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Baule mask Ivory Coast wood height: 43 in. (109 cm.) base by wood artist Kichizô Inagaki (1876–1951) (image courtesy Christie’s)

Popularly known as the “Krugier-Picasso mask,” a 19th century West African mask that will be part of the Jan Krugier Collection sale at Christie’s on November 4 was an important inspiration to Pablo Picasso, who captured its semi-circular mouth with the pointed tongue in several of his paintings, including his 1937 masterpiece “Guernica.”

Detail of Picasso’s “Guernica” (1937) with the head reminiscent of the Baule mask. The image has been rotated for clarity. (via Wikipedia)

Through contemporary eyes, it’s hard not to see the power of 20th century abstraction in the Krugier-Picasso mask, which pre-dates Cubism and other modern movements that often looked to African art for inspiration.

This sculpture was owned by the founder of Surrealism André Breton by 1925, then past into the collection of Picasso himself, and it is currently being sold at Christie’s auction house in New York as part of a sale of 150 works in the estate of Jan Krugier, the world’s foremost dealer of Picasso, who acquired the work after Picasso’s death.

The Krugier-Picasso sculpture was created by a Baule (or Baoulé) artist, though the artist’s name is unknown. The Baule are renowned for their art and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art has this brief description of the Baule culture:

About one million people identify themselves as Baule (pronounced BOUGH-lay). They form one of the largest ethnic groups in Cote d’Ivoire and have been leaders in the independent modern nation. Most Baule people live in small farming villages where men and women perform different tasks to keep the community prosperous. In the arts, women make pottery; men carve wood, cast metal and weave cloth. Although only men wear masks, artworks are owned by women and men. Baule artists created one of Africa’s great art traditions.

To provide some context, we reached out to Susan Kloman, the international specialist head of Christie’s African and Oceanic Art department, who explained to Hyperallergic what she finds significant about the Krugier-Picasso mask:

This mask created by a Baule mastercarver from Ivory Coast in the 19th century is a sort of axis upon which Jan Krugier’s sensibility pivoted — his feeling for beauty and sophistication and that he did not limit himself to a time, place or medium. The mask is best of its type with a brilliant sense of line balancing its enormous form and volume. Picasso clearly admired his mask and one can see that he borrowed direct visual elements, like the open mouth and pointed tongue for paintings such as Guernica. Moreover, the story goes, he enjoyed keeping the mask on a rocking chair in his studio, so it was always ‘charging’ and in motion.

If one could distill Picasso’s greatest muses into one form — it would be this — African art, the mask, and the bull.

Before Picasso owned the mask, it was in the collection of Surrealist Andre Breton in Paris. It has been widely published and exhibited, including William Rubin’s landmark exhibition in New York at the Museum of Modern Art in 1984: Primitivism and 20th Century ArtNo collector of either Modern art or African art with a sense of art history could resist this masterpiece with such illustrious history.

Krugier’s collection includes a surprising breadth that ranges from 19th century figures like Eugène Delacroix and Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres to contemporary artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat and Robert Rauschenberg, and with particularly rich selections of works by Picasso and exceptional examples of African art. Born in Radom, Poland, Krugier survived the horrors of the Holocaust during World World II and moved to Paris in the late 1940s as a fledgling artist, but was later famously persuaded by artist Alberto Giacometti to switch careers and become an art dealer. Krugier opened his first gallery in Geneva, Switzerland, in 1962, and his gallery became well-known for mixing 19th and 20th century paintings with works by the Old Masters and African sculpture, which was usual for an era where gallery shows tended to segregate different periods and cultural traditions. The estimate for the Baule mask is $500,000–800,000.

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Hrag Vartanian

Hrag Vartanian is editor-in-chief and co-founder of Hyperallergic. You can follow him at @hragv.