Earlier this month Alberto Giacometti’s L’Homme qui marche I (Walking Man I) sold for £65 million at Sotherby’s London, making it the most expensive artwork ever to be sold at auction. The sale sparks a discussion not only on the status of the art market after the current recession but also on that ubiquitous word ‘taste’. We have to ask what exactly makes this piece so valuable? Value and taste are words that the art historian balks at, but the auction market makes up an important part of the art world influencing the circulation and exposure of works. So what did that anonymous telephone bidder buy into?
L’Homme qui marche I is wrought out of the typically craggy thumbprint covered bronze of Giacometti’s famous anorexic thin life size sculptures of men and women. Its’ feet rise up from the base as if being dragged down in mud. In contrast to the usually static frame of his sculptures, this figure marches stoically on, a poise often interpreted as indicative of the post-war angst of the modernist era. Jean Paul Sartre described Giacometti’s work as isolated figures of existential despair.
Giacometti himself reportedly had a plethora of psychological disorders, manifesting themselves in recurring bouts of impotence that afflicted him throughout his life, badly effecting his relations with women. Similarly his artistic career was coloured by dispute, leaving the Surrealist group and pioneering an individual aesthetic which continues to provide fruitful environment for reception of his works.
“What makes this piece so valuable? Value and taste are words that the art historian balks at.”
It is in no doubt that Giacometti is a key artist in the Modernist canon but previous to this sale his legacy was not celebrated to the extent of his contemporaries, such as Picasso. It will be interesting to see whether this extreme price tag alters Giacometti’s position in galleries and institutions. Even more so, will prices like this continue to be achieved? Perhaps the sale of Giacometti’s sculpture will signal a change in the recent lull of the contemporary art market, which impacted auctions in the last year.
This sale, although celebratory of a great artistic talent, cannot help but raise the question of art’s value. This is a contentious issue, for we can never put a price tag on a piece of art, its value is ultimately subjective, as the Giacometti sale demonstrates; it reached £50 million in only 8 minutes after being valued between £16-18 million.
How will this affect Giacometti’s reception? On the one hand it will increase the artist’s exposure and bring some of his pieces back to the gallery floor. On the other hand the exorbitant price could place the work beyond the budgets of public initiations, making his work to an exclusive commodity.
It is difficult to balance the art historical and the art market. They are two disparate systems, which deal in the same currency and meet in the gallery space. Just as we need thematically interesting exhibitions, the art market must also be represented. Let us hope that the art world keeps inflated prices in check and that Giacometti’s artistic legacy is not polluted by furious bidding.