“We never go to art fairs,” say the artists Gilbert and George, standing in one of the biggest: Frieze Masters, in Regent’s Park. It’s still early, and, all around, there’s a flurry of finishing touches, as gallerists, bleary from the previous evening’s banquets, dust-bust booths before huddling with underlings for a final briefing.
Gilbert and George, though, are spotlessly dressed in thick tweed suits and already poised for a photo call, arranged by the dealer Thaddaeus Ropac in front of two of their mischievous pictures from the early 1980s. On a separate stand, a charcoal self-portrait by David Bomberg appears to watch as Gilbert announces: “We stopped looking at other people’s art 40 years ago.” In which case, you’d think, they’re in the wrong place.
“Six millennia of art” is the strapline of the fair, which is returning after a one-year hiatus caused by the pandemic. A brief stroll reveals what a rich gallimaufry it remains. Opposite Gilbert and George is an imposing Biblical scene by a 17th-century Dutchman. Nearby, a single booth contains a Roman candlestick, a 15th-century alabaster carving, and a terracotta maquette by the modern sculptor Frank Dobson. Almost everything, from a Neolithic Chinese jar to an Egon Schiele drawing of a young woman pleasuring herself, feels like it should be in a museum, which is why I spy so many chin-stroking gallery directors (as well as Princess Beatrice and her sister) mulling whether to splash any cash.
With its soft lighting, costly grey carpet, and luxurious lavatories, Frieze Masters has the ambience of an exclusive airport lounge. The feel is very different to that of bright, frenetic Frieze London, which specialises in contemporary art, and is situated a 15-minute walk across the park past a temporary display of upbeat sculpture including a painted-bronze pineapple by Rose Wylie, which sold this week for $250,000 (£182,000).
Imagine two siblings: one studious, stylish in the faintly boring manner of a Swiss banker, and also filthy rich (that’s Masters); the other (London) splashier, faddish, and, ultimately, a lot more glamorous. The fairs’ respective artistic directors embody these contrasting moods. At Masters, soft-spoken Nathan Clements-Gillespie, with long auburn locks, has the delicacy of an angel by Verrocchio. Frieze London’s Eva Langret, meanwhile, arrived in a resplendent, directional get-up involving a transparent blue mackintosh and tie-dye trousers.
For those who enjoy smirking at the pretensions and indulgences of the art world, Frieze London, even post-Covid, is still the place to be: for instance, while Masters boasts an actual still life by Matisse, London has a quilted version of one of his Blue Nudes, stitched together out of sports jerseys. There’s an installation of scuffed trainers arranged in concentric circles, a champagne bar designed by David Shrigley, and an area resembling an electrical goods shop in which Damien Hirst is showing spot-painting NFTs on glossy TVs.
Which fair would you gravitate towards? Surprisingly, perhaps, when Beyoncé visited seven years ago, she opted for Frieze Masters, where I lingered before meeting Luke Syson, director of the Fitzwilliam Museum, for a tour of his “Stand Out” selection. Stuart Lochhead’s booth, for instance, with rippling walls designed by Japanese architect Yuichi Kodai and a little model by Rodin of loved-up bacchantes, examines the “misunderstood” medium of plaster.
We started, though, by a row of reliquaries shaped like human busts, including a representation of Saint Ursula. Like a neurosurgeon performing an operation, Syson flipped open her cranium, before extolling the, as he described them, “scholar-dealers” who stage mini-exhibitions at the fair. He then whisked me off to a space evoking a 16th-century Italian apothecary. Who knew that learning about colourful earthenware jars which once stored drugs and sweetmeats could be so stimulating?
Both fairs run until Oct 17; information: frieze.com