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Musée du quai Branly explores tribal art in a landmark exhibition that charts its rapid rise
Masque Sepik. Collection Ladriere -® musee du quai Branly. Photo Claude Germain.

PARIS.- An art expert, dealer and collector, Charles Ratton (1897-1986) had a profound impact on the history of artistic taste and played a significant role in increasing awareness of "primitive" art in the world. The musée du quai Branly is presenting the first exhibition examining the career of this great historic figure in the art market, a major promoter of primitive art whose activity and passion played a significant role in the acceptance of "primitive" objects as works of art.

His sensitivity and scholarship, forged through his activity as a dealer in objects from the "Hautes époques" (Middle Ages and Renaissance period) led Charles Ratton to take an interest in African court arts – Dahomey, Ashanti, Grassfields – then in the ancient objects of Oceania and the Americas, and – unusually for the period – in objects of Eskimo art.

More than 200 works (representing ancient, Asiatic and primitive arts, but also avant-garde works) and documents from the period illustrate the travels of this hugely enthusiastic art dealer throughout France and the United States, evoking also his friendships with the Surrealist artists André Breton and Paul Eluard, his photographic collaborations with Man Ray, his major role with Jean Dubuffet in the definition of Outsider Art and his links with the great collectors of his time.

"The unknown arts, that's to say those of Pre-Colombian America, Africa and Oceania, began to interest him enormously. He realised that these arts that we inaccurately term 'primitive' obey the same laws and are deserving of the same esteem as the classical arts and those of Asia, the latter being known and appreciated themselves for scarcely forty years. He decided to devote himself entirely to them." ---Charles Ratton about himself.

The universe of Charles Ratton – between curiosity and scholarship
A native of Mâcon, Charles Ratton studied at the École du Louvre in Paris before the First World War interrupted his studies for four years. He was initially interested in the Middle Ages, and then more broadly in what was then termed the "Hautes époques". Introduced to Africa by encounters with the "mode nègre" launched by the Cubists, in the 1920s he expanded his curiosity to the Americas and Oceania.

The first space in the exhibition, designed as a cabinet of curiosities, reconstructs Charles Ratton's office with the works and furniture which is still preserved in the Ladrière collection. This reconstruction also presents photographs of Charles Ratton, his family and friends, together with his notes and sketches, which provide evidence of his extremely precise method of working.

This introduction also provides the opportunity to re-examine the situation of the "negro" arts in 1920, the roles played by Guillaume Apollinaire, Paul Guillaume, the artists André Derain, Georges Braque etc. and the links that united Charles Ratton with the Surrealist movement of the 1920s.

An assemblage of works from a variety of periods – Antiquity, the Middle Ages – and provenances – the Far East, Africa, Oceania and the Americas – bear witness to his curiosity and scholarship.

The surrealist dealer and activity in the United States
Established at 76 Rue de Rennes, followed by 39 Rue Laffitte and, from the end of the 1920s until his death, at 14 Rue de Marignan, on 19 March 1927 Charles Ratton obtained authorisation to exercise the profession of antique dealer using his home as his gallery. He also acted as a valuer for the Hôtel Drouot auction house from 1931. He distinguished himself very rapidly through his continuous activity as a defender – even as a propagandist – for the arts then termed "primitive" of Africa, Asia, the Americas and Oceania.

He became established as the learned connoisseur of disregarded and poorly understood cultures by creating for himself the status of scholarly art dealer. In this way, he developed a network of purchasers and lenders in which wealthy amateurs rubbed shoulders with impoverished avant-garde artists and Surrealist poets. Charles Ratton very quickly understood that he must act on an international level, establishing himself in the United States and employing all modern means of communication such as the press, photography and film.

The exhibition is based on the numerous exhibitions and sales in which he participated.

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