The Fascination of Africa and Oceania or ‘Foreign Gods’ in the Leopold Museum

Exhibition insight ‘Foreign Gods’ with Max Pechchstein’s ‘Still Life with Negro Statues’ (1918). © Leopold Museum, Vienna. Photo: Lisa RastlThe presentation in Vienna gives visitors an easily graspable overview of over 250 objects of ‘primitive’ art and more than 60 works of Classical Modernism.

VIENNA. Foreign Gods. Fascination Africa and Oceania. In the Leopold Museum’s large-scale autumn exhibition (from 23 September 2016 to 9 January 2017) the museum’s comprehensive collection of African and Oceanic art is presented for the first time, announced Allowing these objects to enter into a dialogue with select works by protagonists of Classical Modernism, the presentation calls to mind Europe’s exotic art adventure and its impact on the avant-garde. For the fascination held by art from ‘foreign’ cultures is reflected in numerous works of Classical Modernism and the museum’s founder Rudolf Leopold shared the enthusiasm that exponents of this movement had for such objects. Visitors are able to experience this first hand through the dialogue that the masks and figures enter into with works by Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), Constantin Brancusi (1876-1957), Emil Nolde (1867-1956) and Max Ernst (1891-1976). At the same time, the alienating, ‘primitivist’ view that Modernist artists had of Africa and Oceania is questioned by the contemporary artist Kader Attia (1970) from a post-colonial perspective.

Max Ernst, ‘The Feast of the Gods’ (1948), Museum moderner Kunst, Stiftung Ludwig, Vienna; acquired in 1968. Photo: © Bildrecht, Vienna 2016 / Museum moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig WienClassical Modernism’s enthusiasm for what was perceived to be aboriginal and 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 by connoisseurs and artists but also decisively influenced western art, or rather prompted it to reinvent itself.
Hans-Peter Wipplinger - quoted from the exhibition’s catalogue

The sacred objects and ritual items created by the peoples of Africa and Oceania once incarnated the power of their ancestors and gave a face to their reverence for nature. In the early 20th century these works were incorporated by Europe into a different kind of pantheon – that of art. Only a small part of the public is aware that over decades Rudolf Leopold compiled a comprehensive collection of rare masks, figures and cult objects from the southern hemisphere. According to him, they were ‘a priori expressionistic’.

The African people have been shaped over centuries and millennia by the climate and landscape of their continent, by rocky hills, deserts, savannasand scrubland, but also by a fantastic fauna. They have a deep belief that the souls of the dead live on; they do not doubt the soulfulness of all living beings. Our view of the carvings is initially a superficial one, for it is only the effect that the stylized, geometrical or expressively heightened forms of the masks elicit within us that affects us, much like European artworks move us, but the effects produced by them are not easily comparable – Europeans have a different consciousness, art speaks a different language here.”
Elisabeth Leopold - quoted from the exhibition’s catalogue

‘Dogon’, Mali, Picoreurmask, 19th to early 20th century. Photo: © Leopold Museum, ViennaRudolf Leopold’s collection comprises more than 200 rare ancestral figures, dance masks, weapons, architectural sculptures and other extraordinary works by wood carvers from Africa and Oceania. This collection was supplemented in 2006 with 52 objects through an endowment from the estate of Erwin Raisp-Caliga (1862-1915), a widely traveled Austro-Hungarian marine officer and later rear admiral. All objects were scientifically revised and examined from August 2013 by Erwin Melchardt (1944), a lecturer at the University of Applied Arts Vienna and appraiser of non-European art at the Vienna auction house Dorotheum. Through this research project it has been possible to definitively confirm the eminent quality of this part of the collection. This gave rise to the idea of presenting these items for the first time in a comprehensive, large-scale exhibition while shining the spotlight on the impact that ‘primitive’ art had on European Modernism. The present exhibition curated by Erwin Melchardt and Ivan Ristic now attempts to close a considerable thematic gap in Viennese exhibition history.

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 century the 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.”
Erwin Melchardt - quoted from the exhibition’s catalogue

Fernand Leger, ‘Three Gods’, stage design for ‘La création du monde’ (1923). Photo: Dansmuseet - Museum Rolf de Maré Stockholm © Bildrecht, Wien, 2016Pablo Picasso once said that he only understood ‘what painting was really about’ when he was faced with African masks by ‘anonymous artists’ at the Musee d’ethnographie du Trocadero 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 (1869-1954), art dealers like Paul Guillaume (1891-1934), Alfred Flechtheim (1878-1937) and Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler (1884-1979) 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. These impulses were enhanced through writings by the likes of Carl Einstein (1885-1940), who tried to teach Europeans a new way of seeing. Both in Picasso’s early oeuvre as well as in the works of Amedeo Modigliani (1884-1920) this manifested itself in a radical transition from face to mask.

The German Expressionists from the artists’ association Die Brucke were inspired beyond art and attempted a life reform. They drew inspiration from the ethnological museums for their own carvings and furnished their studios to resemble exotic refuges. 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 (1881-1955) 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 (1848-1903) 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.

Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler and his wife in their apartment, Rue George Sand Paris 1912-13 © Reproduction from William Rubin (Ed.): Primitivismus in der Kunst des 20. Jahrhunderts, Munich 1984, p. 309He 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.
Ivan Ristic - quoted from the exhibition’s catalogue

The cliches that they associated with the ‘Dark Continent’ and Oceania provided essential points of reference to the Dadaists. They sometimes dressed up as ‘wild’ mask bearers and mocked the European civilized being. This was their way of rejecting Western civilization and the values propagated by it in the face of the ‘seminal catastrophe’ of World War I (1914-1918). To the Surrealists, by contrast, the art and the myths of Oceania represented media for discovering the hidden realms of the unconscious mind.

Supported by a clear, structured exhibition design created by Christof Cremer, the presentation gives visitors an easily graspable overview of over 250 objects from Western and Central Africa as well as from Oceania. Some of them hail from private collections but used to be part of the Leopold Collection. Alongside objects from the Leopold Collection, more than 60 works of Classical Modernism from international private and museum collections were secured as loans to allow for individual juxtapositions with the artworks from formerly colonized ethnicities. They include, among others: the Brucke-Museum, Berlin; the Dansmuseet, Stockholm; the Kirchner Museum, Davos; the Musee national Picasso, Paris; the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid; the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin; the Stadel Museum, Frankfurt; the Szepmuveszeti Muzeum, Budapest; the Von der Heydt-Museum, Wuppertal; the Zentrum Paul Klee, Bern; the Collection E.W.K., Bern; and the Collection Ulla and Heiner Pietsch, Berlin. 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.

Exhibition insight ‘Foreign Gods’. © Leopold Museum, Vienna. Photo: Lisa RastlHis 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.”
Ivan Ristic - quoted from the exhibition’s catalogue

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.

Exhibition curators: Ivan Ristic, Erwin Melchardt.

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Foreign Gods.
Fascination Africa and Oceania

256 pages, 220 illustrations
Format: 23.5 × 28 cm
Languages: German/English
Edited by: Hans-Peter Wipplinger
Authors: Hans-Peter Wipplinger, Elisabeth Leopold, Ivan Ristic,
Erwin Melchardt, Stefan Kutzenberger
Published by: Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther König, Cologne


* Rather than pejoratively, the term ‘primitive’ is used here – in keeping with the philosopher Maurice Mer-leau-Ponty‘s definition of it – to denote a fundamental, aboriginal understanding of the world.

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