Supra Verum: An African Polykleitos among the Luba
By Dr. Bernard de Grunne
The ground-breaking exhibition 'Mains de Maîtres. A la découverte des sculpteurs d’Afrique' which I brought to life in Brussels in 2001 was the first exhibition covering the entire scope of sub-Saharan statuary styles identifying artists and ateliers from fourteen different tribes ranging from the ancient Soninke in Mali to the Tsonga from South Africa. My selection was strictly based on the aesthetic qualities of these fourteen artists (1).
A world premier for the art of the Congo Basin was the display in my show of six works of art from an outstanding artist which I consider superior to the Kateba (ex 'Buli') Master and his two pupils, despite him being late in being recognized as such. This recognition was thanks mainly to Ezio Bassani’s exemplary publication of 1990 (2) (Photos 1 & 2).
This anonymous sculptor has been assigned various conventional names which I list here in chronological order: The Frobenius 1904 Warua Master by Susan Vogel in 1986, the Warua Master by Ezio Bassani in 1990, The Master of the Court of Sopola by François Neyt in 1993 and again the Warua Master by Heinrich Schweizer in 2015 (3). I had suggested in my 2001 catalogue the name Kunda Master, a denomination used subsequently by Petridis in his publication. The Kunda were one of the most important and ancient royal clans of the Eastern Luba, which produced such amazing talent as the Kateba workshop and the great Boyo art styles (4).
The highest concentration of geographical provenance of works by this sculptor are found on both sides of the Luvua River, at the crossroads of Luba, Hemba, Tabwa and Boyo art styles. Of the nine works by this Master, we have the exact geographical origin for one piece, the bow stand from an American Private Collection. It was given to the private collector by Chief Kahulu Ngoy in the village of Kishiale near Piana-Mwanga, the capital of the Batempo Chiefdom, not far from Kiambi. According to Maesen, the Tervuren figure was also collected between 1902 and 1903 not far from Kiambi by Rusmont in the village of Pweto, on the north bank of the Luvua River (5). The statue from my father’s collection was found in a village near Kiambi according to Dartevelle (6). (See Fig. 4)
In order to finally put to rest this naming process, one could propose to do a slight linguistic shift from Warua Master to Luvua Master reflecting much more precisely the known geographical distribution of three of his works, though it remains to be seen if this will accepted in future publications.
This Master carved only nine works: two stools, four bow stands and three statues. I have listed them below in a detailed chronological sequence based on their first date of collection and very careful archival research:
1. Statuette, M.R.A.C., Tervuren inv. N° 26633, collected by Rusmont between 1902 and 1903 (7) (Fig. 3, far right).
2. Janus statuette, Berlin Museum für Völkerkunde, inv. N° III C 1996, purchased by Leo Frobenius from Hamburg dealer J.M.G. Umlauff and sold to the Berlin Museum in 1904 (8) (Fig. 3, one from right).
3. Bow stand, American Private Collection, New York, collected by Léon Guébels a.k.a. Olivier de Bouveignes between 1913-1918, Willy Mestach, Merton Simpson (9) (Fig. 3, centre left).
4. Stool, Seattle Art Museum, Inv. N° 81.17.876, collected by Lieutenant Roger Castiau, a Belgian pilot based at M’Toa (just north of Kalemie) between April 1st and July 23 1916 (10) (Fig.6, overleaf).
5. Stool, University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Inv. N° AF5121, purchased from French dealer Charles Vignier in Paris in 1919 (11) (Fig. 7, overleaf).
6. Bowstand, from the André Lefèvre and René Mendès-France collection, acquired prior to May 1931.
7. Bowstand, Frankfurt Museum des Weltkulturen, inv. N° NS.33.8.34, formerly A. Siffert Collection, Gent, acquired prior to 1937 (12) (Fig. 5, overleaf).
8. Bowstand, Malcolm Collection, collected in situ by Pierre Wustfeld in 1956 (Fig. 3, centre right).
9. Statuette, former Comte B. de Grunne Collection, sold by P. Dartevelle, 1975, noted as coming from Kiambi, (Fig. 3, far left).
The beautiful, crisp but never cold style of the Warua Master is one of crystalline purity, of balanced synthesis between the ample spherical form of the head and the geometric rigor of the arms, breast and coiffure. My group photos from the 2001 exhibition shows without doubt that all six sculptures are by the same artist, even if some of his works are more perfectly balanced than others (Fig. 3). For instance the bow rest from the Frankfurt Museum seems awkward because the two side prongs from the bow stand are modern restorations executed by Gustave Dehondt before he sold the piece to the Museum. This modern addition explains the stiffness of the Frankfurt bow rest and lack of elegant curvature which is evinced by the other three bow stands. The two stools, obviously by the same hand (Figs. 6 and 7) share the same serene elliptical shape of the head and geometric rigor of the bent arms. The Warua Master stands alone in the landscape of Luba-ized art style.
The Mendès-France bow stand offered here has always been considered one of the great masterpieces of Luba art and certainly the most perfect of the four bow stands by the Warua Master, on account of a number of very subtle refinements such as the slight tilt forward of the torso, the tension in the openwork coiffure and the elegance of the bent legs, all details that can admired from the profile view. One needs to correct an erroneous fact about the provenance of this very famous piece: it never belonged to Georges de Miré. This piece was first published in an auction catalogue of a sale held at Drouot in Paris on May 7, 1931. According to archival research, the work was consigned by another well-known collector, André Léfèvre, (Fig. 1), the financial backer and major share-holder of the paintings gallery Percier (13). It was purchased at that sale for FF 3100 by René Mendès-France, (Fig. 2) painter and employee at the Galerie Percier (14). Mendès-France immediately loaned it for the ('Arts Indigènes') room at the Exposition Coloniale Internationale (Paris, 6 May - 15 November, 1931), organized by Jean Gallotti who illustrated it for the second time (15). The bow stand was then sold by Jean Roudillon on 2 October, 1975 to Morris Pinto (16). Mrs. Camila Pinto consigned it with many other pieces to Sotheby’s London in 1980 where it was purchased by Carlo Monzino (17). The erroneous de Miré provenance was added in the entry of the Sotheby’s catalogue in 1980 and has been repeated ever since. Part of the confusion stems from the fact that de Miré did indeed consign some Oceanic objects from his collection to this 6 May 1931 auction. However, George de Miré’s African collection was sold six months later on 16 December, 1931 (18).
Carved wooden bow stands in the form of a standing female figure surmounted by a trident shaped fork are among the most strikingly idiosyncratic forms of Luba art, and powerfully testify to the relationship between hunting and kingship in this ancient kingdom. Indeed the Luba cultural hero Mbidi Kiluwe was a renowned hunter and his most cherished possession was his bow. Scholars are in agreement that the ultimate origin of this unique form appears to date to the very foundation of the Luba Kingdom many centuries ago, when the three-branched tree trunk was used as a ritual post by hunters to display the skulls of human or animal victims (19).
The standing female figure supporting the three-pronged fork represents the highly important chiefs’ mothers who led the migration to the Luvua region as well as other founders of specific royal clans. Precise fieldwork on the symbolism of the female figure of the Malcolm bow stand, which represents Ngombe-Madia, the mother of the chief who led the migration of the Tempo clan to their present location (20), corroborates this interpretation.
The first mention of a bow stand is by the explorer Verney Cameron in 1877. He describes them as 'bow rests', which turned into what French scholars have subsequently and mistakenly called 'porte-flèches' (arrow-carrier) (21).
Indeed, porte-flèches are altogether another type of regalia which, in my view, have no formal affiliation with bow stands. The three-pronged fork at the top of arrow stands can be used to rest a bow on one of the side forks but appear too narrow and impractical for holding long arrows. The suggestion that the bow stand somehow evolved from the iron porte-flèches seems too farfetched. The iron fork-shaped arrow stand, an ironwork tour de force which has a wide distribution throughout southeastern Congo, northern Zambia, Bemba, Bisa and Malawi, are another sacred symbol of Luba royalty (22). According to Maesen, the principal Luba chiefs preferred iron arrow stands whereas the secondary chiefs received wooden examples (23).
The uniquely accomplished individual style of the Warua Master manifests in a profoundly geometric composition of the sort deemed “le rythme statuaire” by the French prehistorian André Leroi-Gourhan. This sculptural innovation is evinced in a three-dimensional object when it includes the repetition of identical (or as he calls it, "isometric") intervals (24). The sense of a Palladian harmony in all works by the Warua Master comes from the very intelligent use of these isometric intervals in the different parts of the body.
This unique approach to sculpture reminds us of the methodology used by artists from Ancient Greece. Amongst the earliest examples of this preoccupation with balance and form comes from the Cycladic period, exemplified here by the Spedos Master (active around 2400 B.C.). Another outstanding sculptor is of course Polykleitos, remembered for producing a canon, which demonstrated that such philosophical qualities as 'the perfect, the good or the beautiful' could be expressed through the harmony of parts in sculptural forms and geometrical proportions. He envisaged the human figure differentiated into torso, limbs and parts of limbs, and his work explored how these parts related to each other and to the whole. Like the Warua Master, Polykleitos mastered his art by studying the physiology of the human form. His Canon stood as a system of mathematically and geometrically determined proportions resulting in a human form which, according to Quintilian, a Roman commentator of the 1st century A.D., was 'supra verum' (25). As Pollitt explains: 'the goal of Polykleitos' system of symmetria was to describe an ideal nature in man. ...He also concentrated on harmonizing opposing force.' (26) Polykleitos' approach was so perfected that although no original sculpture by his hand survives, one can easily 'feel' the presence of a harmonious system in the numerous Roman copies of his work (27). For the Warua Master, he does not seem to have had disciples, though a fourth stool in the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (Inv. 2006.18) is clearly by a less gifted follower of his unique style (28).
(1) Bernard de Grunne, ed., Mains de Maîtres ; A la découverte des sculpteurs d’Afrique, Bruxelles, Espace BBL, 2001.
(2) I. Ezio Bassani, M. Teresa & Valerio Zanobini, Il Maestro del Warua, Edition Poro, Milano, 1990. I was also able to exhibit for the first time ever six sculptures by the Kateba Master and his two pupils, the Buli Master the Elder and the Buli Master the Younger. In his ground-breaking show of 1937 Olbrechts was able to show only three sculptures by this artist: the kneeling divination figure from Tervuren and the two caryatid stools from the Bertrand and Bombeeck collections. See F. Olbrechts and A. Maesen Tentoonstelling van Kongo-Kunst, Antwerpen, Stadsfeestzaal, 1937, p. 48 n° 670 and p. 50 n° 716 & 717.
(3) Susan Vogel, African Aesthetics. The Carlo Monzino Collection, Milano, 1986, no 125, Ezio Bassani, M. Teresa & Valerio Zanobini, Il Maestro del Warua, Edition Poro, Milano, 1990, Francois Neyt, Luba Aux sources du Zaire, Musée Dapper, Paris, 1993, p.84 and B. de Grunne, 'Quelques maitres sculpteurs du bassin do Congo,' in de Grunne, ed. Mains de Maîtres ; A la découverte des sculpteurs d’Afrique, Bruxelles, Espace BBL, 2001, p. 191. Cf. the very detailed essay by Heinrich Schweizer, 'The Male Statue by the Warua Master,' in Sotheby’s New York, African, Oceanic and Pre-Columbian Art, New York, May 15, 2015, p. 124-137.
(4) A. Maesen, comm. pers. in Mary Nooter Roberts, « The Naming Game Ideologies of Luba Artistic Identity », in African Arts, Autumn 1998, volume XXXI, 4, 64; C. Petridis, Art and Power in the Central Savana, The Cleveland Museum of Art, 2008, p. 38.
(5) A. Maesen in Bassani, 1990, p. 117.
(6) Pierre Dartevelle, comm. pers., Oct. 1990.
(7) The provenance was communicated by A. Maesen to Bassani. Cf. Bassani & Zanobini, Il Maestro del Warua, Milano, 1990, p. 118.
(8) Since Frobenius’s trip to the Congo began in late 1904, he of course could not have field collected this piece, a frequently repeated error. See H-J. Koloss, Art of Central Africa, New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1990, p. 21-22.
(9) Personal communication, Willy Mestach, May 2001.
(10) He flew two hydroplanes in order to bomb the Graf von Gotzen, a German gunboat roaming the lake. Castiau could have collected this stool at M’Toa or anywhere on the piste between Kalemie/Kabalo, as he travelled from Belgium and back via the western coast of Matadi. Cf. Ministere de la Defense Nationale, Les campagnes coloniales belges, 1914-1918, Tome II, Bruxelles, 1929, 122-403.
(11) I was able to further track its history - it came originally from administrateur colonial Joseph van den Bogaerde (1884-1977) who was in the cercle de Kongolo between 1913 and 1916; it is illustrated in a photo of his collection taken in Enghien les Bains in 1916.
(12) It was exhibited in Antwerp in 1937. See F. Olbrechts, Plastiek van Kongo, Antwerp, 1946, plate 39 N° 199 with two of the forks missing. See J. Agthe, Luba Hemba. Sculptures by unknown masters, Museum für Völkerkunde, Frankfurt, 1983, plate 44-46.
(13) The rest of the Lefèvre collection was also sold at auction, Hotel Drouot, Collection André Lefèvre-Art Nègre-Océanie, Maîtres E. Ader et J. Ribault-Menetière, Paris, 13 décembre 1965.
(14) Maurice Monda, 'L’Art aux enchères', in L’Art Vivant, n° 149, June 1931, p. 309.
(15) Jean Gallotti, 'Les arts indigènes à l’Exposition Coloniale', in Art et Décoration, September 1931, p. 70
(16) In this privately printed portfolio, Roudillon published the correct provenance for the bow stand: André Lefèvre and René Mendès-France. Cf. Paris, Galerie Roudillon, 7 Chefs d’œuvres de l’art nègre, October 1975 et R. Lehuard, 'Jean Roudillon', in Arts d’Afrique Noire, N° 16, Hiver, 1975, p. 40.
(17) Sotheby’s, Primitive Works of Art, London, June 16, 1980, lot 198.
(18) Hotel Drouot, Collection G. de Miré: Sculptures d’Afrique, d’Amérique, d’Océanie, Paris, Maître Alphonse Bellier, December 16, 1931.
(19) P. Petit, 'Hunters, mediums and chiefs. Variations on the theme of the Luba ritual object', in M. Holsbeke, ed., The object as mediator, Antwerp, Etnografisch Museum, 1996, p. 122-124.
(20) Information provide by Chief Kahulu Ngoy, Chief of the Tempo, to Pierre Wustfeld in 1956. See Sotheby’s,Tribal Art, London, April 9, 1984, lot 136.
(21) V. L Cameron, Across Africa, London, Daldy, Ibister & Co., 1877, vol. I, p. 314.
(22) A. I. Richards, 'Bow Stand or Trident', in Man, vol. XXXV, 1935, pp. 30-32: B Waldecker, 'Les porte-arcs du Katanga, des Rhodésies et régions voisines', n.d. in F. Neyt, Luba, Paris Musée Dapper, 1994, p.71.
(23) P. Petit, 'Hunters, mediums and chiefs. Variations on the theme of the Luba ritual object', in M. Holsbeke, ed., The object as mediator, Antwerp, Etnografisch Museum, 1996, p. 122-124.
(24) A. Leroi-Gourhan, 'Observations technologiques sur le rythme statuaire' in Echanges et Communications, Mouton, 1970, p.667.
(25) Quintilian, Institutio Oratoria, 12.10.8.
(26) J.J. Pollitt, Art and Experience in Classical Greece, Cambridge University Press, 1972, p.108.
(27) Adolph H. Borbein, 'Polykleitos', in Olga Palagia et J.J. Pollitt, Personal Styles in Greek Sculpture, Cambridge University Press, 1996, p. 86.
(28) This stool was collected in Congo by Jo and Cecile Christiaens in the late 1970’s and purchased at auction by Nancy and Robert Nooter (Sotheby’s, Tribal Art, New York, 20 May, 1987, lot 142).