“Foreign Gods” – Fascinating art from the Leopold Collection from Africa and Oceania

From Picasso to Klee: Leopold Museum shows – for the first time in Austria – tribal art in the context of Classical Modernism

The Leopold Museum, internationally renowned for its Egon Schiele collection and its masterpieces from the Secession period, presents its collection of African and Oceanic art to the public for the first time with this exhibition.

From 23rd September 2016 to 9th January 2017 the exhibition “Foreign Gods. Fascination Africa and Oceania”, which features more than 250 objects from Western and Central Africa and Oceania as well as around 60 works of Classical Modernism, illustrates the decisive impact that the so-called “primitive” art had on European Modernism in the first half of the 20th century.

Rudolf Leopold’s collection comprises rare ancestral figures, dance masks, weapons, architectural sculptures and other extraordinary works by master carvers from Africa and Oceania. This collection, which was supplemented with 52 works in 2006 through an endowment from the estate of the widely traveled Austro-Hungarian marine officer Erwin Raisp-Caliga (1862–1915), was scientifically reappraised by the exhibition’s curator and tribal art expert Prof. Erwin Melchardt from 2013.

Rather than being limited to the more than 250 objects from Western and Central Africa as well as Oceania, the exhibition “Foreign Gods. Fascination Africa and Oceania” also features more than 60 eminent works of Classical Modernism, thus highlighting the impact that aboriginal art created by ethnicities in Africa and the Pacific islands surrounding Australia had on the European avant-gardes in the first half of the 20th century, from Picasso and the Cubists to the German Expressionists including Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Emil Nolde and Max Pechstein all the way to the Surrealists Max Ernst and Roberto Matta.

The Leopold Museum’s Director Hans-Peter Wipplinger emphasizes the unmistakable formal-esthetic analogies between the so-called “primitive” art from Africa and Oceania and the protagonists of the European avant-garde:

“Classical Modernism’s enthusiasm for what was perceived to be primitive triggered processes of reception and appropriation which were usually situated somewhere between empathy and misappropriation. One could go so far as to suggest that Modernism’s desired primitivism was one of the most creative misunderstandings in art history. What we must not lose sight of in this context is the fact that this encounter – with all its poetical and esthetical incongruences – not only provided a confirmation of the expressive power of ‘primitive’ art in the eyes of connoisseurs and artists but also decisively influenced western art, or rather prompted it to reinvent itself.”

The African and Oceanic objects were created for the purpose of clearly defined rituals and ceremonies, their spiritual background going far beyond deterring enemies and demons or preventing disasters. The artworks were used as images of deities, as ancestral, protective or guardian sculptures or as symbols of rank and position within the individual communities. African masks were worn for dances performed during festivities, while the decorated instruments, such as carved slit drums, the Melanesian plank boat, the rank figures and the ancestral skulls from New Guinea presented in the exhibition all hail from Oceania.

While some exhibition rooms are dedicated solely to African and Oceanic art, there are others in which select tribal art objects enter into a dialogue with works by eminent artists of Classical Modernism. An impressive Fang mask from Gabon is juxtaposed with no less than four exemplary works by Picasso, including “Woman with Folded Hands” (1907) from the Musée Picasso in Paris. A Baule mask from the Ivory Coast is presented next to a head study by Amedeo Modigliani (1910/11), while twin figures from the Nigerian Yoruba are shown alongside the expressive figures in Emil Nolde’s work “Man, Fish and Woman” (1912).

Pablo Picasso once said that he only understood “what painting was really about” when he was faced with African masks by “anonymous artists” at the Musée d’ethnographie du Trocadéro in Paris. From 1905 a general interest in African art awakened in Paris, the thriving art metropolis and capital city of a large colonial power. Along with the Fauvists surrounding Henri Matisse, art dealers like Paul Guillaume, Alfred Flechtheim and Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler also emerged as collectors of Africana. Seeing as they simultaneously acted as early promoters of the artistic avant-garde, a wide range of artists were well placed to derive decisive “primitive” influences. Both in Picasso’s early oeuvre as well as in theworks of Amedeo Modigliani this manifested itself in a radical transition from face to mask.

The exhibition’s curator Erwin Melchardt: “Early travelers and ethnographers described such objects as mere curiosities or ‘ugly devil’s grimaces’ used to deter enemies and demons. Only by the late 19th to early 20th century did this Eurocentristic prejudice start to wane.Especially at the beginning of the 20th centurythe young European artists of ‘Classical Modernism’started to discover the esthetic qualities of ostensibly ‘primitive art’ and to appreciate it as a source of formal inspiration.”

The German Expressionists from the artists’ association Die Brücke were inspired beyond art and attempted a life reform. They drew inspiration from the ethnological museums for their own carvings with which they furnished their studios. However, in their quest for artistic aboriginality they often overlooked that “tribal art” objects are also and in fact especially founded on stringent design principles. Max Pechstein did not confine his search for an ecstatic original state of being to his bathing excursions to the Moritzburg Lakes and the Baltic Sea. Rather, like Paul Gauguin before him, he embarked on a South Sea adventure in 1914. His travels led him to the Palau Islands, back then part of the territory of the Wilhelmine Empire.

The exhibition’s curator Ivan Ristić: “He felt the ambiance, the customs and the lifestyle of the local population to be in desperate need of conservation. Thus, he found words of high praise for a colonial officer ‘who took painstaking care in preventing anything European from penetrating and corrupting the islanders’”.

The exhibition opens with, among other works, the “Mirror Masks” by the Algerian-French artist Kader Attia, born in 1970. These masks of the Dogon (Mali) covered in mirror splinters encourage self-reflection by emphasizing the manifold interactions between traditional artisan craftwork, Classical Modernism and contemporary art. Thus the artist questions mechanisms of appropriation in transcultural relations as well as the gradual loss of our memory and knowledge of the original provenance and meaning of objects and rites.

Ivan Ristić: “His intention was not so much to hold a proverbial mirror up to the European and his diverse role as conqueror, collector and artist. Owing to the fact that the mirror in Attia’s work has been assembled in a haphazard manner from splinters and can ultimately only produce a pseudo-Cubist reflection, the artist rather raises the unanswered question whether the moral mortgage can be redeemed at all.”

Another highlight of the exhibition is Attia’s series of video works called “Reason’s Oxymorons”, in which the artist-anthropologist investigates the fate of the long-suffering “Dark Continent” in a number of interviews with philosophers, ethnologists, historians and psychoanalysts from Europe and Africa. By demonstrating a variety of emphases and methodical approaches, Kader Attia creates an unprecedented intellectual force which, rather than claiming to provide answers, represents a stimulating, discursive laboratory.

Catalogue accompanying the exhibition

A bilingual catalogue (G/E) accompanying the exhibition has been published by Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther König, Cologne, comprising 256 pages, approx. 220 illustrations, ed. by Hans-Peter Wipplinger and with essays by Elisabeth Leopold, Ivan Ristić, Erwin Melchardt, Stefan Kutzenberger and Hans-Peter Wipplinger.

Price: EUR 29.90 (museum’s edition)

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