”When I had found a beautiful African figure, I felt like a hunter that had shot an elephant with a peashooter.”
It was in 1960 in the Swiss town of Aarau that I, for the first time, saw an exhibition in which the sculptor Robert Jacobsen participated. I had previously heard about this Danish artist who lived in France and was known as ‘Le Gros Robert’, but I had never seen his art exhibited in Denmark.
It was during a random encounter in the summer of 1972 at a restaurant at the Copenhagen Airport that I made the personal acquaintance of Robert Jacobsen. He was on his way to Munich where he was the professor at the art academy, and my wife, my son and I were on our way to Iceland for a family visit.
The last thing that Robert said when he was called to the gate was to come and visit him at his studio in Taagelund when he returned from Munich two weeks later.
Our visit took place on a beautiful sunny day in July of the same year, and it was not just the sculptor Robert Jacobsen we visited in his exciting home in the peaceful village of Taagelund, just outside Egtved—it was also a visit to the collector of a multitude of ethnographical objects—Robert Jacobsen in his fabulous universe.
The newly renovated farm-building built around a central courtyard was like a jewel box filled with ethnographical finds—from African masks and figures, Catholic icons, Buddhas from Thailand, Burma and Cambodia, fire gilt lama heads and Avalokiteshvara figures from Tibet, Shiva figures from Sri Lanka, Ganesha elephant gods from India, head pieces from Tibet and Afghanistan, handwoven rugs from Bhutan, Inuit figures from Greenland, antique mugs from Germany to a large collection of ethnographical ornaments.
It was during this first visit to Robert Jacobsen that my interest in ethnographical art was born and I myself became a collector. During the following 20 years, I would visit Robert in Taagelund close to 150 times!
In his youth, Robert Jacobsen was educated at ‘the university of the street’, as he would often joke, and in his mother’s second-hand shop in Copenhagen.
It was not until the beginning of the 1940s that his artistic career would take a serious turn. Before that, he had performed in films, been a jazz musician, a badminton player and played at carving in stone.
A few years after the end of World War II, he went to Paris where he was received by a city in which the carefree mood of former decades had been relieved by poverty and which was still haunted by the depression. Despite this, Paris was still a sought after place for an artist—it was yet an artistic centre with flourishing exhibitions, and Paris became the garden in which Robert Jacobsen’s talent was allowed to grow and bloom, and where he met other young gifted artists such as Jean Dewasne and Deyrolle.
The Danish house of artists—’La Maison des Artistes Danois’—in Suresnes, where Robert Jacobsen lived during the first years of his stay in Paris together with other Danish artists, was in a pitiable state and the conditions were primitive; the heating did not work and the food had to be prepared on the fireplace. Financially his stay hung on a thread for a long time, so to survive Robert Jacobsen had to divide his time between working in his studio and repairing motorbikes.
In January 1948, Robert Jacobsen had his first exhibition at Galerie Denise René. There, he presented his new sculptures, together with other artists such as Arp, Deyrolle, Dewasne, Herbin, Magnelli, Mortensen, Poliakoff, and Vasarely.
In May-June of the same year, he again contributed to an exhibition of sculptures at Galerie Denise René—this time together with Arp, Calder, Domela, Giacometti, Gonzales, Manès, and Picasso among others. Then things progressed quickly—with solo, group and museum exhibitions.
After the first seven to eight years in Paris, his finances were so good that Robert could buy a mansion in Montfermeil and later on, his Château de Courtry!
On Sundays, when he had the time, Robert Jacobsen went to Paris to visit the flea markets, hoping to find good ethnographical objects. He had at some point stated, “A collector is on an eternal hunt for good things, and being a collector is an obsession. When I had found a beautiful African figure, I felt like a hunter that had shot an elephant with a peashooter.”
Furthermore, “Since I had a great need for enjoying the aesthetics of a figure, I would sit up all night just to look at it—a conduct that might make people think that I was some kind of object erotomaniac.“
At this point, it was well-known around Europe that Robert Jacobsen was an insatiable collector of ethnographical objects. This resulted in him being approached by vendors from near and far that wanted to visit him to show what they could offer of magnificent and very ‘rare’ objects. One of the vendors that often approached Robert Jacobsen was his black African ‘brother’, Mon Frère, who claimed to be a Malian prince. When he came to visit, it could take days to agree upon the prices for the various objects.
Between negotiations, Robert would drink coffee and Mon Frère would eat kola nuts, and they would take turns in telling stories about each of their families. One day, Mon Frère told Robert that his grandfather had once killed a man, and the blood from the dead man was white. This was taken as evidence of him being a person with malicious intentions! Robert had difficulties matching this story. They had a wonderful time, and he was a magnificent liar, Robert reported, but he knew exactly when Mon Frère was most mendacious—when he started to swear by the heads of his children.
Today, a large part of Robert Jacobsen’s collection have been scattered to the winds and are now included in renowned collections all over the world. Among others, the town hall in Gladsaxe near Copenhagen can boast quite a large number (239) of masks and figures from West Africa!
It is also quite common at tribal art fairs or auction sales to see masks and figures with ‘Provenance: Robert Jacobsen’ attached and they are often highly priced. Unfortunately, I have also seen this label being abused at auction sales by attaching it to objects that belong to the category of airport souvenirs.
Robert Jacobsen’s path to his final collection went through the building of Musée de l’Hommes at the Place du Trocadéro, on to the flea market, the galleries and the second-hand shops in Paris, to end at his studio. Here, through the inspiration from African art and by using old bicycle chains, cogs, ball bearings, nuts and rusty exhaust pipes—found at the scrap yard—he created figures of an inner richness and a quiet sense of humour.
In an article from 1959, the author Eugène Ionescu wrote, “Once you have experienced the figures of Robert Jacobsen, it is often quite difficult to be moved by the well-known sculptures in marble, bronze or gold. What was previously considered rich and noble now seems to express a superficial richness and fraudulent nobility. The marble and the bronze seem expressionless since Robert Jacobsen has given the scorned and ridiculed material a new greatness!”
In the catalogue for the exhibition ‘The Robert Jacobsen Universe’ at Brandts Klædefabrik in Odense in 1992, Robert also said, “After I met the collector Carl Kjersmeier in 1938-1939, I became very interested in African art. At one time I was also very much into the ethnography of the Pacific. For a time it was Catholic kitsch. But I must admit that I never really took the time to research the things I bought. I am not a stamp collector who bothers about missing perforation or not. When I see an object that I find contains sculptural qualities, I buy it. It is the object itself that is of interest to me, not so much from what it grew. Some collectors take great joy in researching the history of their objects. I, however, have so many doings that I can’t find the time for that—I wouldn’t ever make any art of my own if I did.
“I love looking at my objects. Many times I have made imaginary journeys to visit the tribes they come from and wondered about the people that made them and their often desperate struggle for survival.
“In our time, when the tribes have been more and more influenced by Western standards, their objects have become more and more kitsch-like: They have lost their originality—their magic. Therefore, today I would call most of the newly made masks and figures for economic kitsch!“
In 1963 at the National Museum in Copenhagen, there was an exhibition ‘Negro Sculptures from West Africa’—consisting of 109 sculptures and masks from Robert Jacobsen’s collection.
To a question in the catalogue about why he had begun collecting African sculptures, he responded, “It has actually always been a dream for me. I have always been interested in art related to magic. It invites the imagination just like cave paintings and paintings by e.g. Eiler Bille and Richard Mortensen.
“I buy what I like. I do not employ a certain collector’s technique—I do not look for objects that represent a certain group or type, but I buy the objects that first and foremost appeal to me through their freedom and imagination.
“It is just recently that we have discovered the wealth that is embodied in African sculpture. Previously it was just amusing items and masks—mostly from the Congo. Only now have we learned to appreciate the magical art that is made by the ‘primitive’ peoples of Africa; that is, the peoples that have had the least contact with the civilised world—peoples like the Dogon and the Bobo—and it is amazing what they produce. It is art with the greatest level of pure abstraction.“
From 1962–1981 Robert Jacobsen was a professor at the art academy in Munich and from 1976–1985 at the Royal Danish Art Academy in Copenhagen as well as an honorary professor at the academies in Florence and Munich.
ÌMỌ̀ DÁRA contributor, Leif Birger Holmstedt is a designer, collector, and author of books including 'African Masks' Borgen 2003 and 'Magic Masks and Figures from Greenland' Borgen 2008. Leif Birger Holmstedt has also authored a number of ethnographic articles.