Magazine article The Spectator

Art Market: Why Do Artists Vanish?

Magazine article The Spectator

Art Market: Why Do Artists Vanish?

Article excerpt

Here's an intriguing thought experiment: could Damien Hirst disappear? By that I mean not the 52-year-old artist himself -- that would be sensational indeed -- but the vast fame, the huge prices, the hectares of newsprint, profiles, reviews and interviews by the thousand. Could all that just fade from our collective memory into a black hole of oblivion?

The answer is: yes, quite easily. Artists vanish all the time. Take the case of Hans Makart (1840-1884). He was a contemporary of Monet, Manet and Degas, but enormously more acclaimed in his lifetime than any of those. A period of Viennese life was dubbed the 'Makart era', a fashionable idiom was named the 'Makartstil'.

One reason for his success was that he was a master of PR. Makart transformed his studio, an old foundry, into a vast stage set crammed with floral displays, sculpture and opulent bric-à-brac. Cosima Wagner described it as a 'wonder of decorative beauty, a sublime lumber-room'. To a 21st-century eye, old photographs of the space look like installation art.

Makart was able to put on a tremendous performance, too. In 1879 he designed a spectacular parade to celebrate the silver wedding anniversary of the Emperor Franz Joseph, with floats, costumes, every detail conceived by the artist -- and Makart leading the entire caboodle in person on a white horse. The Viennese liked it so much they carried on repeating the 'Makart parade' until the 1960s.

He gave his age what it wanted: masses of voluptuous naked flesh depicted with sub-Rubenesque gusto, mixed with jewels, rich textiles and maybe a spot of blood. But who remembers Makart now? To be fair, a few art historians do -- and probably more in Austria than elsewhere. But compared with Cézanne or Sisley -- obscure nobodies when he was riding that white horse -- his is a very dim name these days.

Makart's is not an isolated case. Many of the most familiar figures in the history of art passed through periods -- lasting in some cases for centuries -- during which nobody paid them or their works any attention at all. In 1786, Goethe -- one of the most cultivated and erudite people in Europe -- passed through Assisi without looking at the frescoes of the Upper and Lower Churches of San Francesco. Giotto, Simone Martini and Cimabue simply weren't then on the list of interesting things to see.

Similarly, nobody took much interest inEl Greco between his death in 1614 and the mid 19th century. For a long while, Johannes Vermeer was, if not a complete artistic nonentity, then no more famous than dozens of other 17th-century Dutch genre painters. Even within recent times, the rise of Vermeer's reputation has been stratospheric. In 2014, the most popular art exhibition in the world was a show in Tokyo in which the biggest attraction by far was one of his paintings, 'Girl with a Pearl Earring' (seen by 750,000 people at a rate of 10,000 a day). Twenty-five years ago this picture was not even the most celebrated Vermeer.

The market in artistic fame -- even of old masters -- is surprisingly volatile. The examples above are, of course, those who got remembered again. But plenty, famous in their day, never get rediscovered. Alternatively, they may be hugely admired by one age, then relegated to a much less prominent spot in our collective consciousness. Raphael Mengs, Guido Reni and the Carracci are among those currently in this position: their works still hang on the walls of major art galleries, but they are not paid much attention.

When it comes to art that is being made right now, the volatility is even greater. …

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