By Richard Brewster, on 06-Feb-2017

Art lovers who visit Stonington mansion in Malvern over the next few days to view paintings earmarked for Menzies forthcoming auction on 9 February, will be struck on entry by the strong colour and highly stylised rendering of modern urban life in French 20th century master Fernand Léger’s 1943 work China Town, which takes pride of place in the foyer.

Menzies will hold their first auction for 2017 on 9 February in their rooms at 1 Darling Street South Yarra, and it will include a work from Danila Vassilieff’s most important period, the Soap Box Derby 1938, which according to Menzies head of Australian art Tim Abdallah, is the artist’s best work to come onto the Australian art auction market. Estimated at $40,000-50,000 it will have to exceed the top estimate to beat the record for a painting by the artist, which stands at $60,000 (hammer).

Léger painted the picture while residing in New York where, after leaving Paris three years earlier, he found ready assistance from billionaire president of the Museum of Modern Art, Nelson Rockefeller and president of Chrysler Motor Corporation, Walter Chrysler.

The French master is renowned as a strong advocate of cubism (a movement founded in 1907 to give painting a new form of visual impact) and is recognised as one of the forerunners of pop art.

At a catalogue estimate of $1.4 million to $1.8 million, China Town should generate interest from museums and high-end collectors with a taste for modern art big names.

The sale includes works by prominent Melbourne artists including Danila Vassilieff who, after being displaced by the Russian Revolution, arrived in 1923 in Australia.

During the 1930s, Vassilieff became the focus of attention for young Melbourne art patrons John and Sunday Reed and their Heide School artists Sidney Nolan, John Perceval and Albert Tucker – and his distinctive painting style and bohemian charisma provided the inspirational spark and encouragement the young Australian artists needed.

The auction includes a famous painting from Vassilieff’s most important period, the 1938 Soap Box Derby, which according to Menzies head of Australian art Tim Abdallah, is the artist’s best work to come onto the Australian art auction market.

Roger Kemp is another strongly individual Melbourne artist who, with Fred Williams and John Brack at the height of Modernism in the 1960s and 1970s, represented the high ground of Australian art.

An abstract counterpart to Williams, Kemp’s Untitled 1982 deserves to break the artist’s current record auction price of $114,000.

Both Kemp and Williams had the character and ability to produce Australian art comparable in standard to the most important works at the time of Europe and America.

Williams’ Australian Landscape 1969, featured on the catalogue’s front cover, is arguably the culmination of his most important period – when he crystallised the style that made him internationally famous.  

One of Australia’s best loved painters who many regard as the country’s greatest living artist, John Olsen, has three fine works in the auction including a large canvas from his best period Grevilleas and Tableland c1981-82 and two watercolours featuring his iconic frogs.

Few artists can claim the accolades and credentials Olsen has accumulated in more than 60 years of work (including an Archibald Portrait prize) and currently he is the subject of a stunningly beautiful retrospective at the National Gallery of Victoria.

Three previously unknown late-career landscapes by arguably Australia’s greatest “Old Master” Tom Roberts should attract plenty of buyer attention.

Roberts’ work is tightly held in public collections and museums and rarely appears on the secondary market.

According to Abdallah, the rediscovery of these paintings is a significant historic find and – along with two more of his landscapes – would be important additions to collectors of his works.

Other paintings of interest include Emily Kngwarreye’s Merne Alhalkere 1993, from Donald Holt at Delmore Downs Station in the Northern Territory, Brett Whiteley’s Blue Nude 4 from his daughter Arkie’s estate and Nicholas Chevalier’s Portrait of Miss Winifred Hudson as a Young Girl, Seated at a Piano, her Doll Nearby, commissioned by her father Ralph Hudson in 1888 and handed down through the family.

Sale Referenced: Australian & International Fine Art, Menzies, Melbourne, 09/02/2017