Visitors to Frieze Masters next week may well find themselves trapped in the mesmerizing gaze of a cold-eyed Medusa, peering out from an inky black shield. With his iridescent snake hair, Arnold Böcklin’s painted plaster cast from 1887 is a spectacular interpretation of the Gorgon. “It’s so strong it almost gives you chills,” says Stuart Lochhead, the London dealer who brings it to the fair (it’s priced at £ 490,000). “The last time one of them came, he went to the Musée d’Orsay.
Lochhead is part of Stand Out, a new section of Frieze Masters with nine galleries brought together by Luke Syson, director of the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge since 2019. Syson has switched between the US and UK over the years, appearing at British Museum, the V&A, the National Gallery and the Met in New York. In 2015, he missed the first job at the National Gallery, where by 2011 he had assembled the largest number of Leonardo’s paintings in one place for an exhibition.
But despite his reputation as a scholar around Renaissance painting, he is also attached to the world of objects, which forms the basis of the Stand Out selection. “Projects like the UK Met Galleries, which I worked on from 2013, have shown that people care about things,” he says. “Including them provides a larger, more extensive and more complex history of art. “
By disregarding the Western hierarchy which firmly places painting at the top of the economic and intellectual pyramid, says Syson, “we can more easily include manufacturers and countries that have so far been undervalued and even excluded by the western cannon. The value – and values - of works of art has never been an issue outside of Europe. And before the Renaissance, it wasn’t here either.
With a strong emphasis on materials, Syson brings new names to the fair. Roman merchant Alessandra di Castro, for example, who focuses on Italian art from the 1600s-1900s, is a newcomer, exhibiting works in stone, granite, porphyry, and marble. Its 17th century Baroque slab with skulls and leaves chosen in multicolored mosaic on a marble floor will certainly be hard to miss.
Belgian Gisèle Croës, a specialist in Asian antiques, will present works from the Silk Road – including a white enamelled pot from the 9th century Tang dynasty – which illustrate the forms and technologies that have followed one another along the route. Raccanello Leprince brings in functional, albeit fabulously decorated, majolica jars that once lined drugstore shelves in Renaissance Italy, speaking of the healing powers of medicine and art.
Syson says he’s been in conversation with Frieze Masters and its first manager, Victoria Siddall, since the fair began nine years ago. “Victoria and I discussed the role that objects could play in a place like Frieze Masters,” he says. “In an institution like the Met, with a great acquisition capacity, we are more aware of the expertise and the role of specialist dealers.
He learned from American collectors: “There is such an active collecting culture, and what you see in people’s homes is amazing. It makes you realize that the worlds of museums and personal collection are not at all separate.
Ultimately, Syson’s mission is to remove the mildly dismissive word “decorative” from the category of decorative arts. The metal works, for example, brought to the fair by London merchant Prahlad Bubbar include a 17th-century head of the goddess Gauri from Karnataka and, according to Syson, are far from mere fancy. “Metal,” Syson says, “has a transport quality; it’s cool, from another world.
For Lochhead, an 1885 plaster caryatid by Rodin gives access to a more personal work that would have been produced by the artist, probably as a gift. “People could opt for Rodin’s bronzes,” he says, “but this plaster work is so close to Rodin’s own hand. It was not made in a foundry, it was made by him.
A synthesis of influences from Asia, the Renaissance and nature, the British, Continental and American furniture from 1890 to 1930 brought by Oscar Graf can be seen as a sum of Stand Out. “For me,” says Graf, based in London and Paris, “it makes no sense not to show the decorative arts. They furnished the same houses as the paintings.
After nearly a decade, Frieze Masters is ready for radical expansion and can be confident in its choices. For Syson, Stand Out is about examining meaning and complexity through ornamentation and matter. “It’s all about ideas,” he says. “I really hope to bring some reassessment here.”
October 13-17, frize.com