‘It’s simply mesmerising’ — a Teotihuacán stone mask owned by Pierre Matisse

‘It’s simply mesmerising’ — a Teotihuacán stone mask owned by Pierre Matisse

An exquisite work of Pre-Columbian art, revered by the Aztecs and a prized possession of the distinguished New York art dealer, is coming to auction on 9 February

Shortly before Christmas 1924, Pierre Matisse arrived in New York aboard a French steamship, the Savoie. He was still in his early twenties, spoke only what he called ‘halting English’, had no job to go to and no friends to call on.

What he did have was the ambition to make it as an art dealer in the biggest city on Earth — as well as his famous surname, of course. Pierre was the youngest son of Henri Matisse (1869-1954), and he began his career in New York selling his father’s prints and drawings.

In 1931, he opened the Pierre Matisse Gallery in the new Art Deco Fuller Building on 57th Street, initially showing work by European artists of his father’s generation, such as Bonnard (1867-1947) and Rouault (1871-1958).

Pierre Matisse in 1950 — 12 years after his purchase of the Teotihuacán stone mask — sitting for his portrait by Alberto Giacometti. Silver gelatin print. Coll. Fondation Giacometti. © The Estate of Alberto Giacometti (Fondation Giacometti, Paris and ADAGP, Paris), licensed in the UK by ACS and DACS, London 2021

Pierre Matisse in 1950 — 12 years after his purchase of the Teotihuacán stone mask — sitting for his portrait by Alberto Giacometti. Silver gelatin print. Coll. Fondation Giacometti. © The Estate of Alberto Giacometti (Fondation Giacometti, Paris and ADAGP, Paris), licensed in the UK by ACS and DACS, London 2021

It was by introducing a younger group of artists to the American public — Miró (1893-1983), Giacometti (1901-66), Tanguy (1900-55) and Dubuffet (1901-85) — that he came into his own, however. He went on to become one of most important dealers in the United States, regularly updating his father on his progress in letters signed with the words votre fils dévoué  (‘your devoted son’).

Pierre Matisse and Pre-Columbian art

One of the ways in which Matisse père  had transformed Western art in the early 20th century was by introducing stylistic elements from non-Western art forms such as Islamic textiles and, in his late-career cut-outs, Chinese calligraphy.

Matisse fils  had inherited his father’s love and knowledge of world art, and he enhanced his reputation by mounting major exhibitions of African, Oceanic and Pre-Columbian art, which was little appreciated in 1930s New York.

When the gallerist died in 1989, The New York Times  quoted fellow Manhattan dealer Eugene V. Thaw as saying, ‘In the heyday of his gallery, and in his own house, there were always unexpected things — above all, wonderful examples of pre-Columbian art.’

Teotihuacán serpentine mask, circa 450-650 AD. Sold for €437,500 on 9 February 2021 at Christie’s in Paris

Teotihuacán serpentine mask, circa 450-650 AD. Sold for €437,500 on 9 February 2021 at Christie’s in Paris

The house in question was a handsome townhouse on East 64th Street where Matisse had settled when his career took off — and where he kept his favourite artworks.

Among the most precious was a greenstone mask from the Mesoamerican city of Teotihuacán that he had purchased in 1938 and held onto until his death. It is now offered for sale in Quetzalcoatl: serpent à plumes at Christie’s in Paris on 9 February.

The 500 stone masks of Teotihuacán

Thirty miles north of Mexico City, Teotihuacán is one of the most impressive archaeological sites in the world. At the height of its prosperity in the 5th and 6th centuries AD, it had 125,000 citizens, making it one of the five most populous cities on Earth.

Today, it is best known for its monumental architecture: the Pyramids of the Sun and the Moon are visited by millions of tourists every year.

But Teotihuacán is also renowned for its stone masks carved from travertine, limestone, listwanite or — as in the case of the mask coming to auction — serpentine. More than 500 such masks survive to this day, many of them in the world’s top museums.

The Pyramids of the Sun and the Moon in Teotihuacán, Mexico. In the 6th century AD the city had 125,000 inhabitants, making it one of the five most populous cities on Earth. Photo David South  Alamy

The Pyramids of the Sun and the Moon in Teotihuacán, Mexico. In the 6th century AD the city had 125,000 inhabitants, making it one of the five most populous cities on Earth. Photo: David South / Alamy

All are characterised by a refined simplicity. Rather than specific individuals, they appear to depict a kind of idealised human face, trapezoidal in shape, with a wide forehead squared off at the top, two gently curved brows, a triangular nose and rectangular ears.

It is thought that the depressions in the eyes and the mouth may have originally been inlaid with shell. What is more certain is that the term ‘mask’ is something of a misnomer: weighing up to six kilograms (13 pounds), each piece was far too heavy to be worn, and the eyes lacked holes to see out of.

Of those that have come to market, the Pierre Matisse mask is considered one of the finest, distinguished by its rich green colour, mottled patterning and boldly carved features

Why such pieces were made, and what they represented, remains a mystery. For a while, it was assumed they’d been attached to funerary bundles, but that view is now largely rejected, as so few of the masks were excavated in burial sites.

The Pre-Columbian art expert Professor Esther Pasztory has suggested that perforations such as those around the temples and on the forehead in the Matisse mask might provide a clue. The masks may have played a part in rituals, attached to supports that have long since perished.

That is not certain, however, and the possible meaning of any such ritual remains obscure.

Teotihuacán and the Aztecs

Remarkably, the stone masks have been collector’s items since the 14th century, when they were coveted by the Aztecs.

Teotihuacán had been burned and sacked in around 650 AD, then fallen into ruin — and for the Aztecs, who came to dominate the region centuries later, the city was a place of cosmic legend. Moctezuma II, the emperor killed during the Spanish conquest, made numerous pilgrimages there, and it was the Aztecs who named it Teotihuacán or ‘Birthplace of the Gods’ (the original name isn’t known).

The masks appear to have been objects of reverence among the Aztecs — a number of the 500-plus stone masks known to exist came from excavations on the site of the Aztec Templo Mayor.

Teotihuacán serpentine mask, circa 450-650 AD. Sold for €437,500 on 9 February 2021 at Christie’s in Paris
Teotihuacán serpentine mask, circa 450-650 AD. Sold for €437,500 on 9 February 2021 at Christie’s in Paris

Of those that have come to market, the Pierre Matisse mask is considered one of the finest, distinguished by its rich green colour, mottled patterning and boldly carved features such as the sharply chiselled cheeks.

The lines on either side of the mouth are another unusual feature, possibly suggesting a slightly older face than in most other examples.

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‘It’s simply mesmerising,’ says Fatma Turkkan-Wille, senior consultant on Pre-Columbian art at Christie’s. ‘There’s a great emotive power to this mask that goes beyond any belief system.

‘It’s in amazing condition, too, considering its age. An exceptional example of a type of sculpture that has been venerated for centuries: first in Teotihuacán itself, then by the Aztecs, later by Pierre Matisse, and now in the 21st century.’