There is something different in the air for this year’s Frieze Week. Over the past decade, the world’s glitziest contemporary art fair has stoked, and in turn exploited, a small revolution in the way we look at art. Mass acceptance of the avant-garde has been the most striking cultural development of the new millennium. The public has become almost impossible to outrage. There is no more shock of the new. Radical artists have become establishment fixtures, household names, multi-millionaires.
As if in recognition of that sea-change, contemporary art seems to be putting its feet up and nestling into the pantheon. This year sees the launch of Frieze Masters, with more than 90 galleries from around the world selling art produced before 2000. (“A span of 4,000 years,” says the fair’s director, Victoria Siddall, almost intimidated by the thought.)
The new fair, apart from aiming for a new client base, is also making a point about art history. Contemporary art did not emerge from a vacuum, it is saying. It is connected with the past. “Contemporary artists want to be seen as part of the historical canon,” says Siddall. “And being seen in this context gives depth to their work.”
A spirit of reconciliation between past and present has replaced the pugnacious revolt against the old order, as witnessed by the Frieze Masters talks programme and catalogue, which features contemporary artists talking about works of art that have influenced them: Young Turks talking to their grandaddies.
Chris Ofili waxes lyrical on Titian’s “Diana and Actaeon”: “Diana’s loveless gaze conducts the Pied Piper’s last symphony.” Grayson Perry, fresh from tinkering with the British Museum’s peerless collection, chooses one of Hogarth’s “Rake’s Progress” series: “If [he] were working today I think he might have directed soap operas.” Painter Marlene Dumas has eyes for Richard Dadd’s “The Fairy-Feller’s Master-Stroke” (“layered, intense, intricate, complicated, decorative, elegant and mean”).
Meanwhile, an absorbing talks programme puts together contemporary artists with improbable curators: the British painter Cecily Brown, for example, is in conversation with Nicholas Penny, director of the National Gallery. Penny is not a figure you would expect to bump into at a contemporary art fair: “I’m uneasy with some aspects of the legacy of Marcel Duchamp,” he writes in the Frieze Masters catalogue (you can hear the drip of understatement) and confesses to an aversion to video, conceptual and performance art.
The talks are designed to “reveal a series of personal and often unexpected correspondences between contemporary practice and the art of previous ages,” says the programmer Jasper Sharp, a desire which appears to be an indelible part of the zeitgeist. Similar dialogues between the ages, both literal and metaphorical, are cropping up all over London. At the Ordovas gallery studies by the Bolognese master Annibale Carracci will be paired with works by Lucian Freud, who once confessed to wishing he could match the Italian’s virtuosity.
At Dulwich Picture Gallery an installation by the painter Clive Head is juxtaposed with its inspiration, Nicolas Poussin’s “The Triumph of David”. (The gallery’s exhibition of works by Poussin and Cy Twombly was one of its most highly attended recent shows.)
Xavier Bray, chief curator at Dulwich, admits that some of these dialogues spring from an “almost desperate attempt by curators to get people to look at Old Master paintings”. He says some contemporary artists are being used as “vehicles” to get people to engage with art from the past. “Sometimes you have to wake people up, to kick-start them, into appreciating the work of the Old Masters. But once you put them in front of them, they are amazed by how inspiring they are. Carracci is an unbelievable painter – but nobody ever bothered to look at him.”
He says that the approbation of contemporary artists (“the gurus of today”) for past works can be a source of “extreme irritation”, but he also sees what they can offer: “Artists have the freedom to look anywhere and everywhere, in a very relaxed way, and that is a great thing.
“But it is important not to overdo it, not to push it. There has to be a purely visual connection. With Twombly, his was a very intellectual response to Poussin, they both shared the same sources of inspiration, in Rome. With Freud and Carracci, it is a very painterly relationship.”
Artists themselves predictably see a more subtle connection between their own work and that of their illustrious antecedents. The British artist Toby Ziegler has five new sculptures on display in the basement of a Mayfair car park, which refer to Brueghel’s painting “The Cripples”, and feature large light boxes depicting a thicket of horse legs, derived from the detail of a Piero della Francesca fresco.
Ziegler makes the sources of his inspiration explicit. Indeed the historical references in his work are part of its substance, standing as “vessels for memory” in the artist’s art historical explorations. “Images both collect and lose narratives as they age, there is so much layering that goes on,” explains Ziegler.
Much of his work cannibalises low-resolution images of historical paintings and reveals the tension between high quality digital reproduction and time-worn paintings. “There is a kind of erosion that goes on with great works from the past and it is a conceptual erosion as well,” he says.
“There is a distortion that occurs, once a work of art is taken outside the context of what it was intended for. The minute it enters a museum, for example, it becomes a different beast.” Ziegler’s work aims partly to liberate images from the baggage they acquire on their historical journeys. He says it is increasingly difficult to have an innocent relationship with an important art work that has been endlessly reproduced and bowdlerised, for instance the “peculiar” experience of going to see Piero della Francesco’s “Madonna del Parto” in the Tuscan town of Monterchi, under an inch of protective perspex and with timed lighting. “It was a strange feeling. I only ‘saw’ the work properly when I went to see [Andrei] Tarkovsky’s Nostalgia, in which it features.”
Ziegler illustrates the way in which contemporary artists are able to acknowledge their debt to past masters, while also scrutinising how famous pieces have turned into a parade of kitsch reproduction. It is part of the allure of contemporary art that it questions the mechanics of living in a digital age, even while utilising its astonishing technical potential.
Victoria Siddall says artists have a refreshingly detached view of art history. “They don’t have the same deference ... they just see it as art, they talk about the technical aspects, it is either good or bad. There is this synergy, a continuous thread.”
She says Frieze Masters will also present a surprise or two. The “Spotlight” section will feature 22 galleries, some displaying a lesser-known artist. “The curator, Adriano Pedrosa, wanted to challenge the notion of Old Master – of white, western males – by showing other things, work by women, and pieces from Asia, and the Middle East. The interesting thing about these artists is that their best work is still available.”
If that sounds like a sales pitch, pinch yourself: it can be easy to forget, amid the talk of creative dialogues and curatorial ambition, that at the centre of Frieze Week are art fairs. If there is no shopping, there are no fairs. Siddall says there are many examples of collectors who happily put together work from different periods, whom she hopes will happily visit both Frieze fairs. “To collect deeply rather than broadly is a more recent thing. The people who have a great eye and are able to put things together are not just at the senior level of collector. I know plenty of people in their 30s who will put an Old Master next to an ancient sculpture, next to a contemporary piece. They just mix it up.”
The auction houses are not slow in seeking to attract these customers. Sotheby’s is expecting contemporary collectors to flock to next week’s viewing of an important Raphael drawing, “Head of an Apostle”, which is expected to fetch up to £15m at its Old Master auction in December. The reason they may be interested was summed up by the artist Michael Craig-Martin, writing about the Hayward Gallery’s Drawing the Line show in the 1990s.
“The most striking thing about many of the drawings of the past and of other cultures is how ‘modern’ they look. I believe that this is because the qualities we have come to value most highly in art in the 20th century have always been present in art, but usually in the past have characterised only modest and ‘secondary work’; that is, drawings.”
Contemporary art has taken an epochal turn: it is becoming less interested in itself. The pioneers of the end of the last century have hit middle age, and succumbed to one of that condition’s most clichéd responses: nostalgia for a golden age. When one of contemporary art’s angriest and most outspoken figures, Dinos Chapman, declares in a newspaper interview: “I only like dead artists,” it may be time to listen, and learn. There may never have been a frothier time for art; but art history is beginning to make its weighty presence felt.
Frieze London and Frieze Masters run from October 11-14
We live in artistic times
With the Frieze art fairs about to open, the FT, media partner of Frieze, will once again be offering unrivalled coverage of one of the busiest weeks in the arts calendar.
For starters, there’s the Frieze Week special you’re now holding in your hands. Then, from Thursday next week, the daily arts page will be supplemented with an extra page devoted to all aspects of London’s contemporary arts circus, from satellite fairs to dealer gossip – and, of course, critical assessments of the work at the heart of it all.
“The fun of the fair as usual, is in the aisles,” wrote FT visual arts critic Jackie Wullschlager last year. “Inside the gallery stands, the tone is notably more sober and classical than in previous years, reflecting market uncertainty ... German and eastern European painters look like secure bets and feature strongly. Throughout, the plethora of paintings – always easiest to sell – is remarkable and pleasurable, as is the scarcity of video and film.” Since then the art market has seemingly defied the prevailing economic gloom, with some spectacular sales over the past 12 months: will this year’s fair be correspondingly bullish?
A picture is allegedly worth 1,000 words, and visitors to ft.com/arts will be able to see a video report from the opening of Frieze Masters, the fair’s newest (or should that be oldest?) initiative. Currently viewable is a report on the art collection at Frieze sponsor Deutsche Bank: Alistair Hicks, senior curator, explains how the collection is built up and introduces established highlights – Freud, Bacon – plus recent acquisitions by up-and-coming artists.
And if you think you’re feeling twinges of “fairtigue”, the arts podcast – at www.ft.com/artspodcast – considers the global appetite for this kind of showcase. Dealer and gallerist Thomas Dane and Stephanie Dieckvoss, director of new event Art 13, discuss the fair phenomenon with FT arts editor Jan Dalley and art market columnist Georgina Adam.