The Barbier-Mueller collection of African and Oceanic art from Geneva is on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art from June 2 through September 27, 2009. It’s one of Europe’s preeminent private collections of non-Western art. Presenting more than 35 works–most never seen before in the United States–“African and Oceanic Art from the Barbier-Mueller Museum in Geneva: A Legacy of Collecting” explores the wide spectrum of artistic creativity from two distinct regional traditions that have profoundly influenced world art.
Josef Mueller, a pioneering collector of modern and non-Western art, founded the collection in the 1920s,and it is continued today by his son-in-law and daughter Jean Paul and Monique Barbier-Mueller. Their desire to share the collections with a wider audience culminated in the opening of the Barbier-Mueller Museum in Geneva in 1977. Representing more than eight decades of their collection, the exhibition reflects the legacies of their connoisseurship. Vacheron Constantin made the exhibition possible.
In the African section, there are 21 works from Western, Central and Eastern Africa. They have been selected to illustrate both the range of the continent’s artistic creativity and the discerning eye of the collections. Among these, an idealized female head in fired clay is a tribute to the art of portraiture developed by the sculpture between the 11th and 15th centuries in the ancient city of Ife, in present-day southwestern Nigeria.
A series of iconic masks includes an exceptional work created by a Teke master (Republic of Congo),whose brilliant use of color, geometry and symmetry ignited the imagination of artist Andre Derain, one of the previous owners of the work. The technical virtuosity and inventiveness of West African metal smiths are epitomized by a magnificent Malian ornament of the 13th to15th century in the form of a male torso. This unique piece synthesizes miniaturized detail with bold abstraction.
In the Oceanic exhibition, the works exemplify the broadness of creative achievement by artists from across the Pacific. They include figures, masks and decorative art from Polynesia, New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Indonesia and other regions in media ranging from wood and stone to more fragile materials, such as bark cloth and delicately carved turtle shell. Among the works on view is a boldly carved portrait of a chief from the Batak people of Sumatra mounted on a fantastic creature that served as a super-natural guardian. Other highights include a rare wood sculpture from Easter Island that once belonged to the pioneering modern sculptor Sir Jacob Epstein and a stunning female figure from the Micronesian island of Nukuoro, remarkable for its elegant lines and strikingly minimalist conception of the human form.
A catalogue accompanies the exhibition. There will also be a variety of educational programs offered in conjunction with the exhibition. It’s also featured on the museum’s website, www.metmuseum.org.