By Heinrich Schweizer
The reliquary head from the Kunin Collection is the work of a Fang-Betsi artist in an early, archaic style. Works of comparable age and quality include the head formerly in the collection of William A. McCarty-Cooper, Los Angeles, a second head in a German private collection, a third head previously in the collection of Morris J. Pinto, New York and Geneva, as well as two figures, one fragmentary, missing its legs, in the Musée Dapper, Paris (inv. no. “5206), and another one previously in the collection of Pierre Vérité, Paris (sold at Enchères Rive Gauches, Paris, Collection Vérité, June 17-18, 2006, lot 201; for publications of the other works see Laburthe-Tolra and Falgayrettes-Leveau 1991: 120-123, and LaGamma 2007: ii, 173, 206-209).
The Kunin had is as much distinguished by its sublime beauty as by its long provenance and influential history. Joseph Brummer (1883-1947), an immigrant from Hungary, arrived in Paris in 1906 and, after studying briefly with Rodin and Matisse, opened a bric-a-brac store in a basement on the rue Falguière. Brummer soon realized that a market could be made in African sculptures. His sale in ca. 1908 of an important group of African sculptures to Frank Burty Haviland, a young and wealthy American, launched a career which would lead him to become one of the most influential dealers in African artworks and soon also contemporary European art. Brummer played a decisive role in establishing the career of the Douanier Rousseau (who painted a portrait of Brummer in 1909); later on he became Modigliani’s and Brancusi’s dealer, presenting a landmark exhibition of the latter’s work in New York in 1926. In the early 1910s, however, Brummer was already known as one of the most important dealers in African art. FitzGerald (2009) notes: “As he built the market for African objects, Brummer not only cultivated collectors and artists, but also encouraged amateurs and scholars who might spread knowledge about the field. One of the most important of these was Carl Einstein [(1885-1940)]. A young writer, Einstein was part of the group of Germanic artists and intellectuals who regularly met at the Dôme cafe in Montparnasse, a community that Brummer also frequented. With Brummer’s encouragement, Einstein undertook the writing of what became the first book dealing with the aesthetic qualities of African carvings, Negerplastik (1915). Brummer not only supplied the largest group of illustrations for the book […] but also paid the cost of publication.”
A friend of the artists Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso, as well as of the prominent modern art dealer Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler (for Einstein's correspondence with the latter see Dimanche 1993: passim), Einstein had discovered African and Oceanic art during his studies in Berlin (1904-1907) in the rooms of the Museum für Völkerkunde (today: Ethnologisches Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin – Preussischer Kulturbesitz). Negerplastik is credited as being the first monograph presenting African and Oceanic sculptures as art and highlighting its inspirational relationship to Cubism. It was widely read by the European avant-garde and several early 20th century artists are known to have owned a copy, including Gris, Braque, Picasso and Moore, to name just a few. Einstein's life achievements were most recently celebrated by the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in Madrid with the exhibition The Invention of the 20th Century: Carl Einstein and the Avant-Gardes (November 12, 2008 – February 16, 2009). The Kunin Fang Head was included in this show.
Brummer was very strategic in his efforts to promote African art as source of the Modern art movement around Picasso and Braque. While Einstein was perhaps Brummer’s most important ally on the European continent, Robert J. Coady (1876-1921) and Marius de Zayas (1880-1961) were selected to fill this role in the United States. American-born Coady had studied painting in Europe before returning to New York to become an art dealer and publisher. With his program at Washington Square Gallery (1914-1917) and Coady Gallery (1917-1919), as well as through the publication of the journal The Soil: A Magazine of Literature and Art, Coady propagated a modern American cultural identity which he wished to be distinctively independent from European cultural hegemony. According to Coady, the African-American population was as elementary to America’s cultural identity as were industrial machines. See Biro (2010: 202) for further discussion. Menno Hubregtse (2009: 28-32) makes the interesting argument that Marcel Duchamp’s famous Fountain was meant as a parody in response to Coady's celebration of industrial machines as pure forms of American art.
Yaëlle Biro’s exacting research has confirmed that in 1914, when Coady’s Washington Square Gallery was the first to exhibit African traditional art, preceding an exhibition on the same subject at Alfred Stieglitz’s gallery 291 by a few months, the Kunin Fang Head was the star work of the show: an article by Alfred Kreymborg for The Morning Telegraph dated December 6, 1914, is accompanied by a photograph on which the Kunin head can be seen on the left (Biro 2010: 311-312). In this review, Kreymborg (quoted after Biro 2010: 196-197, fn. 553) remarks: “The next most striking feature of the Washington Square Gallery are a number of blunt, queer faced, queer bodied, black figured representatives of that magnificently simple art - if art is the term you would lower it to - Congo sculpture. One is almost tempted to cry: ‘Why, here are the fathers of Gauguin and Matisse and Picasso!’”
While it is not clear if Coady had already acquired the head from Brummer by the time of its showing in 1914, it is almost certain that he owned it by 1917 when he published it on the cover of The Soil. After this publication, the trace of the head disappeared until the 1990s when it resurfaced in the estate of William B. Loeb of Philadelphia, whose aunt P. Anne Levine (née Ericsson) had presumably acquired it sometime before the second World War, presumably in Paris or New York. Following its rediscovery, the Kunin Fang Head has been published numerous times and was included in the two most important exhibitions on African art and its influence on Modern art in recent years: The Invention of the 20th century: Carl Einstein and the Avant-gardes at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid, and African Art, New York, and the Avant-Garde at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. In the latter show, the Kunin Fang Head was placed at the entrance of the exhibition.
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