Frida Kahlo’s Final Months

A look back at Werner Bischof’s portraits of Kahlo at home in the months before she passed.

So many of her bold, beautiful and brutal self-portraits seem skewed towards surrealism, depicting their creator as a wounded deer, an architectural column, or even an open-chested anatomical study sitting opposite her identical twin. And yet Mexican artist Frida Kahlo steadfastly refused such categorization throughout her career. “I don’t paint dreams or nightmares,” she famously said. “I paint my own reality.” This reality, in life as on canvas, contained extremes of misery and ecstasy. But above all else, it contained pain, Kahlo’s constant companion from her early brush with polio as a small child through to the bus accident that she narrowly survived in her late teens, and which left her with health complications that dogged her throughout her life.

Perhaps it’s precisely the disparity between her painted and photographic likenesses that makes Kahlo’s image a source of such fascination today. What could be more revealing, after all, than to see both how somebody looks, and how they see themselves, side-by-side? Which is more real, which more accurate? Her stylistic and sartorial signatures – her thick braided hair, woven with ribbons and fresh flowers; her long traditional floor-length skirts, worn in part to conceal her deformed right leg; the defiant unibrow which framed her dark eyes – have become ubiquitous, recreated thousands of times over on postcards, stationery and even clothing. But if to look at her paintings is to embody her experience, visceral and unyielding, it’s in photographs of the artist that we can step back in search of objectivity. With a little distance, we see Kahlo anew.

And never more startlingly than in the photographs Werner Bischof took of her at home at the Blue House in Coyoacán, Mexico, just months before her death from those previously mentioned complications relating to her old injuries. We can’t know why the Swiss photographer visited her in this time, or what they talked about, if they talked at all; whether they ate or drank, or whether Kahlo knew how little time was left to her. Through Bischof’s lens, the artist is instead pictured impossibly alone with her thoughts and feelings. She smokes while painting in her wheelchair, or reclining with a beloved dog. She is captured in amongst her collections of objects and oddities, which are clustered around the rooms she occupies. Kahlo’s life and work collide in these pictures; she appears at once beautiful and exhausted. It’s not so far, in fact, from the vision we see of her in her self-portraits.

“As a photographer and early Magnum member, Bischof dedicated his life to capturing beauty and suffering – a fact makes these images, so at home in his oeuvre, all the more poignant.”

And while it’s Kahlo who is the focus of these images, she and Bischof share more common ground than a first look might suggest. Kahlo, for example, came to painting through photography; she learned to shoot and to process film in her late twenties, while assisting her father in his photographic studio. It wasn’t until she lay in bed a few years later, recovering from the bus accident that broke her pelvic bone and spinal column, that Kahlo turned her attention to painting, constructing a special easel over her bed so that she could work throughout her convalescence. On the other hand, Bischof’s first love was painting; he wanted to start his career as a painter when he went to Paris in 1939, but then World War II broke out and he had to go back to Switzerland, where he became an experimental photographer in his studio. One might argue that there’s a painterly influence in Bischof’s photographs, just as there is a photographic one to Kahlo’s compositions. But artist and photographer are united, too, by their early passing. Kahlo died at home in July 1954, at the age of 47. Bischof’s untimely death, due to a car accident in the Andes, ended his life in May that same year, at just 38 years old.

As a photographer and early Magnum member, Bischof dedicated his life to capturing beauty and suffering – a fact makes these images, so at home in his oeuvre, all the more poignant. “I felt compelled to venture forth and explore the true face of the world,” he said. “Leading a satisfying life of plenty had blinded many of us to the immense hardships beyond our borders.”

He photographed traditional communities devastated by natural disaster, and landscapes forever changed through war. And in Kahlo, he documented an individual struggle, on a micro level; the scars of an extraordinary life underpinned by pain and suffering, and a slow surrender to existence beyond that. “At the end of the day,” as Kahlo once famously said, “we can endure much more than we think we can.” A fact which these images seem to serve as evidence of.

House of Frida Kahlo. Mexico City, Mexico 1954. © Werner Bischof/Magnum Photos Written by Maisie Skidmore

What the Hell Was Modernism? The Museum of Modern Art tries to open itself up

By Jerry Saltz  for New York magazine.  

Can a museum devoted to modernism survive the death of the movement? Can it bring that death about? Ever since the beginnings of the Renaissance in the 14th century, most art movements have lasted one generation, sometimes two. Today, after more than 130 years, modernism is, at least by some measures, insanely and incongruously popular — a world brand. The first thing oligarchs do to signal sophistication, and to cleanse and store money, is collect and build personal museums of modern art, and there’s nothing museumgoers love more than a survey of a mid-century giant. In the U.S., modernism represents the triumph of American greatness and wealth, and it is considered the height of 20th-century European culture — which Americans bought and brought over (which is to say, poached).

Kids sport tattoos of artworks by Gustav Klimt, Henri Matisse, Salvador Dalí, Edvard Munch, Piet Mondrian, and Andy Warhol (you might not think of him as a modernist, but we’ll get to that). Our cities are crowded with glass-walled luxury riffs on high-modernist architecture, the apartments inside full of knockoffs of “mid-century-modern” furniture. Donald Judd’s sleepy minimalist studio outpost in Marfa is now East Hampton in West Texas, a secular pilgrimage site for millionaire collectors, full of expensive restaurants and fancy second homes. As recently as 1994, my wife and I were offered a house there for $5,000.

And people pay — not just for the art, or for environments that call it to mind, but to see the works themselves, even briefly. Witness the Museum of Modern Art’s daily crowds, full-price guests forking over $25. Last year’s annual attendance was just over 3 million (do the math). People take selfies with Starry Night; adolescents feel big feelings because the world didn’t understand Vincent, though they have understood him very well now for well over a century. Movies are made about him and about Pablo Picasso, Paul Gauguin, Frida Kahlo, Jackson Pollock, and Warhol (and the woman who shot him). And Jean-Michel Basquiat — the most recent in the long line of world-straddling geniuses — who died in 1988 at the age of 27. We all know the stories, from destroying one’s own work and committing suicide to womanizing and pissing in fireplaces (in this way, modernism is Hollywood Babylon). And while we take our parents to the Met to appreciate old art, tradition, and “good technique,” we go to MoMA because modernism is cool, still — a sequence of revolutionary gestures, shocks, and succession stories that, we think, tell us something about radicalism and experimentation.

That reputation and those succession dramas are not an accident — they were forged by MoMA in cooperation with artists who very much wanted to see their own work as the natural end point of all art history. (Who wouldn’t?) All this has prevailed since the museum’s founding by wealthy New Yorkers. It opened nine days after the onset of the Great Depression in 1929. Three-quarters of a century after the real peak of modernism, the movement’s grip is like a vise. It is why we are still so captivated by the allure of the avant-garde long after the avant-garde started sleepwalking. And it may be why we still believe artists are like gods long after they began sleeping with money and celebrity. People still quote Duchamp saying, “A painting that doesn’t shock isn’t worth painting.” Why are people still set on shocking their nanas? Modernism. Museums still present all of art history as a long story that breaks, dramatically, with the 20th century. Why? Modernism! Why do I keep asking myself if modernism is over yet? Modernism!

I love modernism — a movement and a culture that can be defined in different ways and often is. I believe, and MoMA has long seemed to assert, that it began with Paul Cézanne’s The Bather (c. 1885). Your starting and end points may vary, but you will surely recognize the formally daring work that defined the first half of the 20th century in Europe and America from school trips and dorm-room walls: Picasso and Matisse, O’Keeffe and Pollock. In many ways, it can still feel truly shocking. Thousands of modernism’s ideas are used by artists today, and I still love many of its artists. All of Picasso, Pollock’s giant drip paintings, and Hilma af Klint’s first forays into the deepest precincts of abstraction take my breath away.

But much of modernism and its concerns now feel long ago, forged in a time of rapid industrial change when white European males assumed they ruled the world. The demands of our times call for something else. And before you object that we’ve been living for 50 years in postmodernism, not modernism, the art that followed the titans of the early-20th century was defined and even named after what preceded it (daddy issues?). What began with Pop and Warhol looked like a break from modernism, but it also extended modernism’s fetishizing of novelty and a canon of iconoclasts. Modernism is part of my life story, all of our life stories, something that shaped the ways we see the world and how the world sees itself. But in the past couple of decades, seismic shifts have occurred, moving us for the first time far beyond the dictates of the movement. Modernism is not headed for the dustbin, but in terms of experimental one-upmanship and the conviction that each new work could break and redefine all of art history, a page is finally turning — slowly, a bit, at least.

This kind of change has happened before, of course — a movement conquering the world, then passing into the past. Usually, it happens much faster. The heyday of tremendous rococo artists like François Boucher, Jean-Honoré Fragonard, and Antoine Watteau lasted just 15 years, at which point neoclassicism deemed it girlie and gauche. Instead, artists like Jacques-Louis David painted gigantic, “masculine” pictures of Roman virtue, the glories of Napoleon, the French Revolution, and mythic deaths — until David was arrested and thrown in prison. Even the High Renaissance came and went in less than 50 years. Impressionism lasted 25 years. By comparison, modernism is, at this point, ancient. Modeling it as something new and cool today would be like the original modernists modeling themselves after the art and values of 130 years before them: Boucher, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, and Antonio Canova. That modernism has been so canonized is especially ironic given that the earliest modernists were so desperate to break away from the art of the past that they scrapped Renaissance perspective and space. Duchamp wrote that he wanted to use a Rembrandt as an ironing board.

Which raises the question: If modernism wasn’t the end point of art history and the ultimate form of artistic expression, then what was it? If we don’t let it bully its way to the front of the line and center stage, crowding out everything that came before, during, and whatever comes after, what does it look like? And what will it look like as it recedes farther and farther in the rearview mirror and appears not to be the finale of everything that came before but just one more period in a never-ending sequence of them — one set of mannerisms followed by another? As great as many of modernism’s artists are, a lot of this art is about itself, mainly white people arguing about other white people’s art history. Once we’ve left those arguments behind, it may be that the most striking legacy is the cult of the male artist and the competitive aesthetic messianism it spawned.

On October 21, the greatest collection of modern art on the planet will reopen at a new Museum of Modern Art. The newness is not due to a big move to another location or a billion-dollar structure springing up in the old footprint (that last happened in 2004, to so-so reviews), though much of the interior of the iconic — and blandly slick and cramped — building on 53rd Street has been redone and there are new galleries at the base of yet another new MoMA skyscraper full of very expensive condominiums. It is because of what will be presented inside and how.

The museum has traditionally hung its collection chronologically to tell a particular story. The story was: He begat him, who begat him, and so on, until modernism hung a sign on its door that said WE’RE CLOSED (just as countless others showed up at the door). Of course, the story acknowledged, there were rivalries (Matisse vs. Picasso, for instance) and relevant source material and inspiration (again with Picasso). But in general, the story was one of rigid progression that looked, on the museum walls, almost inevitable. Which is exactly as the museum intended: An institution that came of age at the imperial height of the American Century, funded during the Cold War in part with CIA money meant to exalt and export a showcase of free expression (sometimes confused with free enterprise), it wanted viewers very much to believe that modernism was the “ultimate” movement in both senses of the word.

Newness is as old as time. The modernists were just a lot cockier about saying so.

In 1941, MoMA’s great founding director, Alfred Barr, famously drew a diagram of the museum’s ideal permanent collection as a torpedo. (It was while World War II was raging, after all.) The tail is Cézanne, van Gogh, and Seurat. Barr surmised that after 1950, art would come only from America and Mexico. His curatorial successor, Bill Rubin, tripled down on all of it. Except Mexico, of course.

Now the museum is getting rid of the strict timeline. It’s getting rid of movements. Good! Measuring things that way does a disservice to art and to artists — as Willem de Kooning said, “It is disastrous to name ourselves.” MoMA will be hanging works from different eras, and different places, next to one another, opening up what had begun to seem like an airless, self-referential canon into something much more dynamic. The museum is even discarding its 89-year aversion to showing different mediums together. As a geezer, I relish back-to-back galleries of killer paintings, but it’s fitting to stop showing art in only this way, in part because the new strategy allows us to go back and ask new questions of work we thought we understood, and in part because it’s how artists themselves see art history, today especially — not as a timeline of progress but as a beautiful trash heap or costume shop in which to play. (In the age of the internet, with a globalized art world and the breaking down of at least some barriers to entry, this probably isn’t too surprising.)

Most exciting of all, MoMA’s permanent collection will no longer be a static thing. Every six months, a third of it will be reinstalled. I presume the twin peaks of Picasso and Matisse will always be on display somewhere along with other trophy works and big names. But there will be many more names, too, belonging to people less well known, less than a century old, less white, less male, and less exclusively American and European. This means that every 18 months, MoMA will be entirely new. If you’re irked with the way the collection looks now, come back in six months — you never know. Good-bye, canon! At least the static, eternal, Old Testament teleological one we all grew up with. In 2004, when MoMA reopened in a then-new glass-and-steel campus, only 5 percent of the art on view in the permanent collection was by women. Today, the museum estimates that 28 percent of the works on view are by women, and 21 percent by artists outside of Western Europe, the U.S., and Canada — that’s gigantic for MoMA, modernism, and art.

“This past five to ten years is the most change-making, radical rethinking of art history and, by extension, museum curation in a half-century,” said Ann Temkin, the chief curator of painting and sculpture, in a lecture. “Things that were assumed over the last 40, 20, ten, or even five years have exploded.” Amen.

So — what was assumed? Let’s look at five big things.

First, there was Ezra Pound’s cri de coeur “Make it new.” In modernism, only newness was given value. Everything old was considered passé, inadequate to address the times, which meant modernism claimed not just a monopoly on newness but also on importance. One Dadaist said, “Art is dead.” Case closed.Of course, all art was once new. Cave painters painted over older cave paintings; Roman pots sport artist signatures like “No one could ever make a grain pot as good as this.” It’s the same way each generation thinks it has invented sex; newness is as old as time. The modernists were just a lot cockier about saying so.

Second, modernism called itself reality. Which meant, perversely, it didn’t have to bother to address or depict actual reality — instead, it offered itself as the only thing that mattered. Kandinsky wrote, “Realism = Abstraction. Abstraction = Realism.” American critic Clement Greenberg said art was meant to “undeceive the eye.” Much modern art turned away from the world and into itself while denying subject matter and narrative altogether. At least the importance of subject matter, since much modernism employed traditional (not “new,” hello!) subject matter: nudes, landscapes, still lifes, more nudes, everyday scenes, nature, architecture, and more nudes. What an artist had to render new was how these things looked. Viewers were expected to look through subject matter. You weren’t seeing a landscape; you saw how this artist reinvented the landscape. By the end of the 20th century, Gerhard Richter even said he was “indifferent” to subject matter (he painted Nazis, terrorists, and 9/11, of course). Much of this means the world modernism gives you is the world of the artist’s studio—and optical shoptalk. This is what allowed artists to make squiggles, squares, rectangles, pictures of violins, color arrangements, street scenes, and naked ladies even during the carnage of World War I and World War II. By the time I was trying (and failing) to enter the art world in the 1970s, painting was supposed to be only about itself, its materials, and “flatness.”

Third, modernism was built on the principle that formal experimentation is the only thing that matters. The doctrine can’t be emphasized enough. Every artist had to create his [sic] own forms and world. These forms had to follow visual strictures: Art had to be seen all at once, not sequentially or with any formal hierarchy. (That meant it couldn’t have narrative.) Think of how you see all of a Pollock at once, even though it has parts and details. Similarly, you weren’t supposed to be able to separate process and material, just as we see medieval mosaics as image, color, surface, process, and material all at the same time and as one thing. Modernism was philosophically colonialist this way and loved declaring everything as its own, all while asserting it was inventing even those things it was stealing.

Fourth, there was the principle that modern art would “kill history” — a hysteria of finality. Modernism was born in the immediate wake of and during multiple revolutions, mass industrialization, and colonial empires, and inventions like photography, movies, flight, automobiles, X-rays, and Einstein’s theory of relativity. Duchamp said painting should “avoid all contact with traditional” art. In wanting to destroy the whole history of Western art, modernists were like an aesthetic Taliban. Except for the art they approved of, everything else was deemed bourgeois, Establishment, bad taste, or kitsch.

When Americans took up the mantle with Abstract Expressionism, they were no less absolutist. They had not seen their previous culture destroyed by war, but they were still modernists. Barnett Newman said American artists had to “start from scratch.” Ad Reinhardt said, “I am merely making the last painting which anyone can make.” History didn’t exist unless you were making it. (It’s always the end-times again in modernism.)

Fifth, there was modernism’s grand teleology — the whack-rationalist idea that history was to proceed in a predefined order. If you didn’t fit, know, or care, or were a visionary, an artist of color, or female, tough luck. Only the things in its timeline were deemed progress. Progress was to be the goal of all art.

For those actually living modernism, though, the whole project was way messier and more rivalrous than could ever be reduced to any set of principles. After all, before MoMA got its hand on modernism, it wasn’t propaganda. It was just art. Which means: It was a lot of different, competing propagandas.

In fact, modernism was more like a wrestling match of competing egos vying for top-dog status, each saying he’d replaced or repudiated the previous one. Picasso was against abstraction. (What a pill!) Mondrian wrote, “Cubism did not accept the logical consequences of its own discoveries.” His goal? “Pure plastics.” (I’m still not sure what this means.) Russian Suprematist high priest Kazimir Malevich demanded “victory over the sun” and “the supremacy of pure feeling.” (What?) In 1912, Duchamp said, “Painting is over.” In 1921, Constructivist Aleksandr Rodchenko said, “I have reduced painting to its logical conclusion … I affirmed it’s all over.” (Hello, Doctor Death.) Duchamp did, however, muse, “Can one make works of art that are not ‘works’ of art?” (I love that!) Then Greenberg called Duchamp “sub-art.” What a bully!

The “Pope of Surrealism,” André Breton, “excommunicated” heretics like Alberto Giacometti and, in 1934, put Dalí “on trial.” (God complexes and control freaks are a modernist feature, not a glitch.) Minimalist Judd opined that with the “readymade,” Duchamp had invented fire but didn’t do enough with it. Much later, Duchamp said contemporary artists “no longer make pictures; they make checks.” Soon Chris Burden and Richard Prince made art out of checks. Now artists make art out of Prince.

Things have come a long way since the Armory Show of 1913 — that’s the true genesis of all that might be called modern art in America and the first in-depth look Americans got at European modernism. In New York, 85,000 people attended; in Chicago, attendance was 188,000. American salon impresario Mabel Dodge wrote to Gertrude Stein that in New York, the show was “the most important public event … since the signing of the Declaration of Independence” and added that “things will never be the same afterwards.” She was right. One New York critic wrote, “American artists did not so much visit the exhibition as live at it.” Albert Barnes, Henry Frick, and the Met bought works. It’s no exaggeration to say the founding of MoMA stems from those 27 earthshaking days in New York.

At the time, the impact could be measured most by the resistance. Traditionalists protested that the show was like “visiting a lunatic asylum.” Matisse was burned in effigy. Teddy Roosevelt said the art was “repellent from every standpoint” and asserted there was “no reason why people should not call themselves Cubists, or Octagonists, or Parallelopipedonists, or Knights of the Isosceles Triangle … one term is as fatuous as another.” Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 was the most scandalous work in the show. In newspapers, it was derided as Rush Hour in the Subway and Explosion in a Shingle Factory.

That the masses might mock avant-garde art is so familiar today it’s hard to believe no one had bothered to do it before modernism (though it had happened in the rarefied air of the French and English salons). But why would anyone have bothered before? Until modernism, no art movement had ever made anything as totalizing and threatening as the proposition modernism did: that art would remake the world.

It did, and it didn’t. First, in America modernism would have to be reimagined. By 1948, Newman was painting stripes and monochromatic fields of bright color on large canvases. Pollock began to drip in 1947. Émigrée Peggy Guggenheim opened the Art of This Century Gallery, exhibiting both European modernists and starving, struggling Americans, among them Clyfford Still, William Baziotes, Alexander Calder, Adolph Gottlieb, Joseph Cornell, Robert Motherwell, de Kooning, and Mark Rothko. She gave Pollock his first solo show in 1943. A new game was in the offing: America claiming the European avant-garde as its own imperial patrimony.

The values of Abstract Expressionism included enormous scale, the male painter alone in the arena painting in pursuit of total abstraction (except for de Kooning — who Pollock said “betrayed it”). These artists embraced myth, the sublime, transcendence, existential and spiritual terror, cosmic light and darkness, and all that hocus-pocus. And celebrity. Soon, Pollock was featured in Life magazine in the act of painting and smoking. All looked rosy.

Abstract Expressionism restarted modernism wonderfully, but the movement quickly died another death. In 1953, 27-year-old Robert Rauschenberg arrived at de Kooning’s studio with a bottle of liquor in trade for a drawing he said he’d erase. De Kooning’s best biographers, Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan, call this rendezvous “a ghostly Greek messenger come to warn the king of hubris.” De Kooning said, “I know what you’re doing,” and granted the request.

That same year, Rauschenberg and composer-artist John Cage made Automobile Tire Print, a long, narrow strip of paper on which Cage had driven a car, leaving a long track in black ink. All this was a direct attack on the life-or-death gravitas of Abstract Expressionism — and indeed all of modernism. Art would soon be riven with irony, something that had left it for some time. These ironies multiplied all over the world for the next decades. In 1956, the first Pop Art show took place in London. In Europe, Yves Klein and Piero Manzoni were ascendant. 1957 brought the most political international postwar art movement of them all: Situationism, which railed against personality-based individualism and asserted that art is determined by real-world conditions and situations. Artists today still work from that premise.

The coup de grâce came on January 1, 1958. Target With Four Faces garnered the cover of the No. 1 art magazine of the time, ArtNews. The work was by 27-year-old unknown Jasper Johns. Three weeks later, this change lurched into hyperspeed when Johns’s debut solo show opened at Leo Castelli’s new fourth-floor gallery at 4 East 77th Street, and American art turned on a dime. MoMA acquired three works from the show and arranged for a fourth, Flag (for $900), to be purchased as a gift for the museum. All are now modernist icons. A new world was released.

And while many of the younger artists were still white and male, something nevertheless new came to the fore: Many of them were gay. All held views diametrically opposed to the lofty art values they’d been schooled in. They painted smaller, figuratively, employed subject matter non-spontaneously, were uninterested in spiritualism or strict formal things like “flatness,” the sublime, or cathedrals of selves, and even violated the sacrosanct surfaces of their art by attaching real objects to them. (Ed Ruscha and Robert Indiana painted paintings of words.) Like all artists after them, they were formalist and anti-formalist, sincere and ironic, at the same time. (The latter is a condition of life.) These artists didn’t turn away from but embraced the mass culture around them. They brought life back into art. All of it was intentional. Rauschenberg said he and Johns “used to start each day by having to move out from Abstract Expressionism.”

These innovations were important, of course. Yet in attacking their modernist forebears, the Pop artists were also affirming the reign of their ideology. In 1961, Robert Smithson wrote, “I am a Modern artist dying of Modernism.” He was right. Pop Art and minimalism were derived from mass taste, sources, and material and were ironic, but they were also committed to making it new, to the idea of the work of art as a closed perfect space, to formal experimentation and innovation above all else, to repudiating previous art history, and to the conception of art as a teleological project. And, of course, it shocked your nana.

What will it be like to live without the old modernist canon? I expect thrilling and scary. I don’t want Picasso and the rest to go away. And of course they won’t — we can’t forget these titans, even as we rehang and reconsider their work every year.

But here’s how art has already moved on. Modernism is now just part of art history to artists, and not even the only or best part. Artists are ranging through history, happy to make things new by returning to older unused, overlooked art. I’ve seen countless artists deploy Cubism and Post-Impressionism in ways that make the Ur-modernist movements just another segment of the aesthetic double helix. Artists like Jenna Gribbon, Louis Fratino, Carroll Dunham, Sarah Peters, and Jonathan Lyndon Chase actually cross the beams of modernism with motives on Greek vases. And it’s not pastiche or gamesmanship. Kerry James Marshall goes all the way back to neoclassical history painting to tell new stories picturing black bodies rather than white heroes.

Subject matter and narrative rise in art everywhere. With a hungry, documenting eye as lucid as Walker Evans’s and Robert Frank’s, photographer LaToya Ruby Frazier photographs working-class American cities and people decimated by toxic environments and jerry-rigged governmental policy. Is her work “didactic”? It is! In the works of numerous artists, collectives, and collaborations, we’re seeing brilliant portrayals of institutional cruelty. In other words, the real world—and not just as it’s reflected in the artist’s studio. You don’t need a wall label to feel the gut punch. Ditto the set-up photographs of queer quadriplegic Robert Andy Coombs that shows the artist as explicitly sexual with agency and desire. Christine Sun Kim retrofits the charts of strict minimalism and conceptualism to express the rage of her own deaf community.

Modernism began in many places at different times. Today, artists aren’t robbing or trying to kill the past. They’re collaborating with it. Instead of only formal experimentation, subject matter and other imaginations have arrived as the electric center of artistic innovation — narrative, biography, autobiography, history, cultural context, and family trees, all long dismissed as unserious or provincial concerns, have been injected into art. The purities of modernism don’t mean a thing; recent minimalist, monochrome, conceptual art about art feels like artists being junior postmodernists. We may look at them and pass on. Art no longer seems locked in a competitive struggle for artistic supremacy. Except in the market, where it has always been this way.

But the monolith of modernism is gone. Artists aren’t just crawling into the skins of former styles. They’re consuming, using, changing, and cannibalizing them. Gone is any bullying certainty. We see subjectivity, something like ethics, responsibility, the social contract, personal obsession, and earnest attempts to communicate again with less insider-y audiences. Rather than plotting where this art fits on the teleological-formalist timeline, consider Romanesque and medieval church façades: These masterpieces tell essential stories in visually sophisticated, visionary ways, all with an extraordinary use of material, scale, ambition, everything, yet anyone may experience, read, grasp, and be part of this art. They are open books. These are the connotations and possibilities of art now. Art has landed on another moon.

Where does this leave MoMA? Alas, I am not a radical, so I am glad the museum won’t be changing that much. I do not want to destroy MoMA or other museums of modernism (flawed as they are). I still need to return there regularly to commune with the ancestors. Others will don the mantle of fixing and replacing the entire system. If MoMA has a radical love of art rather than a love of the underlying system, it will play a part in the generations to come — and it may be that future art historians point to this rehanging as a turning point, the central institution of modernism committing to a new set of ideas about what it was, what it represents, and what it offers us today. I say to MoMA, bring out your dead from storage, artists deemed “wrong,” not part of the old story — put them all on view, let us decide. We all love art. But as James Baldwin wrote, “Love is a battle … love is growing up.” After a century, we are finally beginning to outgrow modernism.

© New York magazine. Photo Credit: Visiting MoMA, 1959, Eve Arnold/Magnum Photos.


How Chagall’s Daughter Smuggled His Work out of Nazi-Occupied Europe

By Karen Chernick for Artsy

Marc Chagall arrived in New York in June 1941, bearing a hefty art-world reputation but light luggage. His folkloric artworks were coming separately on a ship from Spain—or so he thought—as supporting actors in a ruse that enabled the Jewish artist to escape an increasingly Nazi-occupied Europe.

Alfred H. Barr, director of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, invited Chagall to have a solo exhibition as a ploy for obtaining a United States visa. Supported by Jewish-American organizations and collectors who paid for their passage, the artist and his wife, Bella, seized this ticket out and departed France as fast as they could. They took what they could, but inevitably left some cherished treasures behind.

Marc Chagall, Hommage au Passé ou la Ville, 1944, Stern Pissarro

One of these was the couple’s only child, Ida, who couldn’t get a visa under Barr’s invitation. The other was the stock of the artist’s paintings.

Before fleeing Europe, Chagall tried to ship trunks of his colorful canvases featuring cows, fiddlers, and Russian villagers to the United States. “Chagall’s major capital was his paintings,” explained Susan Tumarkin Goodman, curator emerita at New York’s Jewish Museum who organized the 2013 exhibition “Chagall: Love, War, and Exile.” The artist hadn’t, however, made arrangements for 25-year-old Ida and her husband, Michel Gordey, to cross the Atlantic to safety.

 Jew in Black and White, 1914, Collectionism and Modernity. Two Case Studies: The Im Obersteg …

The Red Jew, 1915, Kunstmuseum Basel

“It was too urgent to make any other plans,” noted Galya Diment, a Russian literature professor who has researched Chagall’s relationship with Ida, of the chaotic circumstances under which the artist (who was briefly arrested by the Vichy police in Marseille) left France. “They were definitely concerned about Ida’s well-being but felt that Chagall, because of his visibility, was in real danger of being re-arrested and sent to camps,” Diment continued. Not only was Chagall Jewish, but the Nazis had also labeled him a “degenerate” artist.

So Chagall and Bella exited fast, concluding two years of dodging the Third Reich. The couple left Paris in 1939, migrating further and further south as German troops neared France’s northern border, transporting their crates of artwork again with each move.

Birthday (L’anniversaire), 1915, Guggenheim Museum Bilbao

When the Chagalls landed in America, they discovered that Spanish customs had impounded their crates. A distressed Chagall wrote to Ida, still stranded in southern France. She began a heroic effort to salvage her father’s work from being lost to the war, traveling to Spain by herself to try to release the crates.

Michel, following a few days later, was arrested at the Spanish border, compounding Ida’s efforts to liberate Chagall’s paintings from customs with the need to spring her husband from jail. She ingeniously succeeded at both. “Ida played the bureaucratic harp with skill and persistence, pulling all the proper strings,” writes Chagall biographer Sidney Alexander.

I and the Village , 1911, Kunstmuseum Basel

Promenade (Promenade), Guggenheim Museum Bilbao

Then another seemingly impossible hurdle surfaced: Barely any ships were leaving Europe.

By the late summer of 1941, vessels like the Mouzinho refugee ship that carried the Chagalls to New York were scarce. With some luck—and money from his parents—Michel bought two pricey $600 tickets, worth roughly $11,000 per ticket today (the Chagalls did not contribute), aboard a ship for Jewish refugees. The couple ambitiously attempted to embark not only with their lives, but also a sizable crate of Chagall’s paintings.

The Nude Above Vitebsk (Le nu au-dessus de Vitebsk), 1933, Private collection

Smuggling paintings out of Europe during the frenzied onset of World War II wasn’t simple, even with means. Jewish-American collector Peggy Guggenheim frantically bought paintings from top contemporary artists in Paris leading up to the German occupation; in 1941, she got them out of Europe by tucking rolled-up canvases in a shipment of linens and blankets.

Those cozy conditions were far superior to the circumstances that Ida, Michel, and a 6-by-6-by-3-foot crate of artwork ultimately faced aboard the Navemar steamship in August 1941. The steamer, built to accommodate cargo and up to 15 people, was hastily outfitted to fit 1,180 passengers (plus 4 live oxen serving as the ship’s meat supply during the 40-day voyage, since the ship had no refrigeration facilities). Conditions were gruesome, but this was the last way out for the refugees, some of whom died at sea and were thrown overboard.

White Crucifixion, 1938, Art Institute of Chicago

The headline-making Navemar left Lisbon on August 17th. In New York, the Chagalls soon read descriptions of the journey in the newspaper. “We read today…that ‘Navemar’ is a floating concentration camp,” Chagall exasperatedly wrote to Morris and Ethel Troper, European director of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee aid organization, in a letter offered this month at Guernsey’s auction house. In another message to Troper, Chagall describes a letter Ida sent when the ship docked in Lisbon. “They were ill, with 40-degree [Celsius] fever, no medication, no water, no food,” Chagall lamented. “We do not sleep nights. We cannot eat, thinking how the children in worst conditions live like animals.”

Ida and Michel were indeed living like animals, among animals. The couple opted to ride on deck—which also housed a makeshift stall full of oxen—to avoid moisture damage to the paintings. It’s unclear how much artwork Ida brought on the Navemar; regardless, it would have been a challenge on a ship arranged to utilize every inch of real estate to salvage human lives.

Still, Ida, Michel, and the paintings survived the journey. Her intuition to ride on deck proved wise, since all the luggage in the ship’s hold rotted and was thrown out in New York.

The Couple of the Eiffel Tower (Bride and Groom of the Eiffel Tower), 1938-1939, Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris 

Ida may have resumed her heroics after the war, in 1945, according to descendants of Konrad Kellen, an American soldier serving in Europe that year. In Kellen’s unconfirmed story, Ida approached him in a Parisian café and asked if he was going home. When he answered yes, she convinced him to transport a large stack of her father’s canvases (reserving one for himself, as a token of appreciation). Kellen reluctantly agreed, conveying the paintings through rain (and other surely dicey) conditions over a month before arriving in America.

The following year, in 1946, Chagall did have a solo exhibition at MoMA, just like the one Barr described in his initially less-than-truthful invitation to the artist at the beginning of the war. It was likely a welcome return to career normalcy after years of global and personal chaos. In the immediate aftermath of the Holocaust, the show highlighted a thriving Jewish artist—and prismatic paintings of floating lovers, larger-than-life roosters, and pensive rabbis that would have perished were it not for Ida’s bravery and determination.

Credit Top Image: Headshot portrait of artist Marc Chagall and his daughter Ida Chagall, 1945. Photo by University of New Hampshire/Gado/Getty Images.

Richard Serra Is Carrying the Weight of the World

By Deborah Solomon / The New York Times  

What do we talk about when we talk about sculpture? Not pounds or kilograms, for sure. It hardly deepens our view of Giacometti’s spindly figures or Calder’s light-as-air mobiles, or even the pioneering brown-hued “Guitar” that Picasso assembled from sheet metal, to know they weigh, say, 50 or 60 or 100 pounds. But Richard Serra, unlike his modernist forebears, counts pounds. “This is my heaviest show ever,” he said with a hint of pride, when we met recently in his studio.

It was an August weekend, and the streets of TriBeCa, where he lives and works in a six-story brick building, had emptied out. The 80-year-old artist was preparing for a somewhat crazed fall season. Three exhibitions of his new work will open simultaneously, in mid-September, at the Gagosian Gallery’s spaces in Chelsea and on the Upper East Side.

Add to that the unveiling of a not-slight piece at the Museum of Modern Art. “Equal” (2015), a room-sized assembly of eight, 40-ton forged-steel blocks that together weigh more than a Boeing 777, will occupy its own gallery in the new David Geffen Wing when the museum reopens on Oct. 21.

Mr. Serra, the best-known living sculptor in America, might seem out of step with our increasingly virtual world. In an age when visual satisfactions scroll by on Instagram in seconds, he revels in the physical — enshrining abstract forms as maximalist feats of mass and scale. Tellingly, his medium is steel, whose production in this country peaked in the middle of the 20th century.

Does he see his sculpture as distinctly masculine? “It’s not feminine,” he replies, sitting at a table in his studio. He was dressed in a black turtleneck and black pants, an intense figure with Slavic cheekbones and a steady gaze.

Does he see any tenderness in his work?

He appeared surprised by the question. “I don’t think in those terms,” he replied. “It sounds like you are talking about steak.”

Mr. Serra’s “Tilted Arc”; which raised a storm of controversy after it was installed in 1981 in downtown Manhattan. It was removed in 1989.Mr. Serra’s “Tilted Arc”; which raised a storm of controversy after it was installed in 1981 in downtown Manhattan. It was removed in 1989. Credit: Neal Boenzi/The New York Times

Mr. Serra remains famous for a sculpture that no longer exists. “Tilted Arc,” a great broad swath of steel, once bisected the plaza outside the Federal Building in Lower Manhattan. It spawned more than a few negative reviews from people who found it hulking and oppressive, and wanted it removed. In 1989, after nearly a decade of debate, the sculpture was dismantled and hauled off to a storage garage in Brooklyn.

The artist, who at the time likened the loss of his sculpture to a death in the family, these days refuses to waste any more time thinking about it. “The government has it,” he said, when asked the work’s whereabouts. “It’s their property and they destroyed it.”

According to the General Services Administration, the federal agency that commissioned the piece, the sculpture is now in Alexandria, Va., in three separate parts. Its components are “preserved as artifacts of what was formerly known as Tilted Arc,” a spokesman noted in an email. The GSA declined a request to let the Times photograph the “artifacts” for this article.

But even in its dismantled condition, “Tilted Arc” continues to distort Mr. Serra’s reputation, fostering an image of an artist who set out to taunt the public. It is true that his great innovation was to redefine sculpture by making it look less like a polished object on a pedestal than an off-putting incursion into the viewer’s space. On the other hand, not nearly enough has been said about the protective or sheltering aspect of Mr. Serra’s work. His sculptures often contain openings that allow you to enter them and linger unseen, to hide. It’s as if Mr. Serra is trying to bridge two poles, to create an aura of danger and then banish it in short order.

Over the years, Mr. Serra has placed more than 100 commissioned sculptures from Philadelphia, St. Louis and São Paulo to the deserts of Doha. His sculptures belong to two basic categories. His forged pieces consolidate steel into masses of unrivaled denseness, while his plate-steel pieces tend to be lighter and more lyrical. These include his playful “Torqued Ellipse” series, looming ovoid structures whose rust-hued, orangy-brown walls turn and twist. The best ones — on long-term view at the Dia Foundation in Beacon, N.Y., and at the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain — can be almost flirty in their wanton curviness.

From left to right, “Torqued Ellipse II,” 1996; “Double Torqued Ellipse” 1997; “Torqued Ellipse I,” 1996. Mr. Serra’s series represents steel sculpture at its most playful and curvaceous.From left to right, “Torqued Ellipse II,” 1996; “Double Torqued Ellipse” 1997; “Torqued Ellipse I,” 1996. Mr. Serra’s series represents steel sculpture at its most playful and curvaceous.
Credit: via Dia Art Foundation; Bill Jacobson Studio

Mr. Serra’s “Echo” (2019), consists of two parallel plates that create an echo chamber between them, at the Instituto Moreira Salles, São Paulo, Brazil. Credit: Instituto Moreira Salles; Cristiano Mascaro

Not that Mr. Serra would agree with much of this. He is opposed to viewing his sculptures as an expression of his interior life, and insists that any metaphors they suggest are accidental and wholly irrelevant. He prefers to believe in the untranslatable quality of his materials, as if there are “no ideas but in things,” to borrow a line from the poet William Carlos Williams.

As Mr. Serra says, “If you’re are dealing with abstract art, you have to deal with the work in and of itself and its inherent properties. The focus is mainly on mass, weight, material, gravity and so on.”

He is, in other words, an unapologetic formalist who can seem austere in his stated lack of interest in the ways that art can touch on the preoccupations of life (e.g., love, nature, the vanished past). Oddly, when I asked him if I could see a photograph of him as a child, Mr. Serra shrugged and said he doesn’t own any.

“Richard was born before the iPhone,” his wife, Clara, added dryly.

On the other hand, Mr. Serra does wax nostalgic about his boyhood fascinations, especially the shipping industry. “I’ve always lived near big bodies of water,” he tells me. “I prefer that. Maybe it’s because I was born near the beach and it’s almost part of my DNA.” In addition to his place in Manhattan, Mr. Serra also has studios out on the North Fork of Long Island, and up in Nova Scotia, Canada.

How would he describe the sea?

“It’s like the desert with water,” he says pithily.

BORN ON NOV. 2, 1938, Mr. Serra spent most of his childhood on the western edge of San Francisco, in a development that was so new it had tall dunes in place of tidy front yards. The family’s stucco house was five blocks from the water, on a slight hill. “I could look out of my bedroom window and see ships go by,” Mr. Serra recalled.

Mr. Serra always carries his sketchbook with him, in case he has a new idea for a sculpture.
Credit: George Etheredge for The New York Times

His mother, Gladys Fineberg, was a housewife of Russian-Jewish descent whom the artist recalls as an avid reader of 19th century French novels and contemporary Americans like Hemingway. His father, Tony, was a Spanish-American laborer who was born in Peru. U.S. census records list him as a candy maker, but his son prefers to remember him during the war years, when he took a job as a pipe fitter at Marinship, a shipyard which was founded after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

For Mr. Serra’s fifth birthday, his father took him to the Marinship yards as a treat. Later, recalling the experience in a page-long statement entitled “Weight,” Mr. Serra adopts a steel-plated oil tanker as his Proustian madeleineIt was a new tanker, and he and his father watched the launch with a cheering throng as the boat slid into the sea, transformed, as he wrote, “from an enormous obdurate weight to a buoyant structure, free, afloat and adrift.”

In a startling coincidence, Mark di Suvero, the future sculptor, lived two houses down from the Serra household. Looking back, di Suvero, who turns 86 this month, recalled long, riotous afternoons when he and a young Mr. Serra played in the dunes, skidding down them on flat cardboard, having to empty their shoes of sand before their mothers let them back into the house. Their relationship, however, was not completely harmonious. “Our dogs would fight,” di Suvero recalled with amusement. “I had a dog, they got a dog, and his father would say, ‘Let them fight!'”

MR. SERRA ARRIVED AT YALE as a graduate student, after earning a B.A. in English literature from the University of California, at Santa Barbara. Settling in New York in 1966, he quickly found his way to the center of the avant-garde. Minimalism was the leading style, and Mr. Serra became acquainted with its exponents, including Robert Morris, who invited him to participate in a group show at the prestigious Castelli Gallery. But in contrast to the crisp geometry of the Minimalists, with their reflective aluminum skins (Donald Judd), fluorescent lights (Dan Flavin) and Fiberglass L-beams (Robert Morris), Mr. Serra tried to get “down and dirty,” as he says now; he wanted to turn closed, tightly sealed forms inside out.

To this end, he compiled a now-historic “Verb List” that itemized, in two neat, cursive columns, 54 manual actions you can do with art materials (e.g., “to scatter,” “to weave,” “to stretch”). He then set out to enact them. He experimented with lead, a non-art material that he learned about from the composer Philip Glass, who moonlighted as a plumber.

Mr. Serra’s “Verb List” is the closest he came to producing a  manifesto and helped define what is known as Process art. Credit : The Museum of Modern Art
Mr. Serra tossed molten lead from a ladle to create one of his site-specific “splash pieces” in 1970. Credit : Henry Groskinsky/The LIFE Picture Collection, via Getty Images

Mr. Serra’s “splash pieces” were nothing if not hot. He heated sheets of lead in a caldron and, using a ladle, splashed the molten metal at the base of walls. Then he let it harden into long, ragged-edged metal casts that lay on the floor and didn’t look much like sculpture.

In 1969, Jasper Johns, who was an early devotee of the casting process, invited Mr. Serra to create one of his splash pieces in his studio on Houston Street. “I felt like I had been tapped on the head by the Pope,” Mr. Serra recalls, adding that he credits Mr. Johns for helping him see how an artwork can enshrine the incremental steps of its making. Years later, when Mr. Johns sold his building, he donated Mr. Serra’s sculpture — or, rather permission to re-create it — to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, where it now resides with the title, “Gutter Corner Splash: Night Shift.”

Another of Mr. Serra’s early masterwork, “One Ton Prop (House of Cards),” from 1969, consists of an imposing four-foot cube whose lead-plate sides remain unwelded — they’re literally unhinged. A painting cannot be unpainted, and a marble sculpture cannot be uncarved. But Mr. Serra’s “prop pieces” can come apart at the seams in less than two seconds. “One Ton Prop” combines the satisfactions of geometric abstraction with the frisson that derives from hoping that a slab of lead does not topple over onto your foot.

I asked Mr. Serra who among postwar artists was the first to take sculpture off the pedestal. He replied, “Judd liked to say he was, but it could have been Lucas Samaras. He put a grid on the floor.” Indeed, in 1961, Mr. Samaras made a “Floor Piece (in 16 parts)” that was brushed with malleable Sculp-metal and sometimes mistaken by viewers for a rug.

“Judd and di Suvero put things on the floor, but Richard was the first one to activate the floor as an essential part of the piece,” the sculptor John Duff pointed out.

Mr. Serra’s red-hot, 50-ton rounds for his new sculpture, as they came out of the forge at a factory in Wetzlar, Germany, in March 2019. Credit : Silke von Berswordt; via Gagosian 

Nowadays, Mr. Serra’s sculptures are no longer handmade but are fabricated in factories in Germany, and he may not realize how elegant they have become.

Does he sign them? “No,” he said. “How would you sign a molten block?”

His work demands so much space that entire buildings have been purchased to exhibit it. Larry Gagosian, who first showed Mr. Serra’s work in 1983, confirmed that he acquired 555 West 24th Street with Mr. Serra in mind. “It had the massive garage-door access where you can drive a huge truck in.”

“Forged Rounds,” which will open there on Sept. 17, is the show that Mr. Serra had described to me as his heaviest ever. One morning, when it was partially installed, we met at the gallery to see it. It consists of four massive sculptures composed from 21 forged-steel “rounds,” or cylindrical drums, and part of its fascination lies in the perceptual riddle that allows rounds of varying dimensions — some the height of tables, others tall enough to take cover behind — to each weigh precisely 50 tons.

That sum happens to reflect weight limitations imposed by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. “If they’re 50 tons, they can go over the George Washington Bridge,” Mr. Serra said of his sculptures, which are trucked into Manhattan from the port in Bayonne, N.J. “If they’re 75 tons, they can’t.”

In August, a construction crew removed a sculpture from a flat bed trailer using a hydraulic gantry during the installation of Mr. Serra’s show at Gagosian. Credit : George Etheredge for The New York Time


Mr. Serra with one of the 21 rounds in Mr. Serra with one of the 21 rounds in “Forged Rounds,” opening Sept. 17 at Gagosian. Credit : George Etheredge for The New York Times

Up close, the surfaces yield delicate effects, with autumnal colors glowing beneath blistered grey skins.Up close, the surfaces yield delicate effects, with autumnal colors glowing beneath blistered grey skins. Credit: George Etheredge for The New York Times

Taken together, “Forged Rounds” can evoke an abandoned shipyard, a well-defended military field, or a good place for hide-and-seek.Taken together, “Forged Rounds” can evoke an abandoned shipyard, a well-defended military field, or a good place for hide-and-seek. Credit : George Etheredge for The New York Times

Taken together, the group of rounds can put you in mind of a shipyard, or a well-defended military field with concrete pillboxes extending into the distance. The bulkiness is startling. But their surfaces yield up surprisingly delicate effects, with rosy pinks glowing beneath cracked and blistered gray skins.

Meanwhile, in a separate show at the Gagosian outpost at 522 West 21st Street, the entire space will be given over to a single Brobdingnagian sculpture — “Reverse Curve,” back-to-back plates that form an S-shape and wind, riverlike, for 99 feet.

Finally, uptown, at Gagosian’s Madison Avenue location, Mr. Serra will be showing “Triptychs and Diptychs,” some 21 new works on paper. The artist Paul Klee once described the process of drawing as taking a line for a walk. Mr. Serra’s drawings are more like taking a lion for a walk. They are fierce objects, large and tarry, all-black on white. He begins each drawing, he tells me, by spreading a viscous substance — a mix of silicon ink and paintstick — directly on his work table. “Then the paper goes on top of the material,” he said. ‘Then I take a steel tool and rub the back of the paper so that the material comes up on the side that I can’t see. Then I pull it up to look at it.”

I asked Mr. Serra if he ever has the urge to use a color besides black.

“A pink painting,” he replied with a straight face. “I am working on it. It is in my closet.” A five-beat pause. “Or green and purple. For a week, I considered chartreuse seriously.”

A drawing, “Triptych #6” (2019), with paintstick, etching ink and silica on paper, from “Triptychs and Diptychs,” at Gagosian’s Upper East Side gallery. Credit : via Gagosian; Rob McKeever

For all of Mr. Serra’s facetious asides, his art has an estimable directness. He has devoted his life to imprinting space with his presence, asserting that “Serra was here,” as if the humongous footprint of his sculptures could somehow reverse the evanescence of footprints we leave in the sand.

And yet what assurance does a sculptor have that works intended as site-specific will be left in the fields and plazas and museum galleries in which he planted them?

After the debacle of “Tilted Arc,” Mr. Serra told me, he began thinking of ways to ensure that his other works remain anchored at their anointed sites. Enter lawyers. These days, he said, his sculptures come accompanied by legal contracts. Owners, whether individuals or museums, are prohibited from moving or altering his work without his permission. Moreover, a collector cannot offer a work for sale to another collector without offering it to Mr. Serra first.

Even so, Mr. Serra is well-aware that the future is hardly laden with guarantees. As he said, “You make contracts, but you don’t know if they’re going to hold up after your demise or not.”

For a moment, the question of mortality hovered in the air. I asked him how he imagined his sculptures would be viewed 200 years from now.

“I can’t think that way,” he replied solemnly. “But I would hope that some of them last that long. I think in the history of sculpture 200 years is a nanosecond.”

Selling King Tut

London, July 5, 2019 

By Scott Reyburn / The New York Times  

Tutankhamen Head Sells for $6 Million, Despite Protests from Egypt.
Christie’s said the sale was legal. But Egypt’s government says the antiquity was looted and should be returned.

“It was smuggled. It belongs to Egypt,” said Magda Sakr, one of a dozen protesters gathered outside Christie’s auction house minutes before a stone head of the pharaoh Tutankhamen was set to be sold on Thursday night.

“I believe these things should be in a museum. They shouldn’t belong to one person,” added Ms. Sakr, holding a placard that read “Save Tutankhamen Head. Egyptian History is not for Sale.”

But despite protests from Ms. Sakr, and from Egyptian officials, the sale went ahead.

The brown quartzite sculpture of the god Amen, carved with the features of the pharaoh Tutankhamen during his brief reign, was the star lot of Christie’s annual “Exceptional” auction of trophy objects from across the centuries.

Dated by the auction house to about 1333 B.C. to 1323 B.C., and described as having a “particularly sensual” mouth, the head sold for £4.7 million pounds, or about $6 million, with fees. But competition was subdued. The lot attracted just two hesitant bids from anonymous telephone bidders.

Did the limited bidding reflect the controversy that swirled round this object before its sale?

Weeks before its auction, the 11-inch-high head had been the focal point of protests from the Egyptian authorities, who objected to the inclusion of about 30 ancient artifacts from their country in auctions this week at Christie’s.

Zahi Hawass, a former Egyptian minister of antiquities, told The Guardian newspaper last month that he believed the Tutankhamen head had been taken from the temple of Karnak in Upper Egypt and illegally exported in 1970. He added that if Christie’s did not have papers to prove that it left Egypt legally, then the sculpture should be returned.

The date of 1970 cited by Dr. Hawass is significant: That year Unesco instituted a landmark international convention to prohibit and prevent the illicit trade in cultural property. Objects without documented ownership histories, known as provenances, that extend beyond that watershed have become regarded as problematic for museums and those involved in the legal trade in antiquities.

Tourist trinkets on sale in Cairo

Howard Carter’s 1922 discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb is the most famous moment of Egyptian archaeological history, and made the pharaoh’s death mask an icon CreditMohamed Abd El Ghany/Reuters

“The sale of such precious Egyptian artifacts is a huge shame,” said Tarek Adel, Egypt’s ambassador to Britain, in a statement on Wednesday. He said that Christie’s proposed auctions reflected “a deep lack of respect to our efforts to stop this happening as well as a total disregard for relevant international legal provisions and conventions.” 

In a statement issued on Tuesday, Christie’s said it had “established all the required information covering recent ownership and gone beyond what is required to assure legal title.” The sculpture “is not, and has not been, the subject of a claim, nor has it been previously flagged as an object of concern, despite being well known and exhibited publicly,” the statement added.

The provenance published by Christie’s states that the stone head was acquired in 1973 or 1974 by Josef Messina, the director of Galerie Kokorian & Company, in Vienna, from the collection of Prinz Wilhelm von Thurn und Taxis, who is “understood” to have owned the piece by the 1960s, according to the catalog.

The sculpture was subsequently owned by two further private individuals, Christie’s said, before being acquired in 1985 by the German-based Resandro collection, which was the seller in London.

The object’s pre-1970 provenance was confirmed by Mr. Messina in the form of “a notarized affidavit which is part of our provenance documentation,” Catherine Manson, Christie’s global head of communications, said in an email.

But an article on the website Live Science, published in June, said that the son and niece of Wilhelm von Thurn und Taxis, who died in 2004, said the aristocrat had no interest in art and had never owned the sculpture.

Galerie Kokorian & Company and Mr. Messina did not reply to repeated requests for contact made by email, telephone and Facebook message.

For those who participate in the international trade in antiquities, basing this object’s pre-1970 provenance on the verbal recollection of a dealer, rather than any surviving document, does not weaken the legitimacy of Christie’s sale.

“I don’t think it’s problematic,” said Vincent Geerling, the chairman of the London-based International Association of Dealers in Ancient Art. “What is problematic is the attitude of the Egyptian government and the way they try to disrupt the sale of perfectly legal artifacts.”

“The Egyptians have benefited from the sale of antiquities for more than 150 years,” said Mr. Geerling, who pointed out that government-authorized stores sold antiquities in Egypt until 1983, when the country passed a law to protect its heritage.

Mr. Geerling said that the Unesco Convention applied only to objects that had already been “specifically designated” as objects of great importance, which he said would be unlikely in the case of the Christie’s head. He added that “there is no legal basis” for museums’ reluctance to acquire antiquities with provenances that did not stretch beyond 1970.

Objects associated with Tutankhamen, a short-lived 18th Dynasty pharaoh who died in his late teens, have a particular mystique and allure. 

Howard Carter’s 1922 discovery of his untouched tomb in the Valley of the Kings, filled with spectacularly precious objects, is the most famous moment of Egyptian archaeological history. An exhibition at the British Museum in 1972 of treasures from the tomb, including Tutankhamen’s gold death mask, attracted 1.7 million visitors.

Tatiana Flessas, an associate professor of law at the London School of Economics, who specializes in cultural property, said that Christie’s sale of the Tutankhamen head was a significant moment.

“It showed that a claim like Egypt’s continues to be open to dispute,” Ms. Flessas said. “Not every antiquity is cultural property.”

Though the trade in antiquities is a “complex, opaque and quite slippery business,” Egypt’s call for the return of the sculpture was a “nationalistic claim, an anticolonial claim, with a moral rather than legal justification,” she added.

“But if the provenance is flawed and the sculpture was looted, it should go back,” she said.

Image Credits:
New York Times, Peter Nicholls/Reuters