MAASTRICHT - Every year I walk into TEFAF like thousands of other visitors with the same expectation – that I am about to see hundreds of beautiful works of art, the best that the art trade has to offer. I know I will see stunning paintings: glittering gold grounds, dramatic Baroque canvases and serene views of Venice. And especially I will see Dutch pictures... and lots of them. This year, however, I put all of that on pause. I wanted to start my Maastricht experience with something a little different, more offbeat. 

One of my favorite television programs is an unusual “reality” show on the Science Channel. Oddities highlights the offerings of Obscura, a shop in my own New York neighborhood of the East Village that sells antiques – or perhaps what could be more correctly termed “curios.” The staff of the store are wonderful and take great pride in their work, but their merchandise is not your run of the mill bits of furniture and porcelain. Rather, the store specializes in the quirky, strange and downright bizarre. It is a mesmerizing show – the objects range from strange scientific instruments and carnival props, to torturous medical devices of yore. I wanted to see what oddities TEFAF might have to offer a collector – obviously on a different price point, but with the same appeal.

Damien Hirst's preserved sheep in a vitrine at TEFAF 2014.

Perhaps the biggest surprise that greeted me was on the stand of the Tomasso Brothers, a gallery famous for their Renaissance and Baroque sculpture. It would be usual to see on their stand a terracotta of a Venetian senator, or a great bronze by Giambologna. What I wasn’t expecting to see was the preserved body of a sheep in a glass case. In fact, it was so surprising that at first glance, I thought it must be an example of one of the more strange scientific sculptures produced in the 17th and 18th centuries. What else could it be? It took me another few seconds to realize that this wasn’t anything so unusual as that, but rather much more familiar – a work by Damien Hirst. Hirst is from Leeds, just like the Tomassos; so, larded amongst their typical offerings in bronze, marble and stone are a few works by their fellow Loiner. 

The occult and sorcery as a subject appealed to the Old Masters and their contemporaries, just as much as it seems to us today – although surely it was a more threatening topic to a 17th-century mind. One needs only think of Guido Reni’s morbid and paralyzing fear of witches to understand how works of art with such subject matter were much less playful then than they are to us today.  A wonderful pair of bronzes on the stand of Kugel is a good example of this. They depict a male and a female witch, each riding a goat to a Sabbath at Benevento – an Italian town that became associated with witchcraft. Each is lead on by a flying demon and spurred forward by an imp with a pitchfork. They are attributed to the Italian artist Damiano Capelli, and are tour-de-forces of balance and design, with the sculptures perfectly poised on the hind legs of the rearing goat, perched on a marble base.

Another recurring theme seems to be that of the human skeleton. Perhaps the most elegant of these is with Daniel Katz, a small boxwood Pilgrim, attributed to the Dresden sculptor Balthasar Permoser. The artist was one of the most elegant exponents of the last phase of the Baroque, and his artistic imagination amongst the most florid of his day. In this exquisite little figure, brilliantly carved, the artist depicts in a swaying attitude a humble and pious traveler. He wears the usual habit of the pilgrim: a large brimmed hat and cape, decorated with scallop shells, and he holds the requisite walking staff. Even his long flowing hair is brilliantly articulated by the sculptor. 

Pilgrim sculpture attributed to Balthasar Permoser at Danile Katz.

This pilgrim, however, is somewhat more unusual.  Rather than a robust traveler, or even the more usual thin and ascetic palmer thinned by his arduous physical and spiritual journey, Permoser transforms his pilgrim into a walking cadaver. The zombie-like effect is accentuated by a split in the pilgrim’s belly, exposing his viscera, as does – if it is permitted to use the word in this context – the whimsical detail of a newt running up his hip. The whole idea of the figure is a tour-de-force of artistic contrast, the elegance of the pose and the beauty of the carving, set against the strikingly macabre tone of the subject. A momento mori par excellence, it reminds the collector that even those who are pious and penitent in life come to the same end as all men. So, I suppose, why not buy a work of art in the meantime? That message seems to have worked, as the Permoser was sold early in the fair.

The theme of the skull reappears in other objects at TEFAF – in a beautifully carved horn mirror handle on the stand of Alessandra di Castro and in an anonymous painting with Didier Aaron; a bizarre still life, it appears to depict an ossuary, lit by a lantern that has been momentarily abandoned by a grave robber. Perhaps most striking of all is the large and swagger self–portrait on the stand of Jack Kilgore, painted by the Viennese painter Albert Janesch. The picture shows the artist in the prime of his life toasting himself with a glass of wine, his wife at his side. Behind both of them, slipping quietly into the studio is the skeletal figure of death. It is so subtly rendered that one might be tricked into believing that it was an artist’s anatomical model hanging in the corner of the room, except that his hand is raised to grasp the doorjamb. Painted in 1933, Janesch’s self portrait is part of a long tradition of such paintings where death hovers, biding his time (in this case, for forty years; Janesch died in 1973).

A colored écorché drawing of body parts from a notebook by artist Vincenzo Camuccini.

The more I sought out the weird and wonderful, the more I found: a painting of toads and slithering snakes on the stand of Pieter de Boer; the beautifully rendered and colored écorché drawings of body parts from a notebook by the still teenaged artist Vincenzo Camuccini with Antonacci and Lapicarella. I became glutted on the grotesque and slightly eerie – a quick coffee, and then I dove into the floral still lifes. Tulips in a Roemer – much less likely to give me nightmares.