The Brussels Arts Fair (commonly known as BRAFA) has come a long way since it was first established in 1956. Initially conceived as a national event for Belgium’s antiques dealers, the fair—which opened its 63rd edition this past weekend—has become one of the most important moments in the international art agenda, where 134 exhibitors from all over the world showcase the best of antique furniture, decorative arts, old masters, and now also contemporary art.
“We are constantly in search of an equilibrium among the different specialties presented,” explains Harold t’Kint de Roodenbeke, president of BRAFA, who launched their contemporary section two years ago. “Some have wrongly accused us of wanting to become a contemporary art fair, but that is not correct; we simply wanted to supplement our panel with a speciality we did not have.” And while there are a larger number of contemporary dealers this year, the mix on display in the city’s historic Tour & Taxis site is wonderfully diverse.
Here, we share our highlights from this year’s edition, which runs from January 27 through February 4:
Christo, Three Store Fronts
The celebrated Bulgarian-born land artist Christo is Guest of Honor at this year’s edition. For the occasion, a little known sculpture from the 1960s titled Three Store Fronts was brought out of the archives. At 46 feet long and 8 feet tall, the work was inspired by façades in Paris and New York, created with architectural scraps and fabric swathes. Along with his late wife Jeanne-Claude, the artist is known for monumentally wrapping public monuments like the Reichstag in Berlin and the Pont Neuf in Paris; this piece marks an important early stage in their career.
For their first year participating in the fair, the Brussels and New York–based contemporary art gallery sure made an impression. The eclectic booth includes painted-stone sculptures by the much-coveted Swiss artist Ugo Rondinone, a mirror by British-Indian artist Anish Kapoor, and a stunning work on paper by the late French writer and artist Pierre Klossowski (also the brother of the painter Balthus).
This Brussels-based gallery, founded in 1995, specializes in Belgian and international 20th-century art. Their elegantly understated booth boasts a number of terrific paintings, among them a 1933 piece titled Nudes on the beach by Paul Delvaux and an interesting work by the lesser-known Belgian Edgard Tytgat, whose impressionist works were often dubbed Naïve Art.
Here, we find a surprising, early ink-on-paper piece by Andy Warhol from 1955 entitled Two Men In A Boat. The drawing was made at a time when the artist was primarily dedicated to commercial art. Other works exhibited at the booth of the Rive-Gauche gallery include a 1951 abstract painting by Jean Dubuffet and a striking 1913 landscape by Pierre-August Renoir.
It simply wouldn’t be an antiques fair without Axel Vervoordt. The Antwerp-based art dealer and interior designer presents a magnificent booth blending old and new. A central feature of the gallery’s display is a wall-hanging sculpture from 2014 by the Ghanian artist El Anatsui. The expansive sheet is composed countless pieces of brightly colored metal and caps of liquor bottles, which the artist has formed into shapes and linked together with copper wire.
The family-run Paris gallery (which has now a space in London, too) presents a wonderful selection of around twenty modern and contemporary masterpieces by significant 20th-century European artists. A highlight was Marc Chagall’s Les Mariés dans le ciel de Paris, in which the artist applied transparent layers of paint and intertwined different stages of his life: Vitebsk in the bottom right corner, Paris in the centre, and the Côte d’Azur in the top right.
The Austrian gallery showed some excellent modern paintings by the likes of Joan Miró and Louis Valtat. But what really caught our eye was exquisite display of antiques objects and artifacts laid on a Renaissance table, including a 15th-century Hand of a Buddha, a 100 B.C. marble head, and a collection of 12 and 13th-century mirrors from Cambodia, surmounted by a 1975 painting on cardboard by Antoni Tàpies.
We fell in love with this painting by the Brussels-based contemporary artist Sanam Khatibi. Originally from Iran, Khatibi’s works deal with animality and primal impulses, and interrogating our relationship to power structures, specifically the duality of triumph and failure. This new oil painting is from 2017 and is titled Now that the evening is no longer silent. Certainly a highlight for the Belgian gallery Rudolphe Janssen.
And for the complete Belgian surrealist experience, Boon Gallery from Knokke-Heist showed iconic painter René Magritte’s L’Oracle, which he made in 1931, while living in Paris. “We’ve already had some interest from potential buyers in the United States,” said Christophe Boon, owner of the gallery, “but we hope that some Belgian collectors will be able to acquire this exceptional work so that it stays in the country.”
BRAFA Art Fair runs through February 4 at Tour & Taxis in Brussels.