‘I hate him’: Why Picasso’s value and influence is waning

Artists rarely create more than 5000 works over a lifetime. Pablo Picasso, who died on April 8, 1973, at the age of 91, produced 25,000.

Between 1950 and 2021 more than 1500 notable Picassos were sold at auction in the United States and Britain, compared with 798 by the next-most-prolific artist, Andy Warhol, according to Sotheby’s Mei Moses.

The painting “Maya” by Spanish painter Pablo Picasso in 1938, on display at Sotheby’s in London in February.Credit:AP

In its recent London sales, Sotheby’s offered a sculpture, an illustrated book, a cubist bronze cast, some gravure prints and several drawings and paintings, all by Picasso. Prices ranged from under £5000 ($9200) to more than £18 million.

Since 1999, prices of Picasso’s works have grown twice as fast as the broader market for 20th-century art. The most expensive was sold for $US180 million ($266 million currently), reportedly by a Saudi collector to a former prime minister of Qatar.

But in the midst of what one commentator calls the “Picassopalooza” around the 50th anniversary of the artist’s death, dealers and auction houses are nervous that the market may be about to turn.

One indication is Picasso’s waning influence on today’s creators. “It is artists, more than anyone, who propel artists of the past into the future,” says Ben Luke, a critic.

Pablo Picasso’s “Femme dans un rocking-chair” on display at Christie’s in London.Credit:PA/AP

Having interviewed dozens of them, young and old, for a podcast, A Brush With…, he notes that few cite Picasso as an inspiration.

“Marcel Duchamp, yes. Philip Guston, yes. Louise Bourgeois, often,” Luke says.

That Picasso no longer features on that list is a “monumental shift”.

Another thing that could dampen demand for Picassos is the artist’s abject personal behaviour.

Pablo Picasso in Mougins, France, in 1966. After #metoo, the artist and his work may be seen in a different light.Credit:Tony Vaccaro via AP

He cheated on his wives and fathered children with different women at once. He seduced Marie-Therese Walter, who would become his mistress and his muse, when she was 17. He was 45. In 1932, he painted her dreaming, depicting her left cheek and her eye as an erect penis.

In the wake of #MeToo all this is becoming harder to separate from the art. The works of other prominent artists, including Balthus and Salvador Dalí, have lost value in the eyes of critics and collectors because of how they acted in private.

Dealers and collectors are thus anxiously waiting to see how Celebration Picasso, an exhibition which opens at New York’s Brooklyn Museum in June, will be received. It will “engage some of the compelling questions young, diverse museum audiences increasingly raise about the interconnected issue of misogyny, masculinity, creativity and ‘genius’,” says the museum.

One of the exhibition’s curators pulls no punches. Picasso “suffered from the mental illness of misogyny”, said Hannah Gadsby, an Australian comedian and art historian, in a Netflix show. “I hate him,” she confessed.

“We will be watching it very carefully,” says Giovanna Bertazzoni, vice-chairman of the 20th and 21st-century department at Christie’s, another big auction house, of the exhibition.

If it is a hit, younger buyers may be put off. With Picasso the artist and Picasso the man falling out of favour, so could his oeuvre.

© [2023] The Economist Newspaper Limited. All rights reserved.

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