Sunday, December 27, 2009

Man Ray, African Art and the Modernist Lens

BY: Deborah Dietsch, Washington Post

Twenty-five years ago, New York's Museum of Modern Art mounted a controversial exhibit examining the relationship between modern art and "primitive" tribal cultures. The show was criticized for relegating non-Western art to a supporting role in the development of Western abstraction.

"Man Ray, African Art and the Modernist Lens" tries hard to avoid this imbalance in presenting mostly straightforward, commercial photographs of African artifacts next to the real thing, but it runs into the same trouble. The touring show, organized by curator Wendy Goodman for D.C.-based International Arts and Artists, reduces the carved figures, masks and hats from West Africa to mere reference points for the photos.

Even worse, this exhibit is as dryly academic as the footnotes to a doctoral dissertation. Many of the 100 black-and-white photos by Ray and his contemporaries are more descriptive than interpretative, offering no new understanding of African artifacts.

Some of these 1920s and '30s images were taken by well-known artists Charles Sheeler and Walker Evans to record the African objects collected by Western patrons and museums, but they might as well have been shot by anonymous archivists.

Ray gets top billing, but the expatriate surrealist is also reduced to a documentarian. A chunk of his photos in the exhibit merely record the tribal art collected by Danish lawyer Carl Kjersmeier, who by the 1930s had amassed some of the largest holdings of African objects in the world.

Such Western interest in tribal artifacts grew from the colonization of Africa by Europeans, whose takeover of the continent is documented through a colored map. By 1900, few major artists were untouched by the fascination with African and Oceanic "primitive" art. Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso and others were drawn to the styles and motifs from these non-Western cultures as a way to challenge traditional aesthetic ideas, which they saw as stagnant and irrelevant to modern society.

While Europeans understood African objects through the lens of colonialism, Americans viewed them as representing the legacy of slavery and segregation. Racial biases resulted in the negative perception of African art that persists to this day.

However, for black American artists, African art served as an affirmation of their heritage and identity. The most intriguing portion of the show — it would make a worthwhile exhibit on its own — is devoted to this embrace by members of the New Negro movement, as blossoming 1920s black culture was called.

Harlem photographer James Allen's portrait of graphic artist James Lesesne Wells shows his subject intensely engaged with a drinking cup from Central Africa. Wells gazes down on the face carved on the vessel as if communing with an ancestor.

One of the few paintings in the exhibit is by Lois Mailou Jones, a Harlem Renaissance artist who invigorated her art with African and Caribbean influences. "Les Fetiches" (the fetishes), painted while Jones was living in Paris, pictures a group of open-mouthed African masks like a human chorus around a cubist face.

Surrounding the lively canvas are Evans' photographs of masks from a 1935 exhibition of African art at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The exhibit suggests Jones based her painting on these images rather than actual objects, although the artist insisted her inspiration came from masks seen in Parisian galleries and museums. Certainly there was no scarcity of African objects in Paris, and modernist artists emulated both mediocre and first-rate sculptures.

In the last section of the show, high-minded art yields to popular taste in fashion photography incorporating African objects. The best of these is Ray's "Noire et blanche" ("Black and White") depicting a female head turned at a right angle to a mask from the Ivory Coast. Shot for Paris Vogue in 1926, Ray's carefully composed photo of opposites suggests the woman and the African object reflect the same modern beauty.

Following this stunner are repetitive images of tribal hats worn by Ray's dancer companion, plus view after view of the ivory bracelets collected by British heiress Nancy Cunard. Here, African art is reduced to trinkets of "l'art negre" worn by the fashionable and the rich, a trivialization the exhibit fails to condemn.

WHAT: Man Ray, African Art and the Modernist Lens
WHERE: Phillips Collection, 1600 21st St. NW
WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday but to 8:30 p.m. Thursdays; 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday; through Jan. 10
ADMISSION: $12 adults, $10 students and seniors
PHONE: 202/387-2436

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Deal gives de Young most of Oceanic art works

By John Cote - San Francisco Chronicle

Most of the M.H. de Young Memorial Museum's cornerstone collection of Oceanic art will stay put under a deal that San Francisco officials have struck to resolve an inheritance dispute that threatened to have the collection dismantled.

The tentative settlement, confirmed Tuesday by attorneys involved, will give the de Young clear title to 274 of 398 pieces of Papua New Guinea artwork housed at the city-owned museum - a compilation that nation's ambassador to the United States hailed as an "unparalleled and extensive collection of masterpieces."

The fate of the remaining 124 pieces at the de Young Museum, dozens of them on loan from Sotheby's, is still unresolved and could result in some of the pieces being sold to satisfy a roughly $20 million debt to the auction house.

New York philanthropists John and Marcia Friede collected 4,000 or more pieces of New Guinea tribal art over four decades and promised the prized works to the de Young Museum in a series of agreements dating to 2003.

The de Young Museum specifically designed an 8,000-square-foot gallery named for the couple to house the collection when it rebuilt its Golden Gate Park home.

The artwork, named the Jolika Collection after the first letters in the Friedes' three children's names, was to be transferred over a period of years.

But the couple also used the works to secure loans from Sotheby's to acquire more pieces and, at the insistence of John Friede's brothers, put the collection up as collateral in an inheritance dispute following the 2005 death of John Friede's mother, Evelyn A.J. Hall, sister of publishing tycoon Walter Annenberg.

The result was a series of legal battles in California, New York and Florida.

San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera went to court in September 2008 to try to prevent John Friede's two brothers from seizing the collection and selling parts of it to raise up to $20 million after a Florida judge ruled that Friede had violated the terms of a legal settlement involving their mother's estate.

In that case, John Friede had agreed to pay his brothers $30 million and put up the Jolika Collection as collateral, despite already having pledged it to the de Young. He values the entire collection at about $300 million.

John Friede had paid his brothers more than $22 million of the $30 million, but legal fees and interest made the shortfall around $10 million, court documents show.

In April, the city agreed to sell 76 works not at the museum to help pay the Friedes' debts. Only some have been sold.

Under the settlement, the balance John Friede owes his brothers will be set at $5.65 million and will be paid from three sources: John Friede's one-third share of the Pierre Bonnard painting "Le dejeuner" that he owns with his brothers; a portion of a $3.7 million payment from his mother's estate that was to go the de Young to pay for upkeep, promotion and study of the Jolika Collection; and proceeds held in escrow from the sale of some of the works not housed at the museum, lawyers involved in the case said.

The brothers, Thomas Jaffe and Robert Friede, agree to give the de Young clear ownership of 168 works at the museum, on top of the 106 collection pieces the de Young indisputably owns.

"We've achieved a great result in protecting the museum's works from the brothers' claims," Deputy City Attorney Don Margolis said. "Everyone compromised to some extent."

Rosemary Halligan, an attorney for Friede's half-brother, Thomas Jaffe, noted that the agreement is tentative.

"We're not there yet, but we're hopeful that we'll get there," Halligan said.

The Board of Trustees for the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, which oversees the de Young, signed off on the proposal Dec. 10.

John Friede said it is premature to comment before the settlement is finalized, but added that he is "very, very pleased with the progress."

Also unclear is what will happen to about 3,500 pieces at the Friedes' Rye, N.Y., home, which the couple has planned to gradually turn over to the de Young. Some could be sold to resolve the Sotheby's case in New York.

"We believe it's still (the Friedes') desire to bequeath these works to the museum," Margolis said.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Exhibit Explores African Art, Western Perceptions

From the Daily News Tribune. By: Chris Bergeron

BOSTON — To Western eyes, the mask-like faces and naked loins of carved African sculpture speak of primitive appetites from the Dark Continent.

Like other kinds of colonialism, the 19th-century "discovery" and marketing of native art from Africa, and later Oceania, transformed ritual and ceremonial objects from everyday life into commodities for foreign consumption.

Now an informative exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts uses striking objects to reveal how early Western collectors and photographers turned cultural artifacts into exotic works of art.

The show, "Object, Image, Collector: African and Oceanic Art in Focus," does far more than merely display objects that appear exotic to Western tastes. Breaking new ground, it explores how photography shifted Western perceptions of objects initially collected for anthropological study into highly prized works of art.

Adding a new dimension to such exhibits, it showcases photos by Alfred Stieglitz, Charles Sheeler, Clara Sipprell and Walker Evans along with publications by Carl Einstein that influenced how the public viewed art from Africa and the Pacific Islands.

The MFA's first exhibit of its kind, it borrows more than 50 objects including three-dimensional pieces and textiles from 20 Boston collections.

Museum Director Malcolm Rogers described the exhibit as "a wonderful marriage between object and photography. ...It's the very first exhibit of its kind to highlight art of Africa and Oceania through local collections," he said during an opening tour.

Located in the second floor Art of Asia, Oceania and Africa Gallery, the exhibit runs through July 18.

Christraud Geary, senior curator of African and Oceanic Art, and Karen Haas, the Lane Collection curator of photographs, organized the exhibit. Rather than just show objects of remarkable craftsmanship and beauty, they've focused on how photography and other kinds of presentation shaped public perceptions.

A scholar who has written extensively on the subject, Geary said French and European artists were fascinated by turn-of-the century exhibits of African art because it let them express feelings that were limited by Western traditions.

"Artists were the first to embrace these objects. Exhibitions in art museums and galleries followed and also played a role in their interpretation, but the impact of photography in promoting this shift has been neglected," she said.

In the early 20th century, artists as different as Georges Braque, Pablo Picasso and Man Ray were incorporating elements of African art into their works.

"Artists (from Europe) were attracted by the forms of African art. They saw it as specimens, not art," Geary said. "They felt anything that caught their fancy was an object to be celebrated."

Born in Germany, Geary has traveled widely in Africa, performing field research in Cameroon, Senegal, Nigeria, Kenya, Tanzania, Zimbabwe and South Africa. She served 13 years as curator of the photographic archives of the National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Regarded as one of the founders of Modernism, Sheeler emerges in this show as a master photographer whose images dramatically shaped public perceptions of African art.

Haas said she was fascinated "to realize the very early role that Sheeler's photographs played in the reception of African art as works of fine art rather than ethnographic objects."

Visitors will see many remarkably crafted objects that will dazzle their eyes and imaginations. By displaying old photos of these pieces, Geary and Haas challenge viewers to wonder whether they're perceiving them within the context of their original construction or whether their unfamiliar appearance tricks us into only seeing reflections of our own stereotypes.

In other words, do we collect them as works of art because we don't understand what they really once were? How would we feel about someone from Gabon who spent lots of money acquiring pictures of poker-playing dogs because they thought they revealed something deep and mysterious about American culture?

The exhibit also breaks new ground for many viewers who are likely more familiar with art from virtually everywhere else in the world than Africa.

Visitors examining for the first time a reliquary guardian figure from Gabon or a Congolese wood and shell hermaphrodite figure will not only see examples of stunning beauty but mirrors to their own perceptions about unfamiliar cultures.

Asked how visitors new to African art might best appreciate the exhibit, Geary said, "I think they ought to look at the form first. Form speaks to us," she said.


The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, is open seven days a week. Hours: Saturday through Tuesday, 10 a.m. to 4:45 p.m.; and Wednesday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 9:45 p.m.; (Thursday and Friday after 5 p.m. only the West Wing is open).

The museum is closed Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year's Day and Patriots Day.

General admission (which includes two visits in a 10-day period) is $20 for adults; $18 for seniors and students 18 and older and includes entry to all galleries and special exhibitions. Admission for students who are university members is free as is admission for children under 17 during non-school hours.

On school days until 3 p.m., admission for youths 7-17 is $7.50. No admission fee is required after 4 p.m. on Wednesdays although donations are welcome.

For information, call 617-267-9300 or visit