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    Sale 1373

    Post-War and Contemporary Art (Evening Sale)

    11 May 2004, New York, Rockefeller Plaza

  • Lot 9

    Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988)

    Napoleonic Stereotype circa '44

    Price Realised  


    Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988)
    Napoleonic Stereotype circa '44
    signed, titled and dated 'Jean-Michel Basquiat "NAPOLEONIC STEREOTYPE CIRCA '44" NOV. 1983' (on the reverse)
    acrylic and oil crayon on canvas
    66¼ x 59¾ in. (168 x 152 cm.)
    Painted in 1983.

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    On September 15th 1983 Michael Stewart, a young black graffiti artist, was arrested and subsequently died from injuries sustained during his arrest by the New York City police. All too aware of the precariousness of his position as the first black star in an all-white art world, Jean-Michel Basquiat was deeply upset by the news of Stewart's death, pointing out nervously and repeatedly to his friends in the weeks that followed, how easily "it could have been me".

    No matter what the degree of his wealth or fame, Basquiat remained throughout his brief and meteoric career the victim of racial prejudice. Whether it was in his persistent inability to hail a cab or in his being constantly stereotyped and pigeonholed as a 'black' artist, Basquiat had to contend, like so many of his 'heroes' with life alone in a white man's world. This basic fact, which must have seemed to grow more acute to the young artist as his fame grew, also only served to reinforce Basquiat's self-identification with the 'heroes' who populated his personal pantheon of 'royalty'. From athletes such as Hank Aaron, Mohammed Ali and Sugar Ray Robinson to musicians Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie or those who died young, like Charlie Parker or Jimmie Hendrix and Janis Joplin, both dead, like Basquiat himself would be, at 27, Basquiat's close personal identification with these role models informed both his attitude and his worldview. "Most kings get their heads chopped off," Basquiat seemed to conclude, the lone figure of the hero could not survive as such for long in this world. Among the greatest of black American heroes was the "Brown Bomber", the boxer Joe Louis, who for a time became a patriotic hero of all Americans across the racial divide in the 1930s and 40s. Basquiat first celebrated Joe Louis in his 1982 painting St. Joe Louis Surrounded by Snakes in which he depicts the 'haloed' figure of Louis surrounded by the white trainers and advisors whose greed and ambition would eventually lead to Louis' financial ruin.

    Napoleonic Stereotype (sometimes titled Napoleonic Stereotype circa '44) is an intense and highly detailed hieroglyphic painting depicting one the most famous and politically significant moments in the dramatic story of Joe Louis' career; his 1936 bout with the German champion boxer Max Schmeling. Widely expected to win the fight with ease, the undefeated Louis was knocked out by Schmeling and the fight was immediately interpreted as a racial victory lauded by Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels as a triumph for Aryan Germany and Nazism. The Nazi weekly journal Das Schwarze Korps (The Black Corps) commented: "Schmeling's victory was not only sport. It was a question of prestige for our race." In America, Louis' defeat stunned the press both black and white who also could not help but see the fight in racial terms. As one black writer articulated, "we sincerely wanted Joe to win, because it does something to the Nation's view toward Negroes... the masses put stock in champions ...the Negro is no less inferior because Louis loses ...but the average white will respect a champion." (cited in Lauren Sklaroff, Joe Louis and the Construction of a Black American Hero 1935-45, University of Virginia).
    A popular song even took root in black communities entitled 'Don't be a Joe Louis'. In 1938 at a rematch between Louis and Schmeling, Louis knocked out the German boxer in the first round. Louis went on throughout the 1940s to become what some still consider to be the best fighter there ever was.
    As in St. Joe Louis surrounded by Snakes it is Louis' victimization at the hands of the white community that Basquiat has chosen to paint in this painting. Basquiat does not choose to paint the "Brown Bomber's" symbolic 1938 triumph over the white-supremacy of Nazi Germany, but rather the cause of his humiliation and vilification.

    Like so many of Basquiat's paintings of his heroes as saints, this painting is a modern-day scene of martyrdom, for Basquiat's heroes, like saints, all seem to die for our sins. Depicted in the pictorial language and conventions of cartoon violence--a fact knowingly alluded to by the inclusion of the copyright byline ) 1936 KING FEATURES SYNDICATE, (a reference to the part of the Hearst Entertainment and Syndication Group responsible for publishing many of the comic books and cartoons of which Basquiat was such a devotee)--Basquiat portrays this historic fight as a sick comedy. The figure of Joe Louis is here represented as a punch-bag with a deaths-head skull absorbing the mechanical blows of the white boxer. The word 'boxed' is given a wry double-meaning by being written repeatedly and framed in such a way that it takes on its alternate meaning of being trapped, and this boxing covers much of the canvas. At the lower center of the painting a large orange death's -head/saint- figure with its eyes crossed out is drawn above the also crossed-out word 'crown'. This is the trademark symbol with which Basquiat often adorned his heroes, but here, the word 'crown' also alludes to the crown of the "heavyweight championship". The words "heavyweight, champ, world" appear crossed-out above the large orange death's head as if suggestive of the two kinds of crown that Louis was contending for--one as the heavyweight champion of the world, the other as saintly hero and warrior of the oppressed.

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    On occasion, Christie's has a direct financial interest in lots consigned for sale. This interest may include guaranteeing a minimum price to the consignor of property or making an advance to the consignor which is secured solely by consigned property. Such property is offered subject to a reserve. This is such a lot


    Galerie Bruno Bischofberger, Zurich (acquired from the artist)
    Acquired from the above by the present owner, Cologne


    Arts, 1986, p. 126 (illustrated in color).
    New Art International, 1988, p. 14 (illustrated in color).
    Harenberg Kunsttageskalender, 1992, p. 9 (illustrated in color).
    U. Grosenick and B. Riemschneider, eds., Art at the Turn of the Millennnium, Cologne, 1999, p. 63 (illustrated in color).
    L. Marenzi et. al., Jean-Michel Basquiat, Milan, 1999, p. 78 (illustrated in color).
    R. Marshall and J.-L. Prat, Jean-Michel Basquiat, vol. 3. Paris, 2000, p. 152, no. 9 (illustrated in color).


    Malmö, Rooseum, Jean-Michel Basquiat Julian Schnabel, April-May 1989, p. 32, no. 14 (illustrated in color).
    Marseille, Musée Cantini, Jean-Michel Basquiat--Une Retrospective, July-September 1992, p. 115 (illustrated in color).
    Berlin, Martin-Gropius-Bau and London, American Academy of Arts, American Art in the 20th Century, May-December 1993.
    Trieste, Civico Museo Revoltella, Jean-Michel Basquiat, May-September 1999, p. 79 (illustrated in color).