Métiers d’Art “Les Masques”
Celebration of a collection
The Watch Quote™ - June 6th, 2009
|“There is nothing on earth which is more desirous of beauty and which embellishes itself more readily than a soul… That is why few souls, on earth, can resist the domination of a soul dedicated to beauty.”|
|Maurice Maeterlinck, The Treasure of the Humble|
The idea for this collection grew out of an awareness of a renewed interest in tribal art. The so-called primitive arts are currently experiencing a new golden age, as witnessed by the long-awaited and much delayed opening of the Quai Branly Museum in Paris and by record auction prices: in June 2006, for example, a Fang mask fetched 5.9 million euros at the French auction-house Hotel Drouot. It was the largest sum ever paid at an auction for a piece of tribal art. Admittedly, the object belonged to Pierre Vérité, one of the leading dealers in 20th century African art, but the price is light years away from the five dollars Max Ernst gave the New York second-hand goods dealer, Julius Carlebach, in 1941 for an Eskimo spoon!
One way to understanding the world
It was in the 19th century that collectors first began to display an interest in “primitive” art. They were able to perceive its intrinsic value and recognise it as a work of art. It was hardly surprising, therefore, that it was artists who were the first to decipher these objects, which said so much with so little. A few sculpted holes in the wood: two for the eyes, one for the nose, and one for the mouth. The modern artists of the time were well aware that art is one of many ways to understanding the world.
The discovery of tribal art induced these artists to follow the lessons of Cézanne, a father to all of them, to take a new look at perspective, rethink volume and space, break with realism, free themselves from the lessons of academicism, and invent a new way of representing reality in order to capture the essence of being. The Fauvists – Matisse, Derain and Vlaminck – Surrealists and Cubists all came into contact with tribal art and this way of capturing forms by stripping them to a bare minimum. “In certain masks from the Ivory Coast, the Cubists saw signs which, renouncing all imitation, invited the viewer to imagine the face whose forms were not reproduced on these masks,” wrote Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, a leading art dealer and publisher(2).
Despite the celebrated words – “African art? Never heard of it!” – Picasso drew on African art, as well as Iberian art, for inspiration in putting the finishing touches to his painting Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, the founding work of Cubism, which he began in 1906 and finally finished in July 1907.
During a visit to the Ethnographic Museum at the Trocadéro in Paris, he found material to nurture his formal quest: “All alone in this frightful museum with masks, Red Indian dolls and dust-covered mannequins. The Demoiselles d’Avignon must have come to me that very day, not at all because of the forms, but because it was my first exorcism painting!”(1). According to the painter Wassily Kandinsky, Picasso “owes the success of his quest to African art”(3). And he was not the only one. “A whole string of French painters and, in their wake, foreign painters set off down this newly-opened path; this was the starting point of the Cubist movement,” he wrote in 1910 (3).
It was after discovering rice spoons from the Ivory Coast that Giacometti sculpted his Spoon Woman in late 1926. In 1936, the Exposition Surréaliste d’Objets, organised by André Breton at the Charles Ratton Gallery, brought together for the first time works by Salvador Dali, Max Ernst, Mirò and Giacometti with four Eskimo masks belonging to the Heye Foundation in New York. The tribal art of the Americas, with its various objects made from recuperated and ingeniously recycled material, was an unrecognised area at that time.
Mirrors of the human and divine
While painters, sculptors and poets were quick to appreciate the intrinsic artistic value of these objects, institutions took a little longer, so these masks and statuettes were more often than not exhibited in ethnographic rather than art museums.
The value of tribal art does not reside essentially in its aesthetic aspect, even though this is important. Its true beauty is linked to its usage and use, to the hands which have held it and touched it. Not to mention the powers with which it has been invested on a particular continent, at a particular time, by a particular people, according to a particular religious tradition. Like the reredoses of the Middle Ages or Giotto’s frescoes, these masks have a function associated with initiations and religious rites and denote social distinction. They are, at the same time, the personification of a divinity and a spiritual entity, as well as a mirror held out to men, across time and borders, encouraging them to ask themselves those universal questions relating to the mysteries of birth, life and death, and to the relationship between the visible and invisible, between the human and the divine.
The true Art of time
Setting aside the symbolism and magic associated with these masks, there is a certain logic in bringing tribal art and the art of watchmaking together: both are the offspring of time.
The real sculptor of an object, the one who gives it its patina and significance, who hollows out or softens its contours, is time. Masks were born of a necessity. Used at every ritual, serving to mark the seasons and accompanying both the living and the dead, they possessed a clear chronological dimension. It is also easy to draw a parallel between the anonymous work of a sculptor who has created a mask and that of a watchmaker at his workbench, working away for months, sometimes years, to bring a new movement to life. When the work is finished, both craftsmen are dispossessed of the object, which does not usually bear their name. It becomes instead the property of the person who uses it and will be passed down from generation to generation, bearing with it so many questions and so few answers.
L’homme et ses masques : chefs-d’oeuvre des musées Barbier-Mueller, Geneva and Barcelona, Michel Butor, Alain-Michel Boyer, Floriane Morin, Pierre Messmer Picasso, l’homme aux mille masques, Jorge Semprun, Maria Teresa Ocaña, Jean Paul Barbier-Mueller, Pierre Daix, Collectif, Somogy, 2006 L’Art africain, Jacques Kerchache, Jean-Louis Paudrat and Lucien Stephan, Mazenod, Paris, 1988
(1) Le primitivisme dans l’art du XXe siècle, William Rubin, Flammarion, Paris, 1991
(2) L’art nègre et le cubisme, Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, L’art nègre, Paris, pp. 83–88
(3) Du spirituel dans l’art et dans la peinture en particulier, Kandinsky, Denoël