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Georges De Miré (1890-1965), Paris, avant les années 1920
Drout, Collection G. de Miré, Sculptures anciennes d'Afrique et d'Amérique, Paris, 16 décembre 1931, lot 57
Helena Rubinstein, Paris/New York, acquis lors de cette dernière
Parke Bernet Galleries, New York, The Helena Rubinstein Collection, 27 avril 1966, lot 192
David Lloyd Kreeger , The Kreeger Collection, Washington, D.C., acquis lors de cette dernière
Richard Feigen, New York, acquis par échange auprès de ces derniers
William Rubin, New York, circa 1981
Sweeney, J. J., African Negro Art, New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1935, n.379
Evans, W., ‘African Negro Art’, Portfolio de 477 photographies d'objets à l'exposition au MoMA , 1935
Radin, P. et Sweeney, J. J., African Folktales and Sculpture, New York, Bollingen Foundation, 1952, n.144
Nathan-Garamond, J., (1913-2001), Air France, Poster publicitaire, circa 1960
Dorra, H., The Kreeger Collection, catalogue, H. K. Press, 1970, p. 164 et 165
Adams, H., Art and Man (National Gallery of Art educational periodical), 1970
Magazine Scholastic, ‘Black Literature Series’, New York, 1971
Fagg, W., African Sculpture, Washington, D.C., International Exhibitions Foundation, 1970, p.73, n.71
Robbins, W., ‘How to approach the traditional African sculpture’, in Smithsonian Magazine, septembre 1972, p.49
Robbins, W., African Art in Washington Collections, Washington D.C., Museum of African Art, 1973, p.41, n.297
Makouta-Nboukou, J.P., Black African Literature, Rockville, MD, 1973, illustration de couverture
Chaffin, A. et F., L'Art Kota. Les figures de reliquaire, Meudon, 1979, p.256, n.153
Rubin, W., ‘Primitivism’ in 20th Century Art: Affinities of the Tribal and the Modern, New York, The Museum of Modern Art (Harry N. Abrams), 1984
Rubin, W., Le Primitivisme dans l’art du 20e siècle. Les artistes modernes devant l’art tribal, Paris, 1987, p.268, Vol. I
Kerchache, J.; Paudrat, J-L.; et Stephan, L., L'art africain, Paris, 1988: p.427, n.595
Slesin, S., Over the top: Helena Rubinstein, Extraordinary Style: Beauty, Art, Fashion, Design, New York: Pointed Leaf Press, 2003, pp. 76 et 78
Klein, M., Helena Rubinstein: Beauty is Power, catalogue d'exposition, The Jewish Museum, 2014, p.115
Cloth, F., Kota: Digital Excavations in African Art, 2015 (catalogue d’exposition à paraître), St. Louis, Pulitzer Arts Foundation, 2015
Paris, Exposition d’art africain et d’art océanien, Galerie Pigalle, 28 février-1er avril 1930
New York, The Museum of Modern Art, African Negro Art, 18 mars-19 mai 1935
Autres lieux d’exposition :
- Manchester, NH, Currier Museum of Art, 10 juin-8 juillet 1935
- San Francisco, CA, San Francisco Museum of Art (aujourd’hui San Francisco Museum of Modern Art), 23 juillet-2 septembre 1935
- Cleveland, OH, Cleveland Museum of Art, 28 septembre-27 octobre 1935
Washington, D.C., National Gallery of Art, African Sculpture, 29 janvier-1er mars 1970
Autres lieux d’exposition :
- Kansas City, MO, William Rockhill Nelson Gallery of Art, 21 mars-26 avril 1970
- Brooklyn, NY, The Brooklyn Museum, 26 mai-21 juin 1970
Washington, D.C., African Art in Washington Collections, Museum of African Art, 25 mai 1972- 1 janvier 1973
New York , The Museum of Modern Art, Primitivism in 20th Century Art: Affnities of the Tribal and the Modern, 27 septembre-15 janvier 1985
Autres lieux d’exposition :
- The Detroit Institute of Arts, 26 février-19 mai 1985
- Dallas Museum of Art, Dallas, 23 juin-1er septembre 1985
New York, Helena Rubinstein: Beauty is Power, The Jewish Museum, 31 octobre 2014-22 mars 2015
St. Louis, Kota: Digital Excavations in African Art, Pulitzer Arts Foundation, 16 octobre 2015-19 mars 2016 (oeuvre promise)
Post Lot Text
THE WILLIAM RUBIN KOTA: AN ARISTOCRATIC FAMILY TREE
By Pierre Amrouche
Nowadays, so fond of pedigrees, the Rubin Kota seems to be the archetypical object with a history, through both its succession of famous and familiar owners and the exceptional spaces in which it has been exhibited. The first fortunate owner was Georges de Miré (1890-1965), followed by Helena Rubinstein (1870-1965) and David Lloyd Kreeger (1909-1990), and lastly William Rubin
(1927-2006), all four of whom are exceptional collectors who left their marks through their collections and deeds. Likewise, three historic exhibitions have displayed the Kota reliquary: the African and Oceanian art exhibition at the Galerie Pigalle in 1930, African Negro Art in New York in 1935, and the outstanding 1984 New York exhibition—Primitivism in 20th Century Art, curated by William Rubin. By going further into the details that collectors appreciate and bestow upon objects such as this an additional quality, we can see that the Kota was photographed in New York 1935 by Walker Evans following the African Negro Art exhibition, and that its base is by none other than Inagaki, the prince of base makers!
As is the case for many historical masterpieces, the earliest origins of this fantastic object remain a mystery, but its perfection could almost have us believe that it came from heaven, sent by some god of the arts, rather than the fruit of human efforts! Indeed, while it is easy to trace its family tree from 1930 to the present day, knowing not only the identity of those who have had the honour to own it for a while—such pieces are only ever our guests—but also its market value on many occasions during public sales, for example, there is nothing to tell us where and from whom the Kota was purchased before Georges de Miré, its first official owner. No more than we know from whom Miré bought his other famous Gabonese pieces! The one thing that we can profess to know is that Miré doubtless acquired the Kota after 1923, the date of the Pavilion Marsan to which he loaned some pieces, but not a Kota reliquary. However, the object is clearly present on page 16 of issue 186 of the catalogue, loaned in his name, for the 1930 Galerie Pigalle exhibition that displayed so many important objects, with Miré alone loaning 39 of 425. An artist and photographer, cousin of the painter Roger de la Fresnaye who painted him in several portraits, one of which is in the Metropolitan, he was doubtless one of the collectors of this time with the most narrow taste, focusing on pieces of the highest quality and produced—like his Kota—very differently from more accessible aestheticized pieces. De Miré liked frontal art that summarized a style or a culture, such as Fang and Kota art, for example, from the two major artistic heritages in Equatorial Africa.
Following a series of poor business moves, he was obliged to sell his collection of 112 pieces of African art in Paris in 1931, through the auctioneer Alphonse Bellier, assisted by Charles Ratton and Louis Carré in the capacity of experts. The catalogue was luxurious for the time and included a preface by Georges-Henri Rivière, Deputy Director of the Musée d’Ethnographie du Trocadéro . His introduction stated that “at the Hôtel Drouot we have never seen so much beauty worthy of such science, in the field of primitive art”. While it was not illustrated in the catalogue, Lot 57 caught the astute eye of Helena Rubenstein, who purchased the piece.
Helena Rubenstein needs no introduction, nor does her astounding success, especially for a woman of her time: it is the radiant affirmation of her amazing intuition in any field to which she set her mind. As a businesswomen and collector, her approach to culture was unique. Helped by the learned advice of the sculptor Jacob Epstein, an encyclopaedic collector, Charles Ratton, the 20th century’s most competent antique dealer and expert, and F.H Lem who compiled the collection of Sudanese sculptures, Helena Rubenstein amassed a unique collection of primitive art. Reading the sale catalogue for the 261 objects auctioned at Parke-Bernet in New York in 1966, following her death, makes one’s head spin. The Kota is featured on p. 160 and 161.
During this memorable sale, the Kota was purchased by a couple of art lovers from Washington, the Kreegers, who also made other quality purchases: lots 190 and 191, two Gabonese masks. David Lloyd Kreeger, the head of the American government civil service insurance company Geico, began collecting quite late in life, at the age of 43. But he made up for lost time with his wife Carmen, amassing an art collection of some 300 pieces. Impressionist and modern paintings, sculptures and tribal art were soon housed together in an impressive building erected by the architects Philip Johnson and Richard Foster in Washington: the Kreeger Museum. David Lloyd Kreeger stated: “I have never bought art as an investment, I buy it out of passion and got lucky”’. His reputation as an international collector and philanthropist was nourished in a variety of fields, and especially in music: in 1980 he founded the Washington Opera of which he was the first chairman. Curiously, the Kreegers chose not to keep the Rubinstein Kota, even though it was incontestably the jewel in their tribal collection; they swapped it for a painting with the famous art dealer, Richard Feigen. Proof, if any was needed, that their acquisitions were made according to their hearts.
With William Rubin, who acquired it from Richard Feigen around 1980, the Rubenstein Kota changed its name, becoming the Rubin Kota and completing its 20th century odyssey: and what a denouement! William Rubin was not only the great director of the New York MoMA, where he operated with his intransigent and visionary haughtiness, he was also a leading collector of tribal art and paintings and the curator of the richest and most brilliant exhibition of ‘Primitivism’ in 20th Century Art in New York in 1984. All of those lucky enough to visit the exhibition retain a dazzling memory of this great mass, where all forms of 20th century art entered into communion with tribal art at long last released from ethnographic constraints. It was only fair that
this event should be held in New York, a city on the cutting edge where, in 1914, Alfred Stieglitz and Marius de Zayas paved the way, with modern art, for savage artists.
If Rubin did not invent the concept of Primitivism, he was without doubt the expert with the most extensive and clearest understanding of the subject, going much further than Robert Goldwater whose 1938 work Primitivism in Modern Painting laid the foundations. Certainly, his interest in this fundamental subject for 20th century art was born of his first encounters with Picasso and his work. These encounters irrevocably changed the course of his life, and opened up the vast field of tribal art so closely linked to the creative instincts of modern artists, however unwittingly, and that of Picasso in particular. Who can look at Les Demoiselles d’Avignon without seeing tribal art? Can it be said that the faces of the five subjects are looking for their roots? Even without further examples, they support the primitivist theory of which William Rubin was the incontestable master. The singularity of William Rubin as a collector of tribal art lies in his in-depth research of the objects, their origins, meanings, influences, and convergences. By doing so, his approach transcends simple, but respectable, aesthetic and celebratory considerations. An attitude he most likely shared with the Kota’s previous owners.
By becoming the William Rubin Kota, this piece has not only acquired a prestigious name, but also its own existence and philosophy. It can hold its head high among the great artists of the last century, from Matisse to Picasso and Brancusi. Born of the tropical night, it has been elevated to a masterpiece of international art.
Not content with this aristocratic pedigree, made up of the four best collectors of their times, the Rubin Kota also showed its worth at three prestigious exhibitions: Exposition d’Art Africain et d’Art Océanie, Galerie Pigalle, in 1930 in Paris, African Negro
Art in New York in 1935, and lastly the sumptuous ‘Primitivism’ in 20th Century Art , in New York in 1984.
The Galerie Pigalle exhibition heralded the future and near supremacy of Charles Ratton over his rival in primitive art, Paul Guillaume, whose interest in savage art was waning. Assisted by Tristan Tzara and Pierre Loeb, Ratton selected a collection of 425 objects, 288 of which were from Africa (Paudrat, 1987, p.163). Many of them are still considered to be masterpieces, such as the Derain Pahouin, the Ascher Pahouin head, Madam Hein’s Habbé, and many others besides, not listed in the catalogue, like the Kota which then belonged to Georges de Miré. The list of lenders is impressive, numbering some 45 including the Musée d’Ethnographie du Trocadéro. The introduction of the catalogue is indicative of changing opinions of primitive arts. It announces the expansion of the tribal art corpus to regions that are little-known by collectors, such as the Cameroon, as well as archaeological discoveries, brightening the future of research into the history of ancient African cultures. Before, some claimed
that there was nothing of interest beneath the surface of Black Africa’s soil but we now know this to be false, and have plenty of
proof. Africa has been part of history for millennia!
AFRICAN NEGRO ART
The real presentation of Kota to the art world was during African Negro Art, a tangible sign of changing perspectives of collectors and those looking to preserve the culture: during this prestigious exhibition, it was finally listed in the catalogue, joining those happy few prestigious pieces photographed by Walker Evans for his Portfolio! This iconic Portfolio, studied with panache my Virginia-Lee Webb in her book Perfect Documents, Walker Evans And African Art, 1935, published in 2000 in New York for the eponymous exhibition at the MET. During the 1935 exhibition, the first of its kind in a major modern art museum, the American public was finally shown African art as art, without feathers or drums, nor any pejorative folklore, as was the explicit wish of Alfred Barr (1902-1981), the director of the New York Museum of Modern Art, reported by Virgina-Lee Webb in her aforementioned book. Barr recruited Sweeney and Goldwater, with Charles Ratton’s approval, to bring together the 600 pieces for the exhibition obtained from around Europe and the USA. The exhibition, in a smaller format, travelled to various American cities, thereby fulfilling its educational vocation. The Kota was part of this collection (Webb, 2000, p.25). African Negro Art was also possible thanks to Charles Ratton’s dedication to the exhibition, as the main lender providing the major pieces from his extensive collection. Paul Guillaume died in 1934 from peritonitis, and his wife, Domenica Guillaume, provided 34 pieces known collectively as “The Paul Guillaume Collection” (Paudrat, 1987, p.162, 164), a final homage to Guillaume’s importance in this field before the arrival of Ratton.
PRIMITIVISM IN 20th CENTURY ART
William Rubin’s exhibition brought the cycle of major tribal art exhibitions in the 20th century to a close, providing numerous examples supporting his theory of primitivism. This fantastic, long exhibition in 1984 is still alive today thanks to its impressive
catalogue that forms a true bible of the field. The Kota is featured on page 268 of the French edition in the article entitled “Picasso”, penned by Rubin himself. The number of prestigious contributors (19) and the pieces and artists studied, would lead us to believe that the subject has nothing more to reveal. However, it is possible that with access to never before seen archives, we may still learn new insights about the influence of primitive artists on contemporary art in the past or future. Rubin’s path never ends.
THE WILLIAM RUBIN KOTA: AN ICON OF AFRICAN ART
By Louis Perrois
Since it appeared in the famous exhibition “African Negro Art” at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1935—lent to the show by its then owner, Helena Rubinstein—this impressive Kota reliquary figure has been celebrated as one of the most iconic examples of equatorial African art. Its image has been imprinted in our minds through its extensive presence in publications and exhibitions. Before they were brought to Europe by administrators, missionaries or tropical products brokers (also known as “bush riders”), these wooden, copperplated figures were revered objects, lashed to large reliquary baskets where they presided over the relics of ancestors. People called them mbulu-ngulu, meaning “basket with a figure.” In Kota from Haut-Ogooué, the words ngulu nguru and nyelu mean ‘in the form or appearance of something or someone’; whereas the word nbulu refers to a piece of basketwork or sometimes interlaced leaves. In the 19th century, there were countless figures of this type (with different
formal variations, cf. Perrois, Kota, 2012, p. 5479), in the villages of the high valley of Ogooué and its surroundings, from the North as Okondja and Mekambo to the south as Zanaga, Sibiti and Mossendjo in Congo (cf. Kota 2012 ibid., p. 6).
William Rubin’s ngulu is particularly impressive at 66 cm. high and 40 cm. wide. Stylistically, it presents several Obamba Kota particularities: a transversal crescent headdress, rounded lateral sides, and a stylized oval face. The only anatomical details are a longitudinal stripe for a nose and eyes represented by oval forms fixed with screws, a Kota Shamaye “signature.” Such a composition, extremely graphic and reductive, swiftly seduced Western collectors in the 1920s.
This reliquary figure can be compared to a historical ngulu, collected by Attilio Pecile and Giacomo di Brazza during the “West African Missionary” in the 1880s and conserved at the Musée d’Ethnographie du Trocadéro in Paris (MQB, ref. Inv. 71.1884.37.22, H= 40 cm). We find there a particular face shape that is “foliaceous”, narrower than the Rubin Kota, and adorned
only with embossed eyes. According to the notebook and sketches of routes of G. di Brazza, this object was found among Kdumu Kota (called Ondumbo by explorers) not far from the Shamaye Kota region on the right side of the river.
For a long time, the Ndumu Kota were the “enemy brothers” of the Obamba from the Masuku-Franceville region. The Ndumu
began, before the Obamba, a North-south migration from the area of Sangha in the 18th century. These two civilizations could converse without an interpreter, an important indicator of their common roots. Moreover, the Obamba and Ndumu practiced the same matrilineal tradition and, as a result, often intermarried. Nevertheless, the Ndumu, as frequent victims of slave raids and cattle robberies, remained wary of Obamba. Finally, it was Brazza and his comrades who, thanks to contacts around Haut-Ogooué zone (on the current border of Gabon and Congo) and a proactive policy of intertribal appeasement (obviously favorable to trade), broke up the Mbete-Obamba expansion in Gabon in the late 19th century. Their latent domination over the Haut-Ogooué region for over a century ended in a final confrontation that took place close to a Mamvubu village, on the right side of the Passa (Masuku-Franceville region). It is conceivable, though, that ongoing contact and symbolic (and therefore gradually stylistic) comingling left a mark on the design of ancestral figures. Other Kota figures, allied by their oval-almond shaped face though they belonged to different collections (Guerre, Kamer, Fourquet, Falluet, etc.), constitute a remarkable stylistic variety (cf. Perrois, Arts du Gabon, 1979, pp. 174-175), with headdresses more or less wide—some in a simple vertical tenon and others with transverse crescent refolded rims (Pierre Vérité’s former collection, catalog of June 2006, n°198, without base, 43 cm.) or with a double crescent (W. Mestach’s former collection, 61 cm., broken horizontal pendants). We can assume that this surprisingly stylized and almost abstract pattern comes from the border of North Kota (Mahongwe and especially Shamaye) and South Kota (Obamba, Wumbu, Ndumu), taking both an extremely uncluttered style, almost “cubist”, and a classic
structure, with a headdress crescent and a hollowed diamondshaped base. Another detail common to all of these effigies is the horizontal appendices located at the base of the face, which can be interpreted as earrings. On the Rubin Kota, these appendices are decorated with a lattice pattern and drilled on their ends to hang chains or necklaces.
At the back, there are no metal plaques, as typical, and a diamond-shaped bas-relief pattern brands this effigy, recalling the base opening. Throughout Gabon, the diamond as an engraved or carved pattern is a symbolic nod of the female sex, the source of life. We find the same sign as a border strip on the central decoration of the headdress crescent, which is a seal of identification clan.
The mbulu-ngulu from the William Rubin’s collection, in its majestic stature and with its abstract, almond-shaped face, demonstrates the unfettered imagination of initiated Kota. It is proof, if proof were needed, of the subtle spirituality that these
equatorial African people practiced, and which they expressed in this statuesque masterpiece.