Meditation on a potato

My Chief Texas Correspondent forwards a rather fetching picture of a common tuber — a potato — taken against a black background with a high-end digital camera, by the society photographer, Kevin Abosch — an Irishman. He recently sold it to a Continental businessman, whose identity was undisclosed, for one million euros. (I should like to know where that businessman lives.)

Let me not be vulgar. I will have no fun at the expense of the Irish, or of the rich. This is not a tabloid, like some other websites I could name. Without prejudice I observe that it is an attractive potato, presented in fine detail, unwashed and unshaven. A “nude,” I was thinking, while looking it over. Mr Abosch must have some expertise, for I notice his title is “Potato #345,” which suggests he is an old hand at photographing spuds.

Should memory serve (I don’t like Google-searching) $170,405,000 was paid for the Modigliani nude that sold at Christie’s in November; and something more than that for a Picasso, earlier last year. By this standard the Abosch is a dollar-store item. An auction house like Christie’s can turn over a thousand million dollars in a week; even before the real estate transactions.

Not only in tabloids, scandal sells. My guess is that Modigliani’s Nu Couché took a premium because it got in the history books, a century ago. It offended a lot of old ladies, at the time. And one may see why it would. Amedeo Modigliani himself lived and died very poor, but somehow acquired along his way the most alluring, even daunting mistresses; such as my admired poetess, the young Anna Akhmatova — his sketches of whom, I am sorry to say, still fetch only in the low millions. (I’m fairly sure Nu Couché is not of her.)

He had a way of life, tubercular and alcoholic, that is the joy of every adolescent mamma’s boy, and helps account for his success with models. He had a simplified and repetitive style, that is the joy of forgers.

One goes to the Prado in Madrid to see the really high-class mistresses. One thinks immediately of Goya’s La Maja Desnuda, painted more than a century before the oldest of Modigliani’s. It bothered the old ladies of that age, so much, that it spent some time in the hands of the Inquisition. Today, there is something about the “full effrontery” of the past, that gets a rise from a certain class of art collector. They will bid a price up and up; although in Goya’s case I must say his companion painting of the Duchess of Alba, fully clothed in the same reclining pose, is the more shocking. (Some art historians say it depicts another of Goya’s mistresses; but I tell you it was the Duchess of Alba.) I think it’s the subtly bolder look in the eyes, of La Maja Vestida. She seems more shy with her clothes off.

But getting back to our potato, I can detect no “attitude” at all. I have indeed been unable to discern much emotion, in any of the potatoes I have handled over the years. One gets more feedback from a live lobster; from potatoes, only the Sartrean ennui. But I would not wish to depreciate this one, the price of whose portrait is itself enlivening. Or one might, given the black sheet background, mistake it for the latest moon of Pluto, in which case the high-resolution detail increases the excitement.

Let me be plain: it is a handsome potato. But I am one of the Scottish genetic persuasion, and can find its like on a local barrow for less than one (1) inflated Canadian dollar. And as to the fine resolution, I have magnifying glasses in the High Doganate up here. Rather, for a million or up, I would expect Van Gogh’s “Potato-Eaters,” or at least a potato by Joan Miró.

We (my CTC and I) were discussing the question of “idea” behind a work of art. “Function follows form,” I declared, in defiance of the moderns; but in agreement with Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, and McLuhan. I was stumped, however, on the question of “found art.” I suppose all photography to be “found art,” at best.

The most successful photographer I have met — a Welshman practising in the Far East, who still owes me some rent, incidentally — told me, many years ago: “Painters are born, sculptors are born, composers are born, poets are born. Photography is a hobby.”

I will allow this insight was worth something, but still find him a little in arrears. Though perhaps he made up the difference with other apperceptions, rendered before he flit our shared, over-priced flat — such as how to size up a portrait client. Vanity, he told me, has a certain cash value, and the trick is to estimate well. Too high, or too low, and you have lost the sale.

Though I have liked some potatoes more than others, I can’t reasonably say even one of them was vain. It is the apparent indifference of the potato, to human evaluation, that now has my attention; together with its capacity to sprout in the dark (thus actually diminishing its culinary value). The sensuous young nude, as it were, earth-apple of one’s eye, becomes old and wrinkled.

Not even Durer could impute a motive to any vegetable within his earthy still-lifes. Though here it must be said he never had the chance, with a potato, since these tubers did not penetrate to Nuremberg from the New World — via the Canaries and Antwerp, I think — until after his decease. (Basque fishermen first brought them to western Ireland, I believe, in the 1540s; only a couple of decades after some Spaniard had spotted one in the Quito market.)

Durer’s contemporary and pen-pal Leonardo might also have done immortal justice to this tuber, on first sight, if he had ever seen one. To this day it offers a certain je ne sais quoi to the ambitious botanical illustrator. But what I long for is a potato by Bellini.