Raymond and Laura Wielgus Collection

An exhibition of the Raymond and Laura Wielgus Collection of primitive art has opened the season at the Chicago Arts Club. The show is handsomely installed and there is an excellent catalog with extensive documentation of each piece. Nowhere in the catalog introduction, written by Allan Wardwell, is the term “primitive art” used. Traditionally it has been applied to art from the indigenous cultures of Africa, Oceania and Indian America, all of which evolved independently of the Euro-American and Oriental cultures, and all of which are included in the collection. Historically, “primitive,” when it preceded the name of a culture or qualified an art style originally had an accepted, dictionary meaning of “primordial, more or less remote, primeval, archaic . . .” etc. Such pejorative connotations seem to be diminishing and the term remains in general use. (In recent years ethnologists, those particularly interested in art, have engaged in conferences in an effort to agree on a replacement. Even though highly qualified authorities in the field have sponsored alternatives such as “tribal art” and “ethnographic art,” to name but two, the drawbacks to their acceptance are as serious as those which are associated with the original.) It seems more than likely that rather than the term being replaced, its meaning will change. To some degree this already seems to be accomplished and the pieces in this collection would never be confused with the beginning, faltering stages of their respective styles, as implied in the 19th-century evaluation. They do indicate, convincingly, the long evolutionary development which lies behind each example.

The exhibition, the collection, is one which emphasizes sculpture in its many forms. A few pieces are six or seven feet in size but the major portion are small, some even miniscule. Most of them are objects to be handled or to be worn.

Two characteristics, though they are not limited to primitive art, call for consideration. One of these is, of course, the image, human, animal and supernatural. As seen here these are icons of power and conviction, evident even when our knowledge of the background myth and associative symbolic meanings is limited. As images their gravity concentrates a strongly felt presence.

The second characteristic which seems so impressive here is the array of materials, their textural richness and the exploitation of their possibilities. From a tiny ivory carving by the Eskimo to a wooden lime container from ancient Peru inlaid with shell, bone and stone, to the Eshi staff from Nigeria carved from wood, polished and hung with pendant strings of cowry shells, the primitive artist’s craftsmanship is displayed in full range, from ascetic restraint through finesse and abundant richness.

Since qualities of material and their combinations and use are so evident in primitive art it is well to understand their significance. Ordinarily we think of craftsmanship as part of the process, the interaction between tool and material as the artist selects and controls both. Much has been stated about “truth to material” and the phrase has become a commonplace, as if it were something discovered by the 20th-century artist. Although the primitive artist would seldom if ever be accused of misusing his materials, the phrase has little or no meaning here. For example, in the Sepik River mask a term such as craftsmanship is too mild and suggests that the material is entirely passive—an inadequate concept for this as well as many other examples. Although it might be said that the primitive artist displays sensitivity to material and its particular qualities there are many examples—and many of them in this collection—in which the material itself, and even whole objects which have been incorporated into the finished piece, play an active, dynamic role rather than remain impassive, inert substances. There is a dialogue which takes place between the artist and his material.

The Tahitian whisk handle, the Olmec figure, or a delicately, engraved shell ornament of the Maya, each displays a treatment of material equal to our highest traditional standards. However, the Torres Straits mask made from pieces of tortoise shell sewn together with cut openwork flanges and with touches of feathers and hair plays upon our sensibilities in a somewhat different way although its smooth, refined surfaces have an almost conventional appeal. By contrast the Sepik River mask of thickly modeled paste, caked and cracked, coagulates around the strands of beard; shells, other shell pieces, teeth and boar tusks are embedded in it and the whole is much more apt to act as a challenge to our sensibilities. Objects such as the tusks, and material such as human hair were incorporated because of power which they had, but other materials which were included indicate something of the primitive artist’s power of selection and integration. In this light he has much in common with Schwitters (both his collages and his Merzbau) and this mask, as well as others, links up with the whole assemblage-combine tradition. In another echo of a theme in 20th-century art the thick, encrusted surface of the mask is suggestive of Dubuffet and the conscious exploration of his “pastes” and use of un-esthetic materials. Dubuffet’s statement that the “pastes” are not inert material has an almost animistic value and to him the material and its tactile qualities have a reality on the same level as the image itself. Thus, texture in primitive art as well as in our own art has greater significance than mere sensuous appeal.

Thoroughly in keeping with this reality of the substance is the image which it creates, and Klee, another artist who shared something of Dubuffet’s respect for material, is responsible for the statement “Art does not render the visible; rather it makes visible.” No other contemporary Western artist has expressed so succinctly and so tellingly what we cannot fail to sense before these images. That this was primitive man’s intention, to give form to the unseen but nonetheless real, has been documented by ethnologists. Although the primitive artist is never completely passive, his role in many instances is that of seer, a medium through which visible form is given to the unseen. Nowhere is this function so strong as it is in the masks.

These can and do give expression to a wide range of feelings, from the menacing ambiguity of the Sepik River mask to the mask from the Torres Straits in which lyricism combines with a subtle, mysterious and elusive quality.

Other examples which present figures, usually ancestor figures, lack the intensity of the masks and formal elements themselves stand out more strongly. In the open-work panel from the Sepik River this is ideally suited to the theme. The flat tablet is pierced at intervals, the long forked space of the lower portion outlining legs and phallus; carved in the round or in high relief are the mythological birds, and the human (i.e. ancestor) face. As a combination of the two planes of existence which the ancestral spirit now unifies the piece is a masterful expression in which such ideas and the form itself are fused.

In terms of form, its organization and expressive power, this collection amply displays the capacity of the primitive artist. Our eye, trained by the sculpture of artists such as Arp and Moore, easily recognizes a masterpiece such as that of the seated figure from the Olmec culture of Mexico. Its four-inch size belies its scale, which equals that of some of the massive basalt heads carved by the Olmecs. The curving plane of each protuberance swells and diminishes with assurance, an assurance echoed by simple indications of details such as fingers and the facial features. If much of primitive art is ephemeral in its combination of materials and in the life span allotted to pieces, this figure, in contrast, testifies to the timeless, a result of its medium, pottery, as well as its form.

Both the Olmec figure and the Tahitian whisk handle are examples of the great sophistication of form and ideas which often occur in primitive art. The latter is an example of an implement which has been raised to a level of great, ceremonial significance—an intermingling of the social as well as the sacred. An object surrounded by layers of meaning on the social and religious levels, with its sharp angular rhythms, it is subtle and aloof and contrasts sharply with the Olmec figure with its earthy sensuous appeal.

There are other art forms which are to be found in primitive cultures, e.g. pottery, baskets, painting, etc., but this collection gains cohesiveness by giving emphasis to the sculptural image.

Whitney Halstead