La Biennale Paris: The wind of renewal

By Artkhade with Art Media Agency

Paris, 3 September 2017


A new formula for a historic fair. This year, La Biennale Paris is engaging in a rebirth that remains highly respectful of tradition. See it for yourself at the Grand Palais, until 17 September. The planet’s most elegant fair, riding on its heritage, opens up to new horizons.

“Confidence, confidence, confidence!” This could be – if one were needed – the motto of this 29th edition of the Biennale, formerly known as the Biennale des Antiquaires, currently on at the Grand Palais until 17 September… And it’s not Christopher “Kip” Forbes, chairman of this new opus, who will say the contrary. “La Biennale Paris is the most important fair in its field in France, and one of the most important in the world,” claims the American billionaire who, this year, succeds Henri Loyrette, former president of the Louvre. “I’ll try to keep up the level of excellence established by my eminent predecessors and I hope to contribute to making this edition of the Biennale the most brilliant one to ever exist.” The stakes have been set… Will Christopher Forbes manage to meet them?

Christopher Forbes, the ambassador of shockwaves

By calling on a major figure from the art market this year, the Syndicat National des Antiquaires, the event’s organiser, has made the choice of competitiveness. In this milieu, Christopher Forbes is one of those people that we no longer introduce. Forbes is a name with a planetary resonance, associated with the eponymous magazine, one of the major US financial publications, known for its yearly ranking of the world’s greatest fortunes. The businessman’s renown already speaks in his favour. If we had to sum up Christopher Forbes’ profile, we could say that it more or less corresponds to that of the consummate artlover. After obtaining a degree in art history from Princeton, the young man earned his stripes in the family business set up by his grandfather Bertie Charles, before becoming a curator. Christopher Forbes went on to sponsor a great many artists while working in the management of famous cultural institutions, sometimes as a museum board member (Brooklyn Museum, New York Academy of Art, Victorian Society in America, or Prince of Wales Foundation…). Midway into this already full career, the art-market expert has today taken on two more hats: as chairman of La Biennale Paris and the American Friends and International Council of the Louvre, of which he is one of the founding members. Christopher Forbes is also known as a great collector. For many years, he has taken care to feed the family’s treasure chest in the course of his travels around the world. While his father Malcolm had an uncommon fascination for the well-known Fabergé eggs, Christopher Forbes took to France’s Second Empire. A passion nourished by souvenirs of Napoleon III and Empress Eugénie, an astonishing collection that he placed on sale in March 2016 via the auctioneer Osenat in Fontainebleau – and which had French museums rushing.

Maternité porteuse de coupe YorubaKifwebe Mask, Wood, High : 40 cm. 19th century – early 20th century; Provenance: Lucien Lefèbvre-Foinet Collection (1889/1953), Paris; Private Collection, France. © Photo Hugues Dubois.

With its 29th birthday in sight, the Syndicat National des Antiquaires intends to take advantage of the experience of this eminent figure to make a new start and to restore the Biennale’s glory. Out, therefore, go the old demons, making space for change. The Biennale is now a yearly event, and its organisation has been overhauled. Since 2016, a Biennale Committee made up of fifteen members has taken on, as its prime mission, supervision of the rigorous selection of galleries participating in the event. Among this year’s members of this circle, six come from the Syndicat National des Antiquaires, the Biennale’s organiser: Mathias Ary Jan (current president of the SNA), Anisabelle Berès, Benjamin Steinitz, Corinne Kevorkian, Éric Coatalem and Dominique Chevalier. To back up these experienced professionals, nine independent personalities have been appointed, including Prince Amyn Aga Khan, the decorator Jacques Garcia or businessman and figure of the Richemont group, Alain-Dominique Perrin… Bigwigs with the big task of selecting the cream of galleries in Paris and elsewhere, granted the opportunity to take part in this 2017 edition.

93 exhibitors on board

Nearly one hundred exhibitors, including 33 from overseas, are taking part in the festivities this year under the nave of the Grand Palais. Against a backdrop once again designed by Nathalie Crinière, dealers will be offering the public around 5,000 objets d’art: a selection of the best that the market has to offer at the moment… What’s new is that the route is now organised with stands in three strictly identical alleys, in the interests of representativeness and equity. “It’s the agreeability of the visit which determines the distribution of the stands,” states Mathias Ary Jan, president of the SNA.

Wishing more than ever to find the public’s favour, the Biennale sets out to be a “big ephemeral museum”, a place for exchanges and cultural radiance on an international scale. We can note a high renewal rate (85 %), bearing witness to the confidence that dealers place in the event’s organisers. Among the selected galleries, mention can be made, for example, of Bailly, Fleury or Aktis, promoting modern art high and loud, as well as Richard Green or Alexis Bordes for Old Masters, Mullany or Sycomore Ancient Art, presenting a few bronze or marble beauties… If we’re talking about carats, Boghossian, Bernard Bouisset and Pautot-Sugères are among those to display jewellery treasures, while Gastou, Lacoste and Mathivet are showing off a few marvels from 20th century decorative arts… Those with a hankering for faraway lands will also find what they’re looking for: there’s Galerie Mermoz for Pre-Columbian works, Christophe Hioco and Corinne Kevorkian for Indian antiquities, Ateliers Brugier for China and Japan, Eberwein for Egyptian archaeology, not forgetting Meyer Oceanic Art, offering a selection of Eskimo art… At La Biennale Paris, if the choice is vast, one common denominator still remains: rarity.

Amongst the (absolutely) stunning lots on offer this year, we can note the presence of Pablo Picasso’s Paysage anthropomorphe, being placed on sale by Galerie Hélène Bailly. A work from 1963, which is relatively unique in the painter’s production, redolent of the reconstitution procedure used by Arcimboldo to create his famous portraits. Meanwhile, Galerie Kevorkian is presenting a 13 cm-tall female statuette in alabaster, probably originating from Anatolia and part of a group of Neolithic idols from the Cyclades, dating from the 4th-5th millenium B.C; this is an effigy of a protector “goddess mother” whose generous forms are suggestive of fertility. Otherwise, Indian jeweller Nirav Modi is showing a collection inspired by nature, from the lotus and jasmine flower. Influenced by the Mughal era, the magnificence of the Maharajahs and the

Impressionist movement, the pieces celebrate light and rhythm while combining a distinct sense of airiness and opulence. And there’s also Galerie Chevalier, once again presenting fine tapestry pieces like those woven in the 17th century at the Manufacture des Gobelins for Jean-Baptiste Colbert, on the theme of Maximilian’s Hunts.

The Barbier-Mueller collection

But the highlight of the event is possibly the exceptional exhibition of pieces from the Barbier-Mueller collection, displayed in two 110 m² rooms at opposite ends of the Grand Palais. To mark the Biennale, the illustrious family of Swiss collctors is teaming up with the event to show over 130 objets d’art, patiently amassed by its members, from generation to generation, for over a century. Everything began at the start of the 20th century when the grandfather, Josef Mueller, began acquiring the works of modern artists at prices that would have mouths hanging open today. Josef namely frequented Ambroise Vollard, and bought works by Hodler, Picasso and Cézanne. Joseph Mueller is above all known for creating one of the biggest collections of primitive art in the world. The collection is composed of African, Asian and Oceanic objects, the bulk of which is today presented at the Musée Barbier-Mueller in Geneva, celebrating its 40th birthday this year. Over time, Josef’s descendants have gone on to take over this role: first Monique and Jean Paul Barbier-Mueller, then their children Thierry, Gabriel and Stéphane, up till today… A veritable treasure trove of rare pearls from all over, now offered up to visitors at the Biennale.

Shaking free of aesthetic constraints for the lively surges of primitivism, 20th century artists have sometimes produced works with African or Oceanic echoes… It was long thought that Picasso drew inspiration from the Hongwe mask on display in order to paint, in 1907, his Demoiselles d’Avignon. In fact, nothing of the sort: the object was collected in French Congo over ten years after the painting was produced… Alongside it, we can find a gorgeous Kwele mask that belonged to Tristan Tzara, known to have lent objects from his personal collection to the historic “African Negro Art” exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, in 1935. We can also see, in no particular order, a Cameroonian royal stool, original editions form the 17th and 18th centuries, paintings by Georg Baselitz and Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, Japanese kawari kabuto helmets, alongside Jeff Koons’ Woman in Tub… A varied thematic range which attests to the finesse of the taste of Josef Mueller and his descendants. The exhibition is accompanied by a book, Les Collections Barbier-Mueller. 110 ans de passion, published by Editions Glénat. So much to say that the collectors’ ardour helps keep the art market’s dynamic afloat. The Biennale’s organisers are onto something good here. From now on, every year, an exhibition on an eminent collector will be held as part of the event.

The virtues of vetting

In the meantime, pipes are steaming and engines revving in the back, to ensure the smooth operation of the fair. For this 2017 edition, as for last year, the committee in charge of organisation has pulled out the stops. The Commission d’Admission des Œuvres (CAO or Committee for the Admission of Works) has thus undertaken the delicate mission of assessing the works placed on sale by each dealer. This monitoring authority consists of art historians, independent valuers, overseas curators, restorers and other experts in the field – with the notable exception of exhibitors, in order to avoid all conflict of interests. “The Syndicat National des Antiquaires intends to be on the cutting edge of ethical measures,” states Mathias Ary Jan. “Not just for galleries, but for the whole of the art market.” This year, the CAO is being co-chaired by Frédéric Castaing, president of the Compagnie Nationale des Experts (CNE), and Michel Maket, president of the Syndicat Français des Experts Professionnels en Œuvres d’Art et Objets de Collection (SFEP). The latter, independently of the Syndicat National des Antiquaires, have chosen the members in charge of vetting. The CAO is also assisted in its mission by the French laboratory ArtAnalysis, thanks to which analysis of a piece can be carried out “live”.

Maternité porteuse de coupe YorubaHeddle Pulley attributed to the Master of Bouafle, Côte d'Ivoire, Guro, XXth century. Wood. High 21 cm. Provenance: Félix Fénéon; Doctor Stéphen Chauvet Collection; Morris Pinto Collection; Josef Mueller Collection © Photo Studio Ferrazzini Bouchet.

Beyond the aesthetic quality of the objects, what the Biennale organisers are looking out for is their authenticity, in a context that is generally delicate for art-market players. Rigour is essential, given the outbreak of cases that have shaken up the milieu: fake 18th century furniture, Van Gogh’s contested sketchbooks, the Aristophil scandal, Prouvé furniture fakes as well as Cranach counterfeits. For the Biennale, as for other international fairs, there is today a need to offer buyers maximum security, to provide them with more efficient service to meet the current stakes. In this way, Frieze and TEFAF have also set up their own vetting systems, backed up with analysis laboratories, to ensure the greatest possible transparency in terms of provenance and age. Without mentioning the delicate question of the degree of restoration of certain pieces… This year, La Biennale Paris even organised a pre-vetting session, its aim to validate, over the summer, most of the objects put forward by dealers. A myriad of precautions – praiseworthy, without a doubt, but perhaps tinged with a slightly panicked zeal, pushing the organisers to describe the CAO as “the world’s most demanding” committee. In this way, dealers taking part in the event only have the right to make three claims on rejected objects – not a single one more! While the tone set intends to be reassuring, it remains a consequence of the damage wreaked by recent scandals. For isn’t the very existence of these “vetting super-committees” based on a deep contradiction? Shouldn’t dealers themselves be the guarantors of authenticity, in their galleries as well as at fairs? This is where the heart of the profession lies, n’est-ce pas? The enhanced role taken on, from year to year, by the new form of jury says a great deal about the confidence crisis that the sector is traversing. But two precautions are worth more than one: at a time when the injection of morals in public life has also come to the fore as a priority, we can only be enthusiastic about these “new standards”. Isn’t all this ultimately a way to review the decision-making chains, to loosen up the old art-market joints, and for the art market to stop engendering the demons that persecute it?

Fierce competition

In this way, between the clearing of dark clouds and the possibility of fine weather settling in, La Biennale Paris now seems to be moving towards new horizons. Pushed along by changes in winds and currents, many questions still remain unanswered. Has the fair’s organisation truly taken the turn it needs for the event to endure, especially at its new yearly rhythm? How to make up for the absence of the Paris Tableau fair that moved to Brussels in June? What of the return to grace of jewellery and clockmaking stands at the upcoming edition? Strategic choices whose impact are yet to be seen…

In the context of the fierce battle in which international fairs engage, the Syndicat is changing direction, hoping for a return to the basics that once made the event great. We know that the identity of the Parisian market – this ecosystem composed of small houses directed by big dealers – is a crucial factor. Yet the stakes here are not merely commercial, but also historic and cultural. Fluctuat nec mergitur, tossed by the winds but never sunk… So goes the motto of the city of Paris… May the Biennale live up to its host city’s catchphrase, in the spectacular décor of the Grand Palais. All the elements are there waiting, ready to deploy. We can only wish it happy sailing!


Outside the walls

No doubt about it: the figure of the collector is in fashion at the moment. While La Biennale Paris is putting the Barbier-Mueller family under the spotlight, two Parisian exhibitions, organised in parallel to the event, are also focusing on great art lovers. The first, at the Musée Marmottan, pores over the case of Monet as a collector, a little-represented facet of the father of Impressionism. Here, we’re reminded that the great masters were often the first to appreciate the work of their peers… The second exhibition, held at the Musée Jacquemart-André, broaches the theme of the Impressionist treasures of the Hansen collection, conserved in Ordrupgaard, near Copenhagen. It was in their impressive country manor that Wilhelm and Henny Hansen, between 1916 and 1918, accumulated, as the Jacquemart-André couple did in Paris, a unique collection of Impressionist and modern works. Including the greatest names, from Corot to Sisley, from Cézanne to Pissarro. Here, the museum presents a selection of over 40 paintings, gathered for the first time in Paris.

“Monet collectionneur”, from 14 September 2017 to 14 January 2018. Musée Marmottan-Monet, 2 rue Louis-Boilly, Paris 75016.

“Le jardin secret des Hansen. La collection Ordrupgaard”, from 15 September 2017 to 22 January 2018. Musée Jacquemart-André, 158 Boulevard Haussmann, Paris 75008.


La Biennale Paris. From Monday 11 to Sunday 17 September, from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Late closure at 11 p.m. on Tuesday 12 and Thursday 14 September. Opening on Sunday 10 September from 11 a.m. Nave of the Grand Palais, Avenue Winston-Churchill, Paris 75008.

Tags: African Art, Oceanic Art, Asian Art, Pre-Columbian Art, Asian Art, Native American Art, Fairs & Shows