Cultural Treasures And Cultural Threats: BRAFA 2016 Previews In A Political Hotbed

Floral installation by BRAFA 2016 Guest of Honor Marc Colle

Floral installation by BRAFA 2016 Guest of Honor Marc Colle

These have not been the best of times for the European capital. In recent months, Brussels has confronted terror threats, Christmas riots, and a plague of radical Islam in its own communities. There have been Christmas tree burnings and the cancellation of New Year’s festivities for fear of terrorist activity, all of which have combined to give the city, largely famous for Old Master painters, exquisite lace, and the world’s best chocolate, a new label: the Capital of Jihad.

Against this backdrop, BRAFA, the Brussels Fine Art and Antiques Fair now celebrating its 61st year, opens this week in an expanded and redesigned edition. With more than 15 new galleries joining the fair, most of them focusing on Modern and Contemporary art, the event now includes 137 galleries whose wares range from curiosities (animal and human skulls and the stuffed – real – head of a two-headed bull calf at Finch and Co.) to Medieval Masterpieces (a c.1500 Brussels School “Virgin Nursing the Christ Child” at Mullany) to Modern (a chess-themed series of works by Man Ray at Jablonka Maruani Mercier) and Contemporary (Jan Fabre and Keith Haring works at Guy Pieters). Alongside these are spectacular examples of diamond estate jewels by Cartier and Boucheron (Bernard Bouisset), Lalique pendants (Epoque Fine Jewels) and archeological treasures (Cybele, Harmakhis and others), and a remarkable reconstruction of a house designed for refugees at the end of WWII by Jean Prouvé (at the joint stand of Dierking, Thomas Salis and Frank Landau).

At the VIP preview, staged in a reconfigured space (to accommodate the larger number of galleries), collectors wandered, as one would expect, from booth to booth, enjoying the signature eclecticism of this top-level fair, where the Legers at one stand could be followed immediately by, say, 17th-century silver or Egyptian burial figures. There was Champagne and chocolate, and a rainbow of macarons — including a bizarre assortment of raspberry and chocolate-flavored ones stuffed not with raspberry or chocolate filling, but salmon and foie gras.

I am not making this up.

And yet.

There was a subdued air to the evening this year, and a crowd that seemed less satisfied than they might. Indeed, despite the occasional star works, many felt (as did I that this year’s offerings are not up to BRAFA’s usual standard. As one critic put it to me privately, “there were any number of things I’d be happy to have if you gave them to me, but nothing I felt I would love to own” or felt moved or passionate about. )

Did politics have anything to do with it? Did fear?

Certainly the crowds were thinner than I remember them from past years (though I don’t know for certain, having not yet seen the numbers). Star participant Galeria Manuel Barbie, which usually brings some of the most delightful 20th-century pieces, from Calder and Delaunay to Vasarely and Fontana – skipped the fair this year, and I, for one, felt their absence.

This was not helped by the reconfiguration, with narrowed and confusing aisles that made even some of the major galleries difficult to locate.

This last, though, is likely a simple matter of growing pains, the kind of thing that can and will surely be worked out in the next year or two. But the political situation may prove a bigger challenge. More than one dealer told me they nearly didn’t come at all. (It occurs to me as well that perhaps this explains the number of – frankly – third-rate Modern and Contemporary galleries in place of what surely, at a fair of this caliber and importance, should be significantly better and more international ones; the list of Who Should Be Here And Isn’t is sadly longer than it should be – as is the list of Who Is Here Who Probably Should Not. To be honest.)

And that’s unfortunate, because this has always been my favorite art fair.

Still, I am confident that it will be again. And to be sure, it is certainly worth a visit – there are some gems amidst it all, if fewer than I’m accustomed to. (That said, I will revisit the fair and search out more of them than I was able to get to in the Champagne-and-macaron haze of opening night.) And many dealers remain deeply committed to BRAFA, as do their clients. Asked if he had thought twice about attending this year, for instance, Nicholas Mullany of Mullany answered, “not a blink.” Paris and Brussels, he said, are crucial for his business; he visits both cities often. “Nothing is going to make us live our lives any differently,” he said. “Why should we?”

BRAFA opens to the public on January 23. More detailed reports to follow.

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