One of the world’s best kisses is on my bedroom wall. In a large perfect square, a couple are embracing under a shower of gold; the two figures melting into one body, the woman throwing her head back in abandonment, the man bent over her protectively, possessively. There are flowers in her hair, a crown of leaves on his dark hair.
The original of Klimt’s The Kiss is still at the Belvedere in Vienna where I went to admire it a few times. This clever reproduction, beautifully mounted and without a frame, it had followed me in several students’ rooms. It had pride of place in my first house, which was built in 1908, about the time The Kiss was painted.
I have this in common with many of the world greatest art collectors: I like pictures to hang on a wall, I like the warmth it gives to the room, the way it makes the butterflies in my soul flutter when I look at it. Maybe the similarities end here; I have neither their wealth, nor their generosity. An event in London this month offered the opportunity to meet a wider range of art collectors and to see a plethora of art available to those with more modest disposable funds.
All the fun of the fair
We were greeted by a young couple on stilts wearing colourful costumes; a pink peony was offered to each visitor, the champagne bar was not far. It all made for a good first impression at the private view of AAF (Affordable Art Fair) Hampstead in May. From the minibus picking up visitors at Hampstead tube station, to clear signposting, to the aisles named after famous painters – the event organising was flawless. As the name indicates, the AAF believes that you don’t need to be wealthy to buy art or to become an art collector. Its philosophy is encapsulated in a William Morris quote on the organisation’s home page: “I do not want Art for the few, any more than I want education for the few or freedom for the few”.
Hints and tips on starting an art collection abound - The AAF organisers, individual galleries, several websites – in principle they all agree that nothing is more reliable than your instinct and your taste. They all advise to start small – both in size of the work and price. So maybe a beginner should not consider making the first purchase at Christies or Sotheby’s Contemporary Art Auction, or from one of London’s hundreds of art galleries. A first time art buyer may instead spend a few hours queuing at the at the RCA secret sale in April. (Here you can buy a postcard size work of art by internationally acclaimed artists or cultural celebrities, but there is one snag – the artist’s name is only revealed after purchase). If this kind of gambling doesn’t appeal, art collectors can peruse over one hundred galleries under one roof at the Affordable Art Fair. From Seoul to Stockholm, from Hamburg to Hong Kong, there are more than a dozen fairs throughout the year.
As well as presenting art as affordable, the Fair’s objective is to make art approachable. Browsing is positively encouraged; chatting about a painting or a photograph on display, or about its creator appears to enthuse the gallery staff. We talked about the material used in a sculpture and I learned a lot about techniques favoured by contemporary artists. There is no pressure to buy.
Yet every time I walked past the packing area, the three red-shirted people working there were busy wrapping, taping, bagging paintings, photographs, sculptures. The proud new owners of art carried them away like trophies – which of course they are. I believe that for the artists, life is made less complicated by the fact that it is the gallery, not themselves, who organise the display, negotiate and sell the art. For the collector it is more than reassuring to have experience and expertise coming between the artist and the emotional and rational decisions to purchase artwork.
Art is for keeps
Wandering the aisles you can find artists that interest because of their subject matter, or their technique, you can find a gallery that showcases a style you like, or you can fall in love. You would spend more time – how much time? I lost count, my friend was frantically texting me – in front of the artwork; you may go away and come back to have another look, make an enquiry about the artist. Once you imagine it on your wall, or on this small pedestal in the corner – you know you have to have it. When the (hopefully very long) honeymoon is over, you will appreciate the advantage of selecting contemporary art: which is that the artist is still in his studio, working, producing more pieces you will possibly enjoy and add to your collection in the future. Because maybe you like not just this painting or sculpture, but the artist’s vision, his approach to reality and the way he makes you see it.
The next time you become the proud owner of a work of art, think about the artist who created it and has to part with it. A piece of his soul will leave the artist – and he will hope that his creation is going to a good home.