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review 2018-11-17 13:33
Beyond Compare: Art from Africa in the Bode Museum, Chapuis, Ivanov, Fine (Eds.)
Beyond compare: Art from Africa in the Bode Museum - Paola Ivanov,Julien Chapuis,Jonathan Fine

This is an excellent book in every respect: high quality photography and printing. Extremely good scholarship and writing. Based on a conceptually unique exhibition (at least to my knowledge) of fascinating and uniformly high quality pieces and - in the case of the African objects - of a tradition rarely seen in Western art galleries. The idea of juxtaposing African and European artistic objects - mainly "sculptures" but see below turns out to have been a stroke of genius.

 

The Introduction is extremely thought provoking across a range of topics, including: Euro-centric views of art history (and just history in toto); how the context in which objects are viewed influences our attitudes to and interpretations of them; how our biases about the originating cultures influence our attitudes to artistic objects.

 

Expanding on some of these, African art was long considered a largely irrelevant distraction from the main thread of artistic development, which is Western, because African art was deemed "primitive" like the African peoples themselves. A view imposed by Westerners with implicit assumptions of cultural and intellectual superiority. Such attitudes are only now being challenged in the context of art and of world history. In fact, this exhibition demonstrates that much African art has been created with as much skill and expressive talent as European masterworks. There is a yawning gulf in a really significant aspect, however: European art from at least the Mediaeval period to the invention of photography can be seen as a continuous quest for the most convincingly realistic representation of the chosen subject matter. African art simply could not care less about this. Absolutely none of the African items in this book are focused on realism. They are often highly abstract, though still clearly representational, and have a symbolic aspect and emotional impact that belie the idea of "primitiveness." These works aimed to achieve certain goals and strike their marks - but realism just isn't one of these goals. This seems to have been viewed as some kind of failure by Europeans at the same time as people were collecting spectacular objects because of their rarity and exoticism.

The context an object is seen in affects our perception of it: Most of the African items come from an "Ethnological" Museum, whilst most of the European ones are held by a Fine Art Museum. This radically affects our attitudes towards them but neither is the context intended by the artists: most of these objects were intended for religious or ceremonial use, not passive observation in any kind of musuem display, along with written contextualisation. Hence are they really sculptures in the conventional modern sense? There are, however numerous other points of comparison and contrast shown up by the juxtapositions and discussed in detail by the editors.

 

For me, the African art proved much more interesting and affecting than the European in the large majority of cases. I can identify several reasons for this: unfamiliarity (I've seen very little African art); avoidance of realism (making the human figures in particular much more emotionally expressive than their European counterparts); different beauty standards (e.g. deliberate scarifications for both men and women); a seemingly wider lexicon of iconography (Mediaeval European art strikes me as heavily bound up with a quite narrow range of basic Christian icons e.g. the Madonna and Child, that, due to endless repitition with little variation have turned into empty cliches. The much rarer imagery such as fantastical depictions of Hell and demons hold way more power.) In the case of the African objects shown here, obvious genres are still readilly identifiable but because of the lack of realism and the much broader range of basic icons (large numbers of different supernatural entities, rulers and ancestors) there is much greater scope even within a specific genre such as spiritual masks, power figures or ceremonial chairs.

 

Over all, the most challenging and rewarding art book I've ever read!

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text 2018-11-15 09:20
Reading progress update: I've read 193 out of 216 pages.
Beyond compare: Art from Africa in the Bode Museum - Paola Ivanov,Julien Chapuis,Jonathan Fine

Heads: Benin Kingdom head sculptures were (deliberately?) mis-interpreted as representing human sacrifices - in reality they are another genre of ancestor veneration. On the other hand, John the Baptist's head on a plate represents a real execution. There's an irony here...

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text 2018-11-14 09:57
Reading progress update: I've read 184 out of 216 pages.
Beyond compare: Art from Africa in the Bode Museum - Paola Ivanov,Julien Chapuis,Jonathan Fine

Hair: An African wooden portrait-statuette but using real hair for the - hair! Possibly the hair of the person the statuette represents. Yet another Madonna and Child. This one with startling curly locks as a prominent feature. There's a tiny chamber for holding relics - possibly a lock of hair?

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text 2018-10-27 13:40
Reading progress update: I've read 137 out of 216 pages.
Beyond compare: Art from Africa in the Bode Museum - Paola Ivanov,Julien Chapuis,Jonathan Fine

The technique of lost-wax casting of bronze was developed independently in Europe and Africa.  Owning bronze statuettes was a status symbol as the technique was difficult and expensive.

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text 2018-10-23 23:19
Reading progress update: I've read 128 out of 216 pages.
Beyond compare: Art from Africa in the Bode Museum - Paola Ivanov,Julien Chapuis,Jonathan Fine

Absolutely amazing  Ndunga mask similar to the one shown on this page:

http://raai.library.yale.edu/site/index.php?globalnav=image_detail&image_id=877

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