Aborigines, Art, France: History in Review (Part 1)


A few weeks ago Fred Myers, the author of Painting Culture: the making of an Aboriginal high art, sent me a copy of an article that he had published in the journal Ethnos (v. 63, no 1, 1998, pp. 7-47) entitled “Uncertain Regard: an exhibition of Aboriginal art in France.” Given all that’s been written (and said) lately about the Franco-Australian collaboration on the Australian Indigenous Art Commission (AIAC) for the curatorial building at the Musee du Quai Branly (MQB), I found this piece of scholarship to be both fascinating and invaluable for providing the historical context for the events of last June. Like many people I had watched with fascination the planning for the new museum, the unfolding of the work for the Commission, and the controversy surrounding the opening. And like many people, I was unaware of the events of a prior decade that inform much of what has recently come to fruition.

In subsequent research I turned up a second article, ”Quai Branly museum: representing France after empire” by Sarah Amato, published this year in Race & Class (v.47, no 4, 2006, pp. 46-65). Myers’ article deals generally with the reception of Aboriginal art in France during the 80s and 90s, and is particularly concerned with the manner in which objects are collected, circulated, and defined in the contexts of museum exhibitions and politics. Amato’s article looks closely at the politics of aesthetics and ethnography that underlie the genesis of the Quai Branly project, but has little to say about the Aboriginal component: fair enough since her history deals with the years 1996-2001. It extends the time period covered by Myers, but stops before the Australian Indigenous Art Commission undertook its work in 2003. 

In an earlier post about the Commission, I remarked in jest that Australia and France hadn’t betrayed much intercultural interest since LaPerouse sailed out of Botany Bay in 1788, leaving the continent to the depredations of the English colonizers. I was ignoring, of course, the activities of Karel Kupka, whose collection of barks, donated to the Musee National des Arts d’Afrique et d’Oceanie (MNAAO) in 1964, is now partially on display in the new MQB; forgetting about other exhibitions in Paris that had included Aboriginal art; and displaying a startling lack of curiosity about the origins of the collection of contemporary acrylic, bark, and ochre paintings that complement Kupka’s barks in the new museum. Given a refresher course on the aesthetic politics of French interest in indigenous Australian art, I’m now thinking that the Musee du Quai Branly seems to be not so much a radical new undertaking as the logical outgrowth of two decades of curatorial interest on the part of the French.

The collections of the Musee du Quai Branly derive from those of two older museums, the MNAAO and the Musee de l’Homme (Museum of Mankind), both of which were established in Paris during the 1930s. The Musee de l’Homme was devoted to natural history, evolution, and physical anthropology, as well as the cultural and social aspects of human nature. The MNAAO was the repository of a great many cultural artifacts that had come back to France as the result of collecting activities in its overseas colonies. Its opening, in fact, grew out of Exposition coloniale internationale of 1931, designed to celebrate the vast empire France oversaw at the end of the Great War, and to celebrate equally the civilizing influence of the great colonial powers. 

A third repository in Paris for works from other cultures is, of course, the Louvre, with its substantial holdings of ancient art from Egypt, Greece, and Rome. French President Jacques Chirac, amateur of ethnographic and “first nation” arts, had argued for the display of materials from the MNAAO and the MH in the Louvre, but was faced with ideological objections from the curators. Amato, referring an earlier study by Carol Duncan, notes, “The [French] state employed the Louvre as an ideological instrument to provide a master narrative which installed French art as the final product of an artistic development that began with Greece and Egypt, reawakened in the Renaissance and flowered in nineteenth-century France” (Amato, p. 53). Chirac’s desire to see the art “shoulder to shoulder” with this tradition (Amato, p. 47) flew in the face not only of the Louvre’s self-image, but also of a long French intellectual pre-occupation with “l’autre,” the other, that which is culturally exotic, far-off, and fundamentally, un-French.

Out of the intersection of the histories of these three museums, Chirac’s interest, and the growing need to repudiate the history of colonialism and Western cultural hegemony (at least in some quarters) came the agenda that resulted in the Musee du Quai Branly. In this post I’d like to mine the essays by Myers and Amato for some understanding of the position of Aboriginal art in Paris, and in the MQB, by taking a look through the pages of the history of exhibitions of Aboriginal art in France, starting with the collecting activity of Karel Kupka and the barks which form an important thread throughout that story where the themes of creativity and ethnography—fine art and anthropology—are closely entwined.

Karel Kupka’s Contributions

Karel Kupka made four trips to Australia, in particular to Arnhem Land, between 1950 and 1963 seeking to discover there, in a culture almost completely untouched by modernity, practicing artists whose work could shed light on the universal origins of the artistic impulse in mankind. Two of these trips were made on behalf of the Basle Ethnographical Museum, which was the recipient of many of the bark paintings Kupka brought back with him in the interest of preserving them for future generations. His 1963 collecting trip was financed by the MNAAO and by Kupka himself. He received additional funding from Australian Prime Minister Menzies under a budget prepared just prior to the opening of the Australian Institute for Aboriginal Studies (AIAS) in 1964. In an early instance of Franco-Australian tensions over Aboriginal art, Kupka fell out with the AIAS; the dispute was resolved when Kupka divided his acquisitions between the National Museum of Australia and the MNAAO, but public criticism of Kupka, some by prominent scholars like R. M. Berndt and W. E. H. Stanner, meant that the remainder of Kupka’s public involvement with Aboriginal art was centered in Europe and not in Australia (McMillan, pp. 194-5).

Two years before his gift to the MNAAO, Kupka published a monograph on his research entitled Un Art a l’Etat Brut (Guilde du Livre/Editions Clairefontaine, 1962), which was translated into English as Dawn of Art. Significantly, as Myers points out, the Preface was written by the Surrealist Andre Breton. Breton spoke eloquently of the importance of the immediate perception of the work of art, without explication or other academic distortions, to the appreciation of the object. (This lack of mediation was echoed in the English edition by the translator, who included Breton’s original French, along with a note on the impossibility of translating the poet’s voice.) Kupka reinforced this notion in his first chapter when he detailed his search for the “origins” of the artistic impulse and located its best laboratory in Arnhem Land. It was here, he said, that the primitive impulse to art was least contaminated by Western incursion, and he urged that all care be taken to keep it thus. The notion of Aboriginal art as the product of a static culture was essential to his researches; when he admits of change he speaks of “consolidation” rather than “progress” (Kupka, Dawn, p. 161)

Kupka did not adhere too strictly to Breton’s notion of the unexplicated aesthetic experience. There is of necessity much historical and ethnographic material in the book. He provides basic cultural information in his introductory chapters, and descriptive chapters on bark painting, figurative painting, ornamental painting and sculpture. The major chapter, on “symbolic” painting, recounts a number of representative Dreamtime stories, which are illustrated by color plates. Still the presentation of the art does tilt toward an unmediated appreciation: the plates are interspersed throughout the text without captions, sometimes dozens of pages intervening between the text and the illustration. Plates are “numbered” as pages of the text, although page numbers do not appear on them. Captions, which include when possible the name of the artist and his clan, along the size, date, and provenance of the work, appear on fold-out pages at the rear of the book accompanying small reproductions of the plates. Thus the overall effect of the presentation is to rupture the link between the images and the explanatory text.

In 1968, Kupka received a doctorate in Ethnology from the Sorbonne. His thesis was published in 1972 by the Musee de l’Homme as Peintres Aborigenes d’Australie (Aboriginal Painters of Australia). The foundation of the thesis was the collection of the 255 works that Kupka collected for the MNAAO, and the publication contains over 100 pages of plates which reproduce these works. Interestingly, the preface to this publication begins with the simple sentence, “Karel Kupka est peintre”: “Karel Kupka is a painter.” But this is indeed an ethnographic study of the subject, in which Kupka the anthropologist focused on the “vocation and profession” of the indigenous painter in Aboriginal society. In his conclusion he notes that the analytic study of “primitive” Australian painting (the quotation marks are Kupka’s) has barely begun, and urges that the task of identifying individual painters and documenting their work being carried out with a sense of urgency in the face of the “latent destruction of the traditional aboriginal society” (Kupka, Peintres, p. 112).

Kupka’s collecting and scholarship, to that point in time probably the most significant exposition of Aboriginal art to the French public, thus presents in itself several critical themes important to an understanding of the reception of Aboriginal art in France. To begin, we must understand Kupka’s work as part of a larger French study of the “primitive,” whose most important theorist is Claude Levi-Strauss. I don’t mean to imply a strict consonance in their works and theories, but rather to emphasize that in French thought, the primitive, the “other,” and especially the means of symbolic communication provide important signposts to an understanding of culture. Levi-Strauss was involved in the early history of the Musee de l’Homme, and spent the war years in New York City where he studied and theorized on the Native American art housed in the American Museum of Natural History. (For a fascinating account of this work, and an excellent, brief introduction to Levi-Strauss’s methodology, have a look at Thomas Crow’s essay “A Forest of Symbols in Wartime New York” in The Intelligence of Art.) His most influential work, La Pensee Sauvage (The Savage Mind) was published in the same year as Kupka’s Dawn of Art.

Further, Kupka’s publications present the notion of art as a key not to just an ethnographic puzzle–how they inform an understanding of indigenous Australian culture–but to culture on a broader plane. As Myers points out, “Breton’s patronage of Kupka is significant, making clear a supposed affinity between Aboriginal art as a supposedly originary form of (all) human art and Surrealism’s goal of recovering the expression of emotion and the deeper structures of the unconscious in dreams” (Myers, p.15). “Direct contact” with the work of art is paramount. Here is an excerpt form Breton’s Preface:

Should the untutored eye, by which I mean the eye uninformed about what is to confront it, the eye uninfluenced by the Occidental “way of seeing” that for centuries has been the conditioning influence, be allowed to wander over these bark paintings brought from far-off Arnhem Land, it will find its reward first and foremost in their exemplary harmony. Long before delving into the intentions that lie behind them, it will be enchanted by the heaven-sent unity that binds together their component elements. … Before this investigation, and after, too, what counts most is the intimate, personal reaction: if this does not exist at the outset one is irremediably ill-equipped, and nothing that can be learnt can replace it should one lose it along that way. [Emphasis mine]

To summarize, there are three important threads here: the French experience of “the other”; the importance of the unmediated reception of the work of art; and the ultimately ethnographic element, by which is meant the understanding of the work of art as an expression of the “other.” As Kupka’s collection, and indeed most indigenous non-Western art in Paris was housed in ethnographic museums, this is an important point to consider in interpreting its reception.

(A complete list of bibliographical references will be published with Part 4)

Continue to Part 2

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