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This book explores the visual evolution of the legendary connoisseur and philanthropist Roberto Polo through a selection of over three hundred masterpieces and magnificent gemstones from the extraordinary collections which he has formed. At an early age, Roberto Polo revealed a powerful talent as a visual artist, exhibiting his work in major art museums and galleries. Thanks to his profound knowledge of art history and theory, he also revealed an astonishing talent for identifying exceptional art and gemstones from many periods and origins. Roberto Polo was educated at the Corcoran School of Art, where he was appointed professor at the precocious age of sixteen, and at Columbia University. At the age of twenty-four, he conceived and organized the now landmark exhibition Fashion as Fantasy, featuring works especially created by fifty-four exhibitors, including David Hockney, Robert Motherwell and Andy Warhol. Roberto Polo was instrumental in founding Citibank's Fine Art Investment Services, the first department of its kind in the banking industry. In 1981, he left Citibank and became an independent art and gemstone investment advisor. During this period, he formed collections of French eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth-century fine and decorative arts, as well as of gemstones, described by Le Journal des Arts as 'anthological'. In 1988, the French Republic bestowed on him the medal of Commandeur de l'ordre des Arts et de Lettres for his contributions to French art and culture. In the same year, he became the victim of a Kafkaesque judicial affair from which he rose in 1995, according to The New York Times, as 'the wonderful phoenix of the art market', now championing Historical Design and Modernism independently and through Galerie Historismus. Described by Le Figaro as 'The Eye' and by Architectural Digest as 'The Trendsetter of the Art Market', Roberto Polo continues to follow his edict that one should only acquire art which was revolutionary in its time. Exquisitely illustrated with over four hundred colour photographs, and with texts by leading art and jewellery historians, this book is a fascinating insight into the man described by Art & Auction, as 'one of the ten people who have made a difference in the art market' and an illuminating account of his forty years of collecting activity. Visit www.roberto-polo-the-eye.com for more information
Modernism by Dr. Thomas Föhl
The life achievement of art connoisseur Roberto Polo cannot be reduced only to his eye. His curiosity, innate talent, profound knowledge and courage also allow him to identify the best within a wide range of artistic expressions of different origins and periods as well as to defend it from the most vehement critics. In doing so, he has become a universally recognized tastemaker. He embraces both the extraordinary achievements of the history of art and the constantly mutating avant-gardes. It is in the spirit of scientific research driven by passion that Roberto Polo has devoted himself to European Modernism in the applied arts, its forerunners and stimuli.
What do we understand by Modernism in the applied arts, long relegated by museums, collectors and art merchants to third place after painting and sculpture? The luxurious works of applied art exhibited at the universal expositions during the second half of the nineteenth century do not correspond to the reality of the period when they were created, a period when agricultural areas turned into overpopulated, dirty, urban ones. The progress of transport and communication brought the dimensions of space and time together in a manner not dissimilar to the progress of communication technology in today's online era and its omnipresent abundance of instantly available information. The victims of the industrial revolution called for deceleration. Man emancipated himself, not only constitutionally and economically, but also in matters of taste, from the previously dominating amalgam of nobility and clergy. Nevertheless, the second half of the nineteenth century continued to witness a marriage of aristocratic and bourgeois traditions. The Belgian and German bourgeoisie emulated the behaviour of the aristocracy. Both of these young countries are similar in that they were artificially created, Belgium in 1831 and Germany in 1871, by the great European powers to serve their own interests.
What impact did the industrial revolution have on architecture, the fine and applied arts? The prevailing confusion of artistic expression was best expressed in architecture with the emergence of Romanticism, a search for a new style by reviving and combining those of the past. In the quest for a new and glorious national identity, architects drew, not only from the Gothic style, but also from those of ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome, as well as from that of the Italian Renaissance, all historically majestic eras, when man was assumed to be richer and happier. A taste for the exotic emerged: castles and parks were decorated with Japanese and Islamic elements. A logical architectural language, such as the Renaissance, Baroque or Rococo, had disappeared by around 1830. The lack of aesthetic imagination was disguised by the multiplicity of prevailing past and exotic styles. The question that the architect Heinrich Hübsch asked one of his peers in 1828 reveals the problem: 'In what style should we build?' However, a solution to the problem of style had still to be proposed. The confusion of styles grew in unprecedented proportions during the nineteenth century. Many historians believe that this confusion began as early as 1789 with the French Revolution and ended with the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, a persistently confusing period of change and decline, but also of technological revolution and scientific progress.
As often throughout the history of the early modern era, Great Britain was the first country to criticize its own culture and propose its renewal. The art critic and social thinker John Ruskin and the artist, designer and writer William Morris, were major protagonists in the ensuing revolution. Less than a decade after the legendary 1851 London Universal Exposition, Morris dared to tread new ground by pitching in favour of the slowly waning craft tradition and against industrial production. The Modernism collection formed by Roberto Polo features masterpieces of historical design by Morris, Mackay Hugh Baillie-Scott, Charles Francis Annesley Voysey, Charles Rennie Mackintosh and many others. Japanese art, unseen by the West for over two centuries, was an important influence. It brought us abstraction and purity of forms, without which Modernism would have been doomed to fail from inception.
Although the Arts and Crafts movement produced their handmade wares democratically, for a clientele of all social and economic strata, their relatively high prices could not compete with industrially mass-manufactured products. The movement's noble principles did not propose a solution to this problem and therefore, finally did not have an impact on society. Baillie-Scott, Voysey and Mackintosh were crucial figures in finding progressive solutions to the manufacturing problems that had arisen from Morris' yearning for the Middle Ages. Their enthusiasm propelled young European and American architects and designers toward new solutions.
The Belgian Gustave Serrurier-Bovy was the first continental architect and designer influenced by the Arts and Crafts movement. Already in the 1880s, he was travelling to England to buy home furnishings for his shops. He was followed by his countryman Henry van de Velde, who after painting the first deliberate serial abstractions in the history of Western art in 1893, consecrated himself to the total work of art: the home and all of its furnishings.
Whereas France with its Neo-Rococo Art Nouveau style was a victim of its artistic heritage and incapable of modernity, Belgium and Germany were young nations open to new ideas. The French attributed more importance to figurative ornamentation, precious materials and sophisticated manufacturing techniques than to original artistic expression.
For a brief period, before the arrival of Baillie-Scott, Charles Robert Ashbee and Van de Velde, the prevailing style of German applied art, Jugendstil, was derived from the French Art Nouveau style. But unlike France, artistic and technological innovations in Belgium and Germany were strongly influenced by the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche and directly related to socio-political needs. The Deutscher Werkbund, or German Work Federation, a state-sponsored organization founded at the instigation of the German architect and designer Hermann Muthesius in 1907, proposed a theoretical foundation and inspiration for modern architecture and industrial design. Its initial purpose was to establish a partnership of product manufacturers with industrial designers to improve the competitiveness of German companies throughout the world. It was less an artistic movement than a government-driven effort to integrate traditional crafts and industrial mass-production techniques, to put Germany on a competitive footing with Great Britain and America. Among its prestigious members were the architects and designers Peter Behrens, Josef Hoffmann, Bruno Paul and Richard Riemerschmid. Although Van de Velde was not a member, he was affiliated with the project. In 1914, the Deutscher Werkbund commissioned from him a model theatre for its great exhibition in Cologne. This masterpiece was tragically destroyed in the First World War only a year later.
Since the 1970s, against a background of often sordid Post-Modernist applied art, we have been seduced by the luxuriously ornamental and Historicist applied art of the nineteenth century. These Historicist styles were rejected by avant-garde artists born in Great Britain, Belgium, Germany, Austria and Scandinavia between 1855 and 1875 who denounced them as the fruit of a false understanding of art. The aberrant Historicist aesthetic allowed for an absurd jumble of past styles in one functionless and ostentatious object.
Henry van de Velde expressed his theories of style with verve and anger in his innumerable essays and lectures. Around 1895, he wrote in Aperçus en vue d'une Synthèse d'art:
'It is our destiny to see art fallen like a tree, its scattered branches crushed, twisted, broken [...] You might at first suppose that it was struck by an enormous adversary or a flash of lightening. In reality, worms felled it without grandiosity, radiance, without surprise. They worked as surely as gangrene and came from the gloomy depth of men's hearts.
This phenomenon occurs each time that the moral tide falls and reveals the bottom where all the abject talent accumulates...'
Van de Velde wrote not just as an art critic, but also as the virile, self-proclaimed prophet of Modernism devoted to the doctrines of the Russian revolutionaries and theorists of collective anarchism Mikhail Bakunin and Pyotr Kropotkin. He also devoured the philosophical writings of Arthur Schopenhauer and even more so those of Friedrich Nietzsche. His revulsion with the styles of his forefathers and contemporaries was so great that he swore to create a utopian world where people would live with a new style based on rational design...
All the major protagonists of Modernism in the applied arts and many of their most important works are represented in the collections formed by Roberto Polo, whose passion does not know boundaries when exchanging, often at a financial loss, a good piece for a better one. Van de Velde is particularly well represented with masterpieces like the rare cabinet Model II-67 of circa 1898-1899, a piece of pure Van de Veldian style, linear and yet sculptural. The same applies to a perfectly-designed and rare walnut table of 1900, to the beech armchair of 1902 and the luxurious mahogany dining room set of circa 1902-1903. The latter were produced as early as 1902 by H. Scheidemantel Hofkunsttischlerei, Weimar - a congenial company which manufactured high-quality furniture consistently for Van de Velde until the mid-1920s. Although he designed and had manufactured hundreds of lamps throughout his life, they are difficult to find and much sought-after today. Roberto Polo has acquired a few early examples which demonstrate Van de Velde's early linear style and contrast interestingly with those designed by Josef Hoffmann and Koloman Moser, manufactured by the Wiener Werkstätte. These two Vienesse designers are represented by museum-quality pieces, such as Moser's breakfast room set of 1903, Hoffmann's wardrobe of 1900 and the furniture he designed for the BUGRA book and graphic fair of 1914.
German architects and designers, who often rivalled Van de Velde, are also prominently represented in the collection. Bruno Paul's armchair of 1901 is certainly the most elegant and important design of his long career. Indeed, Bernhard Pankok's minimalist wardrobe of 1900 and the plethora of masterpieces by members of the Kunstlerkolonie Darmstadt, such as Peter Behrens' striking chair of 1904, Joseph Maria Olbrich's armchairs of 1902 and Patriz Huber's pair of exquisite slender lemon wood display cabinets of 1902, part of the expensive design collection of this talented artist who took his own life at the young age of twenty four, attest to Roberto Polo's connoisseurship. In Richard Riemerschmid's rare and important Propeller Table of 1905, Roberto Polo saw a premonition of the airplane engine...
Gustave Serrurier-Bovy was referred to in this chapter and the previous one as the forerunner of Modernism in Continental applied art. We must class some of his extraordinary creations in this chapter: his jardinière of c.1905, evocative of Pablo Picasso's painting La femme fleur of 1946, his innovative mantel clock, Silex armchair and wardrobe, the first furniture sold in kits, all of the same period.
The Modernism in applied art collection formed by Roberto Polo could constitute a museum department of the highest order. For this reason and others, many major art museums see him as their principal source. The Klassik Stiftung Weimar and the Musées royaux d'Art et d'Histoire de Belgique count on his support as an art historian and theorist, art collector and merchant, for the major retrospective of Henry van de Velde's work which they will hold in 2013. This retrospective will examine the work of this vast Belgian cosmos within a European context.