To celebrate the 40th birthday of the Musée Barbier-Mueller, the Biennale Paris is welcoming a selection of 130 works from this Swiss family’s personal collections. An opportunity to retrace a passion and a saga.
For the Barbier-Muellers, collecting is part of the family history… It started off with the grandfather, Josef Mueller, then continued with the mother, Monique, the father, Jean Paul Barbier-Mueller, and today the three sons, Gabriel, Stéphane, Thierry, as well as Diane, one of the granddaughters. Four generations of collectors that the Biennale Paris has chosen to honour through a selection of works from their collection, some of which have never been unveiled to the public. “The idea was to set up a dialogue between major pieces from four generations of collectors with very different tastes by recreating the atmosphere of Josef Mueller’s apartment, where modern paintings stood alongside primitive-art objects,” is the way that Laurence Mattet, director of the Musée Barbier-Mueller in Geneva, puts it. Sculptures and contemporary paintings thus brush shoulders with Japanese weaponry and art objects from Africa, Oceania and Antiquity. This year’s event is also an opportunity to pay homage to Jean Paul Barbier-Mueller, who passed away last December at the age of 86 years, and whose name is associated with the largest private collection of primitive art – a collection which comprises 7000 objects, masks, ceramics, textiles, weapons, chairs… all originating from Africa, the Americas, Asia and Oceania, as well as tribal and classical Antiquity pieces.
The Barbier-Mueller collection took off in Switzerland a little over 110 years ago. First of all, via Josef Mueller, the son of a bourgeois family from Soleure, who became an orphan at the age of six years. Josef fell “in love” with a portrait of a woman from Picasso’s Pink Period, which he saw on display at the home of a schoolmate. From that time onward, the young boy would do everything he could to meet the artists of his time. He was only 20 years old when he purchased a work by Cuno Amiet, then another by Ferdinand Hodler. In 1917, he had already notched up an impressive list of acquisitions: seven Cézannes, five Matisses and as many Renoirs, not to mention Picassos and Braques. After settling in Paris, he discovered a type of art for which he was yet to gain renown: the art of so-called “primitive” peoples. He thus acquired his first objects from Africa and Oceania, including a female statuette from Guinea that once belonged to painter Maurice de Vlaminck, or else a Gabonese Kwele mask purchased from Tristan Tzara… “Josef Mueller followed his heart. He didn’t care much about the piece’s provenance or function,” continues Laurence Mattet. This interest in non-Western art would turn him into one of the main European collectors from the interwar period.
Beauty, rarity and pedigree
When he died, his son-in-law Jean Paul Barbier (who attached the name “Mueller” to his own in 1984), took up the torch. He married Monique, Josef’s only daughter, in 1955. Like Josef Mueller, this company head was a born collector. At the age of fifteen, he acquired original editions of French Renaissance poetry works! With the same passion, he took an interest in non-Western art. But while his father-in-law favoured aesthetic shock, Jean Paul Barbier-Mueller developed a more erudite approach. “First the object pleases me, and then I try to understand it,” he would explain. The collection expanded with him and would gain more coherency; he filled out a few sets, such as his sets of shields or African earthenwares, and created new sets, including archaeological pieces from the Vietnamese Dông Son civilisation. To research these treasures, he didn’t hesitate to call on the top ethnologists and historians.
Over time, the objects accumulated. They would include rare pieces such as a shield from the tiny island of Atauro in northeast Timor, or a Malagan from New Ireland. Others boasted more racy destinies, such as a Hongwe mask from the Republic of Congo. Acquired by Charles Ratton and sold to the MOMA in New York in 1939, this sculpture was long considered as one of Picasso’s sources of inspiration for his Demoiselles d’Avignon. And then, as in every collection, there is a Mona Lisa. Jean Paul’s came from the ancient city of Ifè, in Nigeria: a sceptre dating back some 800 years, as refined as a Donatello, and produced via the lost-wax casting technique.
Whenever Jean Paul Barbier-Mueller crisscrossed the planet, it was in search of a “forgotten myth” or objects that might have been overlooked by specialists. He relentlessly bought new pieces, which he financed through a real-estate company. The discovery, at an antique dealer’s shop in Amsterdam, of a statuette from the island of Nias, to the west of Sumatra, opened up a new chapter in the history of the collection. Dazzled by the beauty of the figure’s pointy coiffure, Barbier-Mueller decided to go to Indonesia, accompanied by his wife, to discover an art that was still unknown to him. From his many voyages, he would bring back nearly 1000 objects, today sold or donated to the Musée du Quai Branly.
From India, he would, on the other hand, discover exceptional pieces by the Naga hunters. Among them, royal decorations and bronze sculptures. “He liked to discover and reveal objects that few were interested in,” explains Laurence Mattet. The same applies for his discoveries of Lorhon bronzes during a trip to the Côte d’Ivoire, which sales catalogues at the time wrongly described as Sénoufos…
The rhythm of acquisitions accelerates
Throughout his life, this aesthete would continually share his passion with the public, and send his collections travelling. In May 1977, Jean Paul inaugurated the private Musée Barbier-Mueller in Geneva, three months following Josef’s death. From that time onward, the collector’s passion would cohabit with a museum director’s rigour. The rhythm of acquisitions would accelerate to honour the exhibitions that he organised. In this way, the collection would begin travelling the world, thanks to a major loan policy: South Africa, France, the United States… During a travelling exhibition in Spain, the Barcelona city authorities were captivated by pre-Columbian artworks displayed to commemorate 500 years since the discovery of America, and the city wanted to preserve them at any price. In 1997, the Museu Barbier-Mueller opened in Nadal Palace, with the Catalan authorities taking out a purchasing option. But as a casualty of the financial crisis, this wonderful venture came to an end in 2012: the museum closed its doors for good and the 300 pieces were placed on sale at Sotheby’s Paris in the following year.
Today, the future is sketched out by the next generation. The three sons are also keen collectors. Like his mother, Thierry has an eye for contemporary art, while Gabriel collects Japanese weapons, and Stéphane has decided to focus on French currencies and 18th century painting. Meanwhile, Diane, one of the granddaughters is interested in literature. Perhaps they won’t add to the collections started up by their father, but they will certainly continue, each in their own way, to carry them on…
Musée Barbier-Mueller. 10 rue Jean-Calvin, 1204 Geneva, Switzerland. www.barbier-mueller.ch
3 questions for… Alain de Monbrison
What, in your opinion, is the main asset of the Barbier-Mueller collection?
First of all, the fact that it’s gathered very coherent sets of objects, as precious as they’re simple. The archaeological bronzes of the Vietnamese Dông Son civilisation comes to mind, but also the African chairs, a legacy of Josef Mueller that Jean Paul Barbier-Mueller took care to add to. It’s also a universal collection which gathers objects from Africa as well as Oceania or Indonesia. Not forgetting its Pre-Columbian art objects which comprise a key collection. It’s also exceptional for the rarity of certain pieces that are listed nowhere else… and for the beauty that unites all the objects.
How was Jean Paul Barbier-Mueller a great collector?
For his eye that was so unique and accurate… and his great erudition. Jean Paul Barbier-Mueller was a cultivated man who left nothing to chance. When he started up a collection, he invested in it entirely. He studied every object, consulted the best ethnologists and historians. He had an incredible capacity to nose things out, inherited from Josef Mueller. This is how he came to get interested in Oceanic art, at a time when certain German and Hungarian museums were getting rid of parts of their collections. He understood straight away the necessity to buy them up. The same goes for the Indonesian objects, still little known at the time in Europe. Barbier-Mueller had a head start on the market, but this wasn’t what interested him: he first and foremost bought for the sake of pleasure.
Is it still possible to collect like an encyclopaedist these days?
Yes, I think so. It’s true that in the last 30 years, the price of tribal art has shot up. The opening of the Musée Dapper, in the mid 1980s, then that of the Musée du Quai Branly, have roused a renewal of interest in these objects. Wealthy new collectors have turned their attention to this niche market. However, we’re still very far off from reaching the heights that painting has. Pieces from Gabon and Congo are still amongst the most sought-after works, and are therefore the most expensive. But whatever the region or ethnicity, it’s above all the “exceptional” object that attracts buyers today. In particular, it’s possible to acquire very beautiful objects that aren’t yet fashionable at entirely reasonable prices. Jean Paul Barbier-Mueller, who often commented on the year’s public sales in his journal Arts & Cultures, has always said this. In my opinion, specialising in an ethnicity or a theme means depriving oneself of many interesting objects.
Alain de Monbrison is a primitive-arts dealer and a member of the Syndicat National des Antiquaires. He is a valuer for the Syndicat Français des Experts Professionnels en Œuvres d’Art et Objets de Collection.