“To be gorgeous, you must first be seen, but to be seen allows you to be hunted,” Ocean Vuong wrote in his debut novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous (2019). Vuong is a mouthpiece of our times, expressing a new paradoxical relationship with the body in this Instagram era. And today’s art collectors are responding — in their own way — by seeking out figurative art that is less idealized. Now of course, the unusual body is a mainstay of modern art. But whether or not it sells is another question. A subtle but noticeable change is occurring in the art market in terms of which depictions of the body are commercially viable, which of those images collectors hang in their homes, and which end up in art fair booths to entice prospective buyers.
The European Fine Art Foundation (TEFAF) fair, open now through May 16, is an interesting venue to clock this change. Whereas other concurrent fairs explore what’s next in 21st-century art, the big names of Modernism take center stage at TEFAF, across 91 presentations from a global gamut of art dealers. The booths are packed in tightly, introducing an uncommon feeling of claustrophobia at the cavernous Park Avenue Armory. Nevertheless, the fair still offers a precious opportunity to see several rare and unfamiliar works by modernism’s familiar titans, which may suddenly be prescient and intriguing to collectors but are not yet in museum collections.
For example, a stunning Egon Schiele nude self-portrait is on view at the booth of Richard Nagy, a London gallery. It was executed in 1917, just a year before the artist died. (He often used himself as a model because it was hard to find male sitters.) In the artist’s late work, the lines are often stronger, thicker, and bolder. This is a rare opportunity to see Schiele’s audacious late style in person.
It may seem a bit old fashioned to pivot to this ancient statue at the booth of Galerie Chenel. However, the subject of the Dioscuri is far more about corporeal vulnerability than the display lets on. We are in the midst of a great enterprise to re-contextualize ancient artworks. Instead of viewing this sculpture through the staid lens of outdated notions of heroic nudity from art history textbooks, there is an invitation to plunge into the messy semiotics of Roman paganism. Dioscuri is Latinized Greek, meaning Zeus’s (dios) and boys (kouros). Typically, we see the Dioscuri as the pair Castor and Pollux. This statue is just one extant half. Although Leda was the mother of both Castor and Pollux, different fathers sired them. As the son of Zeus, Pollux was immortal. As the son of Tyndareus, the King of Sparta, Castor was mortal.
The contrast between Pollux’s invincibility and Castor’s vulnerability is featured in myth but also in devotional practice, where they were invoked for protection from life’s vicissitudes. This is a statue about that feeling of dangling by a thread and seeking divine help.
Pivoting from Ancient Rome to Modern Italy, at the stand for Galleria d’Arte Maggiore GAM there is a rare Giorgio de Chirico painting portraying Roman gladiators, “I gladiatori” (1928). We seldom get the chance to see work from de Chirico’s less Surrealist earlier phase. The artist drew some inspiration from the 1913 film Quo Vadis. Upon closer inspection, the piece is filled with irony. Some of the men wear masks and it’s hard to tell whether the two lower figures are wrestling or caught in an embrace. At the exhibit for Mazzoleni Gallery, there is another de Chirico painting of a wooden mannequin of a troubadour, a street singer, built from wood. In some ways, it’s more typical of the later metaphysical sensibility for which de Chirico is better known. In other ways, it’s downright bizarre and less dreamy than the de Chirico we might be acclimated to seeing.
Galerie Marcelpoil, based in Paris, brought to TEFAF a rare preparatory sketch by Pierre Bonnard for Richard Strauss’s lesser-known ballet Josephslegende (“The Legend of Joseph”). In 1914, this was the hot new show of the Ballets Russes that dramatized the story of Joseph, the favorite son of Jacob and Rachel, from the Book of Genesis. The rough sketchy lines may not be the familiar Bonnard style, but the piece has its own raw magnetism when embraced on its own terms.
It is very rare to see Ernst Ludwig Kirchner depict male nudes. Women are far more frequent in his work. “Three Nude Young Men” (1932–36) really stands out at the booth of the Austrian gallery Wienerroither & Kohlbacher. This painting never sold during the artist’s lifetime — it was found in his studio upon his death. The tree’s shadows and dappled light are uniquely rendered as bright blue nets against the pink and orange flesh.
And we also do not typically see Roberto Marta’s more figurative work from the 1940s. The Chilean artist’s painting “Every man a King” (1947) is a special opportunity to take in an example from this sometimes neglected phase of the artist’s work, presented by New York gallery Eykyn Maclean. The subject matter is very open to interpretation. The title doesn’t precisely deceive the purpose of the praying mantis figure, though it does appear to be a political critique of the horrors of war.
At the booth of the London gallery Offer Waterman, there is an untitled terra cotta vessel by Magdalene Odundo that subtly evokes the neck or a beak. It’s a delightful and subtle ode to corporeality. “There has been a reassessment and re-appreciation of the figure, particularly in Britain. People are no longer afraid of it, observed Robin Cawdron-Stewart, the gallery’s senior director.
In line with this sentiment, the stand of the Paris gallery Mennour features a ravishing Alberto Giacometti portrait of the poet Yanaihara. The layers of gray marks form a visually entrancing palimpsest. And New York dealer Leon Tovar displayed a sculptural self-portrait by Feliza Bursztyn, “Untitled” (1959). The hands reach up, the mouth is open, and there is a void in the belly. The artist made this sculpture after she sought out an abortion.
Although there were many works by Jean Dubuffet at the fair, the strongest was at the French gallery Applicat-Prazan. The subject of “Ouvre-Bec” (1961) is an unidentified man. The title is a French idiom that means “open beak,” a metaphor for being emotionally open, or what we in English might refer to as “wearing your heart on your sleeve.” The rough gritty texture becomes a metaphor for emotional vulnerability.
A large painting by Michael Ray Charles of a White woman’s body on a unicycle stood out to me at the booth of Templon Gallery. A different head is juxtaposed on the body — it’s a Picaninny, a racist antebellum caricature of enslaved African individuals. As a Black artist from Louisiana, Michael Ray Charles is interested in racial contradictions. But the exact meaning of this juxtaposition in “(Forever Free) the Delicate Balance” (2004) is left to the viewer to work out. In earlier decades, some collectors, curators, and critics took issue with the strident nature of his imagery, but his oeuvre is now undergoing a re-assessment.
Of course, there were lots of work at TEFAF NY that weren’t figurative, in addition to objects like jewelry and furniture. But my point here is that a new way of relating to our own bodies is palpable, even at an art fair. Collectors seem to be seeking out works that give some breathing room and permission not to be Insta-perfect. The concrete result is a fantastic opportunity to see figural phases from Modern artists who were once neglected and more unusual compositions that were left out as less than ideal.