Mathias Komor, New York, 1960s (inv. no. "6892")
Acquired by the present owner from the above on February 8, 1969
The present lot belongs to a small corpus of highly accomplished masks merging the sensuous beauty of Luba with the mesmeric power of Songye art. The combination of Luba and Songye styles is typical for the border region between both people and has historic roots. Kerchache (1993: 576) notes: "The history of the [Songye] is closely linked to the Luba's, to whom they are related through common ancestors. According to tradition, Kongolo, the founder of the first Luba empire in the sixteenth century, was a [Songye]."
Masks in this style are distinguished by the convex forehead over a concave facial plane, the almond shaped downcast eyes, the broad band bisecting the forehead and continuing down the nose terminating in a sagittal tip, and the fine-lined surface design in relief. The known corpus of masks in this style, all measuring ca. 15 inches (38 cm) or more in height, counts fifteen and includes: two in the University Museum Philadelphia (the first with "8"-shaped mouth, purchased from Charles Vignier in 1921, inv. no. "AF 5115", Wardwell 1986: pl. 58 and cover; the second inv. no. "AF 1881", Wingert 1948: pl. 96); a third in the Afrika Museum Berg en Dal (inv. no. "41-27", Weinhold 2000: 87); a fourth previously in the collection of André Lefevre, published in Clouzot and Level (1925: pl. 31); a fifth in a private collection, sold at Christies Paris, December 4, 2009, lot 140; a sixth in the Israel Museum, Jerusalem (inv. no. "B97.0015", previously Lawrence Gussman Collection); a seventh, previously in the Leff Collection (Carnegie Institute 1959: 58, cat. 372; sold at Sotheby's New York, October 10&11, 1975, lot 53); an eigth, previously in the Bronson Collection (Cornet 1978: 281, fig. 157); a ninth, previously in the Hombroich Museum near Neuss (Van Ham, Cologne, June 8, 2009, lot 54); a tenth, previously with Merton D. Simpson, New York, and Alain de Monbrison, Paris (Tribal Arts. Le Monde des Arts Tribal, Spring 1998, back cover); an eleventh, sold at Christie's New York, October 25, 1969, lot 113; a twelth and a thirteenth in private collections, published in Neyt (2004: 358) and Felix (2009: 82-83); a fourteenth, sold at Sotheby's London, June 23, 1981, lot 210; and a fifteenth, the present lot.
Within this group of fifteen, five masks are distinguished by a complicated interwoven design of the fine-lined relief surrounding the mask's upper half. These five masks, remarkable also for the overall quality of their carving, seem to be the work of a single artist and his workshop. The particularities of this artist's work such as the concave facial plane, heavy-lidded downcast eyes, and especially the line-ribbed surface contouring are uncannily reminiscent of Picasso's painting style of the years 1907-1908, as manifest in the upper right figure in Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907), Friendship (1908), Woman Seated (1908) and Woman's Head (1908).
Indeed, William Rubin (1984: 264-265) discusses Songye masks as one of the possible sources for Les Demoiselles: "Perhaps the most extraordinary masks to have been associated with the Demoiselles are the remarkably abstract Kifwebe masks of the Songye people. [...] But it is impossible that Picasso could have seen such a mask as early as 1907. Even today the Musée de l'Homme [in Paris] possesses only one, which did not enter the collection until 1967." The existence of Songye masks with much earlier collection history, however, such as one published by Herreman and Petridis (1993: 144 and 252, cat. 68) which was collected between 1885 and 1887 by Liévin Vandevelde, casts doubt upon Rubin's conjecture. Future scholarship may well uncover the missing link Rubin sought, and account for the astonishingly specific stylistic resonnances between these masks and Picasso's two watershed years of 1907-1908.
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