Visitors to the permanent installation of Pacific art at the Musée du Louvre in Paris find the space dominated by the mesmerizing power of one single sculpture: the great Uli from New Ireland, previously in the collection of Alain Schoffel (Musée du Quai Branly inv. no. “70.1999.2.1”). This installation is the aesthetic manifesto and crowning achievement of Jacques Kerchache (1942-2001), who advocated all his life for the inclusion of Premodern art from Africa, the Pacific and the Americas into the world’s most famous museum—to be presented inter pares with the Code of Hammurabi, the Venus de Milo, or Leonardo’s Mona Lisa.
EMIL NOLDE, STILLEBEN H, 1915 © NOLDE STIFTUNG SEEBÜLL
Like the Uli statue in the Louvre, virtually all the great Uli statues still in existence made their way to Western collections through Germany at the beginning of the 20th century. New Ireland, known as Neu-Mecklenburg at the time, was part of the German Empire from 1885 to 1914; during this period, the island saw the destruction of its traditional religion and culture under the pressure of colonial rule and other imports of modernity such as Western medicine and religion. The Uli statue in the Louvre, originally in the Museum für Völkerkunde in Leipzig, is one of three works so closely related stylistically that they can be attributed to the same artist. The second is still in the Ethnologisches Museum in Berlin. The third and most impressive of all, originally from the same Berlin institution, is the present lot.
The story of how artists in Paris were roused by the sculptural and conceptual qualities of African sculpture around 1906 to transform their own work, most prominently Matisse’s 1907 Blue Nude (Memory of Biskra) and Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon of the same year, has often been told. Less attention has been given to the equivalent impact of Pacific art, and still less the significant role specifically of Melanesian sculpture—Melanesia consisting most importantly of Papua New Guinea and the islands of the Bismarck Archipelago, among them New Ireland from where the monumental Uli statues originate. During the remarkable Uli Statue’s seventy-year stay in the collections of the Ethnologisches Museum in Berlin, Arthur Speyer, and Charles Ratton, it stood witness to all phases of the avant-garde’s fascination with this iconic genre of Pacific art.
Artists, Expatriates and Tastemakers: the German Avant-Garde in Paris
During the first two decades of the 20th century, German artists, just as the Fauves in Paris, wanted to free themselves from the well-tackled traditions of Western art and found sources of inspiration in non-Western cultures, European folk arts and craft. Artists from Die Brücke (The Bridge) group in Dresden around Erich Heckel (1883-1970), Karl Schmidt-Rotluff (1884-1976), Hermann Max Pechstein (1881-1955) and Ernst-Ludwig Kirchner (1880-1938) especially admired those works from Africa, the Americas, Asia and the Pacific which they could see in the numerous ethnographic museums in Germany, and they began to incorporate such artworks as tropes into their own art, especially still life paintings. See Gordon (in Rubin 1984: 369 et seq.). While their Paris peers mainly looked at the highly abstract and cubistic art of the French colonies, namely that of Côte d’Ivoire (Senufo), Gabon (Fang, Kota) and the French Congo (Kota), German artists were exposed most frequently to the more expressive artworks from Cameroon, Papua New Guinea and the islands of the Bismarck Archipelago: New Britain and New Ireland.
EMIL NOLDE, KOPFTROPHAË, 1910/1911 © NOLDE STIFTUNG SEEBÜLL
The most serious study of Premodern non-Western art among those artists was undertaken by the German-Danish Expressionist painter and printmaker Emil Nolde (1867-1956). Nolde was a sometime member of Die Brücke between 1906-1907 and the Berlin Secession in 1908-1910, but eventually left or was expelled from both groups - speaking to the difficulty that the highly contradictory Nolde, who was both an outspoken anti-Semite and a defender of indigenous rights in colonized Africa and the Pacific, had in maintaining relationships throughout his lifetime.
EMIL NOLDE, ZWEI RUSSEN, 1915, MUSEUM OF MODERN ART, NEW YORK (INV. NO. “19.1954”) © NOLDE STIFTUNG SEEBÜLL
Nolde’s interest in non-European art went back to before 1900, as he recalled in his 1931 autobiography: “Before me stood the art of Egypt and the Assyrians, as something outside the ordinary, like a mystery. I was unable to look at it merely as ‘historic objects’, as was commonplace at the time - instead, I loved these great works, even though it was as if I was not supposed to. Yet it is the forbidden kind of love that sometimes burns most strongly. The following decade brought insight and liberation for me; I encountered Indian, Chinese, and Persian art, the wondrous archaic creations of the Mexicans and the art of the primordial peoples [Urvölker]. To me, those were not ‘curiosities’, as they were called by others, no, we lifted them to what they truly are: the formidably harsh, archaic art of the primordial peoples” (Nolde 1931, quoted in Müller 2012: 66; translation by HS).
EMIL NOLDE, JUPUALLO, 1914 © NOLDE STIFTUNG SEEBÜLL
Nolde intensified this looming interest between 1910 and 1912 through frequent visits to the Berlin ethnology museum (Museum für Völkerkunde) which resulted in more than 120 drawings of non-Western artworks. He wrote: “By the time of winter, I found myself, following an inner urge, inside museum exhibitions of ancient Egyptian and Coptic art. I went on to the Tanagras [a corpus of Greco-Boeotian terracotta figurines], Romanesque statues, and the Gothic ones, always drawing all those rich forms and colors. This [first hand] exercise allowed a deeper penetration of what is essential [about these art forms] than photographs and mechanical reproductions would, even though my drawings were merely sketches. Some of these object-based perceptual experiences informed my later still lifes.” (Emil Nolde in Müller 2012: 21; translation by HS). A highly skilled author of prose, Nolde worked on the concept of a book called Kunstäusserungen der Naturvölker (Artistic Expressions of the Primordial Peoples) at the very same time. Although the project was never finished, he revealed some of his guiding principles in the second volume of his autobiography: “Not too long ago, only a few cultural eras were considered worthy of inclusion into art museums. Then were added: Coptic and early Christian art, ancient Greek terracottas and vases, Persian and Islamic art. But why is Indian, Chinese and Javanese art still placed in museums of ethnography? And why is the art of the primordial peoples [of Africa, the Americas and the Pacific] not considered art at all?” (Emil Nolde, 1934, quoted in Müller 2012: 46-47; translation by HS).
PABLO PICASSO, PORTRAIT OF DANIEL-HENRY KAHNWEILER, MUSÉE NATIONAL D’ART MODERNE, CENTRE POMPIDOU, PARIS
© ESTATE OF PABLO PICASSO
From the fall of 1913 through the end of August 1914, Nolde and his wife traveled as members of the Medizinisch-demographische Deutsch-Neuguinea-Expedition across Russia, China, Korea, and Japan to the German colonies in New Guinea and the Bismarck Archipelago. “We traveled six months, and spent six months in New Guinea. This one year was infinitely rich to us, as if it had encompassed ten years of our life." Early on the trip Nolde got badly ill from dysentery (which caused the death of a fellow expeditioner) and was incapacitated for much of the time but still managed to reach Rabaul (New Britain) and Kavieng (New Ireland). His portraits of the native population in the tradition of Paul Gauguin, known as the Sehnsuchtsbilder (Wistful Images), are among the artist’s most poetic pictures. Disenchanted with modern civilization and its erosion of what he considered untouched indigenous societies, he wrote: "Colonization is a brutal matter. One thing is for sure: we white Europeans are the ultimate curse to the colored primordial peoples (Naturvölker),” and “sometimes I get the feeling that only they are still true humans, whereas we [Europeans] are like degenerate marionettes, artificial and vain."
HENRI ROUSSEAU, PORTRAIT OF JOSEPH BRUMMER, 1909, NATIONAL GALLERY, LONDON, THE SIMON SAINSBURY BEQUEST
While in New Ireland, Nolde acquired a sizeable group of sculptures which he brought back to Berlin and featured in his paintings over the following years, most notably a large Malagan figure in Grosser Tamburan und Chinesenpaar/Stilleben N (1915) and a monumental Uli statue in Grosser Tamburan und Moskaugruppe/Stilleben H (1915), the latter today in the Museum Folkwang, Essen. The Uli statue featured in Stilleben H is now in the Rautenstrauch-Joest Museum, Cologne. Nolde was a successful artist in Germany who experienced a period of great commercial success after World War I, until his painting style was declared “degenerate” by the Nazis, whereupon a total of 1,052 of his works were removed from German museums, some of which were included in the infamous 1937 exhibition Degenerate Art at the Haus der Kunst in Munich.
LUDWIG MEIDNER, PORTRAIT OF CARL EINSTEIN, 1913
It was through Nolde’s highly publicized participation in the expedition and its adventurous circumstances, however, and his network of fellow artists and dealers, that the art of New Ireland became well-known in Germany. Delayed by the war years and the ensuing years of revolution and social unrest in Germany, 1920 saw New Ireland sculptures enter the broader public realm when they were shown side by side with paintings by Nolde in an acclaimed exhibition at the Museum Folkwang in Hagen.
At the same time in Paris, Pacific art, which had hitherto been treated summarily together with African art as “l’art nègre," became an increasingly distinguished category of interest to the French avant-garde. FitzGerald (2016) notes: “During the second decade of the twentieth century, several Parisian galleries organized exhibitions that showcased Oceanic art. A 1913 exhibition under the auspices of Lyre et Palette presented several Oceanic sculptures, including a Tiki from the Marquesas. In 1917, Paul Guillaume opened his gallery with an exhibition “Sculpture nègres,” which included both African and Oceanic art. Its catalogue published an introduction by Apollinaire, in which this leading critic explicitly praised Oceanic, as well as African, sculpture. And in 1919, Guillaume organized a major exhibition, Art nègre et art océanien, for the Galerie Devambez. The substantial catalogue of this show was written by Henri Clouzot and André Level, who had originated the Peau de l’ours syndicate of collectors (1904-14). Level also lent fourteen Oceanic works from his private collection. Clouzot and Level’s categorization of Melanesian and Polynesian art provided a foundation for the Surrealists’ interpretations. Melanesian art is ‘violent and powerful art,’ reflecting ‘a religion of fear.’ In their view, it offers both a homage to these forces and a sanctuary from dangerous spirits."
INTERIOR OF ALFRED FLECHTHEIM’S APARTMENT, 1929
As the Pacific art present in France in the first two decades of the 20th century originated primarily from the French colonies in Polynesia and New Caledonia, sculpture from Papua New Guinea and the Bismarck Archipelago was little known until the 1920s. The art world ties between Paris and Berlin, however, were many and varied. Paris, undoubtedly the capital of the art world prior to World War I, attracted a sizeable group of German intellectuals - poets, writers, artists, and critics, many of whom were also engaged in the art trade, allowing them a livelihood in the field of their passion. These German expatriates, more critics than creators, had a tremendous influence on the promotion of avant-garde art in Paris. Brueggemann and Schulman (2005: 5) note: "Indeed, there was an incredible amount of interdisciplinary creative traffic between Paris and Berlin […]. Walter Benjamin’s captivation with Paris led to his extraordinary work on Baudelaire and fin de siècle Europe; Rainer Maria Rilke moved to Paris, even wrote poems in French and featured it in The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge; Guillaume Apollinaire’s boat trip along the Rhine inspired him to write his Rhénane poetry. In the art world of the early twentieth century, Berlin became the center for French art, as it celebrated exhibits by Henri Matisse, Charles-Eugène Delaunay, and Raoul Duffy at the expense of German artists, while in Paris, German artists flocked to Le Dôme, the famous Montparnasse café, to exchange ideas and techniques as Paris became their subject and muse."
OTTO DIX, THE ART DEALER ALFRED FLECHTHEIM, 1926, NATIONALGALERIE, STAATLICHE MUSEEN ZU BERLIN
Perhaps the most representative member of this German expatriate group at Le Dôme was Daniel-Heinrich Kahnweiler (1884-1979) from Mannheim. Better known as Daniel-Henry and a banker by training, he opened a small gallery on 28 Rue Vignon in 1907, concentrating in - in today’s words - cutting-edge Contemporary Art and soon becoming the pioneering champion of the Fauvist and Cubist movements. Primarily presenting rotating selections of paintings by Georges Braque, André Derain, Pablo Picasso, Maurice de Vlaminck, and other artists, he also mounted several single-artist exhibitions such as one for Kees van Dongen in March 1908 and a landmark exhibition for Braque in November 1908. A passionate advocate and highly efficient negotiator, he signed exclusively with Derain in March 1908 and reached similar agreements with Braque, Picasso, Juan Gris, and Fernand Léger between 1912-1913. These deals gave Kahnweiler a de facto monopoly on Cubism prior to World War I, a fact that is reflected in Picasso’s imperial portrait of Kahnweiler from the analytic Cubist period in 1910 (today in the Art Institute of Chicago).
VILLA EDUARD VON DER HEYDT, ZANDVOORT, THE NETHERLANDS, CIRCA 1920S-1930S. AN ULI STATUE STANDS AGAINST THE THIRD WINDOW FROM THE LEFT.
Another important member of the German-speaking circle of Le Dôme was József Brummer (1883-1947), an Austro-Hungarian émigré who had arrived in Paris in 1905 and opened a gallery on the Rue Falguière in 1906. Brummer initially sold Japanese woodblock prints as well as Premodern African and Pre-Columbian American sculpture. He was one of the main sources for the African art collection of the Paris-based American Frank Burty Haviland, and also represented works by artists of the avant-garde, most importantly Henri Rousseau (who painted Brummer’s portrait in 1909, now at the National Gallery in London), and later on Constantine Brancusi with whom he shared the experience of emigrating from Eastern Europe (in Brancusi’s case, Romania) to Paris.
EDUARD VON DER HEYDT AS “THE BUDDHA OF MONTE VERITÀ,” CIRCA 1930. FONDAZIONE MONTE VERITÀ
Not a dealer but an important intellectual and author who frequented Le Dôme was Carl Einstein (1885-1940). A friend of Braque, Picasso, and Kahnweiler (for Einstein's correspondence with the latter see Dimanche 1993: passim), Einstein had discovered African and Pacific art during his studies in Berlin (1904-1907) in the rooms of the Museum für Völkerkunde. 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. […] 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.” Negerplastik is credited as being the first monograph presenting African and Pacific sculptures as art, and highlighting their affinities with and 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 Braque, Picasso, Gris, 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).
CARL EINSTEIN (RIGHT) INSPECTS A NEW IRELAND MALAGAN FIGURE FROM THE FLECHTHEIM COLLECTION
Kahnweiler’s Paris-based clients included American collectors Leo and Gertrude Stein, as well as the German marchands-amateurs Walter Bondy and Wilhelm Uhde. It was the latter who introduced Kahnweiler to Düsseldorf-born Alfred Flechtheim (1878-1937), presumably as early as 1907. Flechtheim appeared in the art world shortly after 1900 and stood out by virtue of his admirable eye, curiosity and passion alike for different kinds of art. Flechtheim championed both the French and German avant-garde, showing works by Picasso, Braque, Derain, Kandinsky, Jawlensky, Münter, Campendonk, Macke, and Dix. Between 1913 and 1933, Flechtheim built an empire of galleries in five major cities, including Berlin, Düsseldorf, Cologne, Frankfurt and Vienna. An important collector of Pacific art, mainly from the formerly German territories in Melanesia, and editor of the magazines Querschnitt and Omnibus, Flechtheim frequently featured Modern and Pacific art side by side in his galleries and publications. Flechtheim had a particular fondness for New Ireland art in general, and the Uli corpus in particular. A 1929 photograph of his Berlin apartment shows a monumental Uli statue on a round table at center stage, in the background walls lined with Cubist paintings and African, Pacific and European sculptures. In 1926, Flechtheim organized the exhibition Südsee-Plastiken which was shown in three locations between May and August 1926—Flechtheim’s galleries in Berlin and Düsseldorf, and the Kunsthaus Zurich—and was devoted exclusively to New Ireland art.
As the Nazis rose to power in the late 1920s and early 1930s, Flechtheim became a target of violent Nazi hatred due to his Jewish heritage and the art he loved and championed, which was considered “degenerate.” As soon as the Nazis seized power in 1933, Flechtheim’s property and business interests were stolen from him (“aryanized”), as experienced by many other Jewish businesses. On August 8, 1935, Flechtheim wrote to MoMA’s Alfred Barr: “I lost all my money and all my pictures.” Flechtheim died impoverished in March 1937 in London.
OTTO DIX WITH HIS ULI FIGURE
The exhibition of 1926 marked Flechtheim’s crowning achievement in terms of Pacific art. Reviewed in the relevant magazines of the day, even years later it remained referenced in Querschnitt, Omnibus, Cicerone and Cahiers d’art. Although remembered as the “Flechtheim’sche Sammlung,” all works in the exhibition were loans from the banker and prominent art collector Eduard von der Heydt (1882-1964) who had sourced his collection primarily from Gustav Umlauff. Following the idea of an “ars una,” or universal art, von der Heydt started in the 1920s to expand his important collection of Modern paintings to include Chinese, Indian, African, Pacific, Indonesian, and Native American art. His guiding principle in this effort of unifying works of different cultures and eras was that art is created free of national and regional limitations. Art connoisseurship, therefore, should be transnational and universal, and build bridges between peoples. After the war, von der Heydt donated his major collection of paintings to the city of Wuppertal (Von der Heydt-Museum), and his collection of Premodern non-Western sculpture to the city of Zurich, where it forms the core of the Rietberg Museum. The most important Pacific work in the von der Heydt collection, and today in the Rietberg Museum, is an Uli statue of impressive proportions which can be seen on a 1920s photograph showing the Villa Eduard von der Heydt in Zandvoort, The Netherlands.
CHARLES RATTON, ARTHUR SPEYER II, AND ERNST ASCHER IN BERLIN, 1931
Von der Heydt was a highly influential figure in progressive European art circles at the time by virtue of his ownership of Monte Verità, literally “Mountain of Truth,” a hill west of Ascona in Switzerland which had served as the site of different utopian communities since the beginning of the 20th century. The architect Walter Segall recalled: “The colonists abhorred private property, practiced a rigid code of morality, strict vegetarianism and nudism. They rejected convention in marriage and dress, party politics and dogmas: they were tolerantly intolerant.” Eduard von der Heydt purchased Monte Verità in 1926 at the suggestion of the Russian painter Marianne von Werefkin. During the 1930s, it became the meeting point for an international community of luminaries from politics and arts.
INTERIOR OF ARTHUR SPEYER II’S APARTMENT, PRAGER PLATZ 1, BERLIN; ON THE LEFT, THE OTTO DIX ULI; IN THE CENTER AN IMPORTANT GROUP OF BIWAT FLUTESTOPPERS AND A BIWAT FIGURE LATER IN THE COLLECTION OF PABLO PICASSO; AND ON THE RIGHT, THE PRESENT LOT
Von der Heydt and Flechtheim knew each other since World War I, and works from von der Heydt’s collection were regularly published in Querschnitt and Omnibus. One of the critics frequently contributing to these magazines was none other than Carl Einstein, who had met Flechtheim early on with Kahnweiler in Paris at Le Dôme (Lloyd 1987: 33). Since the publication of Negerplastik (1915), Einstein was leaning increasingly to the political left, having served as a member of the German military during the occupation of Belgium in 1916 and during this time visiting the colonial office of the civil administration of the Musée Royal de l’Afrique Royal in Tervuren where he was exposed to racist ideologies by staff members, of which he strongly disapproved. His Brussels experience resulted in a critical stance toward colonialism and a reassessment of his approach to African and Pacific art. Based on the ideas of Marxism, he had emphasized the historic importance of non-Western cultures, at the time seen as “primitive” and ahistoric, placed somewhere outside civilizational space and time. Einstein now wished instead for an equilibrium between aesthetic appreciation and anthropological understanding, which was not the case in Negerplastik. This new stance was first evident in Afrikanische Plastik (1920), grew still more pronounced in several publications for Querschnitt through the 1920s, and became fully developed in his introductory essay to Flechtheim’s 1926 Südsee-Plastiken, in which he drew special attention to the corpus of Uli statuary. Einstein (1926, cited in Peters and Wiese 1987: 27, translation by HS) wrote: “With the terrible shock of colonialism, abruptly imported European culture, and complete undermining of [the previously existing] intellectual and religious framework, this art that had primarily served religious functions disappeared. Nothing is better suited to disprove evolutionary superstitions than the fact that local art declined and disappeared so rapidly, notwithstanding the fact that the overall life-conditions of the people as well as their working tools improved without doubt. […] Ornamentally more complicated, and wholly focused on dramatic effect, appears the art of New Ireland […] where the monumental Uli figures of Lamasong surprise us through their formal unrest. [… Unlike the Malanggan sculptures from New Ireland, Uli statues] are not destroyed after a ceremony but wrapped and protected in men houses. Augustin Krämer identifies twelve types of Uli figures and described the long lasting funerary rites at the center of which they stood. Uli statues are without doubt ancestor figures. Some call them hermaphroditic due to their rounded breasts, whereas Krämer reports that this is simply a representation of the figures’ health and prosperous background.”
JEAN DUBUFFET, PORTRAIT DE CHARLES RATTON, 1946. PRIVATE COLLECTION
Not limited to art collectors and critics, a fascination with Uli statues captured the imagination of the artist community. In Prague, the surrealist artist Adolf Hoffmeister owned a colossal Uli statue which he had acquired from André Breton and Galerie Gradiva in 1937 (see Sotheby’s, Paris, June 11, 2008, lot 45). In Berlin, Otto Dix (1891-1969), a representative of the Neue Sachlichkeit movement who was shown in Flechtheim’s gallery, owned an important Uli statue, which remained in his collection until he died. One of the most famous paintings by the artist, The Art Dealer Alfred Flechtheim (1926, today at the Nationalgalerie in Berlin), was painted the same year as the subject’s exhibition on Südsee-Plastiken. The source of Dix’ Uli figure was arguably the most important dealer of Melanesian art of all time, Arthur Speyer II (1894-1958), of Berlin. Speyer II, second in a dynasty of three collecting fathers and sons with the same first and last name (for convenience identified by Roman numerals) were strategically well-positioned collectors who benefitted tremendously from the Berlin Museum für Völkerkunde’s practice of deaccessioning “duplicates” during the 1920s and 1930s under the financial pressure of the post-World War I and Great Depression periods. For the dealings of the Speyer family with the Berlin museum see Schindlbeck (2012: passim). A photograph of Speyer’s apartment at Prager Platz 1 in Berlin, taken in 1926, shows the Dix-Uli towering over the left side of the page, whereas on the right another Uli, still taller, dominates the view (published in Schindlbeck 2012: 113, Abb. 55).
VIEW OF THE EXPOSITION SURRÉALISTE D'OBJETS AT THE GALERIE CHARLES RATTON, PHOTOGRAPH TAKEN BY MAN RAY, MAY 1936
The Uli to the right of this historic photograph, the present lot, was acquired by Speyer II from the Museum für Völkerkunde, Berlin, sometime in the early 1920s, and was sold by Speyer II to Charles Ratton (1897-1986) presumably in the 1950s. Ratton, widely known as the most influential African art dealer of the 20th century, was instrumental in organizing the seminal 1935 exhibition African Negro Art at the newly built Museum of Modern Art in New York, together with James Johnson Sweeney. The importance of Ratton’s role in the evolution of African art history has been the subject of countless academic publications, and was most recently the subject of the critically acclaimed exhibition Charles Ratton: The Invention of “Primitive Art” at the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris (June 25 - September 22, 2013).
ANDRÉ BRETON'S APARTMENT AT 42, RUE FONTAINE, PHOTOGRAPH BY GILLES EHRMANN, 1968
Ratton knew Speyer II through the dealer Ernst Ascher, another German émigré in Paris and friend of Picasso, and the aforementioned Walter Bondy. Louis Carré, one of Ratton’s early backers, was a visitor of Speyer in Berlin as well (Schindlbeck 2012: 117-120). Apart from Premodern African and European (medieval) art, Ratton’s Paris gallery was for some time a gathering place for the Surrealists: it was here that Meret Oppenheim’s famous fur-lined tea cup (Le Déjeneur en fourrure/Luncheon in Fur, 1936) was first shown, as part of the first exhibition of surrealist sculpture, Exposition surréaliste d'objets, curated by André Breton in 1936. This interest in Surrealist art and contact with Breton might have influenced Ratton in his decision to acquire this major Uli Statue, the present lot, especially as Breton was known to be obsessed with the corpus of Uli statues but lacked the financial resources of Ratton to acquire a top level masterpiece. Surrealist artists identified Pacific art as the âme sœur of Surrealism, and the mesmerizing intensity of Uli figures, with their multi-colored shell eyes, touched on the innermost psyche. Later in life Breton would indeed acquire a fine Uli statue, which he placed, fittingly, on his desk. Before that, however, in the 1940s, Breton had become so fascinated with Uli statues that he named his pet dog, a Skye terrier, “Uli” (Adamowicz 2006: 33; with acknowledgements and thanks to A. Grogan). And then, in 1948, he dedicated a poem to it, titled ULI.
ANDRÉ BRETON, 1924
Pour sûr tu es un grand dieu
Je t'ai vu de mes yeux comme nul autre
Tu es encore couvert de terre et de sang tu viens de créer
Tu es un vieux paysan qui ne sait rien
Pour te remettre tu as mangé comme un cochon
Tu es couvert de taches d'homme
On voit que tu t'en es fourré jusqu'aux oreilles
Tu n'entends plus
Tu nous reluques d'un fond de coquillage
Ta création te dit haut les mains et tu menaces encore
Tu fais peur tu émerveilles.
André Breton, 1948
Surely you are a great god
I have seen you with my own eyes like no one else has
You are still covered with earth and blood you have just created
You are an old peasant who knows nothing
To recover you have eaten like a pig
You are covered with the stains of man
One sees that you have stuffed yourself to the ears
You listen no more
You leer at us from the bottom of a seashell
Your creation tells you hands up, and you still threaten
You frighten you astonish
PROPERTY FROM A PRIVATE COLLECTION, SWITZERLAND, ANCESTOR STATUE (ULI), NEW IRELAND
ESTIMATE 4,000,000 — 6,000,000 USD
If we attempt to understand the fascination with Uli figures in the last 100 years, we can search in the multilayered network of progressive thinkers between France and Germany in the 1920s, we can analyze the biographies of the key figures (Kahnweiler, Einstein, Flechtheim, von der Heydt, Speyer, Ratton), we can contemplate Pacific art’s capacity to be a mighty symbol for internationalism, equality and freedom - yet we need only meet the Uli’s gaze to know all we need to know.