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Celebrating 40 years of one of the world’s pre-eminent collections of tribal art

​The Barbier-Mueller Museum in Geneva houses thousands of pieces from around the world, and is marking four decades since its opening with three major exhibitions. Museum Director Laurence Mattet explains the thinking behind them

Founded in 1977, the Barbier-Mueller Museum in Geneva today boasts the world’s pre-eminent collection of tribal art in private hands. Among its 7,000 or so pieces are textiles, sculptures, masks and body adornments from around the globe.

The museum has its roots in the life of Josef Mueller, born in 1887 in Solothurn in German-speaking Switzerland. Exactly 110 years ago, in 1907, Mueller bought his first painting, Fillette à la capucine  by the Swiss painter Cuno Amiet. By 1918 he had acquired seven paintings by Cézanne, five each by Matisse and Renoir, and additional works by Picasso and Braque. Alongside these, he began to develop an extensive holding of so-called ‘primitive’ art, which would eventually include pieces from every continent. 

‘It was assumed that Mueller would take over the family business,’ says Laurence Mattet, director of the Barbier-Mueller Museum. ‘Nothing indicated that he would become one of the world’s most important collectors of African art.’

Kplekple bla face mask, from Côte d’Ivoire, to be exhibited at the Musée des Confluences, Lyon. Credit Studio Ferrazzini Bouchet–Musée Barbier-Mueller
Kplekple bla face mask, from Côte d’Ivoire, to be exhibited at the Musée des Confluences, Lyon. Credit Studio Ferrazzini Bouchet–Musée Barbier-Mueller

In the 1950s, Mueller’s daughter Monique married Jean Paul Barbier Barbier’s library of fine editions of French renaissance poetry was already well underway.

Barbier was also very interested in ancient art and particularly in the art of the Eurasian Steppes. The Barbier and Mueller collections were subsequently blended and rounded out under Barbier’s careful direction.

The Barbier-Mueller Museum opened just months after Mueller’s death in 1977. (With Monique, Barbier also contributed significantly to the founding of the Musée du quai Branly – Jacques Chirac in Paris, donating thousands of objects.) Today, in addition to its permanent holdings, the Barbier-Mueller Museum mounts two exhibitions per year, sourced from its own collections.

This year, to jointly celebrate the 40th anniversary of the museum’s founding and the 110th anniversary of Mueller’s first acquisitions, the Barbier-Mueller Museum has prepared three exceptional exhibits. An Exhibition Outside the Museum's Walls, which opened in January, sees key pieces from the collection displayed at 18 Swiss and four French museums. The aim, says Mattet, is to ‘allow our collection to be seen by new audiences.’ 

Curators from the collaborating institutions were asked to choose pieces from the Barbier-Mueller Museum that had a particular resonance with their own collections, and craft an exhibit around them. ‘These pieces,’ explains Mattet, ‘disclose links between the museums, their collections or exhibitions and the Barbier-Mueller collection.’

Face mask on display at the Fondation de l’Hermitage in Lausanne until 15 August. Republic of Congo, Teke, Tsaayi subgroup. 19th century. Polychromous lightwood. Former André Derain, Charles Ratton and Josef Mueller collections. Musée Barbier-Mueller, photo Studio Ferrazzini-Bouchet
Face mask on display at the Fondation de l’Hermitage in Lausanne until 15 August. Republic of Congo, Teke, Tsaayi subgroup. 19th century. Polychromous lightwood. Former André Derain, Charles Ratton and Josef Mueller collections. Musée Barbier-Mueller, photo: Studio Ferrazzini-Bouchet

Among the selections are a 19th-century Teke-Tsaayi mask, above, which once belonged to André Derain, the co-founder of Fauvism. This piece, which the artist once described as ‘mind-boggling’ and ‘terrifying in its expression’, will be on display until 15 August at the Fondation de l’Hermitage in Lausanne, alongside Derain’s 1904-05 painting The Table.

Female figure with folded arms, Greece, Cycladic period, circa 2300-2200 BC. To be displayed at the Musée Ariana, Geneva. Credit Studio Ferrazzini Bouchet–Musée Barbier-Mueller

Female figure with folded arms, Greece, Cycladic period, circa 2300-2200 BC. To be displayed at the Musée Ariana, Geneva. Credit: Studio Ferrazzini Bouchet–Musée Barbier-Mueller

Other selected works include a group of stone sculptures with stylised faces, probably from Burgundy or the Auvergne, which fascinated French artist Jean Dubuffet. These so-called Vendée stones are being displayed until 7 May at the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Geneva, alongside a gouache by Dubuffet. 

Additional pieces on loan include exceptional Dong Son bronzes from North Vietnam (7th century BC-2nd century AD); a female figurine from Mehrgarh (present-day Pakistan) dating to the third millennium BC; and two masks from New Ireland, in Papua New Guinea. Mattet stresses that this practice of sending its collection around the globe ‘is central to the museum’s philosophy’. 

The second 40th-anniversary exhibit, Six Thousand Years of Receptacles, from 17 May, provides an extensive overview of tableware throughout history. Finally, from 12 to 18 September, the museum will be a guest of honour at the Biennial Antiques Fair at the Grand Palais in Paris. The Barbier-Mueller Collection: A Hundred-Year-Old Passion, will offer ‘a unique opportunity for the public to discover the diversity of tastes that contributed to building this collection over the course of four generations,’ explains Mattet.

Works from the Barbier-Mueller Museum on display at the Musée d’Ethnographie de Genève, as part of Exhibition Outside the Museum’s Walls. Credit Johnathan Watts

Works from the Barbier-Mueller Museum on display at the Musée d’Ethnographie de Genève, as part of Exhibition Outside the Museum’s Walls. Credit: Johnathan Watts

The mission of the Barbier-Mueller Museum extends beyond art. In partnership with Vacheron-Constantin, the Museum has established a foundation that sends researchers around the world to study cultures that are on the verge of disappearing.

‘At the museum, we are not only interested in objects,’ explains Mattet. ‘We are trying to help preserve the memory of a wide range of peoples, which is often fast disappearing.’ The foundation’s anthropologists have reported on cultures including, among others, the Gan of Burkina Faso; the Yaure from the Cote d’Ivoire and the Na, from Yunnan and Sichuan, in China. The forthcoming foundation’s publication is on the Kararaô from Central Brazil.

An Ōitaragainari kawari kabuto (elaborate shell-shaped helmet) from Japan, Early Edo period, 17th century. To be exhibited at Biennal des Antiquaires in Paris. Iron, lacing, papier-mâché. © The Ann & Gabriel Barbier-Mueller Museum, Dallas. Credit Brad Flowers
An Ōitaragainari kawari kabuto (elaborate shell-shaped helmet) from Japan, Early Edo period, 17th century. To be exhibited at Biennal des Antiquaires in Paris. Iron, lacing, papier-mâché. © The Ann & Gabriel Barbier-Mueller Museum, Dallas. Credit: Brad Flowers

‘When Josef Mueller began to collect African art he was very frustrated that what was then known as “primitive” art was not taken seriously by his contemporaries,’ Mattet concludes. ‘It wasn’t even considered art, but rather “artisanal”. Today, the public has become conscious that it is every bit as significant as painting and other Western art forms. Tribal art has finally found its place.’