In NYC’s art-anointed Chelsea neighborhood, a few steps beyond the illustrious presence of Pace Gallery on West 25th Street, the pioneering Paris-based NFT platform LaCollection presents the first-ever NFT collection drawn from works of the expressionist artist Egon Schiele. This pop-up exhibition—known as Timeless Reflections. The Original Egon Schiele NFT Collection.—is hosted in collaboration with Vienna, Austria’s Leopold Museum, which houses the world’s largest Schiele collection. Exhibited during Frieze Week 2022, and open to the public through 22 May, the showcase brings Schiele masterpieces to life on screens that depict the utmost detail. These digital renditions manage to convey the emotional majesty of their source material and, of arguably greater importance, money raised through the sales of the NFTs will allow the Leopold Museum to acquire a rediscovered Schiele for its permanent collection.
Upon arrival, guests step into a space cast in moody, low light and a Schiele quote illuminated on the wall explains it: “I paint the light that emanates from all bodies.” As such, the light source in the exhibit is that of each individual digital artwork glowing from its frame. Though some of the NFTs are static, others—including two Schiele masterpieces—are kinetic. Captured by a video producer, they move into close detail and reveal unexpected color and texture (including Schiele’s own fingerprints). On one recessed wall hangs an NFT of the rediscovered piece, which the artist painted when he was 16. A projection on another wall features a revolving display of captivating digital artworks from contemporary artists represented by the Annka Kultys Gallery.
“We wanted to create a dialogue between an artist from the past and artists from the present,” Marlène Bergue Corbun, LaCollection’s head curator, tells COOL HUNTING. “Egon Schiele was the perfect choice both because of our partnership with the Leopold Museum but also because his practice addresses gender identity, multitudes of personality and the cycles of life, as well as the human body in general.” All of this is evidenced by the selected works, both of Schiele and of Stine Deja, Signe Pierce, LaTurbo Avedon and Marjan Moghaddam.
One wall in particular will draw much attention as it features three ultra-rare NFTs based on Schiele masterpieces that, in the physical world, are valued at $35-50 million. Most vivid among them, “Dead Mother” (1911) is much smaller in its original form. Corbun played with the digital size to emphasize the stark nature. Beside it are two of Schiele’s best-known works: “They are the jewels of the Leopold Museum,” Corbun explains. One is a self-portrait and the other is “Portrait of Wally Neuzil” (1912). “They look like they were made to be one painting because it’s the same tonality and the same technique—and also they appear to look at one another. Still, they are separated.” Neuzil was Schiele’s muse and lover, but they never married.
Populating the rest of the space are self-portraits and mirrors. During his tenure, Schiele produced many self-portraits and, uncommon at the time, male nude portraits. He also wove in powerful androgynous elements, unlike others of his generation. “Because Schiele did so much self-introspection, the mirrors are here for the guests to engage in personal introspection,” Corbun says. “This also aligns with the darkness of the space. Everything else within is drawn from Schiele’s world, from the frames of the mirrors—which are the same as those found in a picture of Schiele looking at himself in a mirror—to the chairs in the room, which are similar to those that he had in his studio.”
“We always wanted to create bridges between physical and digital spaces,” Jean-Sébastien Beaucamps, CEO and co-founder of LaCollection, tells us. In fact, LaCollection first launched in conjunction with a physical exhibition at one of their partner institutions, the British Museum. The idea was to complement a physical exhibition on Hokusai by presenting the museum’s entire 200-artwork collection on the LaCollection platform, rather than just the ones that were on display in the museum.
Historic institutions like the British Museum and the Leopold Museum are woven into the LaCollection business model. “For many of these museums, the audience is local, region or national but not very much international, especially as the pandemic has prevented tourism,” Beaucamps explains. Not only are NFTs a way to reach an international audience, they’re a way of displaying a greater part of a collection, as was the case with Hokusai.
“Some museums have more than 50% of their collection in the vault,” Beaucamps says. “Sometimes it is more than 90% or 95%. The rotation of collections is not that easy, even if they are doing loans with other museums to get these works out of their own walls. It can be difficult to get some of these masterpieces up and exhibitions can be rare because some can only be moved once every few years. NFTs are the perfect way to showcase these artworks without damaging them.”
Perks coincide with the museum-quality NFTs from LaCollection. “Ultimately, we would like to invite our NFT collectors to discover the physical artwork in the museum [on occasions] when it will come out of the vault specifically for them,” Beaucamps says. In essence, this is like creating a new type of museum membership. “We are not just selling NFTs. We want our collectors to feel that they are joining a club. They’ll have access to specific events, from dinners and cocktail parties to panels. Some of these will be privatized museum tours, some will be held in exclusive spaces. Collectors will also have dedicated content. We want to create more proximity between people passionate about art and curators from museums and even living artists. It’s a pathway to connection.”
As for how to display something like this, LaCollection offers some key collectors a Samsung Frame. “It’s to create what we call a ‘hybrid wall,’ in a collector’s home,” Beaucamps says. “This means they have a traditional painting together with digital art projected in a nice way.” LaCollection NFTs, including those at the Schiele exhibition, are released with varying degrees of rarity, as well. Beaucamps wants to keep some NFTs affordable to allow for discovery. That said, they do want to have some with extreme scarcity “in order to have people own a part of a wonderful masterpiece knowing that they as a collector are now a part of the museum.” Each NFT comes with a certificate of authenticity.
LaCollection presents a different narrative than other organizations in the NFT space. As such, they must do a lot of educating. “The starting point of LaCollection was a moment during the third lockdown in France when I was missing art a lot,” Beaucamps says. “I asked myself, ‘How can I enjoy culture even when institutions are closed?’ I was already in the NFT space and I was frustrated by the way art was being exhibited.” Beaucamps wanted to tailor curation and presentation and prepare the surrounding content with curators of the utmost quality. What LaCollection has done thus far with Hokusai and Schiele embodies this dream.
“Whether or not they know its name, everyone is familiar with ‘The Wave’ by Hokusai so it’s the icon we decided to start with,” Beaucamps says. “We knew everyone would recognize it and it would create curiosity for our platform.” Now that they have the start of a community interested in learning about art history, LaCollection can experiment. Such was the case with their NFTs for the visionary Italian artist Piranesi, who is far from a household name but a treasure to all who are familiar. “With Piranesi it was also a way to test something new: the 3D digitization of a sculpture,” Beaucamps adds. “It’s a new concept and a new offering from LaCollection. It’s a new way to discover art.”
Ultimately, it’s about forging a deep connection. “When visiting a museum you spend an average of two to four seconds in front of an artwork,” Beaucamps says. “It’s limited. But, if you discover an artwork first through a digital lens, you will spend time zooming in and out and learning about what was behind it. That adds so much meaning. When that person sees that original piece in a museum, they won’t spend two seconds, they will spend much more and they will have even more emotional response.” For those who cannot get to the Leopold Museum in Vienna, LaCollection is offering an opportunity to see a masterful curation in an entirely new way.
Images courtesy of LaCollection