“At art fairs, people look too quickly,” said Jason Poirier dit Caulier, the founder and director of the Plus-One Gallery in Antwerp, Belgium. “Here they take a bit more time. They almost want to touch,” he added.
Poirier dit Caulier was standing in a branch of his dealership, in front of an ingeniously illusionistic painting by the Belgian artist Ritsart Gobyn, 37, that attracted plenty of up-close admiration during Antwerp Art Weekend, an annual celebration of the city’s contemporary artists and gallerists that concluded on Sunday.
Although Gobyn’s artwork looked like a bare canvas with strips of masking tape and fragments from art books stuck to it, it was, in fact, a highly detailed two-dimensional painting in oils, on display with 26 similar works in “Prologue,” a solo exhibition that was part of the Art Weekend program.
The show proved a commercial hit. At least 25 of the oils, which give a contemporary twist to Northern Europe’s centuries-old tradition of trompe l’oeil (“trick the eye”) painting, found buyers at prices that ranged from 3,000 euros to €13,000, about $3,250 to $14,000, according to the gallery.
“There are a lot of good young artists in Belgium. Our role is to promote them,” Poirier dit Caulier said.
Antwerp and other culture hubs such as Barcelona, Zurich, Madrid, Mexico City and London are trying to emulate the success of Gallery Weekend Berlin by persuading lovers of contemporary art that following a trail of dealer exhibitions is a more relaxing and instructive alternative to the hurly-burly of a fair.
Thirty-nine commercial galleries participated in Antwerp’s ninth annual art weekend, including powerhouse names such as Axel Vervoordt and Zeno X. Yet Antwerp doesn’t have a huge dealer base and far fewer artists live in the city, compared to Berlin. Belgium does have a reputation, however, for being the country with the world’s highest ratio of collectors per capita. (Not having to pay capital gains tax on art sales helps.)
“We have this incredible tradition of collecting that goes all the way back to Rubens and Breughel,” said Tim Van Laere, a former professional tennis player who has run his eponymous gallery in Antwerp since 1997. “We have collectors at so many different levels,” he said, adding that Belgians, unlike many collectors in other countries, like to make their own decisions rather than rely on expert advisers.
“They buy with their gut,” Van Laere said.
Rather than exhibiting an artist from his stable of internationally established names, Van Laere sprung a surprise at Antwerp Art Weekend by giving over his more than 10,000-square-foot gallery to panel paintings by Inès van den Kieboom, 92, a self-taught Belgian artist whose work he’d recently discovered in a small antiques store.
Priced from €1,500 to €28,000, van den Kieboom’s direct, smile-inducing portrayals of family members and friends in everyday activities, like going to the beach, also proved popular. By Sunday, 54 of the 59 available works had been sold, about a third to international clients, according to the gallery.
At the other end of the age spectrum, the young Belgian artists Ben Sledsens, 31, (represented by Van Laere) and Bendt Eyckermans, 29, (represented by the neighboring gallerist Sofie Van de Velde) are two of the hottest names in the international art market.
Sledsens and Eyckermans both live in Antwerp and trained at the city’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts, which has nurtured many of Belgium’s brightest art and design stars. Both make figurative paintings with a dreamy, surreal edge. Both have more than 500 collectors waiting to buy their works, according to their dealers. Yet none of their paintings were available on any participating gallery walls during Art Weekend.
“You have to know the gallery and be on the list,” said Christophe Ysewyn, 38, a collector and hotelier in Antwerp. Ysewyn said he was fortunate enough to have acquired a Sledsens painting at the beginning of the artist’s career. “I’ve been contacted many times by Asian collectors who want to buy my work,” he said.
Ysewyn’s collection and property have benefited from Antwerp’s renewed importance as an art center. Ever since the Renaissance, Brussels and Antwerp have been the country’s two main artistic centers. In the early 2000s, as the art market expanded, a number of international galleries set up Brussels branches. But the appeal of Brussels as an art-world destination was dented by terrorist attacks in 2016 and by the closure in 2019 of the Brussels edition of the highly regarded Independent Art Fair.
Since then, some Belgian gallerists, such as Office Baroque, have relocated from Brussels to Antwerp.
“The art scene used to be here, then it moved to Brussels, and now it’s coming back,” Ysewyn said.
But Antwerp’s art scene has its challenges. City Hall recently slashed funding for contemporary artists after spending €105 million on an 11-year refurbishment of the city’s tourist-attracting Royal Museum of Fine Arts. That institution boasts an outstanding collection of masterworks by Rubens, the Antwerp prodigy who became the most successful artist in early 17th-century Europe.
“The art market hasn’t changed since the time of Rubens. Painting is the battleground,” said Luc Haenen, an Antwerp-based heart surgeon with a fondness for a Dries Van Noten suit. Haenen, one of Belgium’s typical under-the-radar contemporary art collectors, said he bought paintings by now-in-demand artists like Issy Wood and Caroline Walker long before they became fashionable.
Haenen, who was born in Antwerp, said his city was a logical venue for the gallery-weekend format: “It isn’t too expensive, there are a lot of young people and there’s a vibrant gallery scene,” he said. “And we’re spoiled in our mobility,” he added, referring to Antwerp’s convenient travel links to European capitals.
But surely a lot must have changed in the 400 years since Rubens was Antwerp’s megastar artist? Or maybe not. Rubens had a pretty long waiting list, too.