Museums June July 2012


1. BOSTON.- The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, has received the Robert Owen Lehman Collection of 34 rare West African works of art. Thirty-two objects are from the Kingdom of Benin in present-day southern Nigeria and two are from present-day Guinea and Sierra Leone. The Lehman Collection is the single greatest private holding of objects from the Benin Kingdom (not to be confused with the West African Republic of Bénin, the former Dahomey) dating from the late 15th century to the 19th century. The gift, which includes 28 bronzes and six ivories, will go on display at the MFA in late 2013 in a gallery dedicated to the arts of Benin. In addition to highlighting these works in a gallery, the Museum will present a number of public programs that further the appreciation of the Kingdom of Benin’s renowned arts, cultural heritage, and complex history.

“These treasures of Benin represent a highly significant addition to the MFA’s growing collection of African art. This gift will transform the collection with works that bear witness to the extraordinary creativity of African artists,” said Malcolm Rogers, Ann and Graham Gund Director of the MFA. “We appreciate Robert Owen Lehman’s generosity, which will allow us to share these works with visitors from around the world and further scholarship about one of the richest periods of African art.”

The collection of bronzes includes a rare 16th-century horseman, a 16th-century rendering of a Portuguese rifleman, and three late 15th- to late 16th-century commemorative heads. Fifteen 16th- to 17th-century bronze plaques in high relief depicting Benin kings, royals, and dignitaries allude to the history and social structure of the kingdom. The works in ivory are equally significant and feature two late 15th - to early 16th-century saltcellars by Sapi artists in Sierra Leone and Guinea, as well as a staff with horseman finial, a pendant, a cup, and a leopard hip ornament from Benin.

Famous for its sophisticated artistry, the Benin Kingdom, whose inhabitants are Edo peoples, goes back to the late 13th century. The reign of the first dynasty, the Ogiso kings, remains shrouded in mystery. The founder of the current dynasty, Oba (King) Oranmiyan, is thought to have arrived from the neighboring ancient Ife Kingdom in the 14th century. From the early 14th century to the present, there have been 38 kings, including the current ruler Omo N’Oba N’Edo Uku Akpolokpolo, Erediauwa, C.F.R., Oba of Benin, who ascended to the throne in 1979. To this day, the Oba resides in the royal palace at Benin City, the kingdom’s capital. Divine rulers combining vast political and spiritual powers, the Benin monarchs commissioned numerous works from artists who created them exclusively for the court. Some commemorated important events and highlighted royal achievement, while others held religious or ceremonial significance. The kingdom expanded and flourished from the late 14th through the late 19th century, when it came under British influence upon the conclusion of a treaty with Britain in 1892. Five years later, after Benin forces attacked and killed most members of a British delegation en route to Benin City, the British launched the Punitive Expedition of 1897, sending military forces to the capital and defeating its ruler, Oba Ovonramwen. It is estimated that the British removed more than 4,000 objects from the Benin palace during this military action. Numerous pieces were later sold in Great Britain to defray the costs of the campaign, and were acquired by private collectors and museums in Europe and the United States. Many works of art in the Lehman Collection are known to have left Benin in 1897, and the remainder likely left at the same time. A number of these appear in publications from 1900 onwards, but have not been seen by the public for several decades.

Today, notable works of art from Benin can be found at the National Museum Lagos, Nigeria, as well as many European and American museums. Collections are housed at the British Museum, the Ethnological Museum in Berlin, the Ethnographic Museum in Vienna, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, and the National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC.

Among the most famous works from the kingdom are its bronzes (copper alloy pieces created in the lost wax-casting technique), which range from sculptural heads of kings and freestanding figures, to pendants and high-relief plaques that once adorned the walls of courtyards in the palace. Artists also crafted beautiful utilitarian objects in bronze and ivory. Of the 28 bronzes in the collection, of particular note is Commemorative head of a defeated neighboring leader (late 15th–early 16th century), thought to depict a foreign ruler subjugated by the Benin army during the kingdom’s expansion in the 16th century. It was once displayed on an ancestral altar created in honor of a deceased Oba, recalling his achievements and connecting his successors with the royal ancestor. The head is a common motif in the Benin sculptural repertoire because it leads a person through life and a “good head” assures well-being and prosperity. After the passing of a ruler, his successor conducted elaborate funerary ceremonies and commissioned many works to commemorate his predecessor. Among them were idealized royal portrayals, such as a Commemorative head of an Oba (King) (late 16th century). It is a rendering of an unidentified monarch with a high collar strung from precious coral beads, and a cap-like crown decorated with clusters of beads and beaded and braided strings hanging from its sides. The heads, which have a round opening at the top, supported elaborately carved ivory tusks and graced royal altars.

In addition to these bronze heads, the gift to the Museum includes pendants, freestanding sculptures, and relief plaques that incorporate many motifs common in Benin art. Pectoral showing two officials (16th–17th century) illustrates two dignitaries holding L-shaped metal hammers in their left hands and long staffs with knobs as insignia of their office in their right hands. They may represent either 16th-century messengers linking Benin with the ancient kingdom of Ife, or Ewua officials, members of a guild who cared for the king’s personal needs and safeguarded the spiritual nature of the dynasties’ origin from Ife. Another work, Relief plaque showing a dignitary with a drum and two attendants striking gongs (16th –17th century), depicts an official with musical instruments that were played during numerous court festivals and rituals. Rectangular brass plaques also provided a visual history of the kingdom, an example of which is a superb Relief plaque showing a battle scene (16th –17th century). It illustrates a Benin war chief dragging a foreign enemy, recognizable by the facial scarification, off his horse. A horn blower and other Benin soldiers, smaller in scale to emphasize the importance of the chief, accompany him on his victorious exploits. There have been different interpretations as to which historical battle the work might depict, but most scholars agree that it captures a scene of the war with Idah, when the Attah (King) of Idah unsuccessfully tried to invade Benin in 1515–16.

Works from the Benin Kingdom, which is located close to the Atlantic coast, demonstrate the way in which the flow of people, ideas, goods, and techniques in the Atlantic enriched the artistic repertoire and inspired unique visual traditions. Around 1472, the first Europeans—Portuguese sailing along the West African coast—arrived in the kingdom, bringing with them muskets and cannons, and goods such as brass in the form of bracelets (called manillas) to be traded for spices, textiles, and slaves. These manillas were later melted down and recast by Benin artists into sculptures and plaques historically referred to as “bronzes.” The kings of Benin enlisted the support of Portuguese soldiers to pursue their ambitious plans of expanding the kingdom by conquest. The motif of the Portuguese appears in many 16th- and 17th-century works. A dynamic sculpture, Portuguese rifleman (16th century), features a soldier with a flintlock gun; it belongs to a distinct corpus of several similar works, among them one in the National Museum Lagos. The artists rendered Portuguese weaponry and uniforms, typical for the 16th and 17th century, in great detail, demonstrating their interest in new technologies and objects brought across the seas.

In addition to remarkable bronzes, the Lehman Collection features six ivories, including two exquisite saltcellars dating from the late 15th to early 16th century created by Sapi artists (the ancestors of today’s Bulom and Temne peoples in Sierra Leone) for the Renaissance courts of Europe. These artists were aware of the tastes of their foreign patrons and melded African motifs such as snakes and birds with intricate linear and floral designs favored in Europe. These ivories exported from West Africa to Portugal in the 16th century are some of the earliest works to reach European courts and wealthy merchants. Referred to as Afro-Portuguese ivories, they are among the most cherished objects from the African continent. Also of note is Pendant showing an Iyoba (Queen Mother) with a gong (late 17th–early 18th century), which portrays an unidentified Queen Mother, the highest ranking woman in the Benin political hierarchy—a motif that frequently appears in Benin iconography. In this pendant, she taps a gong and is recognizable by her high-peaked hairstyle covered with a coral net, the high collar of coral beads, crisscrossed coral bandoliers, and her richly patterned skirt.

“The artistry of these magnificent works in bronze and ivory is deeply moving. I will never forget the first time I saw the collection—I was in awe!” said Christraud Geary, Teel Senior Curator of African and Oceanic Art at the MFA. “They are a testament to the world of the Benin kings and the brilliance of artists who worked for the court. I look forward to reaching out to, and learning from, the Benin court and the Edo communities in this country as we plan the display of these superb works in the near future.”

Works in the collection were acquired by Robert Owen Lehman at auction houses and through dealers in the 1950s through the ‘70s. “Benin craftsman produced some of the finest examples of bronze casting ever made anywhere in the world,” said Lehman. “My aim in giving them to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, is to have the collection enjoyed by as many people as possible. I wanted the works to go into a gallery where they could be shown in a context that makes their power, beauty, and technical sophistication evident.”

Prior to the gift, the Museum had one Benin work among its holdings of African art, an 18th–19th-century terracotta head commemorating a Benin chief, given to the MFA in 1991 by William E. and Bertha L. Teel. It is currently on display in the Museum’s African gallery along with two additional Benin pieces on loan to the MFA—an ivory hip ornament in the form of a leopard’s head and a pair of ivory armlets. The Lehman Collection gift augments the Museum’s holdings of some 114 diverse works from Nigeria and elevates the MFA’s entire African collection. It is the first gift to the Museum from Robert Owen Lehman, a noted collector. The MFA’s relationship with the Lehman family began in 1938, when Mr. Lehman’s grandfather, Philip Lehman, gave a gift in memory of his wife, Carrie L. Lehman, comprising 375 examples of historic costumes and textiles, primarily European, dating from the 16th–19th century. Subsequently, the Robert Lehman Foundation, founded by Robert Owen Lehman’s father, supported the purchase in 1982 of 16 benches and chairs from contemporary American craft artists, expanding the “Please Be Seated” initiative at the Museum through which artistic seating is made available to visitors in MFA galleries and public spaces. artdaily.com http://artdaily.com/index.asp?int_sec=2&int_new=56258

2. When it appeared that Fisk might sell the Stieglitz collection, the Newsletter commented on this situation in several pieces. At this point a 50-50 split appears to be a great solution.  However, it seems likely that Crystal bridges will ultimately own the collection in ite entirety and maybe that's not all bad.

BENTONVILLE, ARK.- artdaily.org "An important art collection will remain intact and be viewed, appreciated, and studied by a wide public audience now that a long-term collection-sharing relationship is finalized between Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art and Fisk University in Nashville.

The agreement for sharing the Stieglitz Art Collection, bequeathed in 1949 by artist Georgia O’Keeffe to Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn., was finalized by the Chancery Court and the Tennessee Attorney General on June 13 and filed by the Davidson County Chancery Court on July 31. Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art and Fisk University each now own a 50 percent interest in the collection, which will be exhibited at both institutions at rotating two-year intervals. The agreement will allow the works to remain on display at Fisk for two uninterrupted years out of every four, thus allowing every Fisk student the opportunity to view or study the artwork for a period during the student’s academic career.

The Stieglitz Collection will be available for view and study by a wide audience at Crystal Bridges during its alternating two-year stay in Bentonville, Ark. Once planning and coordination between Fisk University and Crystal Bridges has been completed, a debut exhibition schedule will be announced. Crystal Bridges has welcomed nearly 500,000 visitors since opening to the public on 11-11-11.

The sharing agreement will enable Crystal Bridges and Fisk to co-administer the ongoing care and maintenance of the works of art, advance the educational scope of the collection for study and public appreciation, and to expand the artistic legacy of the artists whose works are included in the collection.

“We are looking forward to working with Fisk University as we begin this partnership and eventually present the Stieglitz Collection to the very large—and growing—Crystal Bridges audience,” said Don Bacigalupi, executive director, Crystal Bridges “It’s been many years and we are grateful for the time, effort and final court decision that will enable Crystal Bridges to enhance public access to this important collection. We’re feeling great about the future of the Stieglitz Collection. The Fisk-Crystal Bridges partnership keeps the collection intact and ensures its long-term preservation and access,” said Alice Walton, Crystal Bridges’ board chair.

In a release issued by Fisk University, Hazel O’Leary, President of Fisk, said, “We are, obviously, very pleased that this case was resolved in a manner that will ensure the future financial security of Fisk with most of the funds being used to strengthen Fisk’s endowment. We are also gratified to have Crystal Bridges as our partner in the ownership and care of the Collection. Crystal Bridges is rapidly becoming one of the finest art museums in the country, if not the world. Our sharing arrangement broadens the access to the collection.”

President O’Leary added, “‘Fisk Forever!’ has been the popular rallying cry of Fisk for decades. Today it has become a reality. Fisk will remain as Nashville’s oldest university, which has and will continue to provide a nationally recognized educational experience for its students and also to make an important contribution to Nashville’s culture and history. The Stieglitz Collection is not lost to Nashville, but is saved to be exhibited here for two of every four years. Fisk will, probably for the first time, have the financial ability and professional expertise available at Crystal Bridges to do everything necessary and appropriate to care for and exhibit the Collection.”

Victor Simmons, Director and Curator of the Fisk University Galleries, said, “Alfred Stieglitz spent much of his life advocating and supporting American art, including the support of American artists such as Georgia O’Keeffe, Marsden Hartley, Arthur Dove, John Marin and Charles Demuth, among many others. I can think of no better place for the art to be exhibited, while away from Fisk, than in a museum of such quality and as dedicated to American Art as is Crystal Bridges.”

The Stieglitz Collection
In 1949, Georgia O'Keeffe donated to Fisk University The Alfred Stieglitz Collection of Modern American and European Art. Consisting of 101 objects, 97 of which come from her late husband’s art collection and four that were owned by O'Keeffe, The Stieglitz Collection contains a survey of modern art from the late nineteenth to mid-twentieth century, including those by such masters as Paul Cezanne, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Pablo Picasso, and Diego Rivera, who were revered by modern American artists such as Marsden Hartley, Arthur Dove, and Charles Demuth, who are also represented in the collection. Additionally, the collection includes the iconic painting by Georgia O’Keeffe, The Radiator Building. "