The tubular and oversized expression on this type of mask was a sign of their all-seeing power. They were used in various social situations, and made an impression on many modern artists, including Cubists in the early 20th century.
Former Arman collection, New York
Former William Rubin collection, New York
Former Ernst and Hildy Beyeler collection, Basel
Paul Kasmin, New York
Alain de Monbrison, Paris
Former Marc Ladreit de Lacharrière collection, Paris
musée du quai Branly - Jacques Chirac (70.2017.66.29), Gift Marc Ladreit de Lacharrière.
The work’s original context
As enigmatic as they are renowned, these instantly recognisable ‘cubist’ masks were attributed to the Grebo and Kru people settled in south-east Liberia and south-west Côte d’Ivoire. Long known as ‘Sassandra masks’, they were also used by the Bakwe, Godie and Neyo people1, also part of the Kru language group established in the Bas-Sassandra region near Soubré, San Pedro, Fresco and Sassandra in south-western Côte d’Ivoire.
Difficulties in their attribution can be explained by the analogy between the terms ‘crewmen’ and ‘Krumen’2 used to refer to men of diverse origins recruited in the maritime sector - this region of the Sassandra was particularly known for its maritime trade. The term Kru also encompasses a people in their own right, a language group comprised of over thirty peoples, as well as a socio-professional category referring to men known for their navigation skills.
Context(s) and use(s)
Only very rare information exists on the original context and use of these so-called ‘geometric’ masks. With the exception of a photo taken in situ in the 1880s, a single ancient testimony to this type of mask in context, their specific origin and function remain hypothetical due to a lack of documentation and in-depth field studies since the first examples brought back to Europe in the 19th century. Furthermore, it should be noted that the photo in question illustrated by Hugo Zöller in 1885 - considered staged by some - was not taken in Côte d’Ivoire or Liberia but in Cameroon or Gabon. This considerable distance compared to their place of origin can be explained by the movements of some ‘Krumen’ who took their masks with them during their travels, sometimes even to Europe where they sold them.3
These masks, most of which disappeared in Liberia due to the ‘Grebo Wars’4, represented spirits of nature or the forest as found among the We, Guere and Bete peoples, northern neighbours of the Grebo. Although used for mainly secular purposes today and for collective entertainment as among the Godie and Neyo5 people of Côte d’Ivoire, they were previously used, according to Alain-Michel Boyer, to “expurgate those who ate "doubles" (or souls for Christians), but that it also played a part in settling ritual conflicts between clans, in the case of a land contest, a hunting problem or the rape of a woman. With its numerous eyes, it could "watch" the fighters, but also "strengthen" them, in order to raise them above their status as men, and turn them into valiant warriors.”6 This type of mask was also used in funeral dances accompanied by various other animal or more figurative masks7. However, for Pierre Boutin, “the information we have [on these masks] is inversely proportional to their artistic fame. Contrary to other ethnic groups in south-western Côte d’Ivoire (We, Bete, Niabwa, etc.), […] we known […] nothing of their function, - entertainment, funerary, initiatory, judicial -, of the frequency of their appearances, - regular or exceptional -, nor the audience permitted to see them - open audience, extended or limited audience, with or without restriction regarding age or gender”.8
The omnipresence of vision
Sensitive organs, notably the eyes, are particularly emphasised as if to highlight the acuteness of vision and the omniscience of the gaze. According to Alain-Michel Boyer, “embodying a symbol, turning a verbal formula into a formal realisation is a characteristic of this art, which concretely transposes the intensification of the vision, the magical penetration of the gaze and the power to access the unseen.”9 All differentiated by specific details10, these masks, forming part of a very limited body, worn inclined slightly backwards and featuring a long beard, of which only the nails used to attach it remain on this example, are characterised by an often large, flat surface comprising one or several pairs of cylindrical eyes, a cubic mouth and generally an excrescence on the forehead.
Colour and radiance to magnify volumes: Guimet Blue
These masks are also identifiable by their “great expertise in terms of contrast and visual echoes”11. The polychrome pigments, maintained and regularly renewed12, helped magnify the geometrics volumes or specific areas of the face thanks to sometimes intense pigments, notably using ultramarine, the lustre of which created an additional visual impact. The use of the colour blue may also allude to an ancestral practice that involved inserting indigo into the incised skin to enhance the scarifications13.
While indigo blue, well known, is obtained from a plant extract, ‘Guimet Blue’ or ‘Reckitt's Blue’ is a reproduction of ultramarine on an industrial level previously obtained from lapis lazuli. This Artificial ultramarine was invented by chemist Jean-Baptiste Guimet in 1826, and was notably used for laundering of linen, known as brightening (adding blue helped brighten the white surface). As of the first half of the 19th century, Guimet Blue was marketed worldwide, notably in Africa, in cubes, balls or more often powder. Its particularly vibrant colour in daylight (connected to its use in linen brightening) was widely used as a pigment by African artists.
Reception and convergences: Picasso and Grebo masks
“When I became interested, forty years ago, in Negro art I made what they refer to as the Negro period in my painting, it was because at the time I was against what was called beauty in the museum. At that time, for most people a Negro mask was an ethnographic object. When I went for the first time, at Derain's urging, to the Trocadero museum, the smell of dampness and rot there stuck in my throat It depressed me so much I wanted to get out fast, but I stayed and studied. Men had made those masks and other objects for a sacred purpose, a magic purpose, as a kind of mediation between themselves and the unknown hostile forces that surrounded them, in order to overcome their fear and horror by giving it a form and an image. At that moment I realized that this was what painting was all about. Painting isn't an aesthetic operation; it's a form of magic designed as a mediator between this strange, hostile world and us, a way of seizing the power by giving form to our terrors as well as our desires. When I came to that realization, I knew I had found my way.”14
Many have underlined the direct or indirect influence of non-European arts on artistic experimentation in the early 20th century. Although some influences remain hypothetical or constitute interpretations of imagined ‘primitivism’, some objects had a significant impact on the questioning of the traditional of objects. This is the case of Grebo masks which played a considerable role in the development of synthetic cubism. They notably inspired Picasso’s Guitars series, begun in October 1912. As Picasso later told Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler then André Malraux and William Rubin, their protruding structure, in particular their cylindrical eyes, inspired the form of the sound box for his Guitars. Like Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler and Guillaume Apollinaire, Picasso - who truly began his African collection in 191015 at the age of 25 - had two Grebo masks, one of which, most likely purchased in Marseille during a short trip with Braque in August 191216, was immortalised in a lead pencil drawing of his dining room in Montrouge in 1917.
Although the attention paid to the original function and context of Grebo masks was somewhat disregarded, their influence on the artistic avant-garde movement on the eve of the 20th century - particularly the convergences17 between their stylistic structure and some of Picasso’s work - were commented on extensively. These influences, quickly brought to light, were presented in 1984 by William Rubin during the iconic exhibition Primitivism in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler (1884-1979), a renowned art dealer who acted on behalf of Picasso, Vlaminck, Derain, and Léger as of 1910 and publisher of Guillaume Apollinaire and Antonin d'Artaud, was one of the first advocate of cubism. He spoke of the influence of Grebo masks in 1948, identified at the time as wobé: “About the year 1907, a few painters with their friends began to form haphazard collections of African Negro and Oceanic sculptures. [...] Slowly we were learning to know more about African arts. Only a few years later, the Cubist painters, having made a study of them, were to find in them a lesson whose results would be fundamental for European sculpture. […] the Cubist painters […] resolutely dispensed with all imitation in order to create real signs. In doing so, they rediscovered the true direction of the figurative plastic arts. [...] Picasso had a wobé mask [...] and it is the study of this mask which originated the upheaval which took place at that time. [...] it is impossible to doubt my proposition that it was the wobé masks that opened these painters’ eyes. For example, the hollow of the guitar in some of Picasso’s reliefs is marked by a projecting lead cylinder, in others by a plastilene cone. How can we fail to recognise in these the means (identical in the first case) by which the Ivory Coast artists create a volume whose limits they only indicate by the height of the cylinders representing the eyes?”18
According to William Rubin, “Picasso had been drawn to African art in part because he found it "raisonnable" - that is, a result of the reasoning process - hence conceptual. […] [O]ne of the particular properties of Grebo masks especially relevant at this moment in Picasso’s development is that the "face" from which the eyes, nose, and lips project is not a relieved three-dimensional form as in most other masks, but an uninflected flat panel, like the planes of the Guitar. Picasso drew particular attention to this aspect of Grebo masks in talking about them, but went on to say that the feature that most interested him was the cylindrical eye. Picasso noted that while noses and lips are obviously projecting facial features, he had always thought of the eye as receding, "hollow" feature in sculpture, especially as he treated more the orbit - the socket of the eye - than the eye itself; he recalled that as a young sculptor modelling in clay, he would form it by pressing in his thumb. Now, the Grebo sculptor, as he pointed out, had systematically indicated both the projecting and the receding features of the face by salient forms; this he could do because he was not illustrating a face, but "re-presenting" it in ideographic language - a perfect example of what Picasso found "raisonnable" in tribal art.”19
History of the work and its background
Although this mask provides an understanding of the history of stylistic experimentation in modern art as well as the particular relationship that some iconic artists maintained with so-called ‘primitive’ arts, it also reflects the pioneering perspective of its different owners, trailblazers with a like passion Arman, William Rubin, Ernst and Hildy Beyeler, who contributed to a new vision of modern art and non-European arts in Europe and the United States.
Before joining the very selective collection of Marc Ladreit de Lacharrière, this mask belonged to the artist Arman (1928-2005), famous for his accumulation of reworked objects, a concept he developed in his work but also in his vast collection of African art. Although Arman was world renowned, his ‘fervour’ for African arts that emerged in the 1950s was less well-known to the general public. Many works in his collection were displayed in international exhibitions and a selection of some two hundred pieces were part of an exhibition presented in Marseille, Paris, Cologne, Brussels and New York. For Jacques Kerchache “From Gauguin, Derain, Vlaminck, Picasso and up to Baselitz, Arman is without doubt the artist who has accorded the most of his time, effort and energy to the constituting of his remarkable collections [...].
There was not a single important exhibition in a museum or at a dealer's, or private collection, that he did not visit. He might get a call in New York about an object of possible interest, and next thing he was on the plane. This frenzy reached its height between 1975 and 1980. [...] Today, his collection figures among the most beautiful in the world.”20
Eminent art historian and chief curator of the Department of Painting and Sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art in New York as of 1969, William Rubin (1927-2006) was chosen by Alfred Barr, the first director of MoMA, to succeed him in 1973. William Rubin was behind one of the largest acquisitions by the Museum of Modern Art and numerous leading exhibitions like Primitivism in 20th Century Art in 1984 and Picasso and Braque: Pioneering Cubism in 1989. Like his friend Ernst Beyeler to whom he sold numerous pieces in his collection21, he developed an insatiable passion for ‘primitive’ arts and the confluences he could establish with the work of modern artists. As evoked by Jean-Paul Barbier-Mueller, William Rubin “did not care about rarity or provenance. There were only Him and the Work. [...] he could not live without one, without several of these new, unusual companions. [...] He did not buy a lot, but all of his acquisitions were astoundingly high-quality. [...] many of Bill’s most beautiful pieces were acquired by Ernst Beyeler, whose museum walls they punctuated like question marks between paintings.”22
An extraordinary dealer and collector, co-founder of the now famous contemporary art fair, Ernst Beyeler (1921-2010) opened his art gallery in Basel in the 1940s. He amassed a remarkable collection of modern art (he notably acquired over 300 works by Monet, Matisse, Cézanne, Picasso, Braque, Giacometti, Miró, Léger and Mondrian in the 1960s and some one hundred works by Kandinsky in the 1970s) and non-European art. His collection resulted in the creation of the Fondation Beyeler, one of the largest modern and contemporary art foundation in Europe inaugurated in 1997.
View of the exhibition "Primitivism" in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern, New York, Museum of Modern Art, 1984. © 2020. Digital image, The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence
Selective biography and cartography
Thierry Renard (2020), musée du quai Branly - Jacques Chirac, Paris.
AMROUCHE Pierre, et al., The William Rubin Kota, Paris, Christie’s, 23 june 2015.
BARBIER Jean Paul (Dir.), Arts de la Côte d’Ivoire, textes, tome I, Geneva, Musée Barbier-Mueller, 1993.
BALLINGER Michèle, BURATTI Mathilde, GUTIERREZ Manuel, VALENTIN Manuel, Les couleurs dans les arts d'Afrique. De la Préhistoire à nos jours, Paris, Archives Contemporaines, 2016.
BOHUMIL Holas, Traditions Krou, Paris, Nathan, 1980.
BOUTIN , Pierre, ‘Les masques « krou » de Côte d’Ivoire’ in Afrique, Archéologie, Arts, no. 5, 2007-2009, pp. 7-26.
BOYER , Alain-Michel, ‘L’art des Grebo’ in Arts & Cultures, Geneva, 2010.
BOYER , Alain-Michel, ‘L’Afrique et la pérennité de l’immatériel’ in Arts & Cultures, Geneva, 2017, pp. 115-116.
BOYER , Alain-Michel, Grebo Mask, Paris, Sotheby’s, 13 June 2018, lot 26.
BOYER , Alain-Michel, Between the seen and the unseen, Paris, Sotheby’s, 12 December 2017, lot 50.
COHEN , Joshua I., ‘Picasso’s Guitar (1912) and Two Ivoirian Masks’ in Colloque Picasso Sculptures, 24 March 2016.
GOY Bertrand, Côte d’Ivoire : premiers regards sur la sculpture, 1850-1935, Paris, Schoffel Valluet, 2012.
HARTER Pierre, « Les peuples krou de la frontière éburnéo-libérienne » in Primitifs, 6 september 1991, pp. 58-71.
HUET Jean-Christophe, « Les ambigüités du regard, un masque krou de l’ancienne collection André Derain » in Bulletin des musées et monuments lyonnais, n° 2, 1995, pp. 2-13
JOUBERT Hélène (dir.), Éclectique : Une collection du XXIe siècle, Paris, musée du quai Branly - Jacques Chirac ; Flammarion, 2016, pp. 158-160.
KAHNWEILER Daniel-Henry, ‘Negro Art and Cubism’ in Présence Africaine, n°3, 1948.
LE FUR Yves (dir.), Picasso Primitif, Paris, musée du quai Branly - Jacques Chirac ; Flammarion, 2017.
MCNAUGHTON Patrick, « Is there history in horizontal masks. A preliminary response to the dilemma of form» in African Arts, XXIV, April 1991, pp. 40-54.
NICOLAS Alain, SOURRIEU Marianne, Arman et l’art africain, Marseille, Musées de Marseille - RMN, 1996.
RUBIN William, « Primitivism » in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern, New York, Museum of Modern Art, 1984.
VERGER-FEVRE Marie-Noël (1989), « Les masques de l’ouest ivoirien et l’art occidental » in AUGÉ Marc et al., Corps sculptés, corps parés, corps masqués. Chefs-d’œuvre de Côte d’Ivoire, Paris, Ministère des Affaires Étrangères, Ministère de la Coopération et du Développement, Association Française d’Action Artistique, 1989, pp. 118-121.
ZÖLLER Hugo, Die deutsche Besitzungen an der Westafrikanischen Küste, II. Die Deutsche Kolonie Kamerun, vol. 1, Berlin ; Stuttgart, W. Spemann, 1885.