A Giant Among Art Fairs Spreads Its Reach
MAASTRICHT, THE NETHERLANDS — The European Fine Art Fair, which opened Friday in its 26th edition and runs through March 24, is the last encyclopedic training ground available in a world where art for sale is vanishing. More than 700 stands, spread out in the MECC fair and conference center, cut across space and time.
The tapestry ‘‘Don Quixote and Sancho Panza Tilting at Windmills’’ is part of a wide range of works at the European Fine Art Fair.
Even if circumscribed to Europe, the broad span is astonishing.
Dealers of the old school whose love of art takes them from the Middle Ages all the way to the 19th century are the driving force that gives the show the appearance of a treasure house magically renewed year after year.
On the stand of the Galerie Neuse from Bremen, Germany, “Don Quixote and Sancho Panza Tilting at Windmills” catches the eye from afar on a tapestry woven in London between 1660 and 1684. The coat of arms of the Pasey family from Berkshire reveals an unexpected awareness in central England of Cervantes, at a time when relations with Spain were not exactly cordial.
Nearby, an extraordinary silver gilt toilet service executed in Augsburg between 1751 and 1755 illustrates the radical conversion of southern German silversmiths to the Rococo aesthetics of the French court. The highest circles of German society, including ecclesiastical authorities, embraced them with equal enthusiasm — the service was commissioned to be presented to the Archbishop of Mainz and Prince Elector Johann Karl von Ostein, who died in 1763.
For rarity, the service is outshone by a silver bowl from 14th-century France. The vessel bears witness to the European fascination with the art of the Islamic East. The parcel gilt whirling rosette in the center goes back to Syrian models possibly transmitted by Venetian silversmiths and enamelers. A mysterious mark struck on the rim, “SS,” remains uncrypted.
Next to Neuse, Anthony Blumka of New York also casts his net far and wide. A large Hispano-Moresque charger was painted in dark blue and gold (so-called copper luster) enamels in Manises, Spain, between 1435 and 1480. In an area then under Christian control, the artistic tradition of Arab Spain was still upheld at the highest level.
A few steps away, an ivory low relief carved in the 17th century by Frans van Bossuit, who died in Amsterdam in 1692, depicts Saint Magdalene seen sideways head and shoulders. The young woman, eyes closed, lays her hand on a head, indistinctly represented. The remarkable miniature sculpture is a reminder that fame can bypass great masters.
To leave Europe, walk over to the stand of Jorge Welsh of Lisbon. In Sri Lanka, the meeting of East and West gave rise to some highly original objects. A small cabinet dating from the 17th century is of surprising modernity in its lean geometrical decoration executed in tortoiseshell panels framed by thin ivory bands. A piece of paper found inside one drawer states that the marvelous cabinet formed part of the collection assembled by Frederick Samuel Robinson (1827-1909), 1st Marquis of Ripon, the son of Prime Minister Frederick John Robinson.
If anything beats the cabinet for originality with a modernist twist, this is Chinese porcelain from Zhangzhou made in the late 16th or early 17th century. Mr. Welsh displays two dishes, once part of a service with spindly white motifs inspired by the papaya tree that are set off by the grayish blue ground. This rare type of Zhangzhou porcelain was avidly sought after in Indonesia, where some of it is displayed in the Jakarta Ceramic Museum.
Further afield, glimpses of early Hindu art in Southeast Asia can be caught on the stand of Marcel Nies from Antwerp. A small Khmer bronze of the 12th century is the ultimate rarity from Cambodia. Four seated figures support a circular platform on which Yama, the Hindu deity of death, is enthroned, triumphantly clutching the remains of a rod in his raised hand. Elsewhere, a bronze figure of the 12th-century cast in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu represents the god Vishnu in his incarnation of Krishna as a child dancing with a smile on his closed lips. An ambiguous forcefulness emanates from the chubby fellow perched on one leg, his right index raised as if in admonition.
For Surrealist irony, the elephant-headed and multi-armed Ganesha surpasses Krishna. The potbellied stone deity, carved in 11th-century Bengal, raises its eyebrows, as if marveling at its own appearance.
Nowhere else could you see, along with Western objets d’art and Southeast Asian sculpture, an early silver plate from Hispanic America.
At S.J. Phillips, a 17th-century silver bowl from Guatemala City slipped in amid European silver and jewelry from the Renaissance to Victorian times for which the London gallery is renowned. An openwork silver platter of sorts, merely characterized as “South American ca. 1640,” may trigger feverish debate in academia. The vague labeling is as good as an admission that a whole area of art from the New World awaits in-depth investigation.
Extend the art-learning curriculum to pictures, and the European Fine Art fair stands out as truly unique.
Dutch 17th-century painting would seem to have been so extensively studied that nothing more remains to be found out, but in the modern complex at Maastricht, it still retains its capacity to yield surprises.
Salomon Lilian of Amsterdam has a small still life signed by Juriaen van Streeck. Unrecorded until its publication in the dealer’s catalog, the minimalist composition shows an orange set near a glass half-filled with white wine. A quarter of a lemon, a chestnut and a knife complete the spartan still life, strongly lighted against a backdrop of darkness. Little is known about the painter whose presence in Amsterdam is documented from 1653, as is the case with Willem Kalf, with whom he had obvious affinities. The work of both must have been known to the great Adriaen Coorte, who surpassed them later in the century but remains as mysterious as Van Streeck.
The all-round winner at the game of displaying masterpieces for beauty’s sake is Simon Dickinson of London. A small Flemish panel painted by Gerard David in the 15th century is a shorthand version of a Pietà — a woman bends her head in sorrow over the bust of Jesus.
For historic rarities, a close contestant is A La Vieille Russie, the New York gallery. There, Peter Schaffer displays the portrait of Peter the Great painted from life in 1719 by the first Russian miniaturist, Grigory Mussikiisky. The oval likeness, nine centimeters, or nearly four inches, high, depicts the emperor in a triumphant equestrian posture as in the famous 1710 engraving printed by P. Picart following Peter’s victory at Poltava in 1709.
However, the Russian emperor’s features in the miniature differ from those seen in the engraving, even though a Cyrillic inscription names the ruler. This led the late Russian scholar Galina Komelova to conclude that the face was painted from life, further enhancing the importance of the miniature.
The oeuvre of well-known artists closer to our time also offers surprises. Thomas von Salis of Salzburg teased out of its long forgotten cache an unusual landscape by Hermann Max Pechstein, signed with his monogram. The explosive vigor of the Expressionist view, probably dating from 1913-1914, is the more effective because the German artist refrained from systematically distorting what his eye saw.
At the Galerie Berès, some will discover an unexpected connection between two great contemporary artists. In a monumental panel signed by Judit Reigl around 1982-1984, the proportions and rhythm of vertical bands of trailed paint call to mind some “Abstract Pictures” done by Gerhard Richter between the mid-1980s and the late 1990s. Ms. Reigl’s gray and white tonalities and the texture of her composition are different, but it is hard to escape the feeling that the 80-year old Mr. Richter and the 90-year-old Ms. Reigl are kindred spirits.
More will be learned when the Reigl retrospective opens in a few weeks at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Meanwhile, see Ms. Reigl at Tefaf, and do not miss a stunning portrait in pencil by Degas on the same stand. Add the collection of 35 craftsmen’s tools from the 17th to the 19th century, amassed by Fiorenzo Cesati of Milan and his son Alessandro and few would question the supremacy of Tefaf as the place to be enlightened about the making of art.