‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…’ wrote Charles Dickens in one of the most famous opening lines in literary history — and the same could be said of today.
More than 150 years since A Tale of Two Cities was first published, many of us are feeling similarly conflicted as parts of the world begin to reopen.
The tension between two conflicting impulses — to escape our challenging new reality in hedonistic pleasure, and to look inward, for hope, wisdom, happiness and signs of a shared humanity, is the theme of two online sales organised by Christie’s until 12 June 2020.
Titled Vice and Virtue, they include paintings, sculpture, photographs and works on paper by some of the best-known artists of the post-war and contemporary period.
The first sale, Vice (until 27 May), reflects a desire for hedonistic escapism, and the guilt that often accompanies it.
Barbara Kruger is known for her images of social criticism and Untitled (Your taste is in your mouth), 1995, is a classic example. Her heavily laden table evokes the sumptuous Dutch still lifes that reflected the boom in international trade in the 17th century.
But in Kruger’s modern, large-scale work — it is more than three metres wide — the artist overlays an image of a sumptuous feast with the words ‘Your taste is in your mouth’, in a biting commentary on our current culture of conspicuous consumption.
Under lockdown, many of us have found ourselves cherishing activities that we previously took for granted. Remember when it was a relatively simple task to get your hair cut, or your nails manicured? The vibrant palette of Awol Erizku’s ‘Do This’ — HoodRich Pablo Juan reminds us of that time, and looks forward to a trip to the salon as a sign of normality returning.
The works on offer in Virtue (29 May-12 June) suggest escapism of a different kind.
As most of us have spent more and more time indoors, getting out into nature — wherever we can find it — has become increasingly important to our mental health. Painted in 1975, Hannah Wilke’s Vermont embraces the open landscapes and wide vistas of the American state alongside more esoteric forms made from kneaded erasures.
Sport has been another form of escapism, and Andy Warhol’s Chris Evert: 16 Works celebrates the former world number one tennis player Chris Evert, using bright pastel colours and expressive brushstrokes to evoke the joyous sensation of watching Evert in action.
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Making her Grand Slam debut at the age of just 16, Evert would go on to win more than 150 singles championships (including Wimbledon and both the French and U.S. Opens) and 30 doubles tournaments.
At the end of A Tale of Two Cities, Dickens looks to the future with a sense of optimism. As lockdown begins to ease, Vice and Virtue offer a reprieve from our new reality and a celebration of the human spirit in extraordinary times.