‘The Louvre should collect certain exotic masterpieces, the appearance of which is no less moving than that of the finest examples of Western statuary.’ Apollinaire, 1909
Together, Guillaume Apollinaire and Paul Guillaume worked to promote the arts of Africa and Oceania. As early as 1910, when employed in a car garage, Paul Guillaume showcased some Gabonese sculptures. He caught Guillaume Apollinaire’s attention and the poet then introduced him to antiques dealer Joseph Brummer, as well as Pablo Picasso. Having become an art dealer, Paul Guillaume went against the grain of his age’s ethnocentric public opinion. He took the pioneering initiative to display African sculptures in his gallery. This revealed these works to many artists.
In 1917, he lent items to the first Dada exhibition in the Galerie Corray, Zurich, and published a photographic album called Sculptures Nègres (‘Negro Sculptures’) alongside Apollinaire.
His work as an art dealer led him to play an advisory role for gallery owners and collectors, like Alfred Stieglitz, who organised an exhibition displaying modern art and African statuary in his gallery 291 in New York in 1914. He also bought works for Albert C. Barnes, intended for his foundation in Philadelphia.
Though Paul Guillaume was not the only one to take an interest in non-European arts, he quickly played a key role in promoting them, which led to a paradigm shift in how they were viewed.
Non-European arts were long seen through an ethnocentric lens. The expressions ‘Negro art’ or ‘Black art’ were among those in common use at the start of the 20th century and were used by Guillaume Apollinaire and Paul Guillaume.
Lega figurine (Democratic Republic of the Congo)
This figurine, with its circular scarifications and formal simplification, is highly characteristic of works by the Lega people who live in the forests of central Africa. Rising through the ranks of this society would involve a series of initiations featuring gifts and payments. Some ceremonies were marked by the unveiling of the “basket of power” which contained insignia, spoons and figurines made from ivory or elephant tusk. These small statues all have a name and tell a story. During an initiation ceremony, the highest ranking members removed the ivory objects from their bags and coated them with oil to give them a golden sheen.
Statuette Lega (Congo). Ivoire. Soclée par Kichizô Inagaki (1876-1951) Hauteur : 14,7 cm. Paris, Musée de l’Orangerie © Christie’s 2018
On 9 November 1965, this Lega statue was sold along with rest of Paul Guillaume’s collection and stock of African art still in the hands of his widow, Domenica Walter. It was reproduced in the catalogue and also features in one of the two albums by Paul Guillaume exclusively devoted to non-European arts. These volumes, most likely produced in the 1930s, give us an insight into the objects in the art dealer’s possession.
Catalogue de la vente de l’ancienne collection Paul Guillaume, Art Nègre, Hôtel Drouot, 9 novembre 1965.