An air of bleakness
The world is at a standstill and it seems as though the love of art is unable to change anything. China aside, the announcement of the temporary closure of museums in Italy, the cancellation of the Art Basel Hong Kong fair and the fair in Dubai at the end of March have given the art market an air of bleakness. In the United States the modern and contemporary art fair the Armory Show is being held until 8 March, but its quality is dropping, along with Independent, which is smaller yet more impactful and dedicated to current radical art.
In Europe, which is more worried about the coronavirus, the largest and best fair in the world dedicated to antiques opened on 5 March 2020, the Tefaf in Maastricht in Holland. With 280 exhibitors this year, it stands out in this anxious world as a pocket of resistance. Usually it attracts a crowd of reputedly rich curators from American museums, among others. But the majority of them have declined to attend the fair this year – although we did notice the presence of Guillaume Kientz (he was also the curator of the Greco exhibition in Paris) for example, curator of European art at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth – along with art lovers and professionals from Asia, understandably.
The president of Tefaf
“Only three exhibitors have cancelled their participation,” emphasizes the president of the fair, Patrick Van Maris.
Against all the odds the 2020 edition of the Tefaf is of a particularly high standard, assembling numerous museum-quality works. The Hammer Galleries from New York, for example, is presenting a small landscape piece by Vincent Van Gogh dating from his stay in Paris in 1886, when he began to brighten his palette and discover the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists. It’s on sale for a little over 10 million dollars.
The director of the gallery, Howard Shaw, has placed it in dialogue with artists who influenced him, like Edgar Degas. A rare canvas by Degas “Trois danseuses en tutu jaune” (“Three Dancers in Yellow Skirts”), which is an explosion of fiery hues ranging from red to orange, dating from around 1891, is presented at the same booth for a little over 37 million dollars. This is probably the most expensive work at the fair. Howard Shaw, when asked about the hostile context in which the Tefaf is taking place, says: “I would never have had so much media coverage if I hadn’t taken part in the Tefaf.”
At a neighbouring booth, Dickinson from London, the quality game is also being played, since we’re going back only a few months in the history of art, with the display of another Van Gogh, a landscape from 1885 in Holland on sale for around 15 million dollars.
Some exhibitors have made a considerable effort. This is true of French dealer Christophe de Quenetain, a specialist in the French decorative arts. In order to build and decorate his booth, which pays homage to Versailles, he ordered no less than 8.5 tonnes of marble. In pride of place at the centre of his space there’s a bronze statue of Louis XIV standing 1.05 metres tall, made by the great French sculptor of the early 18th century, François Girardon (1628-1715), on display for 13 million euros. Other versions of the Sun God on horseback can be found at the Louvre, the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg, and in the Queen of England’s collections. “Although certain potential buyers haven’t made the journey, they’ve sent their envoys,” explains Christophe de Quenetain before adding: “150 private jets are due to touch down today at Maastricht’s airport.”
In the category of “French Kings”, the London dealer Stair Sainty is presenting a portrait of King Charles X from 1825 wearing his coronation outfit painted by the most famous portraitist of the early 19th century, Baron Gérard (1770-1837). Spectacularly sized (261x185cm), it is on sale for about 2 million euros. It was sold by Sotheby’s in Paris for 147,500 euros in 2019. It was identified then as the work of Baron Gérard and his atelier. In a richly documented catalogue the dealer proves that this work is, in fact, the only one on this theme from the hand of the artist himself.
Puvis de Chavannes
Among the great discoveries of the fair, the Parisian gallery Talabardon & Gautier are unveiling a scene from the New Testament (225×220) by the modern mystic from Lyon, Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (1824-1898) (on sale for 2.6 million euros). It was meant to adorn one of his great decorations for the Pantheon in 1876, but he changed his mind and decided to keep it. The artist’s record price is 850,000 euros, but the market usually never offers large-scale works by Puvis de Chavannes.
The Tomasso brothers from London are exhibiting an interesting bronze piece, which is a good encapsulation of the continuity of their art history tastes. In the early 16th century a sculptor from northern Italy effectively cast a portrait of Roman Emperor Lucius Verus, which was copied from the sculpture from antiquity. In the 1930s it also belonged to the modern French painter André Derain. It is now on sale for 950,000 euros.
This year the contemporary section at the Tefaf has improved in quality. Tornabuoni from Paris, who specialize in the Italian avant-garde , are exhibiting a monumental work from 1965 conceived as a bronze tableau in relief measuring 4.6 metres in length, by the sculptor Arnaldo Pomodoro (born in 1926) (on sale for 1.3 million euros). “I opened in Paris in 2008, in the middle of the financial crisis,” explains the founder of the gallery Michele Casamonti (Watch him speaking about the market of Alberto Burri and Alighiero Boetti). “In turbulent times it’s the most motivated collectors who buy, not the speculators. The only way to attract them is to display exceptional works.”
One of the most poetic booths at the fair is that of French gallerist Kamel Mennour, who has brought casts of old Italian olive trees covered in earth and dried flowers, conceived by the Swiss artist who lives in New York, Ugo Rondinone (born in 1964) (on sale for 350,000 dollars each). He’s surrounded them with works that allude to the monochrome tree structures, from a drawing by Victor Hugo to a composition by the culturally Japanese Korean contemporary painter and sculptor Lee Ufan (born in 1936).
We also find Lee Ufan’s work – he’s due to open a foundation in Arles in June 2020 – at the highly original booth of the Shibunkaku gallery, who have made the journey from Kyoto for a second time. On a double panel from the 1990s, Lee has arranged four large brushstrokes conceived as compositions in their own right. This is the practice of using a single gesture, associated with zen meditation. (On sale for around 350,000 dollars).
These days, in light of the turmoil predicted for the art market and values being called into question in the near future, perhaps practicing zen meditation is a good recommendation.
Until 15 March.
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