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When art is literally priceless

Leonardo da Vinci painting Salvator Mundi, that sold for $450 million, smashing records, isn’t even his best

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Is any painting worth $450.3 million (Dh1.65 billion)? In the world of relatively clear-cut values, in which most of us live, clearly not. But in the world of the hyper-wealthy, rules don’t apply. Prices for art have been proverbially “insane” for decades.

So, the fact that someone has more than doubled the existing highest price paid for a work of art at auction — of Christ as the saviour — that may or may not be a Leonardo da Vinci, will seem to most of us just another manifestation of a mad world where nothing is madder than the schemes of the art market.

But if “great” works of art, even patently genuine ones, are symbolic baubles to be traded between oligarchs in a stratosphere of wealth that most of us will never experience, it would be wrong-headed to dismiss the symbolism of art-buying as arbitrary.

With the case of the Salvator Mundi, we’re in different territory with a work of uncertain origin, which is not, in the opinion of many experts, even a good painting, let alone a great one. Here we leave the relative certainty of Van Gogh and Picasso behind and enter a world of blurred fiction and reality in which the works of Dan Brown seem as relevant to the status of Leonardo as anything the Renaissance master painted himself. 
Painted, we are told, circa 1500 — the same period, significantly, as the Mona Lisa — the work made its first major entrance in the 17th century in the collection of Charles I. It then disappears from 1763 until 1900, when it entered the Cook collection in Richmond, Surrey, as a work by a Leonardo follower.

After being sold at Sotheby’s for £45 (Dh218) in 1958, the painting showed up in Louisiana, badly damaged, to be bought and restored by a consortium of American dealers. After six years of investigations, the painting was declared a genuine Leonardo, and was sold to Dmitry Rybolovlev, a Russian businessman for $127.5 million, in a sale involving a lawsuit against Yves Bouvier, the Swiss art dealer, that would make a novel in its own right.

Colourful as all this sounds, this kind of career is completely par for the course in the lives of Old Master paintings. What we are left with, though, is a work in respect of which experts hold a range of opinions as to the extent of Leonardo’s authorship. That it is a genuine Leonardo, as an extraordinary number of experts believe, seems to me the least likely hypothesis.

I have never, to be honest, been a fan of the sterile idealisation of Leonardo. With scientific inventions and an endlessly inquiring mind, the Florentine polymath certainly made a great “Renaissance man”, but the few paintings certainly attributed to him — no more than 20 — are an oddly lifeless mixed bag, especially when seen alongside Michelangelo, Raphael or Titian’s works.

In comparison to la Gioconda’s sideways look and enigmatic smile, the Salvator looks straight, four-square to the picture plane, in a way typical for paintings of this type, but far too conventional for Leonardo’s experimental bent. Some experts have pointed out that the scientifically minded Leonardo would have attempted to render the distorting effects of the crystal orb in Christ’s left hand, rather than painting it as boringly transparent.

But to my mind it’s the over-emphasised “sfumato” — the smoky obfuscation of form that was a signature tic — that puts paid to the Salvator Mundi as any sort of masterpiece. Leonardo developed this technique of fine shading between colours and tones to soften the hard clear-cut edges of a typical, quasi-mathematical Florentine perspective, to give his images an emotive and atmospheric effect. Here, however, Christ’s features recede into a muddy brown haze. There is no sense of form or recession around the rather thick neck, while the eyes dissolve out of focus: If we can’t entirely see the mysterious and unapproachable Saviour, it looks as if he can’t see us either. If the forehead looks too small, there’s no accounting for changing ideas of beauty. This seems simply too generic as a piece of Renaissance painting to be by Leonardo.

— The Telegraph Group Limited, London, 2017

Mark Hudson is a critic who reviews music and art.

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