A matter of contrasting fortunes?

Picasso's Les Femmes d'Alger, when will we see this work again?

Picasso’s Les Femmes d’Alger, when will we see this work again?

There are occasions when the juxtaposition of articles in a newspaper gives me cause for thought. Such was the situation yesterday evening as I sat with a cup of tea and perused the pages of The Guardian. On page three, there covering almost half of the page was a colourful reproduction of Pablo Picasso’s painting Les Femmes d’Alger (Women of Algiers). Painted in 1955, this picture captures the essence of the 19th century artist Delacroix’s painting of the same title, bringing it into the twentieth century through modernist representation and the bold use of colour. It is a truly magnificent work, and as someone who is an admirer of the Spanish painter’s work, I was pleased to see it presented in my daily newspaper.

The reason for the presentation of Picasso’s image were not related to its quality as a work of art, though it is undoubtedly a masterpiece. Indeed the accompanying article told the reader little about the painting’s history, the techniques deployed by the artist or its place in relation to other works from this period. Instead, the piece written by journalist Mark Brown was wholly focused on the astounding fact that Picasso’s Les Femmes d’Alger sold at Christie’s auction rooms in New York for a staggering £114 million pounds ($179,365,000), a record for any work of art. Both the seller of this work and the purchaser remain anonymous, but I suspect that their pulse rates quickened at the announcement of the astounding monetary figures involved.

By contrast, on page 40 of the same Guardian edition, Patrick Butler, the newspaper’s social policy editor, always a thought provoking writer, presented a piece in which he discussed the situation of children and families living in poverty in the UK. Just to be clear, the definition of a family in poverty used in this country, is those living on less than 60% of median national family income. In a well considered article, Butler suggests that the UK government target of reducing child poverty to less than 10% of the overall population by 2020, is unlikely to be met. The  government policy of austerity, which is set to continue following the recent general election,  appears likely to make this target unrealistic and may well exacerbate the situation to previously unrecorded levels. Indeed, he reports that the well-respected Institute for Fiscal Studies estimates that child poverty, currently recorded at 17% is likely to rise to 21% by the end of the decade. A figure that should make anyone who has a concern for the welfare of children stop and think (or better still protest against this appalling situation).

In contrasting the two articles, I must make clear that I have no difficulties in accepting that an anonymous purchaser can afford to pay such an eye watering sum of money for a painting. (Though I do hope that we will all have the opportunity to see Les Femmes d’Alger hanging in a public gallery and that it will not simply linger in a secure bank vault from now on). The reporting that we have such wealthy individuals in society is simply a fact of life that we have recognised for many centuries. I do however, have major concerns that whilst the sale of a work of art for a huge amount of money is celebrated and features high on the world’s media agenda, we confine the report on child poverty to a few column inches at the foot of page forty in a single newspaper.

In considering the two articles in the same edition of the Guardian, there was one word that remained in my mind for some time after reading both. Anonymity appears to be a feature of both pieces. The vendor and buyer of the great Picasso picture both remain unknown. They have presumably chosen to remain anonymous, shunning personal publicity in part for their own protection from the media and possibly those who might target their wealth. In Patrick Butler’s article, those children who are currently living in poverty, and those likely to be in this situation in the very near future, are also unnamed. This is not a criticism of the journalist, who can do no more than report the facts as he has obtained them. I suspect that many such children and families would also wish to retain anonymity in order to maintain their personal dignity and in the hope that their circumstances might change.

It seems to me strange that what I would see as excessive wealth, and abject poverty are both seen as a legitimate cause for anonymity. I wonder what the underlying purpose of this secrecy may be? Could it be that there  are elements of guilt or shame associated with these situations? Might it be that anonymity ensures that we do not see these phenomena in personal terms and therefore feel more distanced from them? Certainly I find it difficult to relate to a situation in which I could spend £114 million on a painting (or anything else for that matter!), but I am sure that I probably also have only a vague understanding of what it must be like to live in poverty. By anonymising these situations I am protected from having to understand the personal experiences of others.

Perhaps it is one of the great virtues of newspapers that they can provoke this kind of thinking by publishing such contrasting articles on the same day. Both Mark Brown and Patrick Butler have presented us with facts, but it is for us to determine how we interpret these and to consider our emotional responses. I do hope that the new owner of Les Femmes d’Alger enjoys this Picasso masterpiece, and that he enables us to share in his pleasure. I also hope that Patrick Butler and the Institute for Fiscal Studies are proven wrong in their predictions and that life will improve for the many families suffering hardship and penury.

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