Since the first publication of several Baule sculptures in Carl Einstein's seminal book Negerplastik in 1915 (see plates 53-57, 60, 89, and 93-95), Baule art has been at the core of Western appreciation of African art. The Baule style is seen as one of the canonic African art traditions and its art historical significance is rivaled only by a few other cultures such as the Fang (Gabon), Benin (Nigeria), Dogon (Mali), Kongo (Western DRC) or Luba/Hemba (Eastern DRC).
In her own important publication Baule. African Art, Western Eyes, Susan Vogel (1997: 26 and 28) notes: "While the relative naturalism and consummate workmanship of Baule objects were praised at the outset, today these objects are appreciated for their subtle rhythms and a beauty that stops short of sweetness. To the Western eye, an essence of Baule style is a balanced asymmetry that enlivens while suggesting stability and calm. [...] To an art historian, the most consistent feature of Baule art, and one expressed across the wide variety of Baule object types, is a kind of peaceful containment. Faces tend to have downcast eyes and figures often hold their arms against the body, so that Westerners might feel that the mood of much classical Baule art is introspective."
Like few other works, the Vogel Mask embodies the "classic" beauty of African sculpture from a Western perspective, and as such embodiment it was featured by William Rubin in his introductory essay to "Primitivism" in Twentieth Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern (1984).
II. Portrait Masks, mblo
In his discussion of the Vogel Baule Mask on the occasion of the exhibition Africa: The Art of a Continent. 100 Works of Power and Beauty at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, Philip Ravenhill (in Phillips 1995: 142, text to cat. 71) explains: Baule portrait masks, mblo, "are worn to enact a series of characters who dance to music with a participatory audience. The performance climaxes with the arrival of [mblo] in human form, especially portrait masks inspired by actual people. The subject portrayed in, and honored by, a mask may dance with it and address it affectionately as 'namesake' (ndoma).
"As in Baule figurative sculpture that depicts otherworldly mates or bush spirits, the face of the mask is critical to Baule ideas of personhood and verisimilitude. It is in looking at the mask's gaze that one perceives it as a person with a living presence. For the Baule, the eyes are the critical metaphor for sentinent awareness and personhood, as in the two sayings 'his eyes are open' (i nyi wo su; i.e., he is alive) and 'his eyes have been opened' (i nyi a ti; i.e., he has reached the age of reason, or is open to new ideas). [...]
"In carving a portrait mask, the Baule artist renders and details the physical facial features - eyes, eyebrows, nose, mouth, ears - as a complex composition of continuous or broken planes, curves, and surfaces that yields a wholly three-dimensional form. In the [Vogel Mask], the rendition of coiffure, beard, and facial scarification complement physical beauty by cultural notions of propriety, goodness, and relative age. In its details and specificity, the form is recognizable as an individual person. The depiction of a beard indicates that the person portrayed is an elder, one who has created a family, lived fully, and gained the wisdom and respect that comes with age. This mask evokes individual character and personal accomplishment, simultaneously symbolizing for younger people the societal goal of adult fulfillment."
III. The Totokro Master
In the study of the history of African art, the notion of the individual artist was not introduced until 1935 when Hans Himmelheber identified nineteen artists from Ivory Coast in his groundbreaking Negerkünstler (Negro Artists). Two years later, the Belgian art historian Frans Olbrechts identified a body of work created by "The Master of the Long Face of Buli," referring to a now famous Luba carver active in the 19th century. Subsequently, the identification of authorship and workshops has become an increasingly important focus of African art history. Based on the methodologies established in ancient Greek, Medieval and early Renaissance art history, the identification of an artist's body of work is centered on stylistic and contextual evidence. As the artist's actual name is frequently not known, names of convenience are used instead.
In 1999 Susan Vogel identified the offered lot and ten other Baule sculptures as works of the same artist (Vogel 1999: 52-55). Based on field research and the information that the offered lot had been originally collected in the village Totokro in the Agba area, she named this artist the "Totokro Master". The other works by this artist are: a female mask, published in 1911 on the occasion of the Budapest exhibition Keleti Kiállitás a Müvészházban (Rippl-Rónai and Kernstock 1911: cat. 169), current whereabouts unknown; a male mask formerly in the collection of Charles Ratton, Paris (Elisofon and Fagg 1958: 98, fig. 122; Leiris and Delange 1967: 300, fig. 345; et al.); a male mask formerly in the collection of Franco Monti, Milan (Monti 1964: 1363); a male figure in the Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland (inv. no. "1931.204", acquired in 1931); a female figure in a private collection (Vogel 1999: 55, fig. 19); as well as a group of sculptures in the Musée Municipal in Agen, France, which presumably entered the museum in the 1930s. This group includes a pair of male and female masks, a pair of male and female figures, as well as a monkey figure (Vogel 1999: 54-55, figs. 17-18).
Vogel (1999: 52) notes: "The objects by the Totokro Master that were first known to me resembled the canonical bearded portrait mask that was for many years in the Charles Ratton collection, Paris. In the 1970s Jerry Vogel and I acquired a similar bearded mask on the market in Abidjan [= the offered lot]; a third was in the Franco Monte [sic] collection, Milan, in the 1970s. A fourth example was a female, perhaps the mate of the Ratton mask; it was published in Budapest in 1911 and subsequently disappeared. In addition to their obvious similarity, the first two revealed a singular particularity that made it likely they were by the same hand. The artist had carved a depression behind each eye and then cut through to form the slits for visibility (an unusual technique). On both of these masks, he had made the same mistake of miscalculating the height of the eyeholes, piercing through too high and making a small hole in the big eyelid before correctly locating the slits where the upper and lower lids join."
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