Detroit shines in Holland 

In just 30 years the small city of Maastricht, the southernmost city in the Netherlands, has become a destination for art lovers across Europe and the United States. Each year, before the spring arrival of tulips and tourists, this ancient town hosts TEFAF Maastricht, a gathering of prestigious dealers in art, antiques and jewelry from all over the world. Since its humble beginnings with 28 exhibitors in 1975, TEFAF — which stands for The European Fine Art Fair — has grown in stature to attract the best galleries and the biggest spenders in the art world. It claims to offer “museum quality” art and indeed museum curators number among the eager, early visitors, alongside deep-pocketed trustees looking for great works with which to embellish the walls of their museums’ galleries.

The development of TEFAF is a lesson for all cities in how to exploit the needs of a growing art market. First there was one old master and medieval art fair every two years; this was soon followed by an antiques fair in alternate years. In 1985 the two merged to become an annual jamboree of galleries specializing in both European and Asian art. In 1988 the fair received a permanent home in the custom-built Maastricht Exhibition and Congress Center. A new section devoted to textile art was added to the fair that year, and in 1991 modern and contemporary art galleries were invited as well, increasing to 135 the number of exhibitors. This year, the number of participants, at 200, is more than twice the 70 galleries the Art Dealers Association of America squeezes into the Armory on Park Avenue in New York each winter for its annual art fair.

The 2005 TEFAF, which took place March 4-13, featured a “museum quality” selection of paintings and sculpture that was not for sale. Masterpieces from the Detroit Institute of Arts gave the fair’s visitors the treat of viewing, in one booth, an outstanding collection of European art that would be the envy of most European museums. The DIA is the first American institution ever invited to participate in the fair. With one of the more crowded booths in terms of exhibits and viewers, it presented 25 paintings and 12 sculptures. Four works had been purchased at TEFAF, but these were not identified. The walls were painted a lush deep red and the sculptures were lit from the top of their large display cases. The space was tight but manageably served the embarrassment of riches on view.

Traditionally TEFAF leans heavily toward Northern European painting, and the inclusion of Italian and French works in the Detroit selection was an adroit decision. The museum could show off a Poussin painting and sculpture by Bernini, two titanic figures in the history of art. There was not a great deal of old master sculpture on view at the fair proper, but here, the substantial presentation of sculpture offered the exquisite skill and rich imagination characteristic of the genre. “Lion attacking a Horse” (c. 1590) by Antonio Susini is a 12-inch-high rolling ball of aggression and fear. The lion grabs the horse; jaws and claws tear into the flesh of the wildly thrashing creature whose enormous neck extends as a curving shaft of taut energy. Museum curators and rich collectors covet the very best, the sublime creations that reveal artists at the top of their game; this sculpture is outstanding. The frantic terror of the horse and the focused aggression of the lion are unnerving, as is the rich detailing of the creatures’ anatomy; the anus of each is clearly defined, an aspect indicative of a great master’s handiwork. Part of the appeal of these sculptures is the craft that goes into finishing the piece after it is cast in bronze. Fine chiseling articulates tiny details and an applied patina unifies the surface. Brilliant craft is also evident in the expressive, raw surfaces of the two small clay sculptures by Bernini (c. 1635) each featuring the mythical creature Triton wrestling, one with a sea serpent and the other with a giant clam.

Pagan, Christian and secular subjects indicate the depth of the DIA collection and give an overview of various themes addressed by the old masters. Poussin’s “Roccatagliata Madonna” (1641) situates the Holy Family in a crisp space derived from stylized Classical architecture. A sleek pagan altar burns behind Mary and the infant while Joseph broods off to one side. The figures in Pieter de Hooch’s “Mother Nursing Her Child” (c. 1675) echo religious compositions of Mary and Jesus, but this pair inhabits the somber interior of a 17th century Dutch house.

Nicolo Renieri combines the mundane and the holy in his wonderful “Repentant Magdalen” (1625). The young girl’s dress has slipped to reveal part of her shoulder and chest; this sensual nudity and her coarse hands evoke the wild past she intends to forswear as she looks toward a heavenly light with heartfelt tears in her eyes. For those who appreciate paint applied with the pulp and seeds left in, Jacob Jordaens’ depiction of the biblical character Job is a feast of rapidly executed brushwork. Job bares his breast and appears caught in a golden light that illuminates his face. This is evoked by highlights of yellow paint dashed over his face and hair, while thick flecks of pale blue create a misty aura around his head.

Less celestial and more confrontational is the penetrating stare in Frans Hals’ “Portrait of Hendrick Swalmius” (1639). Known for his “Laughing Cavalier,” Hals, with this figure, uses sparkling eyes to conjure the spiritual confidence of a mature preacher. Hals was a busy artist, but he was always stuck for cash. He was forgotten soon after his death, and it was not until the 19th century that trends in realism and bravura paintwork sparked a renewed interest in his work.

This exhibition reflected a broad range of styles and also individual handling of painterly and sculptural techniques. There is an atmosphere of pleasure generated by the seductive lure of available treasure. The Detroit Institute of Arts exhibition offered a once-in-a-lifetime experience to many TEFAF visitors, and some will be motivated to visit the greater masterpieces that remain in the museum. Detroit citizens are blessed with a world-class museum that can mount an astonishing exhibition with just a fraction of its mighty collection.

Gerard McCarthy is a critic and curator living in New York; he has written for Art in America and American Ceramics, and organized exhibitions for the Whitney Museum, the Brooklyn Museum of Art, and the United Nations.

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