Excerpt from: Christa Clark, “‘Fantastic Artifacts’: Peggy Guggenheim and African Art at Mid-Century,” in Vivien Greene, ed., Migrating Objects: Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas in the Peggy Guggenheim Collection (Venice: Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation with Marsilio Editori, 2020), pp. 37–38, 41.
“African art was also gaining popular attention throughout the 1950s. As [Julius] Carlebach observed in 1959, “interest in primitive art has gone beyond a mere handful of collectors to embrace the rich and poor alike,” adding that it was both fashionable in interior decor and available at affordable prices. (13) Indeed, just six months prior, a New York Times magazine feature, “Living with Sculpture,” showcased the non-Western collection of Life photographer Eliot Elisofon on display in his New York apartment. Taking special note of the current fascination with African art, the article highlighted the home decorating potential of masks and figural sculptures while accompanying photographs offered “many ideas for dramatic display” on pedestals and wall shelves and as table accessories. “Today, good sculpture is available at very reasonable prices,” readers were advised, a point illustrated with examples of “typical inexpensive pieces” of non-Western art available for sale, all under one-hundred dollars; many were African sculpture from Carlebach’s gallery. (14) Carlebach’s inventory reached an even wider public through its prominent positioning in the 1958 romantic comedy Bell, Book and Candle, starring James Stewart and Kim Novak (and for which Elisofon served as color consultant). The masks and figures that Carlebach provided were not merely set dressing but integral to Novak’s character, a modern-day witch who owns a “primitive” art gallery in bohemian Greenwich Village. (15) Art historian Susan Vogel has commented on how the movie expressed “mid-century pop-culture associations of African art with sex, magic, bongo drums and radical avant gardes”—a sensibility that the adventurous Guggenheim surely embraced
in seeking a new and more affordable category of collecting. (16)
Human interactions were at the heart of the art trade in Africa. In the wake of independence movements, African dealers emerged as a market force, alongside the foreigners who were already traveling to the continent to collect, supplying objects to gallery owners and private collectors in Europe and the United States. These dealers established expanded channels of distribution from rural villages to new urban centers in Africa—especially Dakar (Senegal), Bamako (Mali), Abidjan (Cote d’Ivoire), Lagos (Nigeria), and Kinshasa (Democratic Republic of the Congo)—then on to international buyers, such as Carlebach. (29) Many European dealers, like [Franco] Monti, built their reputations in the art world through field collecting in this era. In contrast, their African counterparts were dismissively termed “runners” and their names typically dissociated from the objects they supplied. (30) Whatever the source, most Western collectors remained distant from, and ignorant of, not only the meanings and contexts of the works they acquired, but also the circumstances and motivating factors underlying their circulation. As a collector, Guggenheim was no different: the African sculpture she placed in dialogue with Western modernist works remained far removed geographically as well as conceptually from its origins. (31)
13. Rita Reif, “Gallery Here Will Offer Talks on Primitive Art,” New York Times, April 7, 1959, p. 37
14. Cynthia Kellogg. “Living with Sculpture,” New York Times, October 5, 1958, p. SM48. For a discussion of the use of non-Western art in home decoration in France around the same time, see Daniel J. Sherman, “Post-Colonial Chic: Fantasies of the French Interior, 1957–1962,” Art History 27, no. 5 (November 2004), pp. 770–81, and also the chapter on “Primitive Accumulation” in his more recent publication, French Primitivism and the Ends of Empire, 1945–1975 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011).
15. See Katherine E. Flach, “Eliot Elisofon: Bringing African Art to Life,” Ph.D. dissertation, Case Western Reserve University, 2015, pp. 203–12.
16. Susan Vogel, “Whither African Art? Emerging Scholarship at the End of an Age,” African Arts 38, no. 4 (Winter 2005), p. 17.
29. Christraud Geary and Stephanie Xatart, eds., Material Journeys: Collecting African and Oceanic Art, 1945–2000 (Boston: Museum of Fine Arts, 2007) , p. 19. See also Sherman, “Post-Colonial Chic,” p. 777.
30. Geary and Xatart, Material Journeys, pp. 19, 69. See also Silvia Forni and Christopher B. Steiner, “The African Art Market as Ego-System,” Critical Interventions 12, no. 1 (2018), pp. 1–7.
31. Though Guggenheim recalls an evening spent in 1941 with a young Hubert Maga, the future first president of Dahomey (now the Republic of Benin), while vacationing on the shores of Lake Annecy in France, Africa merits nary a mention in her memoirs.