There is an invisible, you might even say conceptual, addition to Pablo Picasso’s “Nude, Green Leaves and Bust.” An enormous price tag reading “$106.5 million” might as much be hanging on the wall beside it.
That figure will be present in the minds of those contemplating it at London’s Tate Modern, where the piece has gone on public display for the first time in decades.
For this is the work that fetched the highest sum ever bid at auction (on May 4 last year at Christie’s International, New York). Or, more simply, as I overheard a group of visitors telling each other, “this is the world’s most expensive painting!”
Of course, that is by no means the same thing as the world’s best. It is evidence that at least two people (the successful bidder, and the under-bidder), liked it a lot.
Previously, it was in the collection of Sidney and Frances Brody of Los Angeles, who bought it in 1951. It had been on public exhibition just once, in 1961. Now its new, anonymous owner has loaned it for about two years to Tate, starting from this week.
So how does “Nude, Green Leaves and Bust” hold up? Well, it is a fine Picasso. This is a grandly opulent picture, the product of the artist’s erotic obsession with his mistress Marie-Therese Walter. Her naked body reclines in front of her own sculpted bust, the fruit on a plate in front rhyming visually with her breasts.
The image hums with desire. John Richardson, Picasso’s biographer and long-term friend, described it to me as “a wonderful painting, a rich man’s picture with everything in it but the kitchen sink. It’s filled with stuff, a little too much so in a way.”
Yet “Nude, Green Leaves and Bust” isn’t as powerful as “The Three Dancers” (otherwise known as “La Danse,” 1925,) from the Tate’s own collection, displayed in the same room.
Nor, in Richardson’s opinion, is it quite as “remarkable” as “Nude in Black Armchair,” which was painted the following day, March 9, 1932. That picture -- in Richardson’s view “simpler and to that extent probably better” -- also made a substantial price, $45.1 million, when it was auctioned in November 1999.
Since “Nude, Green Leaves and Bust” also represents a day’s work by Picasso, it follows that in 48 hours he created goods now worth more than $150 million, which may in itself be a record of some kind.
A little more than a month before on Jan. 24, 1932, Picasso painted “Le Reve” (“The Dream”), which casino owner Stephen A. Wynn offered for $139 million in a private sale in 2006. There are other works by other artists, yet rarer, that might conceivably come on the market. How high could the price of a work of art go? $200 million? $500 million?
Some find such sensational sums distasteful. After the Leonardo da Vinci “Cartoon” was bought by the U.K.’s National Gallery for a then amazing 800,000 pounds (now $1.3 million) in 1962, the critic John Berger complained.
“It has acquired a new kind of impressiveness,” Berger said. “Not because of what it shows -- not because of the meaning of its image. It has become impressive, mysterious because of its market value”.
Just at the moment, that’s true of “Nude, Green Leaves and Bust.” For all that, not too many people remember the cost of the Leonardo Cartoon, and 800,000 pounds doesn’t seem at all amazing any more. After a while, the price is forgotten, and you are just left again looking at the work.
Tate Modern, Bankside, London, SE1 9TG. Information: http://www.tate.org.uk/modern/ or +44-20-7887-8888.
The record Picasso is on view with two paintings from the Tate collection, in a room entitled “Pablo Picasso: Convulsive Beauty” in the “Poetry and Dream” section on Level 3.
(Martin Gayford is chief art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)