I’m just back from Brussels and BRAFA, the country’s biggest and best art and antiques fair (on until February 2) that is also the lively evidence that the quirkiness of Belgians even more than their chocolates makes a visit to Belgium a special treat
Think of that little bronze boy in the centre of Brussels who has stood there taking a piss since the 17th century; the wit with a twist that leaps off the pages of Tin Tin or the visual games of Rene Magritte. BRAFA offered plenty of other examples.
What follows is my short list of the quirkiest pieces at the fair this year; the works that, whether they made me smile or gulp or put a spring in my spiritual steps. I did not realize it until my list was complete but surely it is no coincidience that while only 50 of the fair’s 138 dealers are Belgian, almost everything on it is shown by a Belgian, designed by a Belgian or targeted at art lovers who share the national taste for the idiosyncratic
Top of the list is what greeted me as I passed through security and entered BRAFA during preparations for its opening night Gala.
The waterfall of flowers hanging from the rafters from the former industrial warehouse is delightful but it’s that carpet stretching out for what looks like miles; so unexpectedly bright and full of light that makes the fair explode with good cheer. And good sense: Each year BRAFA stages a competition in which art students submit designs for the carpet that will cover its floors. Lucie David won it this year. Clearly she has talent and imagination but there is also that Belgian twist: Caution would dictate a subdued design that would not compete with what dealers are hoping to sell. She went for boldness and it has paid off big time.
2. At Epoque Fine Jewels, in amongst the elegant diamond tiara by Chaumet and the poetic pieces by Lalique, this small brooch, “Man on the Moon” was the odd man out but surely the most amusing—and timely. The Kortrijk company joins the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing with this piece by the Wolfers a venerable Belgian firm. There was no reply when I went back to ask its price: the reason: It had swiftly sold.
3. BRAFA’s oddest couple maybe the pair of objects on view next to one another at the Italian gallery Theatrum Mundi.. On the left is a chunk of black volcanic rock found in Lybia that you could hold in the palms of both your hands—if you have superhuman strength. This exceedingly rare meteorite from Mars weighs in at almost 2000 kilos. The cost of shipping home such a heavy piece will not be cheap but maybe it won’t seem that much to a buyer prepared to pay its asking price o one million euros. For all it’s rarity and importance I did not see the meteorite at first because I was so taken by its next-door neighbour a ceramic sculpture that could have been titled: “Everbody needs a vacation, even the Abonamible Snowman.”
“Yeti with a suitcase,” is from the 2015 series called “Creatures” by Paolo Maione. With its thumg out the yeti is trying to hitch a ride with whoever is perpared to take him away for euros 9,000. So companionable and funny and so inexpensive for contemporary art.
5. Chairs have personality and beautifully designed ones can be works of art; facts that become obvious when they are first seen some place other than on the floor. These three airborne lovelies lured my eyes onto the green and white stand of Brussels dealer Gokelaere & Robinson. Only after I stopped did I notice the others, each with all four feet on the ground. Aptly named “Butterflies” these form a rare set of 10 by Danish architect/ designers Eva and Nils Koppel. Made in the late 1950s the are priced at euros 70,000.
6. “Who was this hula dancer?” I asked myself as I went to have a closer look at this wooly tapestry on the stand of Brussel’s Galerie de la Beraudiere. Wrong part of the planet, I learned as I read the label: “Olga Preobrajenska, danseuse russe.” This is a 1974 work by Italian artist and writer Enrico Baj, and priced at euros 150,000. Terrific whether the subject of the portrait was wiggling around on Waikaki beach or St Petersburg.
6 and 7. Paris dealer Yann Ferrandin is well known for tribal art and he has many fine pieces on view but it is a row of six Japanese masks that hooked me fast, above all these two examples carved from cedar which were worn in Noh theatrical performances. Each has the name of the character being played but I can’t help thinking of one as Beauty, created in the 17th c and the other as the Beast fashioned a century later. To a Westerner, Noh theatre itself may seem as quirky as a Magritte image but also as profound; a reminder that there is nothing inferior or lesser about that word. In Noh theatre, all parts are played by men. Just looking these two visually powerful and rare examples, how to begin to understand how they help the actors transform into the character. “Beauty” sold fast; priced at euros 30,000.
8. At first sight, I thought it was a Hippo but no, this hefty yet jaunty bronze is CAT or le chat as his zillions of Belgian and French fans will already know. Cartoonist Phillippe Geluck and his character CAT are stars and many examples of their collaboration are on view here at Hubery & Breyne, based in Brussels. Here Cat as “Atlas” after the mythical Greek whose punishment was to hold up the heavens for eternity, makes the task seem like fun.
9. With me and “Deep-Sea Aquarium Bas-Relief” by Paula Swinnen’s it was love at first sight –but why? Was it the sculpture’s echo of the 1930s luxury liner decor? The fluidity of water expressed in bronze? The fact that the scarlet octopus crawls up a wall; the lipstick red crab near the floor, the golden and smoky- blue fishes thread their way up through fronds of greeny gray seaweed rather than across a seabed so that the ensemble fills the open doorway at the entrance to Brussel’s Galerie Lin Deletaille? I have no idea; all I know is that I was captivated. Swinnen first makes a wax model, then oversees the foundry as her original is cut into segments and cast. She then welds the pieces back together while dressed in a top- to- toe white outfit very like a spacesuit. The result? a unique piece available for euros 38,000.
10. I end with a question mark. Or maybe several.
I stood in front of exhibitor Paris based Galerie Patrice Trigano and stared at “Chiquita Banana” by Mel Ramos (euros 150,000) and and found myself in a no-man’s land—or do I mean no-woman’s? What is art? What is porn? Why bother? Also the echo of that famous misogynist crack, “Where’s your sense of humour honey?” It ain’t a new story: Think of all those Modigliani outstretched, naked ladies, turned out because so many rich men wanted one for their billiard rooms. So it was. So it is. Maybe…so it won’t always be. This creation has not flown out of the dealer’s stock. He showed it at BRAFA in 2018, too.
Paula Weideger author and arts journalist