A fine Eastern Pende Panya-Gombe African mask. Coll.: David Norden
Ménil collection Houston Texas
1515 Sul Ross
Wave after wave has brought to our shores beautiful and mysterious treasures from unknown worlds: figurines, animals, fetishes, masks, ceremonial or useful objects.
“They are often called primitive for want of a better name.
“They are the most sincere and most unself-conscious art that ever was and ever will be. They are what remains of the childhood of humanity. They are plunges into the depths of the unconscious. However great the artist of today or tomorrow, he will never be as innocent as the primitive artist—strangely involved and detached at the same time.
What could never have been written is there, all the dreams and anguishes of man. The hunger for food and sex and security, the terrors of night and death, the thirst for life and the hope for survival.”
Among the multifarious influences on modernism, tribal art is perhaps one of the most significant. Already deeply familiar with Cubism and Surrealism, the de Menils began to consider and acquire the art of primitive cultures. They delighted in its conceptual complexity and aesthetic elusiveness; the creative form and style as well as the incomprehensible mystery of these objects engaged them. The influence of tribal art on Surrealism in particular can be seen in “Surrealism & Witnesses.” A large part of this permanent installation—approximately 200 authentic and fabricated curiosities that inspired the Surrealists—consists of tribal art.
Exceptional among the Menil Collection’s holdings are examples of ancient Malian art, dating between the eleventh and nineteenth centuries. These perplexing works are distant in time, place, and sensibility from traditional African art. Also represented is a large selection of obscure Oceanic works. With its sacred Chinese and Malaysian themes, this art in particular nurtures the museum’s spiritual dimension. Both northern and southern styles of the Pacific Northwest coastal art also abound. From meticulously executed masks to daily essentials such as combs and bowls, the works are both practical and elegant, narrowing the boundary between art and life.
*Dominique de Menil, “Introduction,” The John and Dominque de Menil Collection (New York: The Museum of Primitive Art, 1962).
Jason Castillo [mailto:ontillo*sbcglobal.net]
I would like to take the time to promote the Menil. I think it is Houston's best kept secret for lovers of Tribal art. I will go out on a limb to state that the Menil has a better Tribal exhibit than the Houston Museum of Fine Art. The Menil is located west of Montrose and one block south of Alabama. Admission is free and there is never a crowd on the weekends. There are several published pieces there that may be recognized. I spend most of my time in the African exhibit. I tend to head strait to the Mumuye statue in the back room. It has to be one of the best available for viewing in US. To the right of the Mumuye is an 7' plus Bongo grave figure. What a sight these two pieces are together. The best part of all, there is no glass or ropes to seperate you from viewing the two up close. A few other African tribes at the Menil: Dogon, Baule, Fang (Byeri figure & mask), Yombe (3 nail fetishes), Yoruba, Tiv, Dan, Bozo (helmet), Bwa, Bamana, Lega, Hemba, Baga, various Benin bronze items, Benin tusk and four terracotta figures that I am guilty of not paying attention to their origin.
The Oceanic exhibit is equally as fine. I does not contain as many pieces as the African. There are three decorated head hunter's skulls to see. Two are hanging on a hook figure.
One last thing that I forgot to mention, in the back of the surrealism room, there are a few items displayed from the collection of different surrealist. A beautiful Madagascar couple carving. There are probably six or items from Oceanic tibes and an Eskimo shaman's fetish box. There are some interesting items contained in the box. Hope to see some of you there from the area.
All the best,
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