A Superb, Rare and Highly Important Bamum Headcrest, Cameroon
By descent through the family
Acquired at Loudmer, Paris, July 2, 1987, lot 176
Mary H. Nooter, Secrecy: African Art that Conceals and Reveals, Munich, 1993, cat. 47, p. 109
John A. McKesson, "The Museum for African Art de New York," Arts d’Afrique Noire, 86, Eté 1993, 30
David Deroche, "Monumental Miniatures: The Saul and Marsha Stanoff Collection," Tribal Art, 32, Autumn, 2003, p. 65, fig. 7
This powerful and elegant sculpture is among the rarest objects in Cameroon art. It can be attributed to a Bamum workshop in the Makutam region, which produced large scale headcrests, so-called tungunga, that show influence of the southern Tikar mih-yang masks (Harter 1986: 156). The first of these headcrests was collected by F. Thorbecke and entered the collection of the Reiss-Museum in Mannheim, Germany, in 1911 (IV Af 4816). Tungunga headcrests were danced in pairs of two and evoked the images of a deceased king and his wife. They were held on top of the head and affixed by a fiber construction hidden underneath a raffia frill. Tungungas were danced by the members of the nsoro, a secret society for warriors. Only those men who had killed an enemy in the field of battle could become members of this society (ibid.). Tungunga dancers appeared only at funerals of important persons, namely of chiefs, members of the royal family, state ministers, and initiates of the nsoro.
The bilobed bonnet of the Stanoff tungunga indicates the representation of a king. Very few other examples of this rare iconography are known: cf. one collected by Henri Labouret and donated before 1934 to the Musée de l'Homme, Paris (Harter 1986: 158, fig. 199); a second in the collection of Drs. Daniel and Marian Malcolm, New Jersey (published in Tardits 2004: 95, fig. 83); and a third exhibited by Gallerie Alain de Monbrison during the International Fine Art and Antique Dealer Show at The Seventh Regiment Armory, New York, October 17-23, 1997. The Stanoff mask, however, is distinguished from the other examples by its elegant proportions and the dramatic curve of the neck, which lend the sculpture a striking dynamic.
The importance of the Stanoff tungunga lies not only in its rarity but in its significance to the evolution of 20th-century art. The sculpture embodies the quintessence of Cubist thought: the artist's idea - here the king as symbol of stately authority, hierarchic order of society (referring to the upper class to which the deceased always belonged), and guarantor of continuity - is broken up, analyzed, and re-assembled into abstract form. The result of this process is expressed in five hemispherical forms of varying sizes, a tubular vertical element, a protruding oval ring, and two quarter-spheres, all arranged in an order that allows our mind to interpret it in the desired way: the elegance of the curved neck is repeated in the backswept bonnet and gives the sculpture a regal presence; the massiveness and depth of the forms together with the dramatic eyebrows render the image strikingly powerful; and the theme of the circle as expressed in the hemispherical eyes, cheeks, and chin, as well as the oval mouth, evoke the idea of unlimited continuity.
Picasso applied the same thought process in a series of bronze sculptures, all executed in 1931, based on the body of his young mistress, Marie-Thérèse Walter. In his contribution to this catalogue (pp. 38-41), Michael Fitzgerald discusses how African art served as an inspirational resource for the European avant-garde of the early 20th century and assisted to overcome inherited artistic traditions. Given the striking visual echoes of the tungunga headcrests in Picasso’s 1931 sculptures, one wonders whether the artist knew one of these headcrests when working on this series. Regarding the Stanoff tungunga, we know that it was formerly in the collection of Maurice de Vlaminck (1876-1958), who claimed to have been the first to "discover" African art and subsequently introduced it to his Fauvist peers (see Flam in Rubin 1984: 211 et seq.). Of particular interest are the splashes of Western oil-paint on its surface, likely thrown from Vlaminck’s brush when the piece was displayed in the artist's studio, standing next to his easel. Most noteworthy is here the splash of a brownish green on the sculpture's cheek, a colour that cannot be found in Vlaminck's early work but in several paintings dating to the 1920s and 1930s: cf., e.g., Vlaminck's 1929 "Le gigot à la cocarde", published in Valle d'Aosta (1988: 222-223, cat. 44), and "Nature morte au fromage et au jambon", 1932, published ibid. (278-279, cat. 71). Assuming that the splash indeed came from Vlaminck's brush, we can conclude that the Stanoff tungunga was in his studio between around 1929 and 1932. Picasso, who we know visited Vlaminck on a regular basis, then likely saw the head during this period.