October 29: Fetish

29October 29: this afternoon, Saturday, 2–3 pm Wendy A. Grossman, curatorial associate at The Phillips Collection and lecturer for New York University, Washington DC Program will present a talk “on how Photography played a critical role in the way African objects came to be appreciated as modern art in the first half of the 20th century.”

“Starting from a Man Ray photograph of an African mask in the Barnes collection, she will explore the intersection of avant-garde tastes, African art, and photography.” This post draws in part on Grossman’s Man Ray, African Art and the Modernist Lens, Chapter 2, African Art “American Style”, but I have expanded the concept to the European developments in Dada and other sources of African art and ethnography beyond the Barnes collection.

Anthropologists had been visiting the African continent and bringing back photographs since the nineteenth century, an outstanding example being  German Herbert Lang (1879-1957) who led a scientific expedition into the the upper Congo Basin 1909-1915.

Born in Oehringen, Wurttemberg, Germany in 1879, he turned a childhood interest in the natural world into a job as a taxidermist in Wurttemberg, and then, later, went to work for the natural history museum at the University of Zurich. He learned taxidermy in Paris.When he emigrated to America in 1903 he joined the American Museum staff as a taxidermist that same year making  dioramas. In 1906, he left for Africa on a hunt for specimens led and financed by by the wealthy hunter Richard Tjader who agreed to give the museum most of his animal “trophies” in exchange for Lang’s assistance. In 1925 Lang returned to Africa and stayed, working at the Transvaal Museum in South Africa, but continuing his association with the American Museum.

Lang’s anthropological photographs stand out for their sculptural treatment, due in part to a need for accuracy and no doubt influenced by his taxidermy, but in them one senses a respect for the subject not found in others’ imagery from this era.

However it was the objects themselves that were enthusiastically collected by Picasso, Braque, Brancusi and other European artists, and the photographers Man Ray, Alfred Stieglitz and Charles Sheeler in America.

In 1914 Alfred Stieglitz mounted an exhibition titled Statuary in Wood by African Savages: The Root of Modern Art at Gallery 291 (a.k.a The Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession) that he had established in 1905 to promote the status of photography as a fine art amongst showings of the most avant-garde European artists of the time. The 1914 exhibition linked African art with modern art, and thus by association and by implication legitimised photography as a modern art form.

Stieglitz was inspired to create a photograph of his model and partner Georgia O’Keeffe posed nude, holding an anthropomorphic spoon from Côte d’Ivoire. It is redolent of the colonialist romanticising and eroticising response to African art. The object, being a spoon in the form of a human figure is of course not unusual in Western decorative arts, but it is the exotic emphasis given the African object that is overt. O’Keefe’s pose appears religious, backlit, draped, eyes heavenward, her head surrounded in a glory. The object thereby becomes a fetish and the image pagan, an impression which is conveyed by the prominence given her breasts as her gesture thrusts them forward while the other hand gracefully holds the rather phallic form.

In fact, interpretations of the “fetish” as an object mistaken for a god was discredited by the 1870s, when Europeans began to grapple with the complexity of African religious praxis. In John Lubbock’s The Origin of Civilisation, he equates the fetish with witchcraft dolls in the European tradition, which could be used to inflict harm on their models. Lubbock’s view that the African “by means of witchcraft , endeavors to make a slave of his deity” is the absolute reverse of Carl Einstein (1885-1940), who imagines the sculptor fabricating a god-object, adoring it, and eventually being “consumed” by it.

Around the same time as Steiglitz’s exhibition, in Europe Latvian painter Voldemārs Matvejs (1877-1914) and the above-mentioned German author Einstein worked virtually simultaneously and without knowledge of one another. In 1914 Matvejs praised “the profound thought of Negroes…expressed through the plastic arts.” and in 1915 Einstein wrote that sub-Saharan African art was the product of “formal thought”. Matvejs Iskusstvo Negrov (“Negro Art”) written under the Russian pseudonym ‘Vladimir Markov’, was delayed in publication after his death until 1919, and after the Revolution his text exercised a formative impact on the Soviet avant-gardists Malevich, Tatlin, and Rodchenko, before a Stalinist art establishment made it disappear in the 1930s. Einstein’s book Negerplastik (“Negro sculpture”) appeared in 1915 but then slid from view after he was mercilessly persecuted and hounded to his death by Nazis in France in 1940.

At the beginning of his book, Matvejs emphasized how few photographs of freestanding African sculptures existed when he began his project necessitating his traveling extensively across Europe to document those in museum collections

In November 1913, Einstein had collaborated in organizing an exhibition at the Neue Galerie in Berlin of works of Picasso, Derain, and Matisse alongside African sculptures and in December 1913, he included what one reviewer called “a series of superb Negro sculptures” in a retrospective of Picasso’s work, 1901–12.

The first Dada exhibition was held at Han Corey’s gallery in Zurich in 1917 under the title Dada. Cubisles. Art Negre, featuring works of African art shown side by side with the creations of the European avant-garde. Hannah Hoch, whose photomontages combined photographs of African sculptural objects was included in the exhibition. She was employed by Ullstein Press designing dress and embroidery patterns for Die Dame and Die praktische Berlinerin. The company also published BIZ and Uhu, and Der Querschnitt which provided Höch with source material for her photomontage work.

Der Querschnitt boasted in 1923; ‘correspondents in all the great centres of Europe and America, by Negroes and Eskimos’ (‘Korrespondenten in sarntlichen groszen Zentren Europas, Amerikas, bei Negern und Eskimos’). It was an eclectic and eccentric magazine; in the same 1925 issue that included a story by Proust and poems by Else Lasker-Schiller, the reader found transcribed ‘the war cry of the famous All Blacks’, the Maori hakka of New Zealand’s Rugby team, illustrated in an appropriately ‘primitive’ style by Paul Klee.” Other issues included articles on jazz by the American composer George Antheil alongside photographs of boxers and hippopotamus hunts in Africa. Australian photographer and film-maker Frank Hurley contributed an article on a South Seas coral reef, which was accompanied by a drawing of New Guineans by Max Pechstein. That issue’s photo section included ‘South Seas Exotics’ (Siidsee-Exoten) as well as photographs of scenes from Hurley’s film ‘Pearls and Savages’.

Hoch’s photomontages have been interpreted as a critique of ideas on modern femininity, on the familiar and the foreign, as well as on identity and the concept of “otherness.” In the Denkmal I collage from the series Aus einem ethnographischen Museum, is a photo of a mask by the Master of Bouafle, which was illustrated in Der Querschnitt in 1924. This object was the property of American collector Albert Barnes, who had purchased it from Paul Guillaume. African art is often regarded as anonymous, but in the case of this mask the hand of the Master of Bouaflé is apparent.

The Dada exhibition’s call for an aesthetic renewal through African art’s cubist forms also had a political and social dimension; Carl Einstein saw African art as the foundation for the emergence of a new kind of artist, and a new kind of person.

Collector Marius de Zayas’ collaboration in 1918 with the photographer Charles Sheeler led to the production of African Negro Wood Sculpture, a deluxe limited-edition album in which Sheeler realized his efforts to discover abstract forms in the world around him via African objects.

Sheeler produced both ‘straight’ record shots (Charles Sheeler 1918, plate XVI from African Negro Wood Sculpture; a Bamana mask from Mali, above left) of objects from de Zayas’ collection and other images that are arguably a Cubist interpretation, as in the second image, c.1916-17,  above right, showing a Fang figure from a reliquary ensemble (eyema bieri) from the Ntumu group in Equatorial Guinea (modern Gabon). Here the shadows from two artificial light sources come into play to double and abstract portions of the figure. One light is projected from below, and intersects with another from the same side, but located above the figure. A third shape emerges; a stocky bird-like form.

Collector Alain Locke provided the African objects for 26 photographs by little-known Marjorie Griffiths, de facto staff photographer for the Harmon Foundation supporting African- American artists and writers in the 1920s and ‘30s to support a text by Locke in exhibitions promoting African art to a larger audience, which though it never materialised, indicates the Locke’s and others’ interest in producing artful photographs of African objects. While Walker Evans’ 1935 photographs of African sculptures commissioned by the Museum of Modern Art for African Negro Art are better known, it is hard to perceive in his almost ‘deep-etched’ white backgrounds any attempt to formalise the objects in a Modernist manner. In fact his images are more in tune with the dissociation of the objects from their contexts, their fetishisation by Western curators, made clear by their similar presentation for African Negro Art in a white cube.


On the other hand, Griffiths’ pictures contextualise the objects intriguingly against others by inserting them into a ‘still life’ of the kind practiced by Picasso and Braque. Her treatment still does not recognise the objects’ origins (the figure on the right is a harp, missing its strings), but does give them human scale missing in the images by Evans’ (who became a collector of Americana later in life).

Marjorie Griffiths, Untitled (Central African Ngbaka bow-harp and Kongo clay vessel), c.1935.png
Marjorie Griffiths (c.1935) Central African bow-harp and Kongo clay vessel


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.