Monday, May 23, 2011

Drian "Jazz" Screen at Christie's

I have spent the past few days pouring over the June design sales and I was delighted to see that another "old friend" has emerged on the auction block. Now this is not something I have personally handled before but it is an object of great reputation and I am delighted that I will be able to see it in the flesh very soon. I present you with the "Jazz" screen comprised of reverse painted mirror panels by French artist Etienne Drian, currently on the block at Christie's.
For those not in the know, Drian was born Etienne Adrien in 1890 in Bugneville, France and emerged as one of the preeminent fashion illustrators of the dress reform era. It was later in the 1920s and 30s that he expanded his repertoire to include portraiture, murals and decorative arts.

This image shows Drian in his studio circa 1930 with American actress Gilda Gray who popularized the "Shimmy" dance craze. Note the mirrored screen panels in the background awaiting completion. The "Jazz"screen originally decorated the music room of Mrs. Bradford Norman's apartment at the fabled River House which was published in Arts & Decoration (May 1933).

As you can see the screen held court along one wall and and provided an important backdrop for Mrs. Norman's concerts. The image below from Vogue (October 1933) shows the screen again as Mrs. Norman plays for Mrs. Averell Harriman, Mr. Edward McIlvan Jr. and Mr. John Kennedy.

As you follow the Christie's provenance for the screen the next time it emerges is in the collection of New York fashion designer John Moore. Fortunately it was photographed in his apartment for a Life magazine piece in May of 1963.

It seems that Mr. Moore used the screen in much the same manner as Mrs. Norman, an elegant backdrop amidst a sea of cream tones, zebra hide and a lacquered piano. The screen then passed to New York antiques dealer/designer Christopher Chodoff and was photographed in his home for Architectural Digest (May/June 1977).

Mr. Chodoff's 1990 obituary noted that his antiques business opened in Manhattan in the early 1950s and that he was one of the first dealers to introduce modernist masterworks by Eileen Gray, Diego Giacometti and Jean-Michael Frank to an unsuspecting post-war American clientele. His companion at the time of his death was noted as a Mr. Maury Green and it is likely that the screen remained with him until now.

While the provenance is listed with confidence the lot essay backs away from it slightly noting that it was "likely from the New York apartment of Mrs. Bradford Norman" which is slightly annoying as it was definitely hers. There was possibly some reason for concern as the "Jazz" screen has a slightly more famous sister (below) that was executed for the ballroom/theatre of the Maharaja of Indore's art deco Manik Bagh palace. Images of the two have been interchanged for years but they vary slightly in the fine details. If you study them closely you can sort it out.

Indore "Jazz" Screen

(L) Norman "Jazz" Screen,detail (R)Indore "Jazz" Screen,detail

As you can see from the details above the join cuts through the tuba player's arm in two distinctly different places. The example at Christie's is definitely the "Jazz" screen from Mrs. Norman's apartment... no question about it. What has always struck me about the band depicted in the screen is that the players are highly individualized and not the typical exotic derogatory stereotypes of the Jazz Age. I always felt that the figures had to be based on real people and thankfully the experts at Christie's were able to unravel part of the mystery.

It appears that the drummer in the screen is directly copied from a Berenice Abbot photograph of jazz musician Buddy Gilmore. After World War I, Gilmore played the capitals of Europe and had lengthy stints at Parisian venues such as La Revue Négre. It seems fairly evident that Drian collected and composited a number of jazz musician portraits for his finished work. Further research will need to be done identify the rest of the players... perhaps for another post!

On a side note, it appears that Mrs. Bradford Norman was not the only Drian client at the River House, enter British lumber heiress Audrey Evelyn James... (if you are not familiar with the River House apartments please read Michael Henry Adams' series for the Huffington Post). The vivacious Audrey James was one of the "bright young things" in London society and was a favorite of the Prince of Wales. It was during her second marriage to department store magnate Marshall Field III that she resided at the River House and was published in Vogue (April 1934) with her Drian portrait screen as a backdrop.

Her screen traveled to London after her divorce from Field and it was photographed by Country Life at her residence "The Holme" in Regent's Park around 1938.

Luckily for us this art deco stunner survived and was sold at Christie's from the Estate of fashion PR legend Eleanor Lambert in 2004.
I remember seeing it at the sale preview and it was quite distressed but it still achieved nearly $22,000. But this lovely screen was not Mrs. Field's only Drian commission. It seems that she also hired Drian in 1932 to spruce-up her River House dining room with mirror murals much like the London music room of her friend Sir Philip Sassoon. Unfortunately no image survives but we know from the period press that the "mirrors are painted [with] the most wondrous collection of our feathered friends." It leaves the imagination to wonder....but fortunately for us this was an oft repeated Drian theme.
I present the mirrored dining room that Drian executed for couturier Edward Molyneux. This gives us a pretty clear indication of how the Field's dining room likely appeared. While ephemeral, some of Drian's murals were carefully dismantled and sold at auction so we thankfully have a sense of what they were like in person.
These are two of eighteen panels from the entrance foyer of Mrs. Randolph Hearst's residence at 300 Park Avenue executed by Drian between 1927-1928. Screens are easier to sell than sections of interior elements, Sotheby's sold this group in 2004 for a dismal $2700. What a steal! Even rarer are Drian's smaller decorative works...
This unusual pair of Drian side tables were sold by Sotheby's from the collection of Karl Lagerfeld for a whopping €33,275. While rare, this model is by no means unique as evidenced by this example presently for sale at the New York gallery of Alan Moss.

I seem to remember that dear Alan had a pair, perhaps one was sold...but I digress. If you are interested you can purchase it here.
This unusual cabinet mounted with Drian panels surfaced at Tajan Paris in 2007 and despite its rather clunky presence it achieved €33,458. If you missed it, do not worry, it is now in the capable hands of Parisian art deco expert Felix Marcilhac and can be purchased here.
Last but not least is this lovely still life/mirror from the estate of fashion designer Bill Blass. These surface from time to time and can usually be had at auction for less than $5000 depending on their size. But it was likely the Blass provenance that led this example to sell for nearly $7000 at Sotheby's in 2005.

I did not intend for this post to be so encompassing but Drian is close to my heart. The "Jazz" screen will hit the block at Christie's on June 16th at an estimate of $100,000-150,000. We shall see how it goes, that price seems a bit steep given the form and its fragility. If it is an amazing success I am sure we will see the other "Jazz" screen re-emerge within short order. Until then dear readers...we wait.

UPDATE: The screen sold this morning just within estimate at $110,500. I was a bit concerned it would not after I saw the piece in person as the condition was rather rough, finely painted but flaking and distressed. Expect to see other Drian pieces come out of the success tends to beget speculation in the art market.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Royal Tiara On The Block At Sotheby's

I spent the latter part of the afternoon scouring the major auction house websites to find the highly anticipated June design sales. Unfortunately they will not drop until next week, but my inquiries did not leave me empty handed. Thankfully, it was on Sotheby's main page I came across this lovely emerald laden stunner.
I must admit I was hesitant to write about another royal jewel so quickly after my coverage of the recent royal wedding. But I figured you may be up for a bit of sparkle this weekend. Sotheby's describes this aristocratic diadem as "A Magnificent and Rare Emerald and Diamond Tiara, Formerly in the Collection of Princess Katharina Henckel Von Donnersmarck, Circa 1900." The base of the tiara is of a lovely foliate design and par four the course as far as high-end Belle Epoque jewels go. However, it is the approximately 500 carats of polished emeralds comprising 11 pear shaped spikes that set it apart from the pack.
The catalogue goes to great, yet measured, lengths to assert that the emeralds
probably/ possibly/ perchance belonged to Empress Eugenie of France from a group of 25 such polished emerald drops sold from her personal collection in 1872. Historical layering such as this adds to the mystique and hopefully the end result but I am a stickler for hard facts and always find it a bit too fluffy when dealing with a masterwork that can really sand on its own, but hey that's just me. What is certain is that the emeralds are of Colombian origin and are polished in the Indian tradition, likely in the 17th or 18th century. While the overall effect is striking I have always found the mixing of globular cabochon stones and brilliant cut diamonds to be a tricky affair....lest they look like shiny gum balls wed to a refined base. The present lot is just on the cusp of looking top-heavy, but only just. Queen Elizabeth's Grand Duchess Vladimir tiara utilizing the Cambridge emeralds is a bit more successful but who is counting really....well I guess I am since it is one of my favorites from her collection.
Queen Elizabeth's Grand Duchess Vladimir Tiara

The catalogue also asserts that the tiara is (yet again) "possibly" the most important to appear at auction in 30 years (since it was last sold by the heirs of Princess Katharina Henckel Von Donnersmarck via Sotheby's Zurich in 1979). This glosses over Christie's great success selling the fabled Portland tiara just last December and the Poltimore tiara that they sold from the Estate of Princess Margaret in 2006.
The Poltimore Tiara Sold Christie's 13 June 2006 ($1,7o4,576)

The Portland Tiara Sold Christie's 1 December 2010 ($1,188,239)

Granted, the Donnersmarck tiara with its 11 large emeralds may pack more of a punch in intrinsic value, but the importance of the provenance is debatable when compared to the Portland or the Poltimore. That said, I wish Sotheby's well as the estimate range is a stellar $5.3-10.6 million. We will have to wait until next week to see where it ultimately lands. I leave you with this press image which gives you a better sense of the tiara's scale and the greater distance obscures the natural imperfections in the in the emeralds which can be distracting when viewed too closely.

UPDATE: The tiara sold on May 17th for an astounding $12.7 million becoming the most expensive tiara ever sold...

Monday, May 9, 2011

McQueen Savage Beauty Exhibition

Well, dear readers I have at long last made the trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to view the McQueen retrospective Savage Beauty now up through July 31st. I must say, crowd control aside, it was captivating to say the very least. The rooms were set-up by themes and contrasted starkly with one another between sheer opulence and stark materials.
For months we have been bombarded with the show stoppers....the McQueen avant garde creations that really pushed the envelope. I too was guilty of that in my previous posts. But it was in some of the restrained galleries that one could have a quiet moment to take in a work and see the nuanced genius of the man. You could sense that while McQueen had a penchant for fantasy and the macabre he was at the very core a craftsman (trained as a tailor) and was well versed in the history of art. Don't get me wrong, I love his darker moods, flirting with fetish and the Gothic...who doesn't like a good Poe or Fonthill Abbey reference...but I digress.
In the first gallery, dedicated to McQueen's tailoring roots entitled The Romantic Mind, you are confronted by these re-invisioned Napoleonic jackets. The text provided made it crystal clear that it was his deep knowledge of construction that allowed him to later deconstruct and reinterpret forms and silhouettes. But it was in the Romantic Nationalism gallery that I was stopped dead in my tracks by this gown...
This Empire infused confection was a highlight of the Fall/Winter 2008 collection entitled The Girl Who Lived In The Tree. While McQueen is quoted as saying "I don't really get inspired [by specific women]" but more by "Iconic women" his references from this period in history are evident.
Madame Recamier by Francois Pascal Simon Gerard

Madame Grassini in the Role of Zaire by Elizabeth Vigee-Lebrun

Portrait of Madame de Stael by Anne-Louise Girodet de Roucy-Triosson

The Grande Odalisque by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres

Details of the ensemble from the Fall/Winter 2008 collection

It was definitely one of those moments where something modern can transport you in a flash to an age of Empires, Orientalism, conquest and romance. I could do fifty related posts on the exhibition as it is a veritable feast. While the exhibition catalogue is good it does not contain all the works in the show and cannot capture the lushness of the installation. We are sad to see McQueen go but he has left his mark with an astonishing fashion legacy.