Hanging in a corner of the second-floor European galleries in the Belluschi Building of the Portland Art Museum is a painting that doesn’t usually live there – and not just any painting, but a masterpiece from J.M.W. Turner’s latter period, an 1835 work titled Ehrenbreitstein, or the Bright Stone of Honour and the Tomb of Marceau, from Byron’s ‘Childe Harold’. On short-term loan from an anonymous private collector, it arrived in mid-June and will be in Portland until mid-October.
The painting was included in an Old Masters auction at Sotheby’s London on July 5, 2017, where it was offered with an estimated sale price of $18.7 million-$31.2 million, and sold for $25 million. It had last sold in 1965 for $113,250. “Sotheby’s would have been hoping to get a bit more for the work, which was tipped to have the potential to break Turner’s auction record. But it’s still a good price for such a significant work,” Nicholas Forrest wrote for Blouin Artinfo on the day of the auction. Forrest continued: “One of the greatest works by J.M.W. Turner still held in private hands, Ehrenbreitstein is from a period that is widely considered Turner’s best. The painting depicts the ruined fortress of Ehrenbreitstein near Coblenz, and according to Sotheby’s is the most important oil painting of a German subject that Turner ever painted.”
Ehrenbreitstein landed in Portland courtesy of a quirk in California’s tax laws that allows private collectors to save a lot of money on their tax bills if they lend a work of art to a museum for a period of time after buying it but before taking it to its final destination. At the Portland Art Museum that usually means the loan is for 120 days. Previous pieces that have been “parked” at the museum range from Francis Bacon’s 1969 triptych Three Studies of Lucian Freud (bought for $142.2 million by casino magnate Elaine P. Wynne) to Carl Kahler’s 1891 My Wife’s Lovers, “the world’s greatest painting of cats,” according to Cat Magazine (bought at auction by northern California collectors John and Heather Mozart).
Who might have bought Ehrenbreitstein and how much they paid for it are of course interesting tidbits of gossip. But the important thing (tax codes aside) is the rare opportunity in Oregon to see the painting itself, or any Turner: PAM has only one other Turner in its permanent collections, a very small 1820 ink wash landscape that’s not on view. Ehrenbreitstein doesn’t have the immediate visceral impact of one of Turner’s roiling sea paintings or the astonishingly fluid, impressionistic 1844 Rain, Steam and Speed – The Great Western Railway, at the National Gallery, London. Rather, it’s a painting of many parts, a landscape of multiple dimension and several centers of activity, to be taken in slowly and savored piece by piece. Taken from tales of the French Revolutionary Wars, it depicts army encampments, a war hero’s gravesite, a fortress atop a cliff, and much more. Its multiple pieces are united by Turner’s astonishing depiction of light, using delicate brushstrokes that almost seem to disappear. It’s a painting to live with, to grow into, to see and experience over and over again, which its new owner or owners presumably will do.
The Turner painting’s relatively late arrival in Portland almost a year after its sale at Sotheby’s seems to be due to an attempt by the British government to keep it from leaving the country. In January of this year, according to The Art Newspaper, U.K. arts minister Michael Ellis “place(d) a temporary export bar on the painting to help provide an opportunity to keep it in the country. In order to save it being sent abroad, a buyer must match its £18.5m price tag, as well as VAT of £306,750. The decision on the export licence application has been deferred until 28 May, which may be extended to 28 November if there is a serious intention to match its price.” Apparently that intention never arrived.
COMING NEAR A CLOSE at Elizabeth Leach Gallery is an interesting show of work by several contemporary artists in Vancouver, British Columbia. Diverse Voices from Vancouver, BC, curated by Rachel Rosenfield Lafo, a Portland independent curator and writer who knows the Vancouver scene well after spending several years as director of the Richmond Art Gallery there, closes on Saturday, Sept. 1.
What I like in particular about this show is the liberal variety of textures and materials in the work, from cotton thread and cardboard in Mark De Long’s The Good, the Bad and the Best to Angela Tang’s intriguing mixtures of crocheting and painting. Jeremy Hof’s layered circular acrylics fall somewhere between painting and sculpture, playing little mind and eye tricks: What’s flat, and what’s not? As the circles grow smaller, do they recede, sculpturally, into little holes, or is that a trompe l’oeil effect? (It’s not.) Brendan Tang also mixes things up, making ceramic pieces that seem to land somewhere between Ming porcelain vases and lighting fixtures. And Diyan Achjadi, who was born in Indonesia, makes sinuously colorful large flat wall pieces that snake into unpredictable shapes, and also has on display a brightly painted box that seems like a little puppet theater for the telling of traditional tales. The artists’ free use of threads, cloth, “women’s crafts” such as crochet, and other fragile materials such as cardboard seems to strike a small blow in favor of a more expansive definition of what art can be, who can make it, and what it can be made of. Imagination is imagination. Skill is skill.
CAROLA PENN’S SHOW OF LARGE PAINTINGS Disruptions continues through Sept. 23 at ArtReach Gallery, inside the First Congregational United Church of Christ at 1126 S.W. Park Ave., about a block from the Portland Art Museum. Bold and rough-hewn, they are pieces deliberately in conflict with themselves, often in the form of triptychs with a piece of manufactured or technological dissonance sandwiched between two more pristine views – or, in the case of Golden State, a bucolic orchard scene hemmed in by two views of oil derricks in sparse landscapes. There is certainly a message in these works: we are at war with ourselves; our culture destroys to improve, and the improvements might actually be simply destruction. “I look for disruptions that are not entirely chaotic but suggest relationships between the images, tell stories of their histories or inspire narratives in the viewer’s imagination,” Penn writes in her artist’s statement. “I want to bring disparate elements together, in order to stimulate thinking about mending problems and finding answers through ongoing dialog.”
The gallery’s hours are 10 a.m.-2 p.m. weekdays and 9 a.m.-1 p.m. Sundays.