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Basquiat’s Versus Medici and the Black Renaissance

Eddie Saint-Jean, arts and culture

Why did Jean-Michel Basquiat give his painting that title Versus Medici and how is it connected with the current Black Renaissance? Well, here’s some background.

The Medici Family: A wealthy family of fifteenth century Florentine merchants who were patrons of artists such as Leonardo Da Vinci and Michelangelo and powered the Italian Renaissance.

Jean-Michel Basquiat: A black American graffiti artist of Haitian and Puerto Rican descent who was pals with Andy Warhol and Madonna and sold his first painting to Debbie Harry of rock band Blondie. His neo-expressive works created in the 1980s became much sought after art market treasures and his Versus Medici (1982) is expected to fetch $35 million -$50 million at auction in Sothebys, New York on May 12.

Jean-Michel Basquiat ‘Versus Medici’ (1982) SOTHEBY’S

In creating this work, Basquiat had no intention of emulating or depicting the Medici’s ascent from bankers to politicians, aristocrats and royals but in the early 1980s this Florentine family were clearly on his mind. During this period, he travelled to Italy for the first time seeking out patrons for his own work. His meeting with gallerist Emilio Mazzoli in 1981 led to his first ever solo exhibition at his Galleria d’Arte Emilio Mazzoli in Modena.

The show was named SAMO, which was his graffiti tag at the time. Interestingly, he later sought to distance himself from his graffiti roots once he made the transition from the streets to the studio, believing it devalued his cultural importance. His New York, New York, first displayed at the Modena exhibition would sell for $11m in a Sothebys sale in 2018.

Jean-Michel Basquiat ‘New York, New York’ (1982) SOTHEBY’S

The Brooklyn-born prodigy could read and write by the time he was four and spoke several languages fluently. In early adulthood there was little sign of him shying from his undoubted genius and by age 21 he was as sure of his place in art history as any of the Medici artists – even Michelangelo and Da Vinci. The Versus Medici work created at the time shows just that.

And is he crowning himself in that painting? Perhaps it marks the passing of the canon from the Florentines to the New Yorker. Or does it foresee Basquiat’s position at the head of the Black Renaissance in much the same way as Lorenzo and Cosimo de Medici held court in fifteenth century Italy?

His use of triptych panelling in Versus Medici underscores the Renaissance influences in the work. When Basquiat was starting out as an artist and struggling to make ends meet he would paint on whatever was around including discarded pieces of wood, floorboards and household panelling. In Versus Medici he has used three panels joined together which have the workmanlike look of the type of makeshift canvas he would have used in his earlier years.

He was not so much mimicking the tripartite altarpieces of medieval Italy as shaking the foundations of their unchallenged religious, political and racial tropes. This is no Transfiguration, St Jerome, St Augustine triptych by Botticelli but Basquiat clearly sees himself within that hierarchy.

Basquiat’s career lasted only seven years – he overdosed on heroin aged 27 – but his ascent was meteoric and his output considerable, producing over 2,000 works. His ‘Untitled’ Skull, 1982 painting with its raw, visceral, street art-style gestures against art convention would become the world’s most expensive painting by an American at auction in 2017 selling for $110m. The hefty price tag showed that whether or not his usurping of the Medici lineage is to be taken seriously, his work could still attract modern day super rich Medicis at auction.

Jean-Michel Basquiat ‘Untitled’ (1982)

The current Black Renaissance seeks to raise awareness about the importance of the black cultural gaze and socio-political experience and comes after the BLM protests in 2020. Basquiat, the most successful black artist in history, often faced racism and was routinely hassled by security during international flights because he sat in first class with dreadlocks.

His work challenged the white eurocentric gaze and subverted Western visual language; notably in Versus Medici where he positions himself at the vanguard of an undisclosed new renaissance. For these reasons his work resonates with the Black Renaissance movement, which is now reaching out beyond the USA.

Jean-Michel Basquiat in 1984. Photography by Richard Corman

Writer Eddie Saint-Jean is an arts and culture writer who reviews the London art scene and is familiar face at many exhibitions and private views in the capital. He is also an artist working in moving image and photography. His former studies in Visual Theories in Art and Film permeate his career as a journalist, artist and filmmaker.