The Mus’e du Quai Branly, in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, is an oddly modern entombment for such antique treasures
Back in more primitive days, when art from Africa and Oceania was still called ‘primitive’, wooden sculptures from Benin and Ivorian metal weights were curios, admired by a few artists and avant-garde collectors but with no market to speak of. Good! you might say: why must all art be thought of as a commodity?
You would have been no friend of Charles Ratton, the man who made the market. Intrigued by the Cubists’ use of African masks, Ratton decided to promote the unexploited art of unknown communities; the Surrealists and Dadaists went mad for them. A selection of these works — inventive, skilful, beautiful — are now on show in Paris in a sharp study of how to deal for profit and glory.
The Musée du Quai Branly, in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, is an oddly modern entombment for such antique treasures, though its dark interior adds a certain mystique to items which already feel exotic. More like an ark than a museum, Jean Nouvel’s building floats above the wildly landscaped gardens, all sealed within glass walls. (The Fondation Cartier, which has a similar rus in urbe/glass-walled charm, is also a Nouvel building, and probably better because smaller, for my money.)
The first stage of the exhibition is a series of vitrines with varied artworks from Africa and Oceania, whether a narrow stylised bull carved out of wood, its horns narrowing towards one another, or a cabinet full of those Ivorian weights: men in a boat (pictured below), a man on a chair, a man clutching his face in puzzlement.
One of the ways in which Ratton created a market – a way gallerists still use today to increase their artists’ prices – is to get museums to do a show. Many of the documents in this exhibition are posters for these shows, placed adjacent to the vitrines. There are posters for shows such as that at the theatre Pigalle in 1930, where some pieces were called obscene and initially removed (a succès de scandale!), and at the Museum of Modern Art in 1935, the first exhibition of African art in a modern-art context.
The Surrealists took to tribal art quickly, perhaps feeling that they had to catch up with the Cubists; Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon drew on tribal masks he had seen in 1906-7. Yves Le Fur, the curator of the Quai Branly, walking me round the museum after lunch, said that the Cubists liked African art because it was more cultivated and man-centred, while the Surrealists preferred Oceanic art because it was closer to nature in material and execution.
A case of items deformed in the eruption of Mount Pelée on Martinique in 1902 is a good example: these small glass pieces are in their most suggestive, most artistic moment once they’ve been destroyed by a natural disaster.
It’s hard, however, to escape the feeling that the Surrealists were in love with tribal art for a rather patronising reason: because it seemed to be a ‘simpler’, unmediated representation of the self – artless art, almost. They wanted to pour their id into their work, and assumed that these ‘primitive’ pieces couldn’t be as well-worked as, say, a Picasso. This show does not make that clear, but it’s a conclusion easily drawn. The artwork sits there, unruffled.
Near these objects are displays of photos from a 1936 exhibition, where Ratton presented ‘the finest American and Oceanian fetishes and masks’ from his collection, alongside Surrealist works by Dali, Magritte and Tanguy and non-Surrealists pieces by Arp, Picasso and Duchamp. All these objects, Ratton suggested, provoked an emotional ‘impact’, uniting them despite disparate styles. This feels a rather meagre criterion: which artworks don’t produce impact?
Moreover – and I do understand the difficulty of this – the wonder of that particular exhibition is only really evoked if you place some of the non-tribal items beside them. What we have here is soggy gunpowder.
Dead and displayed
In a small cinema off to one side, the museum is screening Les Statues Meurent Aussi (Statues Also Die), Chris Marker and Alain Resnais’ 1953 film-essay which takes a hypnotic, non-narrative look at how colonialism has changed the way we perceive historical African art. With its dark images of sculptures (‘dead’ because now only museum pieces), edited to the beat of the music, it is a riposte to Ratton and his belief in commoditising tribal art. If deliberate on the part of the curators, it is brave.
Ratton certainly achieved his aim of developing a new market. The Helena Rubinstein sale of 1966 set a record for a piece of African art with the Bangwa Queen (in the poster above), an astonishing Cameroonian sculpture of a fecund tribal leader, appealingly rotund in all her limbs, with carved jewellery; it went for $26,000, and then again in 1990 for $3.4 million, another record. The 1990 sale, at Sotheby’s, fetched $7.1 million in total. There are regular sales in Paris and New York today.
As you leave the exhibition, you ask yourself whether Ratton had a feeling for art, or just for money. Exhibit A, or rather Exhibit Z, the final piece in the show: the work he kept all his life was a rather frightening statue of a snake devouring a man (pictured above). You tell me.