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Portrait of Marie Antoinette's Three Eyes

Portrait of Marie Antoinette's Three Eyes
oil on canvas
51 1/8 x 39 5/8in. (130 x 100.5cm.)
Executed in 1989
Galerie Bruno Bischofberger, Zurich.
Acquired from the above by the present owner in 1990.
Special notice
This lot has been imported from outside of the UK for sale and placed under the Temporary Admission regime. Import VAT is payable at 5% on the hammer price. VAT at 20% will be added to the buyer’s premium but will not be shown separately on our invoice.

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Anna Touzin
Anna Touzin Specialist, Head of Day Sale

Lot Essay

Held in the same private collection since 1990—the year after its creation—Portrait of Marie Antoinette’s Three Eyes (1989) is a playful early portrait by George Condo. Painted in bold geometric lines and primary colours, the symbolic, caricature-like sitter appears to be assembled from different parts, with a wide baluster-shaped base juxtaposed against delicate stems which function as arms. One arm is stalked with a simple eye, as is the colourful, flag-like shape behind the figure’s head: the other balances a vessel of marbled blue eyes on a tray. Any resemblance to Marie Antoinette seems more allegorical than physical. The group of watching eyes—in contrast with her hair ribbon and oblivious, doll-like smile—create a sense of uncertainty, perhaps alluding to the iconic downfall of the last queen of France. Condo has looked frequently to the Old Masters in his work, and the painting also closely echoes Gothic depictions of Saint Lucy, a martyr who is traditionally shown holding her own eyes on a golden plate. Anomalous and intriguing, Portrait of Marie Antoinette’s Three Eyes is exemplary of Condo’s early portraits, his composite sitter exuding a sense of jest and psychological complexity.

Condo moved to Paris in 1985 and painted Portrait of Marie Antoinette’s Three Eyes during his decade in Europe, a period in which he was exposed to an array of artistic traditions which critically influenced his oeuvre. Among these, Pablo Picasso’s legacy remained a vital inspiration. Condo has described his practice ‘as psychological cubism. 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 present work’s interlocking planes, geometric lines, profiled pose and hair ribbon recall Picasso’s early Cubist paintings of his daughter Maya. Unlike Picasso’s more innocent sitter, however, Condo’s distorted, grinning Marie Antoinette exudes a sense of aberrant mischief, epitomising his unique eye for the comical and grotesque.

As well as their echoes of Saint Lucy, the present work’s eyes reflect the important influence of Surrealism on Condo’s practice. Surrealists such as René Magritte, Salvador Dalí and Joan Miró frequently explored the motif due to its association with the soul, and the eye’s ability to engage with both the internal and external world. Equally symbolic of good and evil, the eyes in Portrait of Marie Antoinette’s Three Eyes elucidate the exploration of emotional states central to Condo’s approach, while furthering the work’s sense of monstrosity and ambiguity. They might even be seen to evoke the power of public scrutiny that saw Marie Antoinette—once her nation’s sweetheart—become its greatest enemy, and gain an exaggerated posthumous reputation as a cartoon villain. Building ideas from centuries of art history into one confounding, metamorphic character, Portrait of Marie Antoinette’s Three Eyes is a vivid example of Condo’s radical reimagining of the portrait.

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