In the Michael C. Rockefeller Wing at the Metropolitan Museum you’ll find a tiny African copper relief that probably predates, and would surely have awed, the great Lorenzo Ghiberti. You’ll encounter a bust of a Nigerian beauty to rival Nefertiti; an Oceanic Apollo with the physique of an Olympian; and a Micronesian statuette that is, with its stacks of faceted planes, Brancusi before Brancusi.
These objects, along with 32 others, make up the exhibition called “African and Oceanic Art From the Barbier-Mueller Museum, Geneva: A Legacy of Collecting.” The show, an unabashed masterpiece display, is not only a gold mine of historical data and a connoisseur’s delight, but also a reminder of how perceptions evolve — a mere few decades ago everything here was referred to as “primitive art.”
This was a capacious category. It covered African, Oceanic and North American Indian material, as well as Pre-Columbian art from Central and South America and all things “tribal” from everywhere else. Only fairly recently have the political dimensions of “primitive” begun to be fully sorted out and reckoned with.
Meanwhile, long-established museum collections built on that catch-all concept are still with us, changed now in their thinking if not necessarily in their form.
The Barbier-Mueller Museum represents one such collection; the Rockefeller Wing, with origins in Nelson A. Rockefeller’s 1957 Museum of Primitive Art, another. At the Met the two converge, complementing and extending each other. In one sense the result is an old-fashioned sampler display of one-tribe-one-style sculptural types: a classic reliquary figure from Gabon; a textbook New Ireland mask; and so on.
At the same time, by bringing certain comparable pieces from two different collections together, the show is an invitation to alter our habits of looking. We are encouraged to retain a sense of the context and history of objects, but to pay more than usual attention to interpretive inventiveness and formal finesse: in short, to get a sense of the many things that “great” in art based on non-Western models can mean.
In the Barbier-Mueller exhibition that spectrum is wide and deep. The collection was started in the early 20th century by Josef Mueller (1887-1977), the son of a Swiss industrialist. A young man with a hankering for the vie de bohème, he moved to Paris in 1907. Not being an artist himself, he became a collector, buying Picassos hot from the studio, and in due course buying what Picasso was buying: African and Oceanic art.