Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Art of Darkness: Revisiting Belgium's colonial past in ivory-based sculpture

Good to see the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds has launched an exhibition — Heart of Darkness: Ivory Carving and Belgian Colonialism — which looks again at the links between Belgian ivory-based Art Nouveau objects made in the 1890s and the annexation of the Congo by King Leopold II.

I say 'again' because I published on this topic in 'Taming the Tusk: The revival of chryselephantine sculpture in Belgium during the 1890s' in Colonialism and the Object: Empire, Material Culture and the Museum (Routledge, 1998).

The exhibition's accompanying pamphlet succeeds in fine-tuning the existing research. It's a fascinating topic which deserves the glossing brought by curators Martina Droth of the Henry Moore Institute and Sébastien Clerbois of the Université libre de Bruxelles.

By and large they have done a very good job in pushing the subject back up the sculptural agenda and it's made me re-think certain issues around cultural heritage more generally, but more particularly where Africa is concerned. The Eastern Congo is currently the most dangerous place on earth and today one can't help seeing the shadow of King Leopold II still lengthening over that benighted place.

The Leeds exhibition focuses, as did my Routledge text, on the strangely benign-looking Art Nouveau objects fashioned by Belgian artists from ivory plundered from the Congo, at that time King Leopold's privately-owned domain. However, one or two issues in the Leeds exhibition text seem worth addressing. The catalogue reads:

"In the works presented in Tervuren [at the 1897 Brussels Universal Exhibition], the ivory 'loses' its African memory. Only the central parts of the tusks are worked, often in relief, hiding, without exception [my emphasis] the original form of the tusk."

This is not quite correct and the implications are important. One of the most significant objects shown at the Tervuren Exhibition was an ivory and bronze work by the Belgian sculptor/jeweller Philippe Wolfers, entitled La Caresse du Cygne, (left), which incorporates a whole tusk. Indeed so eloquently does this object speak of the direct connection between Belgian art nouveau and the colonial origins of the material from which it was made that our Routledge editors selected it as the front cover image of our book on colonialism and the decorative arts referred to above.

A photograph of the Salon d'Honneur at the 1897 Tervuren Exhibition (right) clearly shows the Wolfers work displayed in the centre of the room. The Belgian Symbolist artist Fernand Khnopff (who contributed his own bronze and ivory works to the 1894 Antwerp Exhibition three years earlier), revealed that on that occasion,

"The more enterprising sculptors had their names registered, in order to secure picked sections of ivory, in which the grain is more compact and tougher than in the Indian variety, and the dimensions more suitable for statues; in fact, some of the exhibits reached unusual proportions, being the magnitude of the great African elephants' tusks." (The Studio, Vol IV: 150-1)

The Henry Moore Institute exhibition seems chiefly concerned with the 1897 Exhibition, which is understandable since this marked the highpoint of Belgian sculptors' involvement with ivory. Belgian architect Paul Hankar's design for a screen for the salle d'ethnographie at the 1897 exhibition (left) reveals that far from losing its African memory, ivory was always very much centre stage in its original tusk form.

The earlier exhibition in Antwerp in 1894 had already set a precedent in this regard. On that occasion, ivory tusks could not have been more central to the displays as the rather poor photograph of the staircase reveals (right). As I wrote in my Routledge chapter, "A raw tusk ensnared by tendrils functions as a neat visual metaphor for Leopold's contemporary preoccupations. Furthermore, the location of the tusk at the end of the handrail clearly invites active engagement, foregrounding its tactile qualities and incorporating them into the felt physical experience of the exhibition flâneur."

The Henry Moore pamphlet goes on to suggest: "A critical examination must allow for the possibility of clearing the collective memory and for seeing these sculptures as ignorant of the colonial context." I'm not sure what this sentence means, but the writers go on to confirm that "press of the period shows that a knowledge of reality did exist." To this end they quote The Patriot newspaper of 1897 referring to the exhibition as a "cunning project" and that the connection between the European work and the Congolese enterprise would be "effaced by the context of art." (See my Routledge text for comprehensive background to this process of "effacement".) In any event, Fernand Khnopff had already written in 1894:

"The Brussels Art Club recently conceived the excellent idea of giving adequate reception to the chryselephantine sculptures, which figured at the International Exhibition at Antwerp rather as products of the Congo than as objets d'art." (The Studio, 1894, p150).

Now all I need to do is find the hundreds of pounds required to take a train trip to Leeds for a day. That said, the Henry Moore Institute newsletter which arrived this morning suggests there are only four works on display in the Leeds show, which is disappointing. I wonder if they tried to borrow George Frampton's haunting Lamia (left) from the Royal Academy, which is a British bronze and ivory work that hints at potentially fascinating links with the Belgian Symbolists.

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