The 15-minute walk from Frieze London to Frieze Masters takes you back millennia in time. In the recent past it was almost like travelling from an interfaith airport chapel to a requiem mass at St Peter’s Basilica. This year the gap between the two parts of the Frieze package has narrowed enough for some disorientation to be felt.
Frieze remains the art happening that aficionados have been yearning for. This year it is delivered with the usual polish, and with wristbands to prove that visitors are Covid compliant. Listening to the loquacious crowd, it would seem that the Continent has taken over entirely. No quarantine worries for these enthusiasts, mainly from France, Spain and Italy. Nor did they seem to care on the first day whether they were viewing the avant-garde or the venerable. Was that a Gilbert & George ‘stained-glass’ window aglow amid the old masters? Yes it was: a vintage work from 1982. And was that another one standing proud among the most contemporary in the other marquee? Yes indeed: from 2019.
The time you can be most certain which event you’re at is when a piece of Christian imagery looms into view. Almost anything that is really old at Masters is bound to be part of the Catholic tradition; unless it’s from the classical world, and even then it might be from Rome.
It is a rare treat to see so much in one lively location. At the heart of a Royal Park are treasures that would once have been condemned by the Church of England. In their big tent, however, they feel unthreatening and unconnected with their former sacred existence. They are now art, pure and simple. With spotlights and a backdrop in the right shade of Farrow & Ball, they look like a million dollars but rarely cost that much.
Over at the contemporary-art end of Regent’s Park, everything is bathed in what Reforming Protestants used to call “the pure light of God”, while destroying all the colourful windows. Nowadays, white light means no need for the nuanced chiaroscuro of the Masters’ marquee. Instead there is clarity and transparency, which are better for looking at the price tags. The older material tends to be more affordable, although not eligible for Battersea Park’s Affordable Art Fair.
The antique collectables also come with often fascinating descriptions and always a title. Over at Frieze London elusiveness has more value. Some enterprising artists of the moment are using titles such as “un****ingtitled”, without the asterisks.
There are lessons to be learnt about cultural life from both Frieze experiences. The most obvious is how much money is still in circulation. The second lesson is how secular the finer things have become. That “clear light” of the Reformation hasn’t only helped traditional Christian imagery to wither under its harsh gaze; there’s even less of any other sacred art. Whether old or new, the move is away from Islamic, Hebraic and tribal art forms. These used to be popular expressions of living non-Christian religions. There are a few Buddhist works at Masters, along with Hindu sculptures whose new role appears to be as heraldic supporters for 20th-century Indian paintings. The theology of the ancient world is now so remote, there’s little danger of any visitors insisting on prayers being said for the Cult of Thoth.
In comparison, Christianity is a shining beacon at Masters. Most of it is being purveyed by the established names: Colnaghi, Sam Fogg, Agnews and Daniel Katz. How splendid the Catholic paintings and statuary look in their gloriously illuminated shrines. More difficult to display dramatically, but perhaps more numerous, are manuscripts. An art fair like this reminds visitors that the written word for centuries served a sacred purpose. A number of Continental dealers are specialists in this area and know how to show off their wares. Whether it’s a tiny 1500 Book of Hours or a massive music sheet to be shared by the whole choir, these are vital parts of Catholic culture. The Middle Ages come to life with the illuminations. Some are mundane and some eccentric, but even an image of a saint about to be stoned (with a stone) can be captivating.
Although little of England’s medieval art survived the Reformation, London’s dealers are still leading the way with works from the whole of Christendom. Without Continental input, however, we might have missed out on a work that unintentionally highlights the contribution of Catholic Christianity. The Protestant successors have almost nothing to show, but those who still can’t abide all the angels, saints and crucifixions can console themselves with Martin Luther. The Galerie de Jonckheere allows visitors to get within inches of Lucas Cranach’s small but enticing portrait of the former monk. As the gallery is based in Geneva, we should be grateful it’s not John Calvin hanging near a stunningly powerful Lamentation of Christ.
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