Objects
Karin Guggeis

Unknown artist
before 1893
wood, paint
175cm x 33cm x 28cm
Museum Fünf Kontinente Munich
Marianne Franke

A famous example for expanding the canon of art in the Global North - but a 'blank sheet' regarding its original context in the Global South

It is characteristic of the scientific discipline art history in the Global North that much more is known about the significance of this sculpted block than about its previous local context in Cameroon. It had been collected by Max von Stetten in the then German colony of Cameroon. But no information about its specific local context was documented when the wooden block was included into the collection of what is today known as Museum Fünf Kontinente in Munich, in 1893. 

 

The block gained great significance for art in the Global North through its reproduction in the almanac “The Blue Rider” (Der Blaue Reiter). Published in 1912 by Wassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc, this book was an important publication of German artists in the early 20th century, and it was a starting point for expanding the canon of art in the Global North. In contrast to our broad knowledge of the European artists who admired this block, no certain information about the local context of this unique work could be traced by previous scientists. A provenance search - together with Cameroonian scholars and the presumed source communities - is aimed at balancing our existing knowledge with knowledge of its local context.

Karin Guggeis
Karin Guggeis

Objects from the Global South in early collections of the Global North often lack any information about their specific local context. This is also true for this wooden sculpture made from a single block of hard wood, carved with different figures and forms on two sides and painted with natural colours in red, white and black. It was acquired in 1893 by the “Royal Ethnographic Collection” (Königlich Ethnographische Sammlung) in Munich, today the Museum Fünf Kontinente. No specific information about its geographic origin, its producers, users or use was documented in the inventory book. “Huge four-edged block, 1.80 high made of heavy wood, double-sided carved with human figures and lizards, heavily damaged by termites” is the only information recorded. The wooden block was sent from “Cameroon” (Kamerun) which is therefore documented as its region of origin. It was given to the museum as a present by Max von Stetten, a colonial officer in the German colony.

 

The post gained a new layer of significance through its inclusion in the almanac “The Blue Rider” (Der Blaue Reiter), one of the most famous and important publications on art in the early 20th century inthe Global North. The almanac was edited in 1912 by two artists based in the evvirons of Munich, Franz Marc and the Russian Wassily Kandinsky. They designed the publication as a starting point for a new epoch of art, rejecting academic art and encouraging new forms of artistic expression. Thus, Kandinsky and Marc included reproductions of different non-canonical art forms, such as artworks from the Middle Ages, folk art, art made by children – and non-Western artworks, in those days called “art of the primitives” (Kunst der Primitiven), among them this sculpted block from Cameroon. In this way, the editors of the almanac aimed to break down the hierarchies between art forms from different times, regions and levels of professional skill, and to expand the canon of art in the Global North.

 

The editors’ fascination with non-European art had different roots: Wassily Kandinsky was a trained ethnographer and often visited ethnographic museums. Franz Marc, since his visit to the ethnographic museum in Berlin in 1911, especially admired sculptures from Cameroon. Thus Marc included a photograph of this wooden block to illustrate August Macke’s article “The Masks” (Die Masken). Marc captioned the picture simply “Cameroon” (Kamerun), its known geographic origin, and the country whose sculptures he admired.

 

In his article, the artist Macke stressed that for Africans their “idols” (Idole), as he called their sculptures, were a “visible expression of an invisible idea”, “a personification of an abstract term”. He also stressed the equality of the art forms from different times and regions. For example, Macke valued bronze works from the kingdom of Benin, in what is today Nigeria, and other ethnographic works, because they are just as expressive as a grave marker in the cathedral at Frankfurt. To demonstrate this non-hierarchical attitude to art from different regions and times, Marc and Kandinsky placed two photographs side by side on a double page in the almanac – on one side the Gothic figure of a knight, and on the other a bronze plaque showing a soldier from the kingdom of Benin, which also was in the collection of the Munich ethnological museum by then.

 

The later fame of the almanac, and of its publishers Kandinsky and Marc as artists, led to the wooden sculpture being named “The Blue Rider Post” in the narrative of the museum.

 

It is significant for global art history dominated by the Global North that, in contrast to our broad knowledge in respect of the European admirers of this object, very little is known about its original local context in the Global South. The state of our knowledge concerning its producer(s), its patron(s), its use, its specific place of origin, the meaning of special forms, colours, figures or gestures sculptured is poor. There are two reasons for this. First, in the Global North, there has been little interest in investigating its local context. Second, it is actually very difficult to carry out such investigations in respect of such badly documented early works in ethnological museums. To unfold these difficulties: the common method used to trace the local context of poorly recorded works is to look for stylistic similarities and ethnological background information concerning comparable objects in other collections or publications. Spending long periods doing fieldwork in the place of origin is too time- and money-consuming, as there are numerous badly recorded objects, especially in the early ethnological collections. Moreover, in the Forest region of East Cameroon, the assumed place of origin, there are numerous small ethnic communities which have been inadequately studied. Thus the poor results of previous research in the Global North are the following: The sculpted post is valued as unique in ethnological and art publications. Only single figures and their gestures show similarities with a few other objects in collections of the Global North. The current suggested origin of this carved work in view of these stylistic similarities is among the Lundu or Mbo people in the Forest region in East Cameroon. There it was probably used in a cult.

 

A new approach has been made possible by a provenance research project of the Museum Fünf Kontinente, funded by the German Lost Art Foundation and the Bavarian State Ministry for Science and Art. In collaboration with scholars from Cameroun and the presumed source communities, members of the project are exploring the provenance and the local context of this special Cameroonian wooden block, as well as the whole collection from the German colony of Cameroon donated by Max von Stetten to the museum between 1893 and 1896. Hopefully the blank sheet regarding the original context of this wooden block will be filled.

 

 

 

References

  • Eisenhofer, Stefan (2009): Kulthauspfosten (?). In: Bujok, Elke (ed.): Der Blaue Reiter und das Münchner Völkerkundemuseums. Staatliches Museum für Völkerkunde München, Hirmer, München. S. 16-18
  • Erling, Katharina (2000): Der Almanach Der Blaue Reiter. In: Hopfengart, Christine (ed.): Der Blaue Reiter. Bremen, Köln. S. 188-240.
  • Kecskési, Maria (1999): Skulptierter Holzblock. In: Kecskési, Maria (Hg.): Kunst aus Afrika. Museum für Völkerkunde München. Prestel, Munich, London, New York. S. 116.
  • Kecskési, Maria (1982): Zwei beschnitzte Holzblöcke. In: Kecskési, Maria (ed.): Kunst aus dem Alten Afrika. Pinguin, Innsbruck. S. 238-239, 72.
  • Macke, August (1912): Die Masken. In: Kandinsky, Wassily/ Marc, Franz: Der Blaue Reiter. Piper, Munich. S. S. 53-59.
  • Marc, Franz and Kandinsky, Wassily (eds) (1912): Der Blaue Reiter. Piper. Munich.