The Madeleine Meunier Collection: Part I

The Fabulous Guard of Aristide Courtois'
and Charles Ratton's Treasures

November 24, 2016 By: Aurore Krier-Mariani

Near half a century later, Madeleine Meunier’s incredible and inescapable tribal art collection will be back on the market. The Paris auction, held by Christie’s and Millon on 15 December, at the Hotel Drouot is set to be the highlight of the 2016 tribal art calendar.

Madeleine Meunier, an elegant, vibrant, stirring and inquisitive woman, was married successively to two legendary figures—two of the greatest early French tribal art collectors—who played a pioneering role in defining the field of classic African art. Much more than simple collectors, Aristide Courtois and Charles Ratton contributed to the knowledge, development and consideration of tribal art.

Aristide Courtois, a french colonial administrator in the Democratic Republic of Congo, travelled extensively to personally acquire refined objects of a masterful technicality. Charles Ratton was one of the most remarkable African art dealers who contributed to the field by highlighting the aesthetic beauty of tribal figures. In 1935, he was instrumental in sourcing a number of African art masterpieces for the seminal exhibition ‘African Negro Art‘ at the Museum of Modern Art of New York.

Their sharpened eye, their recognition of quality objects and their passionate commitment, elevated classic African artefacts to the ranks of art. Indeed all of the 50 pieces of African and Oceanian art which will be offered on at sale have been directly collected by Aristide Courtois during his assignments in the Democratic Republic of Congo, or purchased by Charles Ratton. They built a collection of magnificent quality, for which Madeleine Meunier was the heiress and the fabulous guard. According to Christie’s consultant Pierre Amrouche, Madeleine Meunier wasn’t a collector, “she was rather a curator or a guardian of the treasure” which have been preserved for over forty years in the chests of a bank on the Champs-Elysées.

We spent time with Bruno Claessens, European Head of African & Oceanic Art at Christie’s Paris, to discuss what he views as the interesting lots of the sale that shouldn’t be overlooked. View his selection of rare and fascinating historic pieces.

Lot 12: Fante Figure

Beauty and fertility beaded with abstract features

Fante Akua’Ba Figure
Madeleine Meunier Collection
Fante Akua’Ba Figure
Madeleine Meunier Collection

Country: Ghana
Ethnic Group: Fante
Object: Akua’Ba (Fertility Figure)
Materials: Wood, Fibres, Pearls, Beads
Dimensions: Height = 8 inches
Provenance: Charles Ratton, Paris, France || Madeleine Meunier, Paris, France before 1964
Estimate: $550 – $910

Used by many as a fertility figure, the Fante akua’ba (pl. akua’ma; meaning ‘Akua’s children’) figure is also associated with the cult of child beauty. Across Ashanti and Fante ethnic groups, it is believed that viewing the idealised beauty of this figure favoured the beauty of the child to come. These sacred effigies were carried on the backs of young women before marriage. Enshrouded in their clothes, akua’ma figures also accompanied pregnant women until birth. In all likelihood, this figure did not derogate from the custom and was carried, as evidenced by the hole at the top of the forehead.

Adding to the importance of this figure is the honey-coloured soft wood from which it is carved. From the cylindrical body, stand female breasts represented by two circles carved in relief, and highlighted by a lozenge scarification. The neck is decorated with beaded pearl necklaces (the same beaded amulets—asuman—are worn by Akan priestesses) and supports a rectangular and flat head.

This rare example is distinguished from the classical corpus of Ghana’s akua’ma figures by the stylistic audacity of its geometric features. A remarkable sculptural originality is emphasised by the play of circular and triangular shapes that correspond to the body and the face. Singular and startling, the play between symmetry and asymmetry is also appreciated in her eyes; marked by two prominent croissants, one eye being set with a white pearl and the other with a blue pearl. How can one admire this marvellous sculpture without thinking of cubist artists. Undoubtedly, we know to whom they owe their inspiration of creation.

A similar example from the same workshop, is at the Boulogne-sur-Mer Museum, donated by Mr. Hamilton in 1838.

Lot 21: Baule Statue

Feminine delicacy and refinement

Baule Asie Usu Figure
Madeleine Meunier Collection
Constantin Brancusi, Une Muse, 1912
Fondation Beyeler

Country: Ivory Coast
Ethnic Group: Baule
Object: Asie Usu (Bush Spirit Figure)
Materials: Wood, Beads, Bronze
Dimensions: Height = 14.5 inches
Provenance: Charles Ratton, Paris, France || Madeleine Meunier, Paris, France before 1964
Estimate: $3,400 – $5,700

Women hold a primordial place in Baule society; they guarantee lineage continuity, they symbolise nourishment, abundance and stability and as such are associated with the fertility of the land. This symbolic importance explains the strong position of the female representation in Baule statuary, and the ideal women embody.

Remarkable for its elegance and exceptional naturalism, this statute embodies a ‘bush spirit’, an asie usu, consulted during divination to understand the cause of problems or misfortunes faced by a diviner’s clients. Madeleine Meunier’s asie usu figure represents the most advanced expression of Baule traditional statuary, which is further enhanced by the ornamentation details. It demonstrates a stylistic freedom animated by its naturalistic face and fluid limbs. The oversized hands, with tapered fingers settled on the scarified belly strengthen the symbolism of fecundity. Her hieratic position encamped on slightly bent legs, as well as her jewellery—anklet bracelets, belts and necklace of white and emerald green beads—accentuate her dignified and serene presence and give the assurance of a woman of high lineage.

The rhythm of the figure’s curves, of its round calves (corresponding to the criteria of ideal Baule beauty), of its bulging belly, of the perfection of its oval face, arched hairline and the top of its rounded bun, confer an incredible sweetness, a deep internal fullness—similar to the famous muse of Brancusi.

Her very beautiful crusty patina from use and her face full of spirituality covered with ointments indicate that the asie usu bush spirit was consulted and venerated over many years.

Lot 41: Vili Figure

Magic to protect the living

Vili Nsiba Whistle Finial
Madeleine Meunier Collection

Country: Democratic Republic of Congo
Ethnic Group: Vili
Object: Nsiba (Divination Whistle Finial)
Materials: Wood, Glass
Dimensions: Height = 3.75 inches
Provenance: Charles Ratton, Paris, France || Madeleine Meunier, Paris, France before 1964
Estimate: $3,400 – $5,700

When mystical magic combines with masterly sculptural technique, they offer us small and delicate masterpieces such as this superb feminine whistle, with the characteristic features of Kongo canons.

Known locally as an nsiba, according to A. Lecomte, R. Lehuard and B. Södernerg in their book ‘Les sifflets bakongo’, this Vili divination whistle would have been used by an nganga soothsayer, in conjunction with an nkisi power figure, to call upon ancestors to defend the living against black magic, and provide them with remedies against diseases and misfortune.

Both delicate and subtle but with dazzling precision, this nsiba figure is typical of Vili statuary from the Loango kingdom, which according to Raoul Lehuard (‘Art Bakongo’) follows a style centre known for their “lightness of forms, rhythm and combinations“. The humility of her kneeling posture calls for spiritual introspection. A solemn wisdom is demonstrated by her arms lining her body with hands placed under her shins.

Highlighted by a pronounced eyebrow, her eyes are set with pieces of glass which seem to sound the invisible; they symbolise her clear-sightedness, her power to discern. Carefully carved with skill, her fleshy mouth is closed, and the outline of her ears is doubly accentuated, as if to show that she is listening to the sounds of the world and those of the hereafter. She does not speak but hears and observes in a dignified and solemn static position. The importance of her face is accentuated by her conical headdress; this pointed cap was an attribute reserved for high-ranking members of the community, the chieftainship, as officer Degranpré indicated in 1786 (‘The sculptures of Loango’). The red wood chosen for this small female figure is not coincidental. Red, is in Kongo thought, the symbol of mediation, power and death.

Part II of our analysis of the upcoming Madeleine Meunier Collection auction will feature the two of the top pieces up for sale; the Luba-Shankadi headrest and the Kuyu figure. You can see the full auction catalogue here.

Aurore Krier-Mariani

ÌMỌ̀ DÁRA contributor Aurore Krier-Mariani is an art advisor at AK.A Consulting with a focus on tribal art objects. Her passion for classic African art was born when as a little girl of only seven she saw her first Punu mask and immediately felt its magnetic power. Aurore has been covering the African art industry for over five years including her studies for her Masters of Archeology and Art History, her time at Christie’s African & Oceanic Art department and now as an independent consultant for African art collectors.

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