The Surreal Art of Austerity Europe

2014_0204_miro_large women and birdsThis is a story about money, power and the surreal art of austerity Europe, with a dead artist and the Portuguese and wider European public in the starring role of victim. It starts with Jose Oliveira e Costa, the CEO of a Portuguese private bank called BPN (Banco Portugués de Negocios), who got it into his head back in the boom years of the noughties to buy up one of the biggest collections of paintings – 85 in all – by the Catalan surrealist artist Joan Miró (1893-1983) from a private Japanese art collector. The collection is valued at around 40 million Euros and contains such signature Miró paintings as Women and Birds, pictured here above.

If you are looking for an explanation as to why the CEO of a bank would want 85 paintings by a dead Catalan Surrealist artist, then cast your mind back to that line uttered by Jack Palance in Godard’s Le Mepris, probably my favourite Godard picture, when Palance, a producer about to make a film based on The Odyssey, reworks Goebbels’ infamous remark about culture and reaching for his gun: “Every time I hear the word culture, I reach for my chequebook…”

Back to the story at hand, and cue hurricane Lehman Brothers in 2008 and the meltdown of the international banking system, which reaped widespread destruction the length and breadth of Europe. The BPN was one of the casualties in the south of Europe, and the Portuguese government stepped in to bail out the bank on the grounds of the danger of “contagion”, at the behest of course of Berlin and Brussels, representing the interest of north European bankers who had been doing a lot of the foolish lending to countries like Portugal and Greece.

The disgraced CEO, Oliveira e Costa, who had close ties and business dealings with leading figures of the Portuguese right-wing party, like former President of the Republic, Cavaco Silva, was indicted by the Portuguese authorities for money laundering, tax evasion and forgery among other charges. The Portuguese State then nationalised and “cleaned up” the bank, taking liability for its debts, and sold on what was left of the BPN to the Angolan bank BIC in 2011, but the Miró collections did not form part of that deal. On nationalizing the bank, the 85 Miró paintings, which had belonged to the BNP, having previously belonged to a private art collector, having once been painted by the hands and heart and brains of a great artist, fell into the dismal hands of the Portuguese State, which proceeded to lock them away in a vault in Lisbon.

Not much later, under the lash of rocketing interest rates on Portuguese bonds and austerity economics, the Portuguese State also went bust. Portugal had to be bailed out by the Troika – that is the IMF, the ECB and the European Commission, also known in the South of Europe as the Three Horsemen of the Apocalypse such is the death and destruction they have perpetrated – to the tune of 100 billion Euros.

At the beginning of 2015, under Portugal’s former right-wing PM Passos-Coehlos, who took great pride in imposing German prescribed austerity on the long-suffering Portuguese people, and with former Socialist Party PM Jose Socrates languishing in jail on corruption charges, the Portuguese government decided to sell the Miró collection at auction through Christie´s in London.

The rationale was that the approximately 40 million Euros which they expected to raise would go some way to easing Portugal’s 100 billion overdraft, increasing by the moment due to austerity economics imposed by the bankers and their political allies in Berlin and Paris. The decision to sell was appealed in the Portuguese courts, and Christie’s eventually refused to go through with the auction, albeit only because the exportation paperwork had not been properly expedited. The Miró collection, which was actually in London for a while, was sent back to Portugal where it remains to this day in a vault.

During this whole period, which is to say, ten years, the 85 works by Joan Miró have never once been exhibited so that the people of Portugal can actually see the paintings in question – a situation which can only be described as surreal – something which shows just how much the bankers, stock-brokers and politicians care for art and culture; all they care about is monetising and commodifying art- putting a price tag on it – or else using it as an ideological weapon to defend their harsh neo-liberal policies under the velvet cloak of “European culture”.

And this is the thing about the European Union and the “European project”. It dresses itself in the apparel of European culture while committing itself to a barbaric neo-liberal policy in the south of Europe. It uses European culture as propaganda, to seduce while, at the same time, it reduces the poor, the old and the sick, illegal immigrants and the disabled, to the psychosis of poverty.

Miró, in his most surrealist phase, once declared that he wanted to “assassinate painting”, calling for a complete break with conventional artistic practice. He could hardly have guessed that his own paintings would be murdered in just such a way, falling into the grubby, soiled hands of European bankers and victim to austerity economics and a pack of crass philistine politicians, who between them, have succeeded in keeping a substantial body of his work under lock and key in a vault in Lisbon for over a decade.

The Portuguese courts recently ruled that the Miró collection cannot leave Portugal to be auctioned until the legal status of the paintings has been re-examined by the competent Portuguese judicial authorities. The argument those in favour of keeping the collection in Portugal make is that the 85 Miró paintings now form part of the Portuguese national patrimony and so cannot be sold. The matter has been raised in the Portuguese parliament and dragged through the courts, provoking heated debate in the media and Portuguese society at large.

Meanwhile, with a new left-wing coalition government in power in Lisbon, there is talk of an exhibition of the collection in the Museo Serralves Contemporary Art Gallery in Porto in the spring, and rumours that the Chiado Modern Art Gallery in Lisbon may eventually provide a permanent home for the 85 paintings.

Whatever the outcome of this surreal and sordid tale, let’s hope for Miró and for art’s sake that the great Catalan artist’s 85 paintings can finally see the light of day again and be exhibited to the European public.

Comments (3)

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  1. J Galt says:

    To me the most astonishing aspect of this story is that this rubbish is valued at 40 Million Euros.

    Oh and the famous “culture/revolver” remark is normally attributed to Goering not Goebbels – though neither of them actually said it!

  2. Anton says:

    I don’t really follow the argument here. As far as I can tell, the Portugese Government acquired these paintings when it took over the assets of the failed BPN. It put them in a vault, and it’s a matter of regret that during this time the paintings were not available to public view.

    Now the Portugese Government wants to sell them, and there’s a discussion to be had about whether this is an appropriate decision. But I can’t see that this tells us anything about the nature of ” the European Union and the European project”. How so?

  3. Paul Wilson says:

    Interesting article. One point I would make is this: it is false, in my view, to assert that “abstract” works of the kind Miro produced have some kind of intrinsic resistance to the commodity form i.e. that they are inherently progressive. On the contrary such works themselves reproduce the form of the commodity, precisely because they can be interpreted – or made to “mean” – anything at all. Just as a toilet roll can be sold by relating it to a puppy in an advert so Miro’s works can be appropriated ideologically in any way you want, and by both the left and the right. This is because the nature of “conceptual” art, whether in visual or plastic form, frees it from a definite referent in a radical way. To be sure there was a time when Miro’s work could have been conceived as radical and I don’t doubt that he himself justly conceived it in this way when he produced it. But that doesn’t necessarily mean these works are progressive today, irrespective of how Miro understood his own practice at the time. To argue otherwise is to view the works ahistorically – in other words to suggest that their meaning was fixed by their producer at the time of their creation.

    One of the reasons the teaching of abstract art is now completely ubiquitous in art schools, I suspect, is precisely because abstract works can very easily be assimilated into the marketplace and exhibited on the walls of the houses of millionaires. In other words they too mirror the commodity form and cannot possibly be understood as being generically progressive per se. Modern art may very well free the sign from its referent – but that reality can just as easily be appropriated by the right as by the left unfortunately.

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