Frieze: 'Suddenly you can look back without being seen to be backward-looking'

Charles Darwent reports on the most surprising development at the 10th Frieze Art Fair

This October, for the 10th year in a row, London's Regent's Park will suddenly fill up with art folk. Out go the pushchairs, the Boston bull terriers, the Arab ladies in long, black robes: in come leggy women wearing shoes that cost more than cars, and men who look as they have just stepped off yachts. In many cases, they have. All these will mill in and out of a large tent, this year designed by the New York-based German architect Annabelle Selldorf. Frieze has come to town.

As the world's leading contemporary art fair, Frieze has often dished up shock as part of its schtick. Last year, the French artist Pierre Huyghe showed a work in which a hermit crab scuttled across the floor of an aquarium with Constantin Brancusi's 1910 sculpture, Sleeping Muse, on its back. This October, though, the shock is different. Here, in Selldorf's tastefully muted interior – "Exhibitors were given the choice of pale grey, mid-grey, dark grey or white," says the fair's quiet director, Victoria Siddall – are things you will never have seen at Frieze, or dreamed of seeing. Oil paintings in gilt frames. Sculptures in non-ironic bronze. Tapestries. Old things.

What is going on? This is Frieze, but not as you've known it: it is Frieze Masters. Since 2003, Frieze has lured the groovier contemporary art dealers of the world to London, there to show their wares, dispense unlikely cocktails and make a great deal of money. This year, for the first time, the fair has added old art to its recipe. Selldorf's tent – modern but not scarily so, and safely across the park from Frieze proper – will host dealers selling work from circa 3000BC to 1999. (Lest their shoes get muddy, the glossiest of their glossy clients will be shuttled between the two fairs in complimentary BMWs.) On its grey-and-white walls will be everything from Attic sculpture to Agnes Martin grid-paintings. Before we look at Frieze's new offspring, though, let us rewind to June of last year, to another artfest, the biennial one in Venice.

Here, too, there is an air of shock. The same well-shod people, their yachts tied up along the Riva degli Schiavoni, are staring at something that alarms them. It is not Maurizio Cattelan's taxidermised pigeons, glued to the pediment of the Central Pavilion. Dead animals are meat and drink to contemporary art folk: after all, the Italian Cattelan has stuffed horses in his day, and sculpted Pope John Paul II being hit by a meteorite. No, what is worrying the glossy people are three works on the pavilion's walls. The titles of these – The Creation of the Animals, The Stealing of the Dead Body of St Mark and The Last Supper – are certainly worrisome, but that is not what is causing the stir. It is the age of the works. They are by Tintoretto, and they are old.

The Biennale's curator, Bice Curiger, explains what they are doing in the world's hippest art show. Tintoretto, she says, was one of the most revolutionary painters of all time, his furious gestures and steep perspectives "overturn[ing] the well-defined, classical order of the Renaissance". Now the old Italian's seditiousness is being used to upend a new classicism, one at least as rigid in its orthodoxies as that of the 16th century. For Curiger, the Tintorettos are an assault on the cult of the new.

When did the cult begin? You could argue that till the cows come home, and historians do. Certainly, by the time the Italian Futurists were egging us on to flood museums – "Oh, the joy of seeing the glorious old canvases bobbing adrift!" gurgled their fiendish mastermind, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti – the idea that the art of the past was a thing to be learnt from was dead in the water. That was in 1909. Ten years later, Marcel Duchamp, the stepfather of Surrealism, drew a moustache on a postcard of the Mona Lisa and iconoclasm took hold. With eccentric exceptions – the Cookham painter Stanley Spencer, say – a rigid anti-classicism has held sway ever since. Its tyranny has been so absolute that it has become a classicism of its own.

So why the sudden irruption of old things in Regent's Park? When the art publisher Matthew Slotover and his business partner Amanda Sharp invented Frieze in 2003, they could have set up an old-art fair at the same time. But they didn't. The pair have an uncanny nose for trends, for sensing what will work commercially and what will not. Ten years ago, Frieze Masters would not have worked. The credibility of their project would have been damaged by the things in Selldorf's Frieze Masters tent, as if Slotover had shown up at Frieze with his granny riding pillion on his Vespa. That he and Sharp feel old art is no longer a danger suggests, as eloquently as Curiger's Tintorettos, that something is afoot.

But what? As at Frieze, Frieze Masters will be accompanied by a programme of talks. The subjects of these boil down, essentially, to one: what is the new relationship of old art to new? The talks have been organised by the well-named Jasper Sharp, a young English art historian recently appointed adjunct curator of modern and contemporary art at the Kunsthistorisches Museum (KHM) in Vienna. Sharp has spent the past year bringing contemporary artists to the KHM, a process that has been full of surprises.

The first of these was the American Neo-Pop artist Jeff Koons, a man known for his sculptures of balloon animals. Last November, Koons lent three of his works to another art fair, Paris Tableau. When I say three of his works, I mean three works that he owned: the pictures were Poussin's Jupiter and Antiope, Fragonard's Young Girl Holding Two Puppies and Courbet's Woman with a Parrot. For these, the ex-Wall Street trader had paid a total of £3.5m. Given that his own Balloon Flower (Magenta) sold in 2008 for £13m, Koons was still handsomely to the good. "I asked him whether he thought it was crazy that one of his works could fetch 10 times as much as a Poussin," Sharp recalls, dumbstruck. "Koons thought about it for a second, then said, very slowly: 'Jasper, everything turns to dust.'"

This oddity paled next to a request made by the painter Ed Ruscha, whom Sharp had invited to curate a show of work from the KHM's Old Masters collection. After a day in the galleries, the man who made his name k with canvases of US gas stations took Sharp aside and said, "Could I just unframe a couple of these Bruegels?" "I was shocked," Sharp admits, "but actually it's fascinating to see what happens to historical objects when you take off their bed linen – the gilt frames, the carved surrounds and so on. They just scream out." (Ruscha, k cheekily, has called his exhibition The Ancients Stole All Our Great Ideas.) Thus the white-and-grey walls of Selldorf's tent, intended to pay old art the compliment of treating it as though it were new.

This double-edged flattery points to a reversal in the way we have come to view art in the past 100 years. Until Duchamp and his kin, old art was the smart kind, new art a johnny-come-lately. That this has changed is neatly spelt out by the relative number of visitors to Tate Modern (4.8 million) and Tate Britain (1.4 million) last year.

In part, this is due to the way historical museums have organised themselves. In chronological terms, the National Gallery's collection stops with Paul Cézanne's Les Grandes Baigneuses, finished a decade before Duchamp doodled on his Da Vinci. As Sharp notes, "Every year that passes moves us a year further away from the context in which the great collections were made." Given the shift of interest (and money) from old art to new, this lands historical galleries with a problem. Cézanne may have called the Louvre "the book in which we learn to read", but few French painters today would bother to read it. And few contemporary French artists will be painters.

These thoughts have also occurred to the directors of the world's major art museums. It is no coincidence that the Louvre in Paris, Hermitage in St Petersburg, National Gallery in Washington and Sharp's own KHM in Vienna have all acquired modern-art curators in the past 10 years, nor that living British artists such as Frank Auerbach and Bridget Riley have had exhibitions at the National Gallery in London. Lowering the age range, Turner Prize winners Mark Wallinger and Chris Ofili both showed there over this summer, their work inspired by the gallery's collection of Titians. One of the speakers in Sharp's Frieze Masters programme is Nicholas Penny, the National Gallery's director. He will talk to Cecily Brown, a young English painter whose abstract works are collected by, among others, Charles Saatchi and Elton John.

What does it all mean? Actually, as Jasper Sharp's experience with Jeff Koons suggests, contemporary artists have always divided into those who like old art and those who do not. The difference, maybe, is that, until recently, the former was a love that dared not speak its name, or at least only very quietly. Now, the old-art lovers are out, loud and proud, and so, as a result, is old art.

Also featuring in Sharp's Frieze Masters programme is the Belgian painter Luc Tuymans. Widely held to be among the most significant artists of our day – his faded canvases show atrocities such as the Holocaust and rape of the Belgian Congo – Tuymans has made a parallel career out of curating Old Master shows. Coming to London challenges him because what he describes as "probably the best painting in Western art", The Arnolfini Portrait, is in the National Gallery, and it is by a fellow Belgian, Jan van Eyck. When I suggest that Tuymans might see himself as a history painter in the tradition of Théodore Géricault, though – Géricault's Raft of the Medusa was an anti-slavery broadside – Tuymans drags on a cigarette and exhales one of the sibylline utterances for which he is known. "Good artists position themselves in time," he says, opaquely. "It is not about old, new or contemporary."

In a sense, the haziness of Tuymans' answer, as of his images, might stand for what is going on in art at the moment. So, too, will what happens next month in Regent's Park. Although Frieze and Frieze Masters are in separate venues, there is a deal of overlap between them. In Selldorf's old-art tent are medieval gargoyles and gold-ground paintings, but also a lot of stuff that must, in any normal sense of the word, count as new. On the list of 100 or so exhibitors at Frieze Masters are the kind of deeply edgy galleries – Victoria Miro, Gagosian, Hauser & Wirth – you would expect to be showing at Frieze. And they are: many dealers will have stands in both fairs. The break-off point of 1999 means that an artist such as Tuymans, 54 and with a 30-year career behind him, would be equally at home in either.

Some of this, clearly, is driven by money. The value of the global art market was reckoned at £37bn in 2011. To restrict yourself to dealing in contemporary work is to cut yourself off from a part, although not necessarily the larger part, of that market. (Frieze alone will turn over a guess- timated £250m in contemporary art this year.) But selling two commodities that are seen by punters as incompatible – diamonds and poppit beads, say – can be commercially damaging. That explains why Frieze hasn't touched old art before. It does not, though, explain why it is doing so now.

That Sharp and Slotover feel old art is a safe bet in 2012 in a way that it wasn't in 2003 means that they have picked up on that change of mood which allows Bice Curiger to hang Tintorettos in the Biennale, the director of the National Gallery to interview Cecily Brown or a new art venue in Margate to call itself Turner Contemporary. As Victoria Siddall, director of Frieze Masters, puts it, "You can suddenly look backwards without being seen to be backward-looking."

So is old really the new new? And what would that mean for how art looks 20 years from now? There have been moments in history when time has run backwards: Botticelli is said to have burnt his young works in Savonarola's Bonfire of the Vanities and started painting in a consciously old-fashioned way. He was anticipating the end of the world, and trying to be good. Maybe there's something millenarian in the air now, too. Or maybe we're just happy to rediscover old ways to be bad.

Iwan Wirth – half, with his mother-in-law, of the hugely trendy international gallery group Hauser & Wirth – puts it down to history. "People are collecting now in the way that kings and barons did in medieval times," he says. "They might buy a Martin Creed, but also a Giacometti and Victorian crystal. My wife, Manuela, and I collect everything from Stone Age axes to Scandinavian furniture." Wirth chortles. "We are the poster-couple of Frieze Masters!" And he is right.

Frieze Masters and the Frieze Masters talks programme are in Regent's Park, London NW1, from 11 to 14 October (friezemasters.com). The exhibition The Ancients Stole All Our Great Ideas is at the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, to 2 December (khm.at)

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