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Ethnographic Art: The Afterlife of Objects

Ethnographic specimens, windows on the soul, or harbingers of modern art—tribal artworks have appeared in many ways to Western eyes, as seen in two current museum shows.

Ethnographic Art

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As if in revenge for Western depredations against preliterate societies, the artworks made by those societies have always troubled the Western mind, even haunted it. African sculpture, Oceanic masks and pre-Columbian stelae—their aesthetics so radically different from those of Europe, their creation bound up with religious rituals equally remote—have long provoked responses ranging from horror to contempt to rapt admiration. At best, so-called tribal or ethnographic objects have been provocative in the sense of actually causing changes in the Western mind. In the early 20th century, in the realm of anthropology, they helped bring about genuine understanding of the cultures that made them, after centuries of near-total misunderstanding. In the realm of art—ironically, through a process of creative misunderstanding—they acted as a major catalyst for the modernist revolution.

Two unorthodox museum shows, one on the West Coast, one on the East, shed light on two very different Western responses to ethnographic art. The de Young Museum of Art in San Francisco is mounting “Objects of Belief from the Vatican: Art of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas” (February 9–September 8), and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York will have “African Art, New York, and the Avant-Garde” on view through April 14. The de Young exhibition—the opening of which is timed to coincide with the annual San Francisco Tribal & Textile Arts Show (see page 28), when collectors and dealers of this material from all around the world converge on the city—is an ambitious loan show that will deliver access to a legendarily inaccessible trove of ethnographic art, leveraging a longstanding relationship between the Holy See’s museum system and the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, of which the de Young is a part. The Met show, on the other hand, draws mainly on its own deep resources (notably including the Alfred Stieglitz bequest), supplemented by rarely-seen documents and photographs that put the artworks in context.

True to its title, the de Young show is about religious belief—and it may come as a surprise to many viewers that the attitude of the Roman Catholic Church toward tribal art was far from dismissive. In 1983, when the Vatican Ethnological Museum loaned 15 pieces to the de Young, inaugurating the partnership between the two institutions, Pope John Paul II said in a public speech, “These works of art will have a contribution to make to the men and women of our day. They will speak of history, of the human condition in its universal challenge, and of the endeavors of the human spirit to attain the beauty to which it is attracted.” A fine sentiment for an ecumenical age—but it turns out that at least some Catholic missionary priests were taking a strikingly broad-minded and sensitive view of tribal art as far back as the late 19th century.

According to Christina Hellmich, the de Young’s Curator in Charge for Africa, Oceania and the Americas and the Jolika Collection of New Guinea Art, who organized the present show, “The Catholic Church sent missionaries out with the idea that in places like Europe, society had lost the true message of God, so that if you could connect with indigenous people who were living in a more direct way with the environment, they would hold some kind of essence that had been lost. The goal was still to convert them, but the Church had evolved away from wanting to obliterate their cultures; it tried to support cultural traditions while encouraging conversion.”

One of the most eloquent spokesmen for this point of view was Fr. Wilhelm Schmidt (1868–1954), a priest and anthropologist who curated the ethnological pavilion at the landmark 1925 Vatican Exhibition, in which some 100,000 works of art and artifacts from all over the world were shown to the public at 26 locations in Vatican City. Schmidt posited the existence of what he called Urmonotheismus (primordial monotheism), an ancient revelation from God to all humanity that had been lost due to the coarsening effects of material progress and civilization. According to an essay accompanying the exhibition, Schmidt believed that the “only remaining traces of that primordial divine message could be found within tribal groups which—far from being ‘primitive’—had conserved the pure idea of a Supreme Being.”

In keeping with this philosophy, missionaries fanned out across the globe, and some of them actually ended up preserving the last remnants of cultures that died out due to the overwhelming incursions of Western civilization. One of the 39 objects on view at the de Young is a tree-bark mask from the Yaghan people of Tierra del Fuego, at the southern tip of Chile, made before 1920. It was used in an initiation rite that had to do with sex-role-reversal and a periodic reassertion of the original supremacy of women. Fr. Martin Gusinde, a missionary and anthropologist, was among the last to visit the Yaghan before they vanished; he donated this mask to the Pope in 1927.

In other cases, the missionaries bequeathed us access to very early artworks. One piece in the show, from the extremely remote Polynesian island of Mangareva, was collected in the 1830s by François Caret, a priest of the Congregation of the Sacred Heart and the Adoration. It represents Tu, the main divinity in the Mangareva pantheon, the offspring of two gods who were so lofty that they ignored humanity completely, leaving human affairs to their eldest son. Carved from wood, the sculpture is the only extant example of its type. Fr. Franz Kirschbaum, of the Order of the Verbites, was another indefatigable missionary ethnologist who spent 20 years in New Guinea around the turn of the 20th century, sailing up the Sepik River, preaching to the Papuans and collecting objects and the mythic stories that went with them. The pieces that he donated to the Pope formed the core of the Vatican’s sizable New Guinea collection.

Not all of the Vatican’s tribal holdings came to Rome in such a high-minded way. The earliest material definitely comes from the blood-stained era of Conquistador plunder. A notable example, on view at the de Young, is an astonishing red stone Quetzalcoatl from 15th-century Mexico, a sculpture of truly Ovidian power that takes the impossibility of a feathered serpent, makes it naturalistically real, and animates it with coiling energy. When the Vatican began collecting tribal objects, such pieces were not considered artworks; they were trophies of conquest and conversion. As a formal entity, the papal collection dates back to 1691, and its holdings were substantially enriched at the beginning of the 19th century by a bequest from Cardinal Stefano Borgia, a voracious collector.

The 80,000-strong collection officially became the Vatican Ethnological Museum in the wake of the 1925 exhibition, and for decades it has been mainly for study purposes, more or less invisible to the public. Exhibitions were small, infrequent and in Rome only. The current show marks a new era of openness. In 2009, Fr. Nicola Mapelli became director, with the stated mission “to revitalize the collection, not to create a museum of dead objects.” The Vatican, says Hellmich, “has been endeavoring to reconnect these collections to the regions and indigenous peoples they come from, to make them more relevant in a contemporary sense. They want to keep them moving on the journey they’ve been on for a while.”

The Met show, on the other hand, is about the ways in which collectors and artists in early 20th-century New York did their level best to disconnect tribal art from the communities that made it. Severing objects (almost exclusively African objects, at that particular time and place) from their cultural context, it was believed, was necessary in order to fully expose their aesthetic value and elicit from them their full power to inspire contemporary art. While that approach may seem perverse today, it obviously had a huge vivifying effect on modern painting and sculpture. Picasso, for one, didn’t even care whether the tribal pieces he bought in Paris were real or fake; he was after the look, that was all. Paul Guillaume, a Paris dealer who was the conduit for most of the African art that reached New York in the 1910s and ’20s, wrote in a 1926 book titled Primitive Negro Sculpture that the only important thing was “the plastic qualities of the figures—their effects of line, plane, mass and color—apart from all associated facts…. [The ethnological background only] tends to confuse one’s appreciation of the plastic qualities in themselves.”

In 1914, in the wake of the epoch-making Armory Show of the previous year, African traditional art first appeared on the market in New York, and one of the two galleries that offered it was none other than Alfred Stieglitz’s Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession, better known as “291.” Stieglitz hung historically unrelated African pieces in a stark setting modeled on his Picasso-Braque show. He wanted to distance himself as far as possible from what he saw as the cluttered approach of earlier ethnologically oriented presentations in Europe, such as the famous exhibition of the findings of the explorer Pierre de Brazza at the Trocadéro in 1888.

Over the next few years, Marius de Zayas, a Mexican-born dealer, caricaturist and close Stieglitz associate, became the main champion of African art in New York. He commissioned Charles Sheeler to photograph his pieces for a deluxe limited-edition portfolio called African Negro Wood Sculpture. Sheeler’s hard-edged, direct pictures made the sculptures look modern and also constituted a serious step forward for photography itself as a viable merger of art and documentary. De Zayas’ ideas about African art, while dated now, are eye-opening with respect to attitudes prevalent in the modern-art world at the time. In his preface to the portfolio he wrote, “When the First World War was declared and desolation reigned about artists and dealers, Paul Guillaume was only too glad to let me have all the African sculpture I could put in a trunk and bring to New York. That was his first contribution to exhibitions of modern art in New York….” In de Zayas’ mind, African art was totally conflated with modern art; he had ceased to think of it as belonging to a culture with an ancient history, if he had ever done so. De Zayas and his fellow connoisseurs valued African art exclusively for its architectonic boldness, its distorted human forms and faces, its aura of strangeness that threatened the established aesthetic. That was more than enough.

For another group of artistically progressive New Yorkers, however, it wasn’t nearly enough. By the early 1920s the Harlem Renaissance was in full swing, and intellectuals such as the philosopher Alain Locke wanted to promote African tribal art as a cultural legacy and source of inspiration for African-Americans. “It is as legitimate a modern use of African art to promote it as a stimulus to the development of Negro art,” wrote Locke in a letter to The Nation in 1927, “as to promote it as a side exhibit to modern painting.” Strong words, but Locke was prepared to back his claim with action. He traveled to Europe to source collections to acquire for a prospective Harlem Museum of African Art, accompanied by his friend Edith Isaacs, editor of Theatre Arts Monthly. Isaacs fronted the money to buy about 1,000 pieces from a Belgian collector named Raoul Blondiau, and Locke was to raise the funds to buy them from Isaacs. Unfortunately, he was unable to do so and the venture folded. The idea had been too far ahead of its time.

Ironically, the old-style, cluttered, colonialist French and Belgian exhibitions of the late 19th century were more in tune with today’s approach to tribal art than either the Urmonotheismus-infused spirituality of the Catholic missionaries or the history-effacing radical modernism of the Stieglitz circle. By arranging artworks in close proximity to utilitarian objects and keeping objects from one culture together, they acknowledged that these things were artifacts of a culture, a religion, a people’s way of life. In a special edition of Tribal Arts magazine that serves as a catalogue for the show, Met curator Alisa LaGamma writes, “Within the equatorial African communities that sponsored them, works featured in African Art, New York, and the Avant-Garde were visual points of reference for wondrous experiences. More important than the isolated artifact was participation in ritual events that expanded upon and enriched their appreciation.” Very true, but creative misreading has its place, as well—including, this month, in two great American museums.

Author: John Dorfman | Publish Date: February 2013

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