Finer Things

Julian Elias Bronner at the 28th edition of TEFAF

Left: Dickinson’s James Roundell. Right: Sydney Picasso and collector Jane Bobrow. (All photos: Julian Elias Bronner)

SO, YOU’VE BEEN to Art Basel and to Art Dubai, but have you been to Art Europe? With no air of irony, the twenty-eighth edition of the European Fine Art Foundation (diminutively, TEFAF) commenced Thursday, March 12, with the pomp and pageantry of all the Continent’s histories rolled into one. Selling antiques, classical antiques, design, haute joaillerie, painting (contemporary, modern, and premodern), sculpture, and works on paper spanning seven thousand years of art history, the VIP opening in Maastricht’s MECC building felt as fragmented and contrived as one could expect from any union of Europe’s cultural differentials. With a notoriously picky vetting committee (one dealer told me he was only accepted after seven years of rejections) which guarantees lifelong membership and the greatest concentration of connoisseurship in their particular fields, the dealers at TEFAF boast the most elegant objects chosen to delight private and institutional collectors who come to gawk at the spoils and exploitations of the occidental past.

An onslaught of wine and hors d’oeuvres held by benignly pretty Dutch waiters and waitresses flooded the aisles, while gentlemen in jackets and ladies in eveningwear took to the booths at noon. I stumbled into Dickinson’s stand and before an 1888 Van Gogh painting made early during his Arlesian sojourn. “This work speaks of a happy moment in Vincent’s life, before the arrival of Gauguin,” surmised Dickinson’s James Roundell, with no less than a ten-million-euro asking price to back it up. Here, romanticization and the market coexist better when the artists are dead. Offering so many posthumous sales, TEFAF felt less like watching one’s parents having sex and more like imagining your great-great-grandparents marrying young and living together happily ever after––a fantasy better fit for the airtight confines of the museum than the art-fair agora.

Left: Dealer Avi Keitelman. Right: Dealer Hidde van Seggen.

“Maastricht: where the most beautiful objects in the world go to die,” admired one London-based curator, in reference to a truly arresting 1882 seascape by Monet at Keitelman Gallery, made ever more invaluable by its troubled provenance. Owned by Paul Rosenberg, looted by the National Socialist Party, and passed on through several collections in Switzerland before being restored to its owner after international litigation, seeing this seven-million-euro painting once again in exchange stirred mixed emotions, for better or for worse. If the contemporary art world has any remaining taboos about an increasingly flagrant market, come to Maastricht to see how even the masters end their days.

With the road to institutional collections lined with trials, TEFAF felt like a purgatorial salle d’attente for objects awaiting a permanent resting place elsewhere. Agnew’s capitalized on the ambiance with a thematically Dantean booth, flanking its centerpiece, Burne-Jones’s Souls on the Banks of the River Styx, 1873, with video works from Bill Viola’s “Martyrs” series, 2014. More macabre was a stunningly gruesome terra-cotta statue at Merrin Gallery of Xipe Totec, an Aztec votary gowned in the flayed, drooping skin of a sacrificial victim. New to the artistic programming was “Night Fishing,” a “curated presentation” by Sydney Picasso––stepdaughter of Pablo––and conceived by dealer Hidde van Seggelen, which focused on sculpture by artists who had never been shown at the fair (Baselitz via Ropac, Cragg via Buchmann, and Paik via Hans Meyer were discoveries for many collectors here).

Left: Dealer Christophe van de Weghe. Right: Artist Ewerdt Hilgemann and collector Jo Eijk.

Friday evening’s dinner at the Hedgehouse Foundation, hosted by collectors Jo and Marlies Eijk, was centered around an overview of Expressionist paintings by Lithuanian artist Richard Vaitiekūnas. Attached to the three-century-old gardens of Château Wijlre in Gulpen, the Wiel Arets–designed cold, sharp interiors provided refuge from the even more hostile temperatures and wildlife awaiting outside. (Frédéric de Goldschmidt was aggressed by a swan in the garden upon his arrival.) The Silvers were in town from New York, as was artist Ewerdt Hilgemann, whose stainless steel sculptures graced Park Avenue last fall. Things eventually took a quick turn from polite to heated when one German dealer at my table posed the question, “What’s worse: dirty money or dirty sex?” Upon asking my neighbor if he was enjoying the fair: “Well, if you’re going to be raped, you’d might as well lie down and enjoy it.” Ready to extinguish any hot topics came a tall, handsome waiter with a limoncello-flavored zephyr which he sprayed on each invité with a ceremonial air that announced dessert. A zesty end to dinner indeed.

Sunday afternoon, on the road back to Brussels, I stopped by the sixteenth-century Château de Waleffe outside of Liège for a private screening of British artist Emily Wardill’s new film The Palace. Hosted by Brussels art space La Loge, where Wardill’s acclaimed When You Fall into a Trance exhibited last spring, the screening took place in the estate’s old kitchen and was presided over by the property’s owner, the Baron de Potesta de Waleffe. A gritty, silvered topography of architectural and texturally indistinct forms flooded the subterranean cookery while a voice described, without narrative cohesion, the experience of monochromatism. Sight restored, the group met upstairs for a discussion between Wardill and neuroscientist Israel Rosenfield surrounding color blindness and body image. “There is no such thing as landscape. There is no such thing as character. There is no such thing as color. Our entire sensory world is a consequence of a synthesis of stimuli,” Rosenfield assured us around the dining table, while we tried to swallow his ontological-isms with heavy doses of cake and tea. As the last glimmer of sunlight shone onto the transfixed faces of surrounding guests and portraits from a distant ancestry, our immediate sense of who we were and where we were going seemed simultaneously lost and under formation.

Left: Neuroscientist Israel Rosenfield. Right: Dealer Philippe Jousse and art adviser Philippe Segalot.

Left: Marlborough Fine Art’s Andrew Renton. Right: Dealers Paul Kasmin and Eric Gleason.

Left: Dealer Laurent Kraemer. Right: Dealer Nicolas Kugel.