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Two masterworks by Giorgio de Chirico and Man Ray to highlight Sotheby's sale
Man Ray, Black Widow (Nativity), 1915. Estimate: $5/7 million. Courtesy Sotheby's.

NEW YORK, NY.- Sotheby’s will present two exceptionally rare and ear­­ly masterpieces by Giorgio de Chirico and Man Ray as highlights of the Impressionist & Modern Art Evening Sale on 28 October in New York.

Dating from the pivotal year of 1913, Il Pomeriggio di Arianna (Ariadne's Afternoon) (estimate $10/15 million) is one of only eight canvases that compose Giorgio de Chirico’s earliest painted series, as well as the genesis of his celebrated metaphysical style – both a marked departure from the dominant school of Cubism subscribed to by his contemporaries and a revolution in the history of art which would fundamentally alter the Modernist identity. Of these eight canvases, which date between 1912 and 1913, five reside in museum collections, such as The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, with only three, including the present work, remaining private collections. Il Pomeriggio di Arianna (Ariadne's Afternoon) is distinguished from this limited group by its striking large-scale vertical format, and is the only example to depict the emblematic ship from the myth of Ariadne, Theseus, sailing away from the island of Naxos. Creating a world of enigma and uncertainty, verging between dreams and reality, de Chirico’s metaphysical works had a tremendous influence on the development of Surrealist theories and aesthetics. “I believe that a true modern mythology is its making. It is Giorgio de Chirico’s task to permanently establish its memory” declared André Breton. Il Pomeriggio di Arianna (Ariadne's Afternoon) was reproduced in the 1926 issue of La Révolution Surréaliste alongside text by Paul Éluard.

Emerging from Man Ray’s incredibly rare, early body of paintings from the mid-1910s, Black Widow (Nativity) (estimate $5/7 million) from 1915 was the largest and most groundbreaking work that the artist had ever painted. An iconic canvas within his oeuvre as well a significant example of Abstraction, this dazzling work displays a crucial step in the artist’s development of his style of painting on a flat, planar surface, while also advancing the tradition of working on a monumental scale. Further underscoring its tremendous importance, Black Widow (Nativity) remained in Man Ray’s collection until 1953 and is undoubtedly the most important painting by the artist to appear on the market following the 1979 sale of Observatory Time: The Lovers from the collection of famed Surrealist patron and collector, Edward James.

Lisa Dennison, Sotheby’s Chairman, Americas, commented: “It is a privilege to offer two exceptional paintings by Giorgio de Chirico and Man Ray in our marquee fall Evening Sale of Impressionist & Modern Art this October in New York. Both masterpieces are the epitome of museum-quality paintings, and provide a unique glimpse into the profound early output of these two visionary artists. Each work showcases the hallmarks of the artist, from the beguiling and enigmatic vistas of de Chirico to Man Ray’s experimentation with perspective and abstraction. Together, the works encapsulate the apex of Modernism in Europe and New York.”

Julian Dawes, Head of Sotheby’s Impressionist & Modern Art Evening Sales in New York, said: “We are honored to present these two rare and early masterworks by Giorgio de Chirico and Man Ray in our Evening Sale this October. Both works stand apart from their contemporaries and the prevailing Cubo-Futurist style of the time, and were forging new artistic boundaries that would deeply influence the Surrealist movement—underscored by their preoccupation with dream-like visuals and hard-edged geometry. As pioneering pictures that defy easy categorization, both works by de Chirico and Man Ray are quintessentially modern in their pursuit of the new, at a time when the avant-garde was continually experimenting. To present these works together at auction for the first time is to showcase an integral part of modern art history.”

On offer from the same private collection, both works are poised to establish new auction records for their respective artists. The previous benchmark price for Giorgio de Chirico was established in 2009 when Il ritornante circa 1918 from the Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé Collection achieved $14.1 million. In November 2013, Sotheby’s set the auction record for any work by Man Ray when Promenade from 1916 sold for $5.9 million in our New York Evening Sale of Impressionist & Modern Art.

Sotheby’s October Evening sales will be presented in the dynamic, innovative digital format pioneered during our marquee summer auctions in June and July. The sales will be broadcast globally from the New York salesroom to enable viewers to follow the bidding live, in high-definition through real-time video streams, while bidders will be able to place bids with Sotheby’s specialists in New York, Hong Kong and London via phone, or via Sotheby’s interactive online bidding platform.

Sotheby’s will hold its Day Sales of Contemporary and Impressionist & Modern Art in mid-November, and will present additional marquee sales of Contemporary and Impressionist & Modern Art in New York in early December.

Making their auction debut in the October Evening, Il Pomeriggio di Arianna (Ariadne's Afternoon) and Black Widow (Nativity) will be exhibited alongside works from our marquee October Evening Sale in Sotheby’s New York galleries beginning 21 October, open by appointment only.

Drawing inspiration from his surroundings in Greece as a child, Giorgio de Chirico focused on the antique sculptural figure of Ariadne in his earliest known series—first denoted as the Ariadne series by curator and art historian James Thrall Soby. Executed between 1912 and 1913, the series is comprised of eight canvases—including Il Pomeriggio di Arianna (Ariadne's Afternoon)—with most of these works centering around eerily quiet piazzas that are illuminated with a dreamlike light and intersected by long, sharp-edged shadows.

The focal point of each painting is a sculpture of Ariadne—the Cretan princess who married hero Theseus, and later Dionysus, god of wine and fertility—depicted from various angles, as de Chirico tested the limits of presenting multiple perspectives within one painting, while simultaneously creating a cohesive composition. In Il Pomeriggio di Arianna (Ariadne’s Afternoon), the exaggerated verticality of the painting tips the sculpture forward into the foremost pictorial plane, confronting the viewer. In each of the eight canvases that comprise the series, Ariadne is placed in different versions of an ambiguous piazza, while towers and trains rise behind her, arcades flank her, small figures appear in the distance as flags wave in the wind. Only two of these works—the present painting and Ariadne from 1913, in the collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art—also depict an emblematic ship, Theseus sailing away from the island in the former, while Dionysus arrives on a steam train in the latter.

Working in this carefully delineated and representational manner, de Chirico created works in stark contrast with the prevailing Cubo-Futurist style of his contemporaries. While conjuring the Renaissance ideals of human form and perspective—and elevating the importance of figuration—in his Ariadne series, the artist emerged as the founder of a new style: the metaphysical – a term first given to de Chirico’s paintings in 1914 by the French poet Guillaume Apollinaire and refers to the enigmatic quality of his urban landscapes. At its core reflecting a world of enigma and uncertainty, the metaphysical laid the foundation for not only the Surrealist iconography, which flourished in the following decade, but also the Modernist identity that revolutionized the history of art.

In 1913, Abstract Art arrived stateside via the famed Armory Show, and Man Ray, like many American artists, seized upon what he saw within the galleries for inspiration. Stimulated by the show, he pursued his interest in Modern Abstraction, as well as experimentation with scale and flatness.

Key to developing his stylistic trajectory toward the flat picture plane was Man Ray’s exploration of translucency and overlap, which primarily evolved out of his professional and personal background. The artist worked for several years for a map-and-atlas publisher in New York, where translucent gels were used to indicate changes in color, which resonates in Black Widow (Nativity) across the black figure in particular. Man Ray was also influenced by his father’s profession as a tailor; his family home in Brooklyn, New York, was filled with fabric samples and patterns. This influence is evident in the present work, with many of the shapes appearing as shirt forms or fabric swatches.

By emphasizing the flatness of the composition through translucency and overlap in his early paintings, Ray also considered the prospect of working on a large scale. Following the 1913 Armory show, the artist said, “It gave me the courage to tackle larger canvases” with Black Widow (Nativity) being the largest canvas he painted in 1915. Foreshadowing the Abstract Expressionists, Man Ray understood that large canvases defied the conventions of easel painting, and indeed—in concert with highlighting the flatness of the picture plane—created limitless possibilities, of which the present work is at the forefront.

In addition to their remarkable significance within the respective artists’ oeuvre, these two sensational works share numerous symbolic qualities, or totems: from their subject matter and their large-scale format, to their incredible rarity and quality.

While de Chirico’s use of Greek mythology harkens to his familial home in Greece, Man Ray’s iteration of shirt patterns and fabric swatches indicates his father’s occupation as a tailor. The works are imbued with familial symbols, which served as the inspiration for their groundbreaking compositions.

Within the compositions, both figures are isolated, confronting the viewer with an immediate presence to evoke a poignant reaction: from the sculptural form of Ariadne in front of the monumental column, to the “Black Widow” with arms raised as if they are horns.

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