If you liked last weeks installation shots of African Negro Art at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1935 (here), you’ll love these pictures of Primitivism in 20th Century Art held at the same museum in 1984. I was still a baby at the time, but going through these pictures I can understand it had such a big impact and would come to instigate a new generation of collectors. If you think of it, it is fascinating that two of the most influential African art exhibitions of the twentieth century were organized by a museum of modern art.
The good folks at the MoMa even made the (Chinese version of the) exhibition catalogue freely available online here (long download) – kudos to them!
ps anecdote of the day: after New York, the show would travel to the Detroit Institute of Arts and the Dallas Museum of Art – a tour that was sponsored by Philip Morris Incorporated. I wonder if cigarette companies still get to sponsor museum shows these days.
Tribal Art Magazine has just put the short video clip online of the roundtable honoring the fifteenth edition of Parcours des Mondes in which I participated. It already has 12 views, surely all from my mother 🙂
The Associate Curator of African Arts at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, Yaëlle Biro, just broke the news on twitter that the museum acquired the above Bamana antelope headdress (ci wara) from Mali. In my humble opinion this is the best ci wara in existence. It has been in my African art top 10 since a very long time. The stylization of the antelope is spot on and the artists’ use of negative space is pure genius. I’m so happy that this headdress will soon go on public display after having been out of view for so long. The last time it could be seen was 15 years ago, when it was included in Bernard de Grunne’s Masterhands exhibition (Brussels, 2001: p. 54, #11). In 1966, it was shown in New York’s Museum of Primitive Art during the exhibition Masks and Sculptures from the Collection of Gustave and Franyo Schindler (#46). In 1989 it was published in Warren Robbins & Nancy Nooter’s African Art in American Collections, Survey 1989 (p. 73, #59); and from the Schindler collection it went on to a private NY collection until last month. The news is still fresh so this ci wara isn’t listed on the Met’s website just yet and neither do we know the kind benefactors who have made this exceptional purchase possible, but what a great addition again for the Met’s African art collection! It will be on view soon..
UPDATE: it was also published in Alisa Lagamma’s Genesis: Ideas of Origin in African Sculpture (p. 92, #47), which is freely available for download here. The catalog note eloquently describes the headdress as follows:
This headdress suggests a symphony of interwoven concave and convex elements. The horns, with their powerful outward and upward thrust, harmonize with the elongated and hollowed triangular ears, and prominent negative spaces are distributed throughout as visual highlights. The reductive sculptural form, a striking departure from convention, is an essentialized, skeletal structure that frames empty volumes in the area of the head, neck and lower body. The demarcation of these interior areas is accentuated by finely carved surface patterns that include a chain of diamonds along the ridge of the nose and the sides of the mane and neck; dense cross-hatching along the front of the neck and surface of the ears; and spiraling lines that travel up the length of the horns. In this interpretation, the antelope’s transparent being appears as an empty vessel waiting to be filled with life force.
A 19th century Vili mask from Congo meets a 21th century masked conservator in Berlin – now that’s an image worth sharing! Jonathan Fine, African art curator at Berlin’s Ethnologisches Museum, recently posted this great picture on his twitter account. It shows a conservator examining a Vili mask (III.C.8098a) to figure out what kind of conservation it needs to be displayed. He’s wearing a mask because many objects in the museum’s storage were treated with pesticides years ago. Its residues tend to collect on the surfaces and if these are dusty, the pesticides can get into the air easily. For objects that have not recently had dust removed (especially things with feathers where dust is easily trapped), conservators need to wear masks and protective gear. One of the first steps in preparing objects for exhibition in the Humboldt Forum in 2019 is to treat them to remove surface dust.
ps Robert Visser, who collected the Berlin mask between 1882 and 1898, made the below field-photo showing a ndunga mask “at work”. On the pedestal before the kneeling man, one can also spot a power figure (intriguingly slightly out of focus as if it did not want to be photographed). There are only a few known examples of this type of mask: the Museum of Ethnography in Leiden and the World Museum Rotterdam each have two; another example can be found in the Museu Nacional de Etnologia in Lisbon.
This week I’ve been enjoying the new book “W.O. Oldman. The Remarkable Collector”, published by Robert Hales and Kevin Conru and recounting the life of one of the most prolific British collectors/dealers of the first decades of the 20th century, William Oldman. During his life Oldman amassed the world’s largest and finest private collection of ethnographic objects, predominantly from Polynesia and Melanesia. This publication documents this lifelong journey through Oldman’s private archives – recently rediscovered by Robert Hales. There are more than 240 illustrations (most of them never published before) showing his inventory and private collection – not surprisingly I learnt that several dealers & collectors already discovered their own objects in the book (for example the Mbole figure Entwistle showed at Tefaf two years ago).
Robert Hales himself only knew one person who had dealt with Oldman, James Keggie (1901-1985), who regularly sold to him during the 1930s and 1940s. James said that Oldman had a mission to collect together as many Polynesian gods as possible, so that they cold receive the respect they deserved. At the time they were generally regarded as heathen idols and curios, and he abhorred this. When he brought home another Rarotongan god (similar to the one above), he would place it next to the others. James Keggie was present on one occasion and overheard Oldman say:
I have brought you another friend and now there are five of you. I am going to get you all back together and one day hopefully you will all go back home.
A wonderful quote. Documented by the photo below (apologies for the bad quality), on 13 August 1948 Oldman accomplished his life goal and sold his private collection of Oceanic material to the New Zealand Government for about £ 44,000 – he would die less than a year later. I’ve been looking a lot at this old photo; it has something very tragic about it. Not much later government officials would come to pack and ship away the treasures Oldman had been assembling his whole life. On the one hand, he must have been comforted they would (theoretically) stay together and return (more or less) to their origin, but one can’t fail to notice the incredible sadness in the man’s eyes – a big contrast with the big grin of his wife, who was probably very happy she didn’t had to live in museum anymore!
ps it’s interesting to observe that unfortunately only 300 copies of this book were printed. Even with a price tag of € 275, it was able to sell out in only one week! The Mazarine bookstore in Paris even had to limit copies to 1 per customer during Parcours des Mondes. As a good friend observed: “In a dying industry (print), niche tribal art books seems to be going strong.” Turning your limited print run into a marketing opportunity seems to be a very clever move – as long as you don’t mind that your book will never reach a big audience. But as my friend observed: “Had they done a run 10 times larger and driven the unit costs down so they could charge 50 euros a book without the slip case, would they have sold out in one week as well?”
Four years ago I did a small study of the above Ntumu figure from Gabon; in my description I wrote: “Sometimes the eyes of byeri statues served as an opportunity for the integration of relics into the figure itself by embedding fragments of bone, often in the form of teeth, into deeply excaved cavities – which could be the case here.” A couple of weeks ago I was contacted by the current owner of this statue. He had taken the figure to his radiologist to test my hypothesis. A scan proved me right and revealed the presence of three human molars: 2 behind the eyes and 1 inserted in the forehead (which had not been spotted on the statue before) – a great discovery! Next time you have an appointment at your radiologist, don’t forget to bring an African statue 🙂
UPDATE: a reader writes that the third tooth is an upper premolar.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art leads the way again. Their webpage the “MetCollects” introduces highlights of works of art recently acquired by the Met through gifts and purchases. Each month a new work is put under the spotlight. Click here to explore Jacob Epstein’s Mbunda mask from Zambia – which was acquired earlier this year. More than 20 detailed pictures let you closely inspect all angles from this mask; so next time you come across one you know how a good one should look.
In 1935 the groundbreaking “African Negro Art” exhibition was organized by New York’s Museum of Modern Art. It was one of the first exhibitions in the United States to display African sculptures as works of art, rather than as ethnographic objects. A reader just informed me MoMa has made their archives of this show available online – you can find them here. Besides the integral version of the exhibition’s catalogue edited by James J. Sweeney, you can also browse the checklist of all 603 displayed objects here. The site as well includes several wonderful installation shot – most of these objects now are rightfully considered as icons of African art and collectors are prepared to pay a considerable premium to own a piece with such a historic provenance.
On December 15th in Paris at the Hôtel Drouot, Christie’s, in cooperation with the French auction house Millon, will be offering nearly 80 objects of African and Oceanic art from the estate of Madeleine Meunier. The appearance on the market of the Madeleine Meunier estate has been eagerly awaited. In recent years, speculation about the content of this collection has taken on mythic proportions, because Meunier was married, successively, to two great figures in the world of African art: Aristide Courtois and Charles Ratton. Each played a major role in the discovery of African art, Courtois in Africa and Ratton in Paris.
Aristide Courtois (1883-1962), a French colonial administrator in the Congo, brought back hundreds of objects acquired during his assignments in the regions where he was stationed. Having an exceptional eye for distinguishing between masterpieces and ordinary objects, Courtois was one of the first colonial administrators to see these ritual objects as true works of art. Once back in Paris, Courtois worked with the first great African art dealer, Paul Guillaume, with whom he would conduct many transactions. Courtois married Madeleine Meunier in 1938 and the couple had a daughter, Annie. Madeleine Meunier kept a number of works from this period in her life: three Kota reliquaries from Gabon and four major works of Kuyu art from the Northern Congo, all collected by Aristide Courtois. Upon Guillaume’s death in 1934, Courtois developed ties with Charles Ratton, who became a loyal customer and purchased many pieces from Courtois. Ratton’s purchase records from 1938 to 1943 list some two hundred transactions, including the famous six-eyed Kwele mask known as the “Lapicque mask”, now part of the collections at the Musée du Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac.
A few years later, Madeleine Courtois separated from her husband to marry Charles Ratton. Meunier would have a son with Ratton: the recently deceased Charles-François Ratton. Charles Ratton (1897-1986) – who was honoured with an exhibition at the Musée du Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac in 2013 – had a significant impact on the history of African art by virtue of his talents as an expert, collector and dealer. He played a fundamental role in raising so-called primitive objects to the ranks of true art. Sensitive and erudite, Ratton forged a path as a dealer for ‘Haute Époque’ (Medieval and Renaissance) objects, which led to an interest in African arts, then antiques from South Seas and the Americas, and, atypical for the time, Eskimo art. In 1935, he was a major lender and advisor to the landmark African Negro Art exhibition (Museum of Modern Art, New York), the first African arts show held in a museum of modern art. Ever seeking new opportunities to place African art on the forefront, he included his Yaka headrest (estimate: €40,000-60,000) at an exhibition at the Théâtre Edouard VII in Paris in 1936 celebrating the film premiere of The Green Pastures. Ratton also served as artistic advisor to the renowned 1953 film Les Statues Meurent Aussi (‘Statues Also Die’), directed by Chris Marker and Alain Resnais for Présence Africaine (it was the subject of an exhibition at the Monnaie de Paris in 2010). Two pieces from the Meunier collection appear in this film, whose whereabouts remained a secret for the past fifty years: Charles Ratton’s superb Fang male on a base by Inagaki (estimated value: € 300,000-500,000) and a Luba-Shankadi headrest (estimate: €500,000-800,000). This masterpiece can be attributed to the most renowned sculptor of the pre-colonial period: The Master of the Cascade Coiffure, active in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in the late 19th century. Other headrests by this master carver can be found in important museums, such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art (#1981.399), the British Museum (#AF46.481) and the Ethnological Museum of Berlin (III.C.19987).
Other great objects formerly in the collection of Charles Ratton are an exceptional Hungana pendant (estimate: €15,000-25,000), an exquisite little Vili figure (estimate: € 3,000-5,000) and two Sepik River works from Papua New Guinea, probably acquired from Pierre Loeb, including a four-caryatid headrest estimated at €30,000-40,000. Below you can find some non-professional pictures of our preview last week (click on the images to zoom). Concomitantly with Parcours des Mondes, we exhibited a small selection of highlights of the Meunier collection together with the Old Master Paintings and French antiques that were being sold this week – which worked surprisingly well and succeeded in attracting the attention of collectors that normally would never look at African and Oceanic art.
The best movie I’ve seen this year, “Embrace of The Serpent” tells about the ravages of colonialism in the Colombian Amazon through the story of two explorers. Filmed in black-and-white, the film centers on Karamakate, an Amazonian shaman and the last survivor of his people, and the two scientists who, over the course of 40 years, build a friendship with him. The film was inspired by the real-life journals of two explorers (Theodor Koch-Grünberg and Richard Evans Schultes) who traveled through the Colombian Amazon during the last century in search of the sacred and difficult-to-find psychedelic Yakruna plant. It’s a different continent than the one this blog is about, but still succeeds in giving a glimpse of how it must have been in the early days of colonialism in remote areas like the Amazon. For a great interview with its director Ciro Guerro, click here.
ps another movie on my to-see list is “Tanna”, the first feature film shot entirely in Vanuatu, taking place in the South Pacific island of its title. It was written in close collaboration with the Yakel, performed predominantly by its members, and supposedly tells a great love story from their recent past.