Holland Cotter reviews the new show at New York’s Metropolitan Museum that combines African and Oceanic Art from the Barbier-Mueller Museum in Geneva with the Rockefeller Collection at the Met. The show gives Cotter the opportunity to explore the categories that replaced “primitive” art like African or Oceanic art and wonder what can be gained from comparing the various forms gathered under the name:
Such comparisons tell us things useful to know. They tell us that African art is not a fixed set of forms repeated verbatim, with particular forms assigned to particular locales. It is an art of specificity, individuality, fresh responses and nuanced invention, with images and ideas in constant transformation: try this, add that, take that away.
So intense and extensive is this dynamic that the very term “African art” is at some important level useless, if not misleading. While obviously less pejorative than “primitive art,” it similarly ignores the reality of thousands of separate traditions, belief systems and talents, not to mention the factors of time and change.
The same is at least as true of Oceanic Art, an omnibus term embracing unnumbered cultures spread across thousands of miles of the Pacific, from Asia to Australia to Antarctica. The installation for the Met show, skillfully designed by Michael Batista, places African objects against yellow backgrounds and Oceanic objects against slate-gray. But even without those visual guidelines, it is easy to distinguish between the two “primitivisms,” and to get a sense of the diversity within each.
Cotter also offers this interesting history of how the Barbier-Mueller collection was formed:
[B]y bringing certain comparable pieces from two different collections together, the show is an invitation to alter our habits of looking. We are encouraged to retain a sense of the context and history of objects, but to pay more than usual attention to interpretive inventiveness and formal finesse: in short, to get a sense of the many things that “great” in art based on non-Western models can mean.
In the Barbier-Mueller exhibition that spectrum is wide and deep. The collection was started in the early 20th century by Josef Mueller (1887-1977), the son of a Swiss industrialist. A young man with a hankering for the vie de bohème, he moved to Paris in 1907. Not being an artist himself, he became a collector, buying Picassos hot from the studio, and in due course buying what Picasso was buying: African and Oceanic art.
He eventually moved back to the Swiss family home, filling its 18 rooms with Cézanne landscapes, Baule masks, Olmec sculptures and local folk carvings of a kind we would now call outsider art. In 1955 his daughter Monique married another collector, Jean Paul Barbier, and the two assumed responsibility for the collection, adding to it, documenting it and finally in 1977 establishing the museum that bears their name.
Putting Primitive to Rest (New York Times)