Following its creation and a long period of traditional use in situ, the present sculpture had a second life in Europe, near the very epicenter of the “discovery” of African art by the outside world. In the collection of the Fauvist painter Maurice de Vlaminck, one of the earliest and most influential proponents of the appreciation of African art, it witnessed the awakening of the outside world to the sculptural arts of Africa, and the infusion of African artistic concepts into European modern art.
In the bistro at Argenteuil: Maurice de Vlaminck and African Art
The story of the “discovery” of African art by Western artists in the emerging avant-garde at the start of the twentieth century in Paris has been well-told. Among the legends and lore there is one anecdote which stands out as the most commonly accepted (if perhaps embellished) version of the very genesis of this encounter: the first moment that an artist in Paris was struck by the thunderbolt of African sculptural aesthetics. It was Maurice de Vlaminck, the Fauvist painter, who claimed to have been the recipient of that first jolt of electricity.
The retelling of this famous story was summarized by Jack D. Flam:
“After having painted out-of-doors on a hot, bright day, Vlaminck stopped at a bistro in Argenteuil for some refreshment. As he stood drinking, he noticed on a shelf behind the bar three African objects. Two of them, painted red, yellow-ocher, and white, were Yoruba pieces from Dahomey, and a third, unpainted and quite dark, was from Ivory Coast. So struck was he by the force of these objects that he persuaded the owner to let him have them in exchange for buying the house a round of drinks" (Rubin, ed., “Primitivism” in 20th Century Art, New York, 1984, vol. 1, pp. 213-214)
Flam continues: “Vlaminck stated that he had already seen African sculptures on several visits to the Trocadéro museum with [André] Derain, but he had then regarded them merely as ‘barbaric fetishes’ of no particular aesthetic interest. In the bistro at Argenteuil, however, he reacted quite differently. So shaken was he by the African objects there that he later regarded the incident as a ‘revelation’, a word possibly borrowed from Picasso. Vlaminck was apparently quite fond of telling embroidered versions of this story, and it eventually became the most frequently cited account of the discovery of Primitive art” (ibid.).
Acknowledging that this narrative was perhaps more self-aggrandizing than strictly historical, Flam places the date at 1906, while Vlaminck had variously recounted a date of 1905 or even 1903. And while Vlaminck’s own Fauvist works did then incorporate aesthetics borrowed from the observation of African art, perhaps more important was his role as an ambassador and his transmission of this fascination to other artists with whom he associated closely: Andre Derain, Henri Matisse, and Pablo Picasso. These artists shared ideas, visited each other, and passed objects between one another. Vlaminck was the source of the famed Fang mask which he sold to Derain; it was purportedly an encounter with this Fang mask in Derain’s studio that first sparked the interest of Picasso and Matisse in so-called Primitive art. In another famously-retold account, Vlaminck, together with Derain, reportedly showed “the Black Venus” to Picasso, who declared it more beautiful than the Venus de Milo.
While these legends of the origins of “Primitivism” rely on anecdotes told later by the self-interested characters, it is clear that Vlaminck was a key player in the promotion of African art aesthetics to the Parisian avant-garde. Flam notes that “by his own account, what then struck [Vlaminck] was not the plastic originality of the African sculptures, but their instinctive expressiveness” (ibid., p. 215). It is not known when he acquired the present sculpture for his personal collection, but the size, strength, and energetic expressiveness of the standing figure no doubt appealed to this fascination.
The Art of the Baule
Since the first publication of several Baule sculptures in Carl Einstein's seminal book Negerplastik in 1915, 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, Senufo, Kongo, and Luba/Hemba.
Vogel 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" (Vogel, Baule: African Art Western Eyes, New Haven, 1997, p. 26, 28).
As LaGamma explains, from "a Baule perspective, human experience evolves out of and remains inextricably tied to the ancestral world (blolo)—referred to as 'the village of truth'—which controls and determines the fate of the living. Blolo affects the quality of harvests or the availability of game as well as the physical well-being and fertility of members of the community. The underlying causes and solutions to collective and individual difficulties that arise are relayed by diviners. This information [was believed to be revealed to the diviners] by the omniscient gods and ancestors within blolo through various methods, such as dreams, dances performed while in trance, and several divinatory instruments [...]. Diviners commission[ed] figurative works as a means of attracting [the attention of bush spirits, called asye usu, and bringing them out of the bush and into the village. The sculpture is described as asye usu's 'stool,' because the spirit uses it as a resting point. Such works represent idealized male or female figures in their prime, which the asye usu consider desirable forms to inhabit" (LaGamma, Art and Oracle: African Art and Rituals of Divination, New Haven, 2000, p. 23)
Artists who were commissioned with the creation of sculptures used in divination had to follow closely the instructions of the diviners who might have been told certain details about the figure's required physical appearance, posture, scarification marks, jewelry, and hairstyle by the asye usu bush spirit itself, often during a dream.
According to LaGamma, the "level of artistry directly affect[ed] their owner's ability to prophesize by seducing nature spirits and inducing them to divulge insights into the human condition" (ibid.). And Vogel continues: "The largest, oldest and most elaborate Baule figure sculptures are made as the loci for gods and spirits that possess their human partners and send messages through them in trance state" (Vogel, ibid., p. 221).
The Vlaminck Baule Statue by the Vérité master represents an idealized male in his prime, and was created as such a locus for an important spirit; its size, sculptural quality, rich attachments and ornate detail serving as means of attracting this spirit to settle in this vessel of access and communication.
Discussing a pair of Baule figures from the collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Vogel defines more specifically the idealization of Baule attributes: "Their beautiful [...] coiffures, and their refined scarifications demonstrate their desire to please; their clean, healthy skin, and rounded muscles show they can work successfully, producing food and crafting the things needed by society. At ease in the world, their flexed legs show compressed energy, and the muscular tension of alertness" (ibid., p. 236).
The Vlaminck Baule by the Vérité Master
Dr. Bernard de Grunne has defined this corpus of large Baule statuary which, on the basis of their strong stylistic similarities, can be attributed to a single master carver. De Grunne notes that the Vérité master created “some of the most spectacular [examples] of Baule statuary” (de Grunne, Sedes Possesion: Seated Baule Figure as Thrones of the Spirits, Brussels, 2016, p. 15). Hallmarks of the style include a highly developed muscular body, proud seated posture, a plaited fiber beard of multiple braids, and a relatively naturalistic face and head with classic Baule attributes: a coiffure made of tightly parallel incised lines and geometric scarification on the face, neck, and body. The tapering arms are decorated with varied repeating bands of adornment on the biceps.
Works in this group include: a seated figure previously in the collection of Pierre and Claude Vérité, for which the master is named (see fig. 1); a seated figure in The Menil Collection, Houston; and a seated figure in the American Museum of Natural History, New York.
At 104 cm in height, the Vlaminck Baule Female Statue is monumental in scale, one of the largest works in the classical Baule corpus, and the only known standing figure by the Vérité master.
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