The BRAFA Art Fair In Brussels has rolled out a zany white – not red – carpet, with tutti frutti stripes, for its 65th edition (January 26 – February 2). To reach it the Fair’s 4,700 daily visitors have to circumnavigate five segments of Berlin Wall, which they can bid to acquire – a PR brainwave from Bruno Nélis, the Fair’s masterful Head of Communications. Once inside their eye is immediately drawn to the opulent Steinitz stand where debonair Benjie Steinitz – a Moscow heart-throb since his buccaneering World Art Fair days at the Manezh – complements his traditional French furniture with an Anto Carte Nude swinging above a Riesener commode: the sort of culture-clash that has interior decorators swooning.
Carte also features at Lancz – with an icon-like, gold-leaf Madonna & Child – alongside Spilliaert, Médard Verburgh and Delvaux’s wistful, ink and watercolour Plage de St-Idesbald (1945). Samuel Vanhoegaerden has a nice solo show devoted to James Ensor, but the finest Belgian stand belongs to Ghent’s Francis Maere, with a powerful Permeke Nude and a corridor of even more powerful charcoal drawings by Eugène Dodeigne (1923-2015), whose semi-abstract punch fuses Francis Bacon and Edvard Munch.
Stylish French pictures include an exquisite late Tanguy, Changes (1951), at Galerie de la Béraudière and two early Picabias at Ary Jan – one a landscape, the other a Korovin-style beach scene. Berko display a serene, monumental Sunset on the Nile by Théodore Frère, imbued with his hallmark atmospherics and first seen at the Paris Salon of 1877.
French highlight, though, is to be found at Pentcheff: André Jolly’s 1904 view of the Place Ducale in his native Charleville, painted from high up the Town Hall tower, looking over the roofs of France’s most elegant provincial square towards the factory chimneys lining the Meuse. Jolly, a self-taught artist who spent most of his career in Brittany, is long forgotten; this is his finest work, done when he was just 22. Its unique combination of picturesque city-centre and smoke-belching suburbs, in one and the same picture, is something not even Maximilien Luce – the leading Neo-Impressionist purveyor of industrial landscapes – ever attempted.
Other artists to watch out for at BRAFA include the Hungaro-Croatian Silard Isaak (born 1977), with his large mountainscapes made up of patches of bright colour, at Budapest’s Kalman Maklary; and Birmingham-born David Bomberg, with a post-Vorticist 1935 view of The Moors’ Bridge in Ronda (Andalusia) at London’s Osborne Samuel. Several galleries offer works by the American Pop artist Keith Haring – subject of a giant retrospective at Brussels’ BOZAR culture centre until April 19 – notably Omer Tiroche, with a whimsical 1988 ink-on-paper Self-Portrait.
No fewer than four galleries offer 1970 Sonia Delaunay gouaches. Galerie de la Présidence also have a small 1949 De Staël Composition and Omer Tiroche a couple of 1950s Poliakoffs (one vertical, one horizontal). There are more Poliakoffs at Alexis Lartigue and Galerie Von Vertes, alongside another 1949 De Staël. Both Rosenberg & C° and Stern Pissarro have smallish Survages. Chagall is in blissfully short supply this year, though Willow Gallery have his 1972 Deux Bouquets à l’Atelier alongside a small undated Harlamoff Head of a Young Girl priced at €45,000.
Several tiny turn-of-the-century sketches of Misia Godebska (1872-1950) by Edouard Vuillard feature at Alexis Pentcheff, including Misia à Cannes (1901) in charcoal, pencil and coloured crayon – a study for Vuillard’s painting Le Nonchaloir in the Musée d’Orsay. Misia was born in Tsarskoye Selo, grew up in Brussels and became a queen of Paris salon society during the Belle Epoque, when her Polish husband Tadeusz Natanson launched La Revue Blanche to promote Nabis art.
Kandinsky stars at De Wit, via an Aubusson wool tapestry, 2.24 x 1.63m, entitled Horizontale, based on a 1939 Kandinsky watercolour. It was woven in the Tabard workshop as one of Four Unseen Tapestries by Kandinsky commissioned by Paris dealer Denise René in 1954.
Brussels is a renowned centre for tribal art. Among the most charming – and affordable – offerings at BRAFA this year are a pair of grinning, bulging-eyed, Yoruba male figures from Nigeria (c.1900) at Grusenmeyer & Woliner, around 10 inches tall with scarified faces and cloaks spangled with tiny beads.
Other sculpted stand-outs include Barye’s 1845 Tartar Warrior at Univers du Bronze– a knight on rearing steed in all his crested-helmet glory.
Fans of France’s First Empire will enjoy the pair of 1813 Canova plaster busts at Rome’s Galleria W. Apolloni. These portray Joachim Murat and Napoleon’s sister Caroline Bonaparte in their extravagant heyday as King and Queen of Naples, and are studies for the couple’s marble busts in Moscow’s State Historical Museum, once owned by Count Anatoly Demidov – who was briefly married to Napoleon’s niece Mathilde, and opened a Bonaparte Museum on the island of Elba.
Apolloni’s stand is dominated by wacky, green-lacquered Neo-Egyptian furniture made in Piedmont around 1800. Fans of Art Nouveau, meanwhile, should head to Janssens van der Maelen to admire the Chris Wegerif camphor wood ensemble (two armchairs and high-backed seat) with ivory and ebony inlay, unveiled at Turin’s landmark Prima Esposizione Internazionale d’Arte Decorativa Moderna in 1902.
BRAFA’s most extraordinary furniture, though, is to be found at Moscow gallery Heritage run by glamorous Kristina Krasnyanskaya.
A music-centre (radio/gramophone-player) made for Soviet President Mikhail Kalinin in 1940 leads the way. It was assembled at the Radio Factory in Alexandrovsk– Ivan the Terrible’s onetime capital, 60 miles north-east of Moscow – and gifted to the old roué by ‘the artists of the Kirov’ (as the Mariinsky was then known). It comes with a folding ladder-chair for library use. Both items are veneered in light-coloured poplar imitating Karelian birch, and embellished with the lyre motif equally popular in Tsarist times.
An imposing desk and settee (see above), commissioned by the NKVD (НКВД) in 1938 as part of a ‘Voroshilov Corner’ at the Defence Ministry in Moscow, combine Art Deco outlines with carved Communist emblems. They are accompanied by a verre églomisé portrait of Stalinist henchman Kliment Voroshilov (1881-1969) that rivals Eveline Axelle’s 1968 clartex Egocentrique (at Béraudière) for Pop Art kitsch.
Voroshilov survived on the Central Committee for forty years thanks to his unthreatening mediocrity. His star burnt brightest in the 1930s when he became Defence Minister, Marshal of the Soviet Union and saw two cities renamed in his honour: Stavropol (as Voroshilovsk) and Lugansk in eastern Ukraine – 50 miles from his home town of Bakhmut (capital of Slavo-Serbia 1753-64) – as Voroshilovgrad. In 1972 tiny Zarya Voroshilovgrad shocked the soccer world by becoming Champions of the USSR ahead of Dynamo Kiev, Dynamo Tbilisi and Ararat Erevan.
Those were the days. Since 2014 Zarya (currently third in Ukraine’s top flight) have had to play their home games in Zaporozhia, 250 miles away.
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