The disclosure that Picasso’s “Child With a Dove” is to go on sale is good news for the National Galleries of London and Edinburgh.
It’s welcome because this information, coming so soon after the announcement of the purchase of Titian’s “Diana and Callisto” last week, confirms what a great bargain that was.
The Titian was bought for 45 million pounds ($71 million), and the Picasso is being privately sold with an estimated price, according to Arts Council England, of 50 million pounds ($79 million). This sum, were it reached, would make the Picasso worth about 10 percent more than the Titian. That would be absurd.
“Child With a Dove” is owned by the aristocratic Aberconway family of Wales, and has been on loan to London public galleries for more than 30 years. There may well be calls to save it for the nation. They should be resisted.
Often, the art market delivers fairly accurate verdicts on relative value. After all, there’s no other more objective measure. Still, there’s no comparison between the two works. “Diana and Callisto” is among the undisputed masterpieces of one of the greatest painters of the Italian Renaissance. It represents a significant chunk of European cultural heritage.
In contrast, “Child With a Dove” is a relatively minor work painted in 1901 when the artist was just 19. It’s a well-known picture because it has often been reproduced and has been loaned to the National Gallery and the Courtauld Gallery, but it’s not by any measure an important Picasso. Indeed, it would be hard to argue that it’s even a major early Picasso.
Limits of Taste
John Richardson, in his massive and magnificent biography of the artist, three volumes published to date, accords the picture part of one sentence. It’s significant, in U.K. terms, because it was the only Picasso owned by the collector Samuel Courtauld (1876-1947). That fact, however, really only demonstrates the limitations of the taste of Courtauld and other British connoisseurs of the first part of the 20th century.
Discerning though he was when it came to Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art, Courtauld couldn’t accept the more explosively innovatory Picasso of the Cubist and later phases. He contented himself with this slightly mawkish work, revealing the artist’s occasional streak of sentimentality.
That is in fact one of the lessons of the exhibition “Picasso and Modern British Art” (currently at Tate Britain through July 15): Really strong Picassos were too much for Edwardian British taste. Consequently, for a long time it was mainly the more soft-centered works by the artist that ended up in U.K. collections.
The Tate did eventually gain some marvelous pictures by the artist, above all “The Three Dancers” (1925), which Picasso himself considered one of his finest works. That was due to the efforts of a later generation, and Roland Penrose (1900-1984) in particular.
Even in hard times there’s a strong case for adding works of art to the national collection. They are assets that rise in value, and that cannot be said of many of the items on which public money is spent. New masterpieces add to the stored cultural worth of institutions such as the Tate and the National Galleries of London and Edinburgh. That, in turn, brings in benefits through tourism and by making Britain an attractive place to live.
Yet the criterion for choosing which ones to buy for large sums of money has to be outstanding quality, not whether they happen already to be in the country.
“Picasso and Modern British Art” is at Tate Britain, London. Information: http://www.tate.org.uk.
“Diana and Callisto” will be on display at the National Gallery in London for the next 18 months.
(Martin Gayford is chief art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)