Picabia, Duchamp, Bellmer… Major names in the history of modern art and, it would seem, completely out of most people’s price range nowadays. In Paris, however, the cradle of Surrealism and Dadaism, you can find highly specialised book and manuscript auctions offering authentic and unique works by all of the aforementioned artists. They are admittedly in modest formats and often contained between the pages of catalogues or books. And though they may not have the visual impact of large paintings they are no less relevant to the history of art as they’re related to precise facts.
On 26 and 27 April, Sotheby’s in collaboration with Binoche-Giquello will be auctioning a collection of books and manuscripts bearing the kind of enigmatic title that only auction houses can come up with: R. and B. L. Library. The initiated will no doubt be aware that B.L. are the initials of Bernard Loliée, a one-time bookseller on the Rue de Seine who retired more than a decade ago, while R stands for the name of his wife, Regine. Loliée was renowned for his tactfulness and, like his bookseller father before him, for his taste in French literature, especially that group referred to as the Minor Romantic Poets. But evidently his interests were much wider. This is in fact Bernard Loliée’s fifth sale at auction, and others are expected to follow in due course. The 496 lots to go under the hammer at Sotheby’s are grouped under the theme Dada and Surrealism and comprise documents, books and manuscripts. Their combined estimated value is between 3.5 and 5 million euros.
Paradoxically, these two major art movements have long been considered by the art market as hard to reach. Not limited to producing beautiful images, this creative eruption was accompanied by an entire swathe of intellectual activity. That is why Dadaist and surrealist visual artists also wrote themselves and collaborated with writers, poets… The Loliée auction is a perfect illustration.
The Belgian surrealist Rene Magritte, for instance, produced a postwar body of work that, for all its strangeness, remained commercial and visually accessible. However he also corresponded frequently with French surrealists including Maurice Rapin, director of the Tendance Populaire Surrealiste review. In 1957 he sent Rapin his thoughts on the role of magic in life, accompanied by a small drawing of one of his paintings, Fortune Faite. This handwritten missive has an estimated value of 3,000 euros. In 1940, while readying another of his paintings, The Improvement, he made a pencil drawing of a nude seen from behind with a rose in one hand and a bird in the other. This sheet is signed and estimated at 20,000 euros.
Francis Picabia was a multi-faceted modern painter who introduced a deliberately stereotyped and bad painting style that is today enjoying success. When in 1923 he wrote to the little-known surrealist artist Max Morise (1900-1973), he accompanied his note with a portrait drawing of a Spanish flamenco dancer, coloured in aquarelle. The estimate is a very modest 1,500 euros.
In 1927 Picabia had a show at the Cannes Yacht Club and in one of the copies of the small eight-page catalogue he painted in aquarelle a character resembling a puppet. The embellished catalogue is estimated at 2,000 euros.
Over time Marcel Duchamp became a key figure in modernism and a precursor to the most nihilistic contemporary art. A large part of Duchamp’s endeavours, deploying his concept of the ‘readymade’, consisted in neither producing nor reproducing pre-existing things. The Sotheby’s sale includes, for example, a copy of The Modern Magazine, published in New York in 1945 and entirely themed around Duchamp’s work. It contains his Pharmacie readymade, enhanced with drops of aquarelle by the artist himself, which was limited to a run of 100 (estimate: 8,000 euros). The catalogue for Le Surrealisme, an exhibition organised by Andre Breton and Marcel Duchamp in 1947, is bound with a cover decorated with a woman’s breast on a black velvet backing. The volume, which has become a very famous object in its own right, is estimated at 10,000 euros.
Finally, in the book-artwork category, we should mention La Poupée, The Doll by Hans Bellmer, an artist fascinated by gagged female bodies. The first edition of this book from 1936 containing several original photographs is adorned with black lace covering a photo of a woman’s breasts (estimate: 25,000 euros).
We could equally mention the works of Dali or Max Ernst who are also contained in this auction. Opportunities straight from the pages of the history of art.
Auctions: 26 and 27 April, Paris.