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The Smoking Sailor

The Smoking Sailor
signed and dated 'Condo 07' (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
127.4 x 106.7 cm. (50 1/8 x 42 in.)
Painted in 2007
Galerie Andrea Caratsch, Zurich, Switzerland
Private collection
Anon. Sale, Christie's London, 15 October 2011, lot 257
Acquired from the above sale by the present owner

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Jacky Ho (何善衡)
Jacky Ho (何善衡)

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Lot Essay

‘The figure is somehow the content and the non-content, the absolute collision of styles and the interruption of one direction by another, almost like channels being changed on the television set before you ever see what is on.’ - George Condo

Painted in 2007, The Smoking Sailor is a compelling ‘existential portrait’ by George Condo. Viewed in profile against a blushing magenta backdrop, a man in a striped t-shirt turns to face us. His balding head, protruding ears, rosy cheeks, mismatched eyes and jutting grin are fragmented into near-Cubist disarray. His neck slopes into a swollen belly, on which he rests a delicate right hand, clasping a cigarette between slender fingers. Recognisable as ‘Uncle Joe’ – a hard-drinking reprobate who is one of a number of recurring characters in Condo’s work – this startling, beguiling figure is a signature example of the artist’s unique approach to portraiture, which is informed by a complex dialogue with art history. Clashing disparate references from Botticelli and Rembrandt to Picasso, Basquiat, and the visual language of cartoons, Condo dismantles the fantasy and artifice inherent in figurative painting. A cacophony of signals compete, pushing the image into a strange, disconcerting realm that we’re not quite sure how to read.

In the present work, Uncle Joe’s nautical striped shirt hints only vaguely at the designation of ‘sailor’: it is as if he is trying on a costume, and could shift role at any moment. Condo’s other cast members include bus-drivers, valets and butlers, whose maniacal, outlandish faces transgress the uniformed gentility of their occupations. These deviant archetypes highlight the inadequacy of fixed labels in an age of fractured styles and compound identities, aiming instead to reveal selfhood in its true, mercurial chaos. ‘I describe what I do as psychological cubism,’ Condo has said. ‘Picasso painted a violin from four different perspectives at one moment. I do the same with psychological states’ (G. Condo, quoted in S. Jeffries, ‘George Condo: “I was delirious. Nearly died”’, The Guardian, 10 February 2014). The resulting visages echo an apocryphal tale of Leonardo da Vinci, who was said to have told riotous jokes to local peasants so as to capture their unguarded states of mirth. Seeming to contain several expressions at once, Uncle Joe’s twisted, exaggerated features likewise exhibit a disconcerting kind of realism.

While influences from Picasso to Disney might be glimpsed in The Smoking Sailor, the work also displays an Old Masterly sense of light. As if lit from the composition’s right-hand side, the background shades from fuchsia to deeper cerise, throwing the figure into shadowed relief. When a painting has neutral space around it,’ Condo explains, ‘there’s a tone where from the light side – let’s say we’re dealing with a portrait – from the light side of the face to the shaded darker part of the face, you’ll notice that the background corresponds in an opposite way … That’s just the way that Rembrandt or Frans Hals or any of those portrait painters usually framed their portraits. It does something to classicize the constellation of human psychology that might be represented in one of those portraits’ (G. Condo, quoted in C. Moore, ‘Mondo Condo: Exploring the Extreme Vision of George Condo’s Work’, Ran Dian, 20 March 2018). The backdrop’s pink hue, meanwhile, closely recalls the famous Portrait of the Journalist Sylvia von Harden (1926) by the German painter Otto Dix – a forerunner of Condo’s in his use of caricature to get to the truth.

‘These figures can be seductive and repulsive at the same time. They embody a position that is simultaneously frightening and appealing. This is something that also comes across in the way they solicit different kinds of looks from the viewer, and how they often look back at us with eyes that don’t match or don’t even seem to belong to the same face’ - Ralph Rugoff

If Rembrandt, Hals and Dix play their part, the present work also has a touch of Giuseppe Arcimboldo, the 16th-century Italian painter who composed imaginary profile portrait heads entirely from objects such as fruit, flowers, fish, and books. Condo here does similar building work with eyes, teeth, and the shapes of body parts, creating a sense of distinct components seen from multiple, simultaneous angles. He assembles The Smoking Sailor through a compound gaze, looking at art history in the way the Cubists regarded the physical world. ‘The point’, Condo explains, ‘is not to see how well somebody paints a figure, but something beyond that. A way of saying that the figure itself becomes a map of a number of intellectual processes involved in the idea of making an art work. The figure is somehow the content and the non-content, the absolute collision of styles and the interruption of one direction by another, almost like channels being changed on the television set before you ever see what is on’ (G. Condo, quoted in T. Kellein, ‘Interview with George Condo, New York, 15 April 2004’ in George Condo: One Hundred Women, exh. cat. Kunsthalle Bielefeld, 2005, pp. 32-33).

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