New Ireland: Ritual Arts of Oceania in the Collection of the Barbier-Mueller Museum
For twenty years now the Barbier-Mueller Museum has mounted exhibitions that have travelled throughout Europe, North America and the Far East. To people everywhere the museum has presented its extensive collections of 'tribal' art, brought together over three quarters of a century by three generations of a single family.
These shows have been seen in some of the world's greatest art institutions, the Metropolitan Museum of New York, the Art Institute of Chicago, Boston's Museum of Fine Arts, the Los Angeles County Museum, and the Brooklyn Museum.
Generally there are no less than three exhibitions open to the public at any one time, each boasting a catalogue written by the most knowledgeable specialists in the field. This explains the museum's renown the world over, for it is indeed impossible today to mention 'tribal' art without immediately bringing the name Barbier-Mueller to mind.
For the first time ever forty pieces of sculpture from New Ireland, selected for their beauty, rarity, and originality, are being brought out of the museum's storerooms where they have been conserved-- several for over half a century-- and put on display in the galleries of Paris's Fondation Bismarck, a unique event that runs from 28 April to 28 June 1997. Most of these sculptures have quite a prestigious past moreover. The majority were originally acquired by museums in Dresden, Leipzig, Budapest, Vienna, Stuttgart, and Bremen at a very early date, sometime during the last quarter of the 19th century when New Ireland, along with other neighboring islands of the Bismarck Archipelago, and a substantial part of New Guinea, became a German colony. Unlike traditional tribal sculpture, largely limited to a number of conventional forms which native craftsmen have little choice but to respect, the masks and statues of New Ireland are striking for their freedom of invention. Animal and humanlike motifs are combined with infinite variety according to rules laid down by the rites employing such objects.
Dr. Michael Gunn, curator of the Metropolitan Museum's department of Oceania, offers a general presentation of the cultures found in New Ireland's different regions, before going on to explain the symbolism and function of each of the pieces featured here. Dr. Gunn is eminently qualified for this task, having undertaken several field trips in areas of New Ireland where traditional rites, especially those involved in funeral ceremonies, are still practised, albeit in a simplified or altered form. Yet along with the author's painstaking documentation, care has been taken to treat this exhibition catalogue like a true art book. Those eager to venture from the beaten track of art publications will be pleased to add this volume to their collection.