Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988)

Speaks for Itself (tryptich)

Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988)
Speaks for Itself (tryptich)
signed, titled and dated '82 on the reverse of all three panels
acrylic and oilstick on pressboard
each: 48 x 48in. (122 x 122cm.) (3)
Galerie Bruno Bischofberger, Zurich.
Acquired directly from the above by the present owner.
Aachen, Suermondt-Ludwig-Museum und Museumsverein Aachen, Zeichen, Symbole, Graffiti in der aktuellen Kunst, July-August 1986 (illustrated in colour in the catalogue).

Lot Essay

During his brief but turbulent career, Jean-Michel Basquiat produced an astonishing oeuvre abounding in highly expressive pictures which addressed the artist's own personal search for self-identity. His graffiti-like figures combined with texts and symbols comprise a unique iconography which deals with racism, black history, urban violence and, time and again, also the role of the artist as a slave of the mechanisms of the contemporary art market. In numerous paintings and drawings, Basquiat makes use of a private language of images and symbols borrowed from a broad variety of cultural influences, with references to television, advertising, graffiti, political history, anatomy and the history of art. In Speaks for Itself, 1982, the artist makes a rare excursion into the early history of Western culture to discuss themes of violence and oppression equally relevant to the urban culture of the United States in the late 20th century.

As in other works from 1982, perhaps the most productive year in Basquiat's career, the artist obtained a great deal of information and indeed inspiration from text books and encyclopedia's. Basquiat's paintings of 1982-85 reveal a confluence of his many interests and energies, and their actual contents - the words - describe the subjects of importance to Basquiat. He continually selected and injected into his works words which held charged references and meanings - particularly to his deep-rooted concerns about race, human rights, the creation of power and wealth, and the control and valuation of natural elements, animals and produce - all this in addition to references to his ethnic heritage, popular culture, and respected or infamous figures from history and the entertainment world." (Ex. Cat. New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, Jean-Michel Basquiat, 1992, p. 32).

The left panel of the triptych Speaks for Itself deals, for example, with the destructive violence of the Roman Empire and its eventual conquering by the Goths. With graffiti-like slogans, the artist refers back to the conquering of Egypt by Caesar and the burning of Rome under the despotic rule of Nero. The central panel tells the tragic tale of the Emperor Julian. The number 361 refers to the year the Emperor assumed power, only to be killed in the battle against Persia in 363. Basquiat draws a parallel between Julian and the German ruler Heinrich IV, who was crowned Emperor by the anti-Pope Clemens II in 1081. The red and blue crowns serve as symbols of these two rulers, while at the same time referring to the artist himself, who frequently employed the symbol of the crown as his own trademark. The right panel speaks of enlightenment and the rectification of politics and religion under the reign of Constantine, who transferred the seat of the Roman Empire to Byzantium in 330. The symbols of the heart, cross and crown refer back to Christ as well as Constantine and, by transference to the artist himself. Thus, Speaks for Itself is both an intensely intellectual document of the use and abuse of political power, and a profound self-portrait of an artist whose ascent to power at a young age ended in a dramatic and devastating downfall.

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