Fillip 4 — Fall 2006

Lettre de Paris
Colin Browne

A summer trip to Paris usually includes pleasant visits to the palaces of canonical art, a couple of memorable meals, excellent markets and bookstores and, this year, just to add frisson, the excitement and perplexity of the World Cup. The hottest ticket in town this past June, however, was not for the Louvre or Musée d’Orsay, but for an auction of African, Asian, and Oceanic art at the Hôtel Drouot.

According to a headline in Le Monde on the day we arrived, Paris was in the throes of a “Frénésie pour l’art ‘primitif.’”1 Four well-attended and lucrative auctions of African and Oceanic art, a dozen recent exhibitions, and the completion of Jean Nouvel’s new Musée des arts et civilisations d’Afrique, d’Asie, d’Océanie et des Amériques du quai Branly were contributing to “une effervescence internationale.”2 Crowds lined up for hours when the new museum opened on June 23rd.

Since then, critical response to the new museum has been mixed, even unfavourable. The institution is understandably haunted by Europe’s colonial legacy. The opening—coinciding with a World Cup series shadowed by racial unrest—was seized upon by President Jacques Chirac as a gesture of reconciliation. The Times of London suggested that the new museum was “an attempt to rewrite history in concrete, so that Chirac’s presidency won’t be remembered for race riots but for making over the nation.”3

The President clearly views the €232 million institution as his legacy. In the presence of Kofi Annan, Rigoberta Menchú Tum, Paul Okalik, Jean Chrétien, and ninety-seven year-old Claude Lévi-Strauss, he declared that, “at the heart of our approach there is the refusal of ethnocentrism, of the unreasonable and unacceptable pretension that the West, and the West alone, determines the destiny of humanity. There is a rejection of the false evolutionism which pretends that certain people will always inhabit a lower rung of human evolution, that their so-called “primitive” cultures are worthy of study only by ethnologists or, at best, as sources of inspiration for the western artist.”4

Bold words. Critics on both sides of the Atlantic were quick to question the museum’s ability to realize these ideals. Jean Nouvel’s design, which he describes as “a snake or a lizard into which you walk and discover not so much a building as a territory—a zoo really—where there is dialogue between areas rather than individual rooms,” has received sympathetic notices.5 However, The Globe and Mail’s Lisa Rochon suggests that the museum’s “very existence is an assault on aboriginal peoples around the world. None of the horrors and injustices of the colonial era can be forgiven because eight aboriginal artists from Australia agreed to sculpt organic shapes into the wall and ceilings of the museum’s stone building on rue de l’Université.”6 Writing in The New York Times, Michael Kimmelman found it hard to contain himself: “If the Marx Brothers designed a museum for dark people, they might have come up with the permanent-collection galleries: devised as a spooky jungle, red and black and murky, the place is briefly thrilling, as spectacle, but brow-slappingly wrongheaded. Colonialism of a bygone era is replaced by a whole new French brand of condescension.”7 A cranky article by Fiachra Gibbons in The Guardian calls the museum “a catastrophe sunk in a swamp of hubris” and suggests that it be closed until “the curators sort their mess out.”8

I wasn’t able to visit the offending institution, but I was intrigued, in all the publicity, by what appeared to be an open game of hide-and-seek with the term “primitive.” The word continues to vibrate with the same romantic, ideological subtext one finds, for example, in Fridtjof Nansen’s preface to The People of the Twilight in which he describes “the primitive Eskimos” as “simple, unsophisticated children of the twilight, who are still living in their communistic state, and have not felt the burden of wealth.”9 In an interview with France 3, Chirac admitted that finding a name for the museum was difficult: “We talked a lot about what the museum should be called: ‘Arts primitives’ didn’t mean anything. ‘Arts premiers’ was a suggestion I made ten years ago, but ‘premiers’ in relation to what? That wasn’t obvious either. ‘Arts lointains’ might have been more appropriate, but in the end wasn’t adopted, and I believe it was wise to call it quite simply the Quai Branly Museum, just as there are the Louvre and Quai d’Orsay museums.”10

Yet, when the Spanish paper El País ran its story about the new museum, the headline read “El arte primitivo toma el corazón de París.”11 Le Monde provocatively places the word “primitive” in quotation marks, suggesting one can have it both ways. Under the headline “Splendeur des Arts Lointains” on the front page of its book section a week before the Branly opening, it notes a number of gallery openings “consacrés aux arts dits ‘primitives.’”12 In art historical circles, after all, the word has an illustrious pedigree, recalling the era when Paris was the world’s cultural capital, when surrealists like André Breton took an interest in masks and other plundered materials and the “information bulletin” of the Lettrist International could be called Potlatch. Breton embraced “primitivism” as a source of anti-discursive thinking, encouraging surrealist poets to invoke the “infinitely richer network of relations whose secret ... was known to early mankind.”13 The seal of approval from Breton and his colleagues imbues “the primitive” with legitimacy and value to this day. Significantly, collectors have never abandoned the term.

The owner of the Galerie Alain de Monbrison on rue des Beaux-Arts keeps that history current by advertising on his website for “oeuvres d’art primitif” and “anciens ouvrages d’art tribal.” He is one of the experts retained by the auction house Calmels Cohen, which is in the process of organizing a large “Arts Primitifs” sale for December 2006. For five days in June, de Monbrison’s gallery previewed a selection of the objects scheduled for the December sale in a small exhibition entitled Ancienne Collection Robert Lebel.

Robert Lebel was a novelist, essayist, and the author of an important early monograph on Marcel Duchamp. In New York during the Second World War, he and his friends Max Ernst, Claude Lévi-Strauss, and André Breton purchased superb personal collections of North American aboriginal masks and other objects through Julius Carlebach, the owner of a gallery on Third Avenue known as the “caverne d’Ali Baba.” Carlebach had acquired many of his items from the gift shop in the Museum of the American Indian, established by George Gustave Heye, a larger-than-life New Yorker who, in the first decades of the twentieth century, amassed a staggering collection of over 1,400,000 North American Indian and Inuit artifacts.

Lebel’s collection of North American aboriginal masks is now being sold by his son—artist, writer, and editor, Jean-Jacques—and is estimated as being worth €1.4 million.14 According to critic Emmanuel de Roux, “the most beautiful pieces” have already gone to the Musée du quai Branly.15 Writing in Le Figaro, Béatrice de Rochebouët describes Lebel’s Eskimo masks as “figures terriblement contemporaines par leur forme et leur polychromie, terriblement poétiques par leurs couleurs subtiles de vieux rose et vert d’eau.” Aestheticized, and appreciated, they are, perhaps, not unsurprisingly, detached from their original contexts. At one point, de Rochebouët describes an Alaskan mask belonging to André Breton as having been “found” in a Kuskokwim cemetery.

The masks I saw at the Galerie Alain de Monbrison—Pueblo, Eskimo, Northwest Coast—possessed an intensity and lightness beyond the lineaments of their meticulous craftsmanship. One woman dashed in and declared, “C’est la poésie!” A nervous collector paced around the room and joined me beside a transformation mask. “They’re so free!” he gushed. Free of what, or for what, I wondered.

In truth, I felt grateful. One seldom has the opportunity to spend time with such rare objects. I was especially struck by the two Northwest Coast masks: a finely carved and painted Haida raven with an articulated beak and curves that seemed intensely feral and lyrical, and a large copper-shaped mask whose provenance was, I was told, “Cowichan.” With its bird-like beak, protuberant eyes, and “ears” carved into the shape of bird’s heads, it was a swaihwé mask, boldly painted red, brown, ivory, and pale turquoise. The swaihwé (also spelled sxwaixwe, swaixwe, or sxwayxwey) is said to be a supernatural lake spirit whose powers are related to earthquakes, and since these masks are rarely shown in public— families guard them carefully, for good reasons—I began to wonder how this one had ended up in New York. I’ve been told that there’s a photograph of George Heye on Vancouver Island holding a swaihwé mask.

One of the defining characteristics of “primitive art” is the anonymity of its producers, whose names are conveniently relegated to collective amnesia. The Musée du quai Branly houses 300,000 objects. It would be interesting to know what percentage can be traced to a creator. Alain de Monbrison recently referred to this situation when discussing the market for “l’art primitif.” It’s still affordable, he notes, unlike contemporary art. “For €10,000 one can own a very beautiful object—providing that one knows how to look: in the realm of primitive art there is no signature.”16 His argument has been convincing; the market in Paris is frenzied. The day after visiting the gallery we attended the third of three crowded auctions at the Hôtel Drouot dedicated to selling the 520 pieces of Pierre and Claude Vérité’s Oceanic and African collection. The final take was €43 million. A mask from Gabon sold for €5,904,176. At one point we witnessed prices leaping forward at €100,000 per bid. Buyers at the Vérité auction were paying ten to twenty times the estimated prices. The Lebel masks will probably sell for well over €100,000 apiece.

It occurred to me as I left the gallery that it wouldn’t be difficult to identify the person who made the swaihwé mask. His grandchildren—assuming he has grandchildren—will certainly be alive, and it’s likely they’ll know how George Heye acquired the mask. Would such information pose a threat to the current owner, or to a prospective buyer? The original family may wish the mask returned. Swaihwé masks still play an active role in Coast Salish life—a direct challenge to the orphan mystique of “l’art primitif.”

There is little doubt that prices and appreciation for these rare objects will increase. The Musée du Quai Branly will become a popular destination, and perhaps one day will be renamed the Musée Chirac. Visitors will wonder at the ability of the unknown artists to represent what is both visible and invisible. And they’ll confront the troubling paradox that finds each of us ashamed of and grateful for the missionaries and adventurers whose greed and idealism fused into an urge to collect—as trophies or curios—the objects of the societies they were dismantling.

On December 4th and 5th, at the Hôtel Drouot in Paris, the swaihwé mask and the others will be sold at auction. There are rumours that a national museum of aboriginal cultures is being considered for Vancouver. The debates that accompany the proposal, should it come forward, will be challenging—and necessary.

We should welcome them.

  1. Emmanuel de Roux, “Frénésie pour l’art ‘primitif,’” Le Monde (17 June, 2006).
  2. Ibid.
  3. Tom Dyckhoff, “Epitaph for a Botched President,” The Times (London) (21 June, 2006).
  4. “Allocution de Monsieur Jacques Chirac, Président de la republique à l’Occasion de l’Inauguration du Musée du Quai Branly,” Paris: Service de Presse, Mardi 20 juin, 2006.
  5. Angelique Chrisafis, “Chirac opens indigenous museum in Paris,” The Guardian (20 June, 2006).
  6. Lisa Rochon, “Thorns in Paris’s Garden,” The Globe and Mail (13 July, 2006).
  7. Michael Kimmelman, “A Heart of Darkness in the City of Light,” The New York Times (July 2, 2006): Section 2.
  8. Fiachra Gibbons, “Musée des bogus arts,” The Guardian (3 July, 2006).
  9. Diamond Jenness, The People of the Twilight (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1928), v.
  10. Quai Branly Museum. “Interview given by Jacques Chirac, President of the Republic, to ‘France 3’,” Paris, 14 June, 2006. Released on the website of the Embassy of France in the United States.
  11. Octavi Martí, “El arte primitivo toma el corazón de París,” El País (21 June, 2006).
  12. Le Monde des Livres. Paris, Le Monde (16 June, 2006).
  13. André Breton, “Ascendant Sign,” in Denis Hollier and Jeffrey Mehlman, eds., Literary Debate: Texts and Contexts. Volume II: Postwar French Thought, trans., Arthur Goldhammer et al (New York: The New Press, 1999), 155.
  14. Béatrice de Rochebouët, “Le masque et la plume,” Le Figaro Magazine (23 June, 2006).
  15. Emmanuel de Roux, “Les Inuits de Robert Lebel,” Le Monde (17 June, 2006).
  16. Emmanuel de Roux, “Frénésie pour l’art ‘primitif,’” Le Monde (17 June, 2006).
About the Author

Colin Browne is a poet and documentary filmmaker. His book of poems The Shovel is forthcoming from Talonbooks.

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