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Shelling Out for Fabergé

Andrew Solomon reports on forthcoming events in sale-rooms and galleries.

There are two ways to locate coherence in the London art world. One is to narrow your scope considerably, to dismiss most categories of art and consider seriously only, for example, figurative etching or hand-thrown ceramics or welded sculpture. The other is to assume that all work is born of the triple inspiration of commercial self-interest, visual problem-solving, and communicable ideas. Taking up this second option, one need only work out the proportion of the three muses in any work, and then one can tie it in with a thousand works shown before, and a thousand works shown after, and, most conveniently of all, with a thousand works shown concurrently. It’s a strain to do this, but it’s worth it; otherwise, one is confounded by dependence on categorically unrelated definitions of art.

The high point of this month may well be the sale at Christie’s Geneva on 10 May of the fabulous Fabergé “Pine Cone” Egg, enamelled in the vivid blue we associate with Imperial Russia, encrusted with diamond crescents, and containing an oxidised silver elephant automaton with ivory tusks. This extraordinary item was made for Alexander Kelch to give to his wife, the lovely Barbara Kelch; it is as ornate as the eggs commissioned by the Tsar himself, and is one of the first Fabergé eggs to contain a fully mechanised automaton. At Sotheby’s, opulence comes on a larger scale yet; the sale of classic yachts will finally take place on 31 May. Elegantly panelled interiors and attenuated prows and billowing sails will be shown on video to the bidders.

The high point at Phillips this month is slightly less upmarket but no less interesting. Phillips Oxford has taken on an active role in Oxford Artweek ’89, a celebration and festival of contemporary arts, and will hold a sale on 26 May of outstanding craft by contemporary British makers, including such established figures as Jim Partridge, Sebastian Blackie, and Peter Collingwood, and a number of such gifted younger artists as Amanda Brisbane, Kate Malone, and Gilly Forge. The work will be on display for a full week before the sale.

There’s much news on the fine arts front among the galleries. Anthony d’Offay’s exhibition of Gilbert & George, which runs until the 20th, could easily be the most interesting thing in London this month; the artists have not shown new work for some time, and the suspense is killing, since the extravagance that was so effective in their work even a few years ago has recently seemed to smack of superfluity. All proceeds from this show will benefit AIDS charities; Gilbert & George have made a great point of doing the entire exhibition as a donation to a suffering humanity. This exhibition could prove that Gilbert & George have retained the integrity of vision which placed them at the forefront of British art.

At Marlborough Graphics, from 9 May to 16 June, there is an exhibition of work by seven American artists, including Robert Motherwell, Larry Rivers, Red Grooms, Alex Katz, and Elsworth Kelly. The graphic work of these artists has a personal game-playing side which is not permitted to come through in “major” paintings, and its private liberalism is an important clue to the meaning of more “important” work. One appreciates these artists through their typical oil paintings, but one frequently comes to like and admire them through the lithographs, etchings, and silk-screens which Marlborough will feature.

Meanwhile, at the Serpentine until 21 May, “Promises, Promises,” curated by Adrian Searle promises to show the work of six artists whose subject is “the definition and exploration of territory.” The work is all rich in irony and pessimism, and reminds us that we are about to enter the final decade of the millennium. May is also the month for the 128th exhibition of the Society of Women Artists, as the Westminster Gallery. The Society was founded in 1855, and has taken on something of a reputation as a leisure organisation for refined gentlewomen who paint watercolours of their own gardens. Though there is always a healthy share of such work in the Society’s exhibitions, there is also a certain amount of original work. The noble history of the society — now under the patronage of HRH Princess Michael of Kent — adds a certain interest to its activities, and the very affordable work has substantial decorative value.

Medardo Rosso in his studio, ca. 1898. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Medardo Rosso in his studio, ca. 1898. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

There are several exhibitions of less recent work which are of note and interest. David Grob is showing sculpture by Medardo Rosso, an Italian artist who died in 1928, and whose work is rarely shown. This will be the first exhibition of his work in England, and it will include only work cast by Rosso during his lifetime. At Browse and Darby until 13 May, there is a show of pastels, drawings, and sculpture by Degas, which includes some very interesting early work. At Max Rutherson, there is a show of Edna Clarke Hall, drawings of the familiar images of hearth and home, landscape and animals, children and friends. There is nothing remarkable about this work except that it is wholly pleasing to the eye and has a not unpleasant sentimentality.

Sporting art is on at the Tryon Gallery, where Kim Donaldson’s “Impressions of the Wild” are being shown, but it is not on, strangely enough, at Arthur Ackermann, where a show ambiguously titled “The Pleasures of Observation” runs until 13 May. The show will include paintings that are not actually sporting paintings but that almost could be: a portrait of a game-keeper, some maritime paintings, landscapes where game must run.

On the decorative arts front, there is further variety. Burghley House is holding a show of 400 years’ worth of clocks until the end of September. The innovations before Braun took over the market should astound and astonish. At David Gill, there will be an exhibition including the inevitable Schiaparelli bags alongside a white plaster vase by Diego and Alberto Giacometti, and a lamp by André Artus. At the Galerie Besson, the ceramics of Lucie Rie, who is now 87 and still working away, will be on show. There will be only white pots in the exhibition, which will make the rich variety of her glazes all the easier to appreciate. At Chelsea Physic Garden, in celebration of the completion of Alecto’s monumental project to publish the entire Joseph Banks Florilegium, there will be a display of plates from the book and of other material brought back from Banks’s voyage with Captain Cook in 1768.

There are several other exhibitions of interest in London this month, including important work by James Brown at the Mayor Rowan Gallery, an exhibition of Ken Howard called “An Amalgam of Light” at Oscar and Peter Johnson; a show of Latin American artists Ricardo Cinalli and Ricardo Valbuena at Long and Ryle Art International; a show of Tommy McMahon at the newly opened Merz Contemporar Art in Earls Court; an eerie installation called “The Chromosome Room” at the Café Gallery in Bermondsley; and an exhibition of Duncan McBride at the Edith Grove Gallery.