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Sotheby's to offer a monumental sculpture formerly owned by Félix Fénéon & Jacques Kerchache
The unknown artist was a genius who managed to infuse his work with an ancestor’s presence through virtuoso carving. Photo: Sotheby's.

PARIS.- Ever since it was discovered by members of the Avant-Garde at the start of the 20th century, Fang statuary has been considered the apex of African sculpture. On the eve of the First World War, however, these pieces remained very rare, and even today fewer than ten works are known from the Fang Mabea (Cameroon): the most rarefied corpus of Fang statuary. The most important of these works – and the only one still in private hands – will be offered for sale at Sotheby’s Paris on June 18.

This spectacular figure (2ft3in/67cm tall), hovering between realistic detail and idealized shape, constitutes the apotheosis of the style. For Louis Perrois it may evoke a female ancestor venerated for her abundant offspring, and it ranks as a masterful archetypal piece of African statuary. The refinement of the carving, and the perfectly smooth surfaces of the dense, light wood, both point to ancient tradition. Connoisseurs will admire the delicacy of certain details, like the design of the hollowed shoulders (typical of the Mabea style) embellished with motifs unknown elsewhere in Fang art.

The unknown artist was a genius who managed to infuse his work with an ancestor’s presence through virtuoso carving. The expressiveness of the face is accentuated by the prominent cheek-bones, rounded lips and filed teeth. A combined feeling of strength and sacredness emanates from the suggestion of movement and speech, and an intense gaze that evokes a mesmerizing sorceress.

A Figure once owned by two iconic names of African Art: Félix Fénéon & Jacques Kerchache
The figure’s prestige is reinforced by its provenance. In 1919 Guillaume Apollinaire paid tribute to the ‘great audacity of taste’ of the first artists and connoisseurs to recognize the artistic merit of ‘negro idols.’ Among them there stood out a man who, from the end of the 19th century, had been a major pioneer in shaping aesthetic modern sensitivity: the critic, magazine editor, art dealer and collector Félix Fénéon (1861-1944). As Artistic Director of Galerie Bernheim-Jeune from 1906, he was the herald of the Neo-Impressionists, with his extraordinary personal collection including works by Seurat, Vuillard, Toulouse-Lautrec, Braque, Matisse and Modigliani – all of whom were his friends – along with one of the most important ensembles of Tribal Art of his time. In the 1920s Fénéon took part in all the events that helped promote awareness of African Art. The third part of the historic sale of his collection in 1947 was devoted to nearly 400 works from Africa, Oceania, America, with the Fang Mabea figure proving the auction highlight. It was bought by the collector and modern art dealer Albert Kleinmann, who kept it until his death in 1957. In 1972 his descendants sold it to Jacques Kerchache, who made it the icon of his personal collection.

The commitment of both men to defending African art is well known. In 1920 Félix Fénéon published a passionate article in Le Bulletin de la Vie Artistique entitled Investigation of Art from Distant Lands – Will they Ever be Admitted to the Louvre? Seventy years later (on 15 March 1990), Jacques Kerchache launched his manifesto For Masterpieces of the whole world to be born free and equal [in] the eighth section of the Grand Louvre in French daily Libération. His efforts made a huge contribution to the admission of around a hundred major pieces of ‘faraway’ art being admitted to the great Paris museum in 2000. Now considered a universal masterpiece, our Fang Mabea statuette has thus passed through the hands of two of the most prodigious collectors and important figures in the history African Art.

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