Rigour, eclecticism and a dash of of madness for good measure… From Saturday 27January to Sunday 4 February, BRAFA opens in Brussels, kicking off the new season of international art fairs. It’s the event that sets the New Year in motion for the antiques, paintings and collectibles market and at the heart of Europe, it’s an unmissable happening for all art lovers!
“Those were the days where Brussels used to dream…”, sang the great Jacques Brel, in 1962. More than half a century later, as a new year begins, the people of Brussels are still dreaming and going about their quirky ways in the Belgian capital… Couture dresses, though less glittery than those worn on Saint Sylvestre, remain popular and fashionable businessmen are now opting for sharply cut Italian suits rather than the tuxedos trotted out over the festive season… But who or what exactly are we talking about? A umpteenth private reception private for the upper echelons of society, determined not forget a sense of celebration in these troubled times? No; we are talking about an artsy preview night, saturated with the finest champagne, precious materials and beautiful objects. Where the whole of Brussels, or maybe even the whole of Europe, can come to take in the splendour and wet their appetite for fine art. This January, you can spend nine days strolling around the Brussels Art Fair, whose rather ungainly acronym, BRAFA, tells one nothing of the finesse and elegance to be found in this show of pieces, paintings and furniture – that one will have the opportunity to see – and perhaps even own.
Whilst BRAFA is indeed an annual fair of beauty, happily, we’re talking about affordable beauty. Nestled into the treasure chest that is the Tour & Taxis site, whose stylish industrial facade whisks us back to the beginning of the last century, or even the end of the 19th century… to the days of Victor Horta, Emile Tassel and Art Nouveau, to a time when stations were filled with billowing steam and progress… Above all, BRAFA is the first of the year’s art fairs to awaken the desires of collectors, despite any potentially costly follies of the end of 2017.
All about Leonardo
Before moving on to the event of the season, with all its awaiting treasures, we must address something which has given us food for thought since last November… In case you’ve been in hiding for the last two months: A certain Mr Da Vinci, it seems, had not had his last word, as his Salvator Mundi roared onto the Old Master’s art market (long considered a “safe investment”) and achieved millions upon millions of dollars at auction (450,3 to be precise, at Christie’s New York). Well, since July 2002 and the record sale of Rubens’ Massacre of the Innocents in London at Sotheby’s for a trifling 79 million euros, the Old Masters are not quite out of their Olympian calm despite the occasional remarkable sale in Europe and elsewhere. It is still quite a leap however, to say that this segment of the art market would supplant that of modern and contemporary art. It is even possible to say that this particular piece might have a real impact on the European, or even global market? Will the effects even reach the tranquil stands of BRAFA? Even if the high-value sale of this particular Leonardo piece is able to shed some light on a lesser-known area of his work, it is doubtful to think that it will inspire a rapid leap of prices in Brussels. At any rate, the sale might inspire some collectors, still cautious in the beginning of the year, to look a bit harder for some more hidden gems. Is it just an exception that proves the rule – or an epiphenomenon? Only time will tell.
Now that we’re up to date, let’s move on to serious things; BRAFA in 2018 is the 63rd edition of an event that no longer has anything to prove in terms of stability. This year, 135 exhibitors from all four corners of the world (or almost) are invited, with nearly 25,000 items covering four millennia of civilization. Suffice it to say that there will be some tough choices to make for collectors! From archaeology, numismatics, tribal art, rare books, furniture, paintings, prints and other cabinets of curiosities, BRAFA has something to offer everyone! Visitors will be spoilt for choice. On the subject of visitors, this year the fair expects to welcome at least 60,000. The fair has become an unmitigated success. “In six years, attendance at the fair went from 42,000 to 62,000 visitors,” Harold t’Kint de Roodenbeke, president of the Brussels fair, tells us. This equates to an increase of around 3,500 entries each year, a figure far from negligible. Another important point: four galleries – the Chamarande (Brussels), the Dario Ghio (Monaco), Thomas Salis (Saltzburg) and Tanakaya (Paris) galleries – who had left the discrete, carpeted aisles of the fair in recent years, are back. Fourteen others make their first appearance at the fair, including (amongst others) the historic Maeght Gallery, the unrivaled Ratton Gallery, the Repetto Gallery gallery, specialising in modern and contemporary Italian art, the upmarket Gallery of the Presidency and the Italian Theatrum Mundi, home to various incredible 21st century curiosity cabinets. In summary, all eras, forms and media are exhibited for a reassuring, but also highly varied, show. The cherry on the top of the Belgian fries is a lovely selection of contemporary art traders, providing a refreshing counterpoint to the older pieces on display – which constitutes the majority. This is fair which is open, without becoming too risky and where the diversity of pieces presented corresponds to a real strategy to satisfy as many visitors as possible and to raise the international profile of the event. Although historically criticised, this element of eclecticism has little by little become the footprint of the fair, helping to establish its idiosyncrasy within the wider art fair landscape.
The BRAFA method: median positioning and careful vetting
There is a wide range of prices here, from the fairly low to more substantial sums for rare, museum-grade coins. Buyers know this, and they gather in hoards; discrete yet shrewd locals, proud of their heritage, art lovers with refined tastes, loving both the quiet beauty of tradition as much as the unexpected surprise of contemporary work. There are collectors coming to the fair from all over Europe in search of forgotten treasures and offbeat pieces of the sort only the Belgians can offer. A wide range of prices does not mean sacrificing quality; there is not question of downplaying the value of objects. The vetting procedure is the confirmation of the quality of a piece by the Admissions Boards for exhibits. International experts, “checking the pieces of work, supported by the rigorous services of the scientific and radiographic lab at the centre of the fair”, verify pieces by Gromaire and Signic, evaluate Uli statues, cycladic idols and Golden Age statues of the Virgin with Child, amongst others. In other words, there is a solid panel of experts using various scientific techniques right at the heart of the fair, in order to give quality assurance to traders and collectors alike. Furthermore, there are guided tours organised by the fair for friends of museums and groups of professionals, affirming the fair’s delicately balanced position between orderly museum and chaotic flea market. It’s a well-oiled tactic these days- but it does work!
Brussels, Capital of Europe
If you’re still not completely convinced, surely the guest of honour Christo will reel you in with something beyond anything either the fair or its visitors could have imagined. Following on from 2017 guest of honour Julio Le Parc, Christo has chosen to exhibit a historic piece at this year’s BRAFA; Three Store Fronts, part of his Show Cases, Show Windows and Show Fronts series from the 1960s. Indeed, BRAFA is also an open-air museum where the work of the guest artist contributes to the overall brilliance of a primarily commercial event. If the work on display at the fair still doesn’t satisfy your appetite for aesthetic stimulation, you can always head over to the halls of the ING Art Center, place Royale, to see the undisputed masters of packaging Christo and Jeanne-Claude with their exhibition “Urban Projects”.
On your way to and from the fair, you can also squeeze in a trip to the Boghossian Foundation and take a look at “Ways of Seeing”, an exhibition exploring “ways in which artists give new meanings to forms and appearances to concepts that are familiar to us.” At Villa Empain, “Snapshots of the East” comprises some of the most beautiful photographs from the Photographers Biennale of the contemporary Arab World 2017, just in case you missed it in Paris. For fans of the 8th art, the Museum of Ixelles will offer a retrospective of the French photographer Robert Doisneau, never previously exhibited in the Netherlands. At the Magritte Museum, Marcel Broodthaers and his acolytes pay homage to the giant of Belgian surrealism with “Magritte, Broodthaers and Contemporary Art”.
Once you’ve exhausted the Belgian Fine Comic Strip Gallery or the lovely original comic book sketches on show at Huberty & Breyne Gallery, you must make one final trip to the Hergé Museum in Louvain, a proven delight for visitors of any age.
So from 27 January to 4 February, you’ll have no reason not to give in to the artistic sirens enticing you to all things Belgian. In 1900, Brussels was considered to be the largest cultural hub of Europe. In 2018, whilst still in the grip of winter, Brussels confirms once more the power, dedication and excellence of its dealers and experts in ancient, modern and contemporary art. Over the past decade, Brussels has also asserted herself as central to the arts scene, with the eccentric touch unique to Brussels attracting many contemporary art professionals who prefer to settle here. Becoming very trendy and dubbed by some as the “new Berlin” is also a place of exceptional creativity, with a large pool of both renowned and emerging artists. BRAFA channels similar energy produced through the creative process – and we wouldn’t be surprised if, strolling through the fair, we heard the faint humming of a song by Belgian export Stromae: “Great… you were great…” Refreshed and full of vigour, BRAFA 2018 is certainly set to be great!
BRAFA – Brussels Art Fair. Saturday 27th January to Sunday 4th February (preview Friday 26th January). Tour & Taxis, 88 avenue of the Port, Brussels, Belgium. www.brafa.art
Art Talks, a platform for reflection
Reminding us that the art world is not all about the money, this year BRAFA is offering a carefully curated programme of “conversations” and “round tables” with a distinctly local feel. The program offers a new approach to some iconic yet innovative Belgian artists, on topics such as indigenous art, Russian painting or “conservation and management of works of art techniques in the collections.” The story of the great collector Angela Rosengart, who opened a Museum in Lucerne in 2002, will satisfy fans of the biggest names in the painting of the 20th century. Anne Adriaens-Pannier, Honorary Curator of the Royal Museums of the fine arts of Belgium is sure to shed new light on Léon Spilliaert. The public will be invited to unravel the mysteries of the 19th century Russian painting, to wander around with Nicolas Cauwe, curator of the exhibition “Oceania. Travel into the vastness”, at the heart of the faraway continent of Oceania, to debate Northern Europe’s much-loved curiosity cabinets… Not to mention work by René Magritte and Henri Matisse- pieces that will be considered by the heavyweight collectors in attendance. A carefully constructed program, executed by researchers at the forefront of their field, make BRAFA not only an art fair, but also a platform for reflection.
“Whilst we usually only exhibit at the Salon du dessin and the Paris Biennale, this year, we have decided to expand on a more international level by attending BRAFA. It’s only fair, our Belgian collectors really do deserve to have us go to them! The quality of the fair just gets better and better, and it is a very well organized, its mixture of segments – from indigenous arts, 18th century furniture, design, Impressionist paintings, modern designs and so many others – give it a certain charm. On a human level, visitors really enjoy coming back time and time again! On our stand, visitors will see, amongst other things, the paintings and drawings of Edmond Cross, Paul Signac, Marcel Gromaire but also a Serge Poliakoff, a Charles Vasnier of 1924, a very beautiful gouache and oil Marquet of Vieira da Silva… In short, we will present pieces by great artists at affordable prices, and we like! For us BRAFA symbolises eclecticism, generosity and diversity. It is a fair that facilitates discovery and the growth of international relationships.
Florence Chibret-Plaussu, Director of the Gallery de la Présidence