For the first time, works of art from Africa and Oceania occupy the center of a Fondation Beyeler
exhibition. The presentation is based on the small but exquisite group of sculptures brought together by Ernst Beyeler for his museum collection. These are supplemented by about 180 outstanding loans from 50 public and private collections. Each of the 13 exhibition spaces is devoted to an African or Oceanic culture, lending each ensemble a quite unique character. These extra-European works, of the highest quality and significance for world art, confront selected paintings of classical modernism from the Fondation Beyeler collection. The focus is on the visual force of this imagery, whose sensuous presence communicates itself compellingly to the viewer. We begin to understand why people all around the world, whatever culture they belong to, find the powerful visual appeal of these works irresistible.
In the foreground stands the motif of the human figure. For instance, Senufo sculptures from Africa confront two portraits by Cézanne. The mighty ancestor images of the Mundugumor of New Guinea meet Picassos Seated Women from the 1930s and early 1940s, and the well-nigh abstract figures of the Nukuoro Atoll in Micronesia are juxtaposed with a painting by Rousseau and Brancusis Bird sculpture. What at first sight appears in tribal art to be a purely aesthetic involvement turns out on closer scrutiny to represent an expression of various contents, visual imaginings, and habits of perception. The exhibition purposely focuses on surprising and exciting yet open-ended juxtapositions of a kind yet to be seen in this particular form.
The range of African works on view extends to sculptures of the Dogon, Mumuye, and Kongo. Further Oceanic specimens originate from the Korewori River in New Guinea, the island of New Ireland, from Vanuatu, the Polynesian archipelago, and the Torres Strait. These are displayed alongside paintings, and occasional sculptures, by Claude Monet, Vincent van Gogh, Wassily Kandinsky, Georges Braque, Joan Miró, Henri Matisse, Piet Mondrian, Fernand Léger, Mark Rothko, Alberto Giacometti, and Jean Arp. Many of the extra-European sculptures have rarely or never before been on view in this concentrated form. These include the groups of Senufo and Mumuye figures from Africa, the nine tino aitu statuettes from Nukuoro, the malagan fish from New Ireland never before exhibited in a museum and the uli figures from the same region.
Visual Encounters provides evidence of the unique contribution made by art from Africa and Oceania to the history of world art and at the same time, pays homage to one of the fundamental conceptions underlying the establishment of the Fondation Beyeler.