In November 2017, Christies sold a 500 year old painting by Leonardo Da Vinci,“Salvator Mundi,” for $450.5 million dollars, making it the most expensive painting in the world. This was a depressing sale; the outrageous sum of money spent on this painting embodies the empty void of contemporary culture.
The buyer of “Salvator Mundi” is Abu Dhabi’s Department of Culture and Tourism. Abu Dhabi is diversifying its economy and part of Abu Dhabi’s diversification strategy is to build museums and buy art works. In the words of CNN Money, Abu Dhabi is “encouraging a new generation of art lovers.”
This is a sad state of affairs. Look at the painting. Yes, I know that it is only one of 20 extant Da Vinci works. But, still. Does it inspire, or encourage? Without question, it will draw a crowd of people to Dubai but not because of its beauty; it will attract viewers for the same reason that people follow the antics of Kim Kardashian. People will come to see it because it is the most expensive painting in the world. It derives its value from its celebrity status not from any real intrinsic value as a painting.
If I had money to spare, I would invest in something like William Bouguereau’s “The Ravishment of Psyche” (1895), which would probably sell today for around one million dollars. For those who might not be familiar with this painter, William Bouguereau painted in the mid 19th century, enjoying commercial success during his lifetime, falling into disfavor with the rise of the Impressionist movement in the 20th century. At the moment, Bouguereau is enjoying a comeback of sorts, thanks – in no small part – to his technical virtuosity.
I would hang “The Ravishment of Psyche” in my imaginary mansion at Lake Como on the walls behind my imaginary grand circular staircase. As I descended the staircase, my eyes would be at the same level as the painted feet and I would appreciate the skill and beauty of Psyche’s feet, splayed in pleasure as she is swept away by Cupid, his feet gently clenched in effort and protection as he holds her in his arms. I would wonder at the story of Cupid and Psyche and I would reflect on what such a story means in my own life.
And, as long as I’m day dreaming, I think if I owned this painting, I would periodically loan it out to the Dubai Culture center so they would have something of real value to display, something that actually might encourage future art lovers.