cloud. I can associate that with one of my Equilibrium Tank sculptures of basketballs suspended in vitrines of water.

© This is an edited extract from Tate ETC magazine

NOEL FIELDING Artist and co-creator of The Mighty Boosh

I love how Magritte's paintings initially look quite normal. He lures you in with the colours and compositions and shortly after the concept blows your mind. You think: "That's just a normal… aagh!"  They're like Trojan horses.

I've still got the first book I had of Magritte's work. It's stolen from the library, that's so bad! I was about 12 years old and looking at the paintings was a bit like taking drugs. They're such strong, stimulating images for a child because at that age you don't drink, you don't take drugs and you're not really interested in girls.

The first painting that made me think, "Oh my god, that's something amazing" was Young Girl Eating a Bird [1927]. I liked how enigmatic Magritte's work was, how you didn't quite know what was going on. Surrealism and absurdity, Monty Python and Vic Reeves, they were the first things that I really buzzed off and thought, "wow, that's what I want to do". The fact that there was a surrealist movement really appealed to me too, that they met up and drank crème de menthe in weird Parisian cafes. I loved that these grown men like Breton and Magritte would really seriously discuss poems, automatic writing and painting and then put things in their magazines like a man throwing a rock at a priest. I guess it was quite punk at the time.

Magritte's paintings always make me laugh. I don't care if other people say they're not funny. I find it ridiculous when you walk around a gallery and people are just looking at something obviously funny and stroking their chins. A Magritte painting such as the reverse mermaid [Collective Invention, 1934] is like a stand-up joke. Comedians do those reverse jokes all the time. When I was quite young, I did a painting of a cat phoning the fire brigade and an old lady stuck up a tree.

It's the juxtaposition in the paintings that is also very stimulating. I think it was Terry Jones who said something about two disparate ideas coming together and creating a star. And that's what it's all about for me. In The Mighty Boosh, we have a character called Old Gregg who is a merman but he's also a bit like [musician] Rick James. Those two things shouldn't ever go together. But when you get it right it's perfect.

Some of my own paintings are definitely influenced by Magritte. The stillness and the weirdness of Bryan Ferry with a Kite, in which Bryan Ferry has got a kite for a head, that's one of them. But he was also one of mine and Julian Barratt's joint favourites and that's apparent in the Boosh. For ages, we even wanted to have a pipe as an actual character who floated around and talked. But it was too difficult. You can see from what Julian wears that he likes the whole Magritte aesthetic – the bowler hats, the trench coats and the weird city-gent-gone-wrong look. Together, lookswise, we're like Dalí and Magritte. Dalí was more my type: flamboyant, a mad freak.

My new show for E4 has even more references to art. It's set in a place that's supposed to be my house, I look like a Bollywood Elvis and my cleaner is a robotic Andy Warhol. At one point, Warhol borrows a rucksack from Magritte to go on holiday with Jackson Pollock and Keith Haring and when he turns around a train comes out of the rucksack, like the train coming out of the fireplace in Time Transfixed [1938].I say to Warhol: "I bet that gets a bit annoying", and he responds, in his robotic voice: "No, you can get loads in there."

Magritte's paintings are insane, but they're often really good one-liners so they're a great source for a surreal comedy show.


When Magritte was 13, his mother committed suicide and, apparently, when the police retrieved her body from the river Sambre, Magritte was there and he saw how her face was covered by her dress. My own art and the research I do around it is all about neuroscience, how brains function, how memory functions, so this episode in Magritte's life and the way it subsequently influenced his art really intrigues me. If you look at The Lovers [1928], where two people have clothes over their face, I think that work specifically draws on that episode with his mother. But more generally, his work explores memory, his funny perception of reality and for me that all comes from his memory of that event. In Le Blanc-Seing [1965], for example, which features a woman on a horse in a wood, there are almost two paintings. The way his paintings constantly shift between what is real, something he can see or saw, and something he really wants to see is what draws me into his work.


One of the great things about Magritte's work, especially The Treachery of Images (This Is Not a Pipe) [1921] is it dismantles the idea of pictures themselves. It makes the audience consider what they're looking at and take a step back. You can see that Magritte painted to experiment with his own thinking. His work is a thinking through pictures. I probably first came across the work when I was on my art foundation course and I remember my sense of relief to find that his work was immediately gettable. Some people today don't identify with the themes he's exploring or perhaps can't see past the cliché. But the way he suggestively starts to make the audience question how they see things is something that I try to include in my own art.

There are two works of Magritte's which I've more or less directly appropriated in my works Oscar and Cripple. They are The Ellipsis [1948] and The Cripple [1948], from his vache period, when he started painting more loosely, almost in a semi-expressionistic style. This period was a disaster for Magritte: the critics panned the work and the collectors ran away. But I love that he was fed up with being expected to be a certain kind of artist and was challenging his signature style. This new style almost allowed the audience in slightly closer, to get more of an insight into Magritte himself. I made two sculptures, three dimensional self-portraits, that were then reconfigured to look like these two paintings by Magritte. I was dealing with the idea of my own personal representation, my own ideas of authorship.

I also like the happy oddness, the sense of the uncanny in Magritte's work. In a way, there's a non-threatening but uncomfortable sensation. In an era before Photoshop, he slammed together things from different worlds and played with scale. If I were to draw parallels between his work and mine it would be that we combine disparate ideas or use this sense of the uncanny to make proposed alternatives. A work of mine like the bronze binbag sculpture is a good example – it seems straightforward, it's a shiny binbag, but then it starts to make you ask questions. It's a painted bronze sculpture, so there's this sense of permanence when actually a black plastic bag is probably a key symbol of impermanence.


A Magritte work that I always return to is The Treachery of Images, because we have it at the LA County Museum. It's a kind of touchstone of his. He's affirming the slipperiness, or as he calls it the treachery, of images, of language – that a word and an object have no necessary connection other than that we collectively assigned that word and that object to go together. I really appreciate his word play.

He also does a lot of the things I try to do with my work, making life a little difficult or a little challenging for the viewer who would like things to be comfortable. I think the reason Magritte has been so influential on popular culture is because he deals with images that we know – a person or a house or a street or a horse.

The images aren't misshapen or distorted – he just puts them together in combinations that we don't usually think about. And in terms of advertising, Magritte and Dalí probably have been the most influential artists, so much that we don't even see it anymore. Take, for example, CBS TV's logo, the eye. I believe that comes directly from him [from the work The False Mirror, 1928]. He's everywhere.

EDWARD HALL Theatre director

In the theatre you try and create a sense of mystery. You're raising questions, putting ordinary situations in front of people and shining new light on them. Magritte does that in his paintings, using objects that you know really well. When I directed Twelfth Night, there was a moment in my production where Viola, disguised as a boy, looks in the mirror and sees herself for the first time as a man. That's always made me think of The False Mirror. Both of those things are about seeing something you've never seen before in a reflection of something familiar.

I had a picture of The Human Condition [1933] on my wall when I was a teenager which I'd cut out of a magazine because it looked interesting. My favourite now is The Treachery of Images. That's about not boiling things down to their lowest common denominator or about looking beyond what you think something is. The pipe expresses that idea in its simplest form. Of course it's not a pipe! Try and smoke it!

When you're working on a play, you're constantly trying not to make assumptions. As soon as you make assumptions, you stop investigating – what a story might mean, what the possibilities are within a scene. Go back to Greek drama, where the principle is that the opposite is always true, that raises as many questions as it answers. Shakespeare also challenges your expectations of people's behaviour in all sorts of ways. That's why his plays are constantly intriguing to watch. And in essence that's what Magritte does, too.


When I first became interested in art, at the age of 13 or 14, I was drawn to the otherness of art, the peculiarity and anarchy of it. For me, Magritte really represented that. Then, when I went to art school in the late 80s, I realised that his paintings were not very good, technically speaking. His work seemed a bit kitsch. But later I became interested in them again, as a vehicle for ideas. I've always loved the simplicity of his work and I think it becomes more profound the more you consider it.

In Magritte's oeuvre there are quite a few odd paintings that are jarring. One of my favourites is Young Girl Eating a Bird, an image of a girl eating a bird in front of a tree full of exotic-looking birds. As soon as I saw it, I thought, that's a really strange, perverse picture, whereas a lot of the others seem quite sanitised.

Growing up in provincial England, I lived a long way from London so my introduction to contemporary art was through Thames and Hudson books. Magritte is illustrative in style, so you can get it without necessarily having to see the physical object of the painting, because you're still invited to think about the idea.

It's hard to trace an artist's influence, but I think Magritte is a important image maker, a conceptual painter. He's more like Duchamp or Picabia. For me, he is the quintessential surrealist.

Additional research by Gemma Kappala-Ramsamy

René Magritte: The Pleasure Principle is at Tate Liverpool from Friday until 16 October © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

June 10 2011

René Magritte: The Pleasure Principle – exhibition

René Magritte presented himself as the 'ordinary man in the bowler hat, suit and tie' who happened to paint extraordinary pictures. James Hall considers how his work influenced later generations

René Magritte has inspired more book covers than any other visual artist. The first Magritte cover adorned Mary Potter's Useful Mathematics Workbook, published in Boston in 1939. The designer used a detail of Mental Arithmetic (1931; destroyed), in which a village of conventional houses with tiled roofs has been colonised by a cluster of gigantic white spheres, hemispheres and cuboids.

This eerie toytown image deftly prophesies what was about to happen in architecture – the colossal "pure forms" of Le Corbusier's modernism usurping more complex and cosy traditional forms. At the same time, the juxtaposition panders to the human need to find patterns and geometry in nature. We notice that the rising sun is also hemispherical, and that the pitched roofs of the houses are triangular: the similarities between the pure white forms and the rural idyll they find themselves in are as striking as the differences. Indeed, could not the sun simply be another hemisphere placed on the horizon? Here lateral thinking and seeing can render what initially seems alien to be archetypal and even natural; and it can in turn make the houses and trees seem cramped, gloomy and unhomely. Yet in Magritteville, the friction between forms never falters, never settles into a reassuring pattern. His sites – with their pathological neatness, cleanness, staticness – cannot be fully stabilised or surveyed. Mental Arithmetic defies conventional computation: here 1 + 1 = 2 and infinity.

A recent exhibition in Boston of Magritte-inspired book covers had 60 works of fiction and non-fiction, and could have featured many others (the curator Karl Baden now owns about 100). Examples include Germaine Greer's The Female Eunuch (the woman-as-nightdress, hanging from a rail); Michel Foucault's meditation on the picture of a pipe inscribed "This Is Not a Pipe"; Georges Simenon's Maigret's Pipe (a bowler-hatted man seen from the back); and Patrick Süskind's The Pigeon (a bowler-hatted man seen from the back with a pigeon perching on his hat). What appeals to publishers and readers is the epigrammatic spareness of Magritte's work, together with an almost heraldic clarity. You register the naively limpid image/word instantly, then do a double-take and are insidiously hooked – intellectually, if not emotionally. No less important is the fact that book titles and author names can be deposited in one of the many voids that punctuate his pictures. He leaves blank and blandly patterned zones into which all manner of mental furniture can be scattered.

René Magritte (1898-1967) was brought up in Hainault, Belgium's coal-mining region, the eldest son of a prosperous businessman (edible oils, stock cubes). He soon showed talent as an artist, which his father encouraged, and went to art school in Brussels in 1915. His mother was a depressive, with suicidal tendencies, and when René was 13 she drowned herself in the river at the back of their house. Magritte only ever spoke about her death to one close friend, years later. He said that when the body was dragged from the polluted waters several days later her face was covered by her nightdress. It was not known whether she had hidden her eyes with it before jumping in, or whether the river had "veiled her thus". The only feeling Magritte remembered was "intense pride at the thought of being the pitiable centre of attention in a drama".

The "drama" involving the nightdress sounds too good to be true, like a carefully contrived primal scene, ripe for Freudian analysis. It is surely a period piece, borrowed from a symbolist novel or painting, invented or imagined by Magritte to lend his mother romance and gravitas – and to endow himself with superhuman sang froid.

Veiled figures were a symbolist leitmotif. The Italian sculptor Medardo Rosso's Impression on the Boulevard: Woman with a Veil (1893) is the obvious example, yet all of Rosso's bust-length figures, mostly women and children, seem equally veiled. Their hiddenness adds to the sense of mystery, melancholy and melodrama. Comparable figures, now facing away from the viewer, and blank mannikin heads, are found in the work of Rosso's younger Italian contemporary Giorgio de Chirico, the discovery of whose paintings in the 1920s came as a revelation to Magritte, and set him on the path he was to follow for the best part of his career. Magritte was to make the suspiciously hidden head – obscured, turned, featureless, missing, beheaded, behatted – his own.

In the early 1920s, Magritte had been working his way steadily through cubism and futurism, subsidising himself by doing commercial art – something he would have to do until after the second world war, when he secured a New York dealer (examples of his commercial work will be included in the new Tate Liverpool show). In the mid-1920s, the recently formed French surrealists, and the German dadaists Max Ernst and George Grosz, were hailing De Chirico as a founding father, and Magritte was bowled over by a reproduction of De Chirico's Love Song in an art magazine. De Chirico showed Magritte how you could make resonant paintings by "collaging" together disparate still-life objects painted in a deadpan, hyper-real style, with distorted scale and spatial logic. Magritte said of the Italian leader of the Scuola Metafisica: "It was a new vision through which the spectator might recognise his own isolation and hear the silence of the world".

But whereas De Chirico situated his objects within plunging architectural perspectives inspired by early renaissance painting, Magritte's compositions tend to spread out laterally, as if belonging to an illustrated textbook or display cabinet. Abetting this lateral extension is his penchant for dividing pictures into stark, shifting sequences of square and rectangular compartments, akin to advertising hoardings or stage flats. It is a modernist reworking of the medieval polyptych format, where each saint or protagonist is isolated in its own framed panel. Magritte liked the format because of the feeling of potentially endless shuffling and unfolding.

Magritte's work is, in part, a joke at the expense of the classifying, bureaucratic mind. His drily preposterous pedantry makes one think of Flaubert's Bouvard and Pécuchet (1881), in which the eponymous copy-clerks seek to become experts in every conceivable subject solely by reading books, rather than consulting people with experience. The hapless autodidacts try to bottle preserves, plant trees, look after farm animals, practise medicine; they try to learn how to write a novel and how to have imagination. All their experiments end in disaster, and their home becomes a museum, choked with specimens. Eventually they give up and go back to being copy-clerks. Magritte's paintings look as though they might have been made by a well-meaning but over-zealous autodidact – and it's a consummate irony that they end up on the covers of so many self-help books.

Magritte moved to Paris in 1927 with his wife and frequent model Georgette and, although he gained the respect and admiration of André Breton and the surrealists, he never became part of the inner circle. It was a matter partly of geography – he could only afford to rent a flat in the suburbs – and partly of style. At this stage in its evolution, surrealism was dominated by semi-abstract "automatic" drawing, as epitomised by the work of André Masson and Joan Miró: beauty, as Breton said, was convulsive. It wasn't until the 1930s, with the ascendancy of surrealist sculpture and photography, and of Salvador Dalí, that Magritte's work fitted the bill. By that stage, however, he had already returned to Brussels, due to both the fallout of the 1929 Wall Street crash and a row with Breton over a crucifix worn by Georgette to a party. The violently atheistical Breton insisted she remove it, but Magritte sided with his wife.

Many of Magritte's most famous works were painted during his Paris stay. The False Mirror – a close-up of a left eye, with a cloudy sky where the iris should be – is both visionary and claustrophobic, for while the flying-saucer eye seems magically enlarged, the sky seems circumscribed (this later became the logo for CBS television). The Titanic Days (1928) is the most intelligently shocking of his images. A naked woman of heroic scale struggles with a clothed man who assails her from her left. But the man's figure is neatly cut off at the contour of the woman's body, so only the superimposed part of the man is depicted. What makes it so disturbing is the idea that he is an indissoluble, bespoke part of herself, an essential item both of her own wardrobe and her anatomy – a parasitical human corset. We can't tell whether this is simply a rape scene, or an internecine struggle between conjoined forces. They are both equal parts of a diptych folding in on itself. Picasso later tried a similar trick when he made his mesmerising image of his young mistress, The Dream (1932), with the left side of her sleeping head formed from a tumescent lilac penis.

Partly inspired by Miró (whose exhibition at Tate Modern runs concurrently) and by dadaism, Magritte started to incorporate words into his pictures, and the 40-odd word pictures he made in Paris constituted about a quarter of his output there. Foucault, appreciating the painstaking appearance of Magritte's joined-up handwriting, said it was written in "a script from the convent". The Key of Dreams (1930), made in several versions, is a classic example. A sequence of images, as if from a child's school book, each one isolated in a square frame, is spectacularly "mis-labelled" – so beneath a picture of a high-heeled shoe we read "the moon", beneath a jug "the bird" and so on.

A version of The Key of Dreams appeared on the front cover of John Berger's Ways of Seeing (1972). According to Berger, it demonstrates that there is an "always present gap between words and seeing". This is the message that countless conceptual artists have taken from Magritte's work. Yet it is far from clear this is what Magritte meant. The main inference we can draw is that dreams are meaningless, a random sequence of unfettered images and words to which there is no key. We can interpret This Is Not a Pipe in a similar way, for pipe tobacco is an addictive, perception-altering drug that inspires reverie. That is very much how the pipe is treated in The Philosopher's Lamp (1936), a grotesque self-portrait in which Magritte's nose is distended like an elephant's trunk and flops down into the bowl of the pipe he is smoking, as if to suggest the depths of his own addiction. He looks at us sidelong, sadly, well aware how pathetic and impotent he looks. A worm-like candle burns limply on a console table before him. Unlike the surrealists, Magritte is a reluctant dreamer. He wants to stay wide awake and in control. He wants reality and reason to prevail, and for affinities to be found between objects: he was an admirer of Goethe's novel Elective Affinities. A yearning for simple truths lies at the heart of his prosaic, deliberate painting style. The creative tension in his work stems from his chronic inability to keep a lid on himself and the world.

There is indeed something pathetic about Magritte's later work and career: from the 1930s an increasing part of his production was making copies of his most popular works, as well as forgeries of artists such as Picasso and Ernst, and portraits. When the Germans invaded Belgium in 1940, he decided that people needed cheering up and so, until 1947, he painted lurid soft-porn pastiches of late Renoir. In 1948, he tried his hand at a comic-strip fauvism – his "vache" (cow) paintings – before returning to making variations on his standard themes. He became famous for the first time in the late 1950s, when his classic work chimed with pop art, and later, with conceptual art. It was then that he marketed himself to the wider world as the "ordinary man in the bowler hat, suit and tie" who just happened to paint extraordinary pictures. At his death in 1967, this pose (sans bowler hat) was taken up with a vengeance by Gilbert & George. What the response to his laconic art will be these days, when beauty is both convulsive and garrulous (Tracey Emin), remains to be seen.

René Magritte: The Pleasure Principle is at Tate Liverpool from 24 June until 16 October 2011. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

February 06 2011

Magritte: the Hirst of his day

René Magritte's instructions to New York dealer – illustrated with bowler-hatted man motif - show a modern eye for marketing

Unpublished letters that cast fresh light on one of the most accomplished, least eccentric and – it turns out – most entrepreneurial of all the surrealist artists, René Magritte, are to be sold at auction.

The precisely written letters, complete with more than 40 drawings are, according to the auction house Sotheby's, excessively rare and reveal an artist who exercised huge control over every aspect of his work. He was, it seems, as concerned by the marketing of his art as he was by the paintings themselves.

The letters also include famous Magritte motifs, some of which can be seen for the first time in the documents for sale, including the faceless character who appeared in his painting Le Liberateur, and the chair upon a chair in La Légendes.

Magritte's letters are not being sold until June, but have been rushed from New York to London to go on display with five works by the artist that are being sold on Tuesday in a sale of post-impressionist and modern art.

Sotheby's book and manuscripts expert, Marsha Malinowski, said they were nothing short of extraordinary. "Magritte letters are just very hard to find and to have them with so many drawings of his iconic images is extremely rare."

The letters have been in the hands of an American collector for at least 20 years. They are from Magritte to his dealer in New York, Alexander Iolas, a one-time Greek ballet dancer, and all are written in very clear and precise handwriting.

They relate to exhibitions being held in Iolas's galleries and the level of detail is striking.

Magritte had instructions for everything: what should be shown, where, how they should be framed, what text to use in the catalogue, and so on.

Magritte comes across as a forerunner of the likes of Damien Hirst, who also has as keen an eye on marketing as he does on the art. The two also have their own motifs, which they use over and over again in their works.

"What's really fascinating with these letters is that you can clearly see the juxtaposition of Magritte as the artist and as the businessman," said Malinowski. "Magritte is not only doing the works of art, he's doing his own marketing, which is just incredible for an artist. Magritte was such an entrepreneur on so many different levels."

Magritte was never a starving artist; he always had a firm business head on his shoulders and these letters attest to that. "He was very grounded and a very hard worker," said Malinowski. "So many people think the surrealist movement was kind of out there and flakey, but Magritte went to Paris and studied with the surrealists, then went back to Belgium because he didn't like the drugs, he didn't like the drinking. He wanted to do his work."

In the letters Magritte talks about how he tries to put his ideas on paper.

The letters, which will be sold in New York with an estimate of $150,000-$250,000 (£93,000-£155,000) are all unpublished and amount to 42 pages – including 40 drawings. They contain some of Magritte's most instantly recognisable motifs, including his most famous, the bowler-hatted man.

A bowler-hatted man will also be among the Magritte works being sold at Sotheby's on Tuesday: the gouache Le Maître d'école, in which the man stares up at a crescent moon in a wonderfully darkening blue sky, will be sold with an estimated price-tag of £800,000-£1.2m.

Auction houses Christie's and Sotheby's will both stage big London sales this week. It was this time last year that a world record art auction price was set for a Giacometti Walking Man, sold for £65m.

Highlights of this week's sales include a Gauguin sunflower still-life, painted as a tribute to his friend Van Gogh, and a Picasso portrait of his mistress and muse, Marie-Thérèse Walter.

Flight to quality

The middle may be squeezed, but the buyers at the top of the tree, particularly from China and Asia, have barely been affected by the economic gloom. Both Sotheby's and Christie's say the buyers are still there for works of exceptional quality.

The two auction houses are mounting big sales of 20th century and impressionist art this week, including works by Picasso and Gauguin, with Christie's hoping to take up to £81m on Wednesday alone.

Christie's reported international sales were up by 53% last year, to a record £3.3bn, with the contemporary art market particularly strong. Sotheby's last month set a new record for a work by Titian, when his Sacra Conversazione sold for almost $17m in New York, and in December it saw a world record for any book, when Audubon's Birds of America went for more than £7m, £1m over the top estimate. Maev Kennedy © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

January 03 2011

The best visual arts for 2011

Adrian Searle has been critical of Tracey Emin in the past, but finds himself looking forward to her show at the Hayward in May, plus the year's other highlights

It's perhaps surprising that I should single out Tracey Emin's upcoming solo show as one I'm particularly looking forward to. I slagged off her Bed (above) in the 1999 Turner prize show – the artist even blamed me for her not winning the prize. I was horrified by her Venice Biennale British Pavilion in 2007, which included an ill-advised collection of paintings. She stopped speaking to me. But when I slated a slightly tipsy performance she once gave, the artist wrote to tell me my review should have appeared in the obituaries section. She's a trouper.

Tracey, oh Tracey. Her art is often derided as trivial and self-regarding. She is an artist who has placed her own life – her abortions, her childhood and troubled adolescence in Margate, her relationships with her Turkish father and her brother – at the centre of her art.

It is better to regard Emin as a cultural phenomenon as much as an artist, both a regular presence in glossy mags and an elected Royal Academician. Sir Joshua Reynolds, you might imagine, would turn in his grave. He'd be as likely to offer to take her for a drink. Emin has achieved a status in British public life that sometimes gets foisted on eccentric individuals: think of the late Quentin Crisp, life-model turned autobiographer and film critic; think of the self-parodic mad-eyed TV astronomer and xylophone player Patrick Moore; think of Grayson Perry, transvestite, potter, savant and motorcyclist. All are self-invented figures, consciously or otherwise, and self-invention is their best creative act. This might also be said of artists such as Warhol and Beuys – one was bewigged, fame-conscious and lived a double life; the other wore a fisherman's jerkin and affected the role of the shaman. Their work and their persona are as one.

But their art was greater than themselves, however much an extension of personality it became. This is not to put Emin on anything like their level of attainment as artists. Her painful self-exposure wouldn't count for much if it weren't for her artistic drive, and the wish – not always succesfully fulfilled – to transform her experience into films, appliqued fabrics, drawings, paintings, installations, poems and stories.

Mounting this large show is a test. The Hayward can be a stern critic. Things can shrivel and die here against the shuttered grey concrete. Or they can sing. At its best, her work can do just that – in a key that's all her own.

At the Hayward Gallery, London SE1 (0844 847 9910;, 18 May – 29 August.

The year's best art exhibitions

Modern British Sculpture

Is there such a thing as British sculpture? What's interesting is who's in and who's out (no Anish Kapoor, no Antony Gormley) in a show that takes us from Jacob Epstein to Damien Hirst. Sarah Lucas, Barbara Hepworth and Rebecca Warren are also included, co-curated by newly appointed Tate Britain director Penelope Curtis.

Royal Academy, London W1 (0844 209 0051), 22 January – 7 April.

Joan Miró: The Ladder of Escape

The great Catalan painter and sculptor began by painting scenes of rural peasant life, and went on to become a wayward surrealist, abstractionist and creator of a freeform symbolic world. Tate Modern's show will feature such works as The Farm (below). Underlying his work is a responsiveness to his times, from the civil war to the fall of Franco. Miró was playful, scatological, sophisticated and childlike – and apparently almost effortless as an artist.

Tate Modern, London SE1 (020-7887 8888), 14 April – 11 September.

54th Venice Biennale

The biggest, best and oldest biennale and the one always worth visiting. Mike Nelson represents Britain, the first installationist to do so.

Venice, 4 June – 27 November;; +39 041 5218711.

René Magritte

The Belgian painter is an often misunderstood and frequently trivialised artist. Surrealism's poster boy, Magritte was a poetic, contrary and troubled man. His art is at once popular and instantly recognisable, complex and flawed.

Tate Liverpool (0151-702 7400), 24 June – 16 October.

Folkestone Triennial

The faded resort plays host to artists from all over the world in the second of these three-yearly projects. Cornelia Parker brings Copenhagen's Little Mermaid to the south coast, and Huw Locke fills a church with model ships.

25 June – 25 September,, 01303 854080,

The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic

Robert Wilson, an inspired director of theatrical extravaganzas, presents The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic, starring the equally complex Serbian performance artist herself and the excellent Willem Dafoe. With songs by Antony Hegarty, this should be the high point of the Manchester festival.

The Lowry, Salford (0161-876 2198), 9-16 July.

Gerhard Richter: Panorama

This will include his most important work – the 1988 cycle of paintings based on images of the Baader- Meinhof group, counterpointed with September 2005, his response to 9/11. This most intelligent painter is enormously prolific, and works in diverse, unexpected ways, yet his work's overall coherence and power becomes more apparent as time goes on. Europe's most significant painter.

Tate Modern, London SE1 (020-7887 8888), 6 October – 8 January 2012.

Tacita Dean

Dean is one of my favourite artists, the best non-winner of the Turner prize. Mostly a maker of quietist, observational films, she's a surprising choice to create the next Turbine Hall Commission. Unlikely to deliver a participatory spectacle, she should change the way the audience approaches this most public and high-profile of annual commissions. What will she do?

Tate Modern, London SE1 (020-7887 8888), 11 October – 9 April 2012.

Leonardo Da Vinci

The most complete exhibition of Leonardo's paintings ever held. Leonardo was a genius – but how good a painter was he? Complimented by drawings and works by his contemporaries, and the RA's copy of Leonardo's Last Supper, and his preparatory sketches, this is the high point of the National Gallery's year. The Mona Lisa won't be coming, but there will be queues anyway.

National Gallery, London W1 (020-7747 2885), 9 November – 5 February 2012. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

November 04 2010

Steve Schapiro's best shot

In 1964, I went to the Museum of Modern Art in New York to shoot René Magritte. There he was inside, sitting on a bench. His wife and dog were with him, and they were surrounded by his pictures. I was doing Magritte, one of my favourite artists, for Life magazine and I only had an hour and half; but for each photograph, Magritte decided to become part of, or connected to, one of his works.

There was a painting of a big rock with a castle, so Magritte lay down on a bench in front of it, with his head on his hat; my photograph then looked like he was dreaming the picture. The one above works because Magritte actually resembles the protagonists in many of his pictures, especially the ones wearing that trademark hat. The challenge – always – is how to make a picture special. If you're working with someone imaginative, an artist operating at Magritte's level, it can turn into a collaboration. In this case, it definitely did. We were all in high spirits. We didn't talk much: our relationship was basically based on smiling. We did another shot of Magritte and this painting, with a hand coming in from the side holding Magritte's bowler hat over his head. It added our own surreal touch.

This was all done with natural light. I prefer that: when you don't have long, some of the energy between you and the subject can be lost if you start fiddling with lights.

At the time, most of Life was in black and white. I do feel it conveys emotion more strongly than colour. When you work for magazines, you often experience this kind of collaborative energy on a shoot. You become very close, but you may never see that person again. I didn't have any contact with Magritte after this, but I was extremely happy to have taken his picture.


Born: New York, 1934.

Studied: With Eugene Smith.

Influences: Henri Cartier-Bresson, Bill Brandt, Eugene Smith, Walker Evans.

High point: "Working with charis-matic individuals: Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Laurence Olivier, Samuel Beckett."

Top tip: "Look at the picture you're going to take, then see how you can make it better." © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

June 16 2010

The Surreal House at the Barbican

This new show is 'a mysterious dwelling infused with subjectivity and desire' featuring artists such as Salvador Dalí, Marcel Duchamp, Alberto Giacometti and René Magritte

June 04 2010

Book now!

From Louise Bourgeois in London to Chicks On Speed in Dundee, check out the best art exhibitions up and down the country this week

January 12 2010

Lost Klimt to go on sale

Masterpiece saved from Nazis in 1938 to sell alongside key works by Cézanne and Giacometti. See gallery here

A rare and luminously beautiful landscape by Gustav Klimt that was crated up by its owners during the Nazi annexation of Austria in 1938 and then more or less disappeared for decades is to be auctioned in London, Sotheby's announced today.

The painting – which represents a key turning point for the artist – is being sold in what the auction house says is one of the most eye-catching sales of impressionist and modern art it has ever held. As well as the Klimt, conservatively valued at £15m-£18m, there is a quintessential Cézanne still life estimated at £10m-£15m and a similarly valued Giacometti life-size sculpture. It will be the first London sale of its type to include a trio of £10m-plus masterpieces.

All three were today displayed at the auction house's London headquarters; but it was the gorgeousness of the Klimt that was turning heads.

"It is absolutely wonderful," said Sotheby's specialist Patrick Legant. "It's a dream in a way to be so privileged to handle a painting like this."

But it is the story it tells – of Klimt and Vienna as well as the tragic story of its owners – that makes the painting so special. "In one painting you get some of the history of the 20th century," said Legant.

Klimt painted Church in Cassone – Landscape with Cypresses while he was on holiday in Italy with his lover and muse Emilie Klöge in 1913. The picture postcard village on the edge of Lake Garda, with its dominating church and ramrod cypress trees, clearly caught the artist's eye, but the nearest point he could paint it from was too far away – so he used a telescope.

The painting represents a key moment in Klimt's artistic journey, the point where he began embracing the modernist influences that were swirling, ever louder, around Europe. So while you can see the influence of the impressionists and Monet – just look at the reflections in the water – the new influences also loom large, ­people such as his friend Egon Schiele and the Cubists.

Legant said: "When you think of all the earlier Klimt landscapes you have the beautiful meadows, lots of flowers, all very playful. This picture is one of the first that shows a much more modern style – it's very geometrical and architectural, and that's something you wouldn't have found in his earlier pictures. This painting reflects the change in approach to art, an absolutely new way of approaching landscapes."

It was owned by one of Klimt's most important patrons, the Austro-Hungarian steel magnate Viktor Zuckerkandl and his wife Paula. After they died childless in 1927 it passed into the hands of Zuckerkandl's sister Amelie Redlich, where it occupied pride of place in the family's grand Vienna home.

Everything changed with the Anschluss in 1938. Redlich had arranged for her paintings to be stored by a shipping company, even paying what was an enormous bribe of 2,000 Reichsmarks for them to be kept safe and away from the Nazis.

In 1941 the story takes a depressingly predictable turn: Redlich and her daughter Mathilde were deported by the Nazis to Lodz in Poland. They were never heard of again.

Redlich may have succeeded in keeping the art from the Gestapo but the overall goal failed: when her son-in-law went looking for the paintings in 1947 the crates were empty. No one knows what happened and that, for the Klimt, was pretty much that until 1962 when it suddenly appeared at an exhibition in Austria labelled 'from a private collection'.

It comes to auction after a deal was brokered by Sotheby's between the painting's unnamed owners – who bought it in good faith – and the Redlich family's surviving heir and son of Mathilde, Georges Jorisch, a retired Montreal camera shop manager, now 81.

He was lucky enough to get out of Vienna aged 10. An amicable restitution deal has been struck in which the ­proceeds from the sale are split.

The Klimt, the Cézanne and the Giacometti will be sold at Sotheby's on 3 February along with works by artists including Henri Matisse, René Magritte and Joan Míro.

Sotheby's impressionist and modern art vice-chairman, Helena Newman, said the success of its New York November sale – it realised $182m when the upper estimate had been $163m – had encouraged sellers that the big buyers were still out there.

The top end of the market has also seen a new buoyancy because of the new billionaires on the block – the Chinese.

A few years ago they were mainly buying Chinese contemporary art; now Chinese collectors are competing with Russians, Americans and British buyers for the very best examples of European impressionist and modern art, Newman said.

The Giacometti sculpture of a thin walking man (L'Homme qui marche I) has the distinction of being the only lifetime cast of the subject ever to come to auction and could easily realise a record price for the artist. That it has come to market is partly down to the banking crisis – it was part of the collection of the collapsed Dresdner Bank and is being sold by new owners Commerzbank, with proceeds going to charities.

The Cézanne, Pichet et fruits sur une table, is regarded as a particularly fine example of the artist's work, so quintessential that it was used as the cover for John Rewald's authoritative biography of the artist. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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