This month, BRAFA returns to the cavernous Tour & Taxis in Brussels for its 63rd edition (27 January–4 February). A favourite of dealers and collectors in specialisms at the heart of Belgium’s collecting culture – including tribal art, comic strips, Belgian Surrealism and Expressionism, and art of the Haute Époque – the fair has significantly broadened its scope and international appeal under the watch of chairman Harold t’Kint de Roodenbeke. This year, there are 134 galleries from 16 countries, including Canada, Japan, Russia and the US.
Newcomers for 2018 include distinguished Parisian dealership Galerie Maeght, showing 20th-century paintings and sculpture, modern British gallery Osborne Samuel from London, and the combined forces of Paris-based tribal art specialists Philippe and Lucas Ratton. The strictly vetted works on display run the gamut from archaeological artefacts and Renaissance books to contemporary paintings, with Antwerp-based Axel Vervoordt demonstrating how to bring all this together in one striking display.
Among the works on Vervoordt’s stand is a large, iridescent blue, gold, and silver wall hanging (Intimation, 2014) by Ghanaian sculptor El Anatsui – a nod to the depth of expertise in traditional African art to be found at the fair. Didier Claes, the vice-chairman of BRAFA and one of Belgium’s leading tribal dealers, brings an astonishing polychrome wood and raffia Yaka mask from the Congo. This would have been used, says specialist Arthur Bourgeois, in rites of initiation. Another prominent Belgian dealer, Bernard de Grunne, offers an exceptional Gouro/Bété wooden mask of around 1850 from the Ivory Coast, as well as an early, powerful example of a two-faced Kota Janus reliquary figure, made from wood wrapped in copper and brass, from the Gabon.
Antiquities also make a strong showing. For its 13th year at BRAFA, Geneva and New York-based Phoenix Ancient Art brings a fine red-figure kylix or drinking cup, dated to 490–480 BC and signed by the potter Hieron, the refined painting ascribed to the vase painter Makron. Also on display here is a Sarmatian woven gold neckpiece with amethyst and turquoise from 100 BC–100 AD, the finials representing crouching animals. ArtAncient, a London dealership headed by Costas Paraskevaides, is making its debut at BRAFA, offering a diverse mix of archaeological, antique, and natural history items, including what Paraskevaides describes as ‘possibly the oldest item ever shown at the fair; an extraordinary, sculptural meteorite, which predates the formation of our planet’. Formed in the early solar system 4.6 billion years ago, this 20cm-wide meteorite landed 50,000 years ago and was collected by the famous meteoriticist, Harvey H. Nininger. ArtAncient also brings a collection of Greek coins – a return of ancient coins to the fair – including a silver Ionian tetradrachm with the bust of Artemis, minted in Magnesia around 150 BC.
ArtAncient claims to be the first exhibitor to introduce natural history to the fair, but this year another young dealership, Arezzo-based Theatrum Mundi – which describes itself as a 21st-century Wunderkammer – brings a two metre-long triceratops skull. Other curiosities include the original Leonardo Ninja Turtle costume used in Steve Barron’s film Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990), made by Jim Henson of Muppet fame. And, ‘so as not to be crazy in our presentation’, as the gallery’s Luca Cableri explains, Theatrum Mundi is also offering Andy Warhol’s Detail of Christ after the last supper by Leonardo Da Vinci, from the last cycle of work he completed shortly before his death in 1987.
In more orthodox fashion, two regulars to the fair, De Backker Medieval Art and Mullany Fine Art, are bringing outstanding medieval objects. De Backker, from Hoogstraten, offers a 15th-century reliquary from Nuremberg, complete with tower and turrets in gilded copper, and a startling polychrome pine sculpture of the Madonna Enthroned with Child (c. 1320–30) attributed to the Tyrolean Master of the Aufkirchen Saint Peter Enthroned. Mullany has a beautiful and well-preserved multi-figure alabaster relief depicting the Adoration of the Magi, made in Nottingham during the 15th century, and with traces of polychrome and substantial gilding. They are joined this year by newcomers Galeria Bernat from Barcelona, the only gallery in Spain that specialises in medieval and Renaissance art (a second branch recently opened in Madrid).
The fields of 20th-century and contemporary art are where the fair has seen the greatest expansion in recent years. Galerie de la Béraudière from Brussels offers work by Germaine Richier and a Calder mobile as well as a poised bronze elephant by Rembrandt Bugatti, while Osborne Samuel presents a display of British mid 20th-century sculpture, including a powerful series of works by Lynn Chadwick from the 1950s and Bernard Meadows’ vigorous Large ‘Jesus’ Crab (1952). Whitford Fine Art has long been a champion of Belgian art in Britain and British art in Belgium; it shows mid-century works by the Dutch-born Belgian Expressionist, Bram Bogart – who built his primary-coloured paintings out of plaster and cement – alongside work from the same period by the British Abstract Expressionist, Frank Avray Wilson.
Another London-based exhibitor, Aktis Gallery, displays work by the post-war French artist André Marfaing – known for his monochrome, sometimes thickly impastoed abstract paintings, and currently the subject of a retrospective at the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Quimper (until 26 March). In a quite different mood, La Patinoire Royale/Galerie Valérie Bach, based in a magnificent 19th-century roller-skating rink in Brussels, brings a selection of pieces by its international roster of artists, including shimmering wall hangings, incorporating gold leaf, by the Colombian artist Olga de Amaral. The gallery opens a solo show of her work on 29 March.
This year the fair’s guest of honour is Christo, known for the political, poetic wrappings of buildings that he created in collaboration with his late partner, Jeanne-Claude. He has chosen to exhibit an early work, the slightly sinister Three Store Fronts (1965–66), created shortly after the couple had migrated from Paris to New York. Relatively modest in scale for the artists, it is nevertheless, at more than 14 metres long, the largest work ever to be displayed at BRAFA. While you’re in Brussels for the fair, and as a contrasting pleasure, make time to slip along to the Banque Transatlantique to see Belgian gold and silver specialist Bernard de Leye’s display, ‘Gold and Silver Treasures’. Included among them is a gold and mother-of-pearl box, dated to 1743, adorned with an exquisite portrait miniature of an advisor to Louis XV, André-Haudry de Soucy, by the little-known André-Claude Martin Lefevre d’Orgeval. A treasure indeed.
BRAFA takes place at Tour & Taxis, Brussels, from 27 January–4 February.
From the January 2018 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.