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The story behind a collection

Josef Mueller was born in 1887 into a middle-class family from Solothurn, in German-speaking Switzerland. Nothing predestined his becoming one of the greatest art collectors of all time fig. 1. At the age of ten, he lost both his father and his mother, and was raised by a governess. However, he had the chance to frequently visit the home of one of his schoolmates, whose parents were lovers of modern art and who, as early as 1906, owned a beautiful painting from Picasso’s pink period: the portrait of a woman, seen in profile, which Mueller was later to acquire fig. 2.

At 20 years of age, he spent a whole year’s income on one painting, and swiftly made his way to Paris where he met the famous art dealer, Ambroise Vollard. Acting on the advice of the latter, he acquired a highly renowned painting by Cézanne, the portrait of the Jardinier Vallier, painted in 1905, at the very end of the future father of modern painting’s life.

By privation and through overcoming manifold difficulties, Josef Mueller put together a collection with extraordinary rapidity that, as early as 1918, included seven works by Cézanne fig. 3, five by Matisse, and five by Renoir, without counting the Picassos, the Braques and as many other paintings by prestigious masters.

The thirst for novelty and the desire (formulated by Rimbaud) to be "absolutely modern" drove artists to explore the unknown. In the wake of the Impressionists’ revolutionary innovations, the Fauvists (Vlaminck fig. 4, Derain fig. 5, Matisse) were the first to realise that African fetishes, whose seeming crudeness had previously been cause for derision, could find a place among works of art that spring from man’s natural creative impulse and his endless quest for formal perfection.

In the 1920s, a handful of enthusiastic artists and collectors were delighted to discover both the ingenuity and the honesty of the designs of tribal artists who, oblivious to the notion of art for art’s sake, produced works not of personal expression, nor to please a public of connoisseurs, but as an essential part of their magical and religious beliefs, which sought to maintain a balance between the contradictory forces that operate in the world.

In 1935, the New York Museum of Modern Art organised a large exhibition entitled African Negro Art. All the works on display were owned by Europeans, among them the poet Tristan Tzara, who possessed a magnificent Gabonese mask which the Barbier-Mueller Museum was to acquire several years later fig. 6. Josef Mueller did not contribute anything to this exhibition; in fact, he rarely participated in public events. He would most certainly have refused to hold a conference or to explain the reasons behind the accumulation of so many treasures. However, in 1957, at the age of seventy, Mueller decided to exhibit his African collection fig. 7 in the museum of his native town, Solothurn, where he had returned to live after the war. Jean Paul Barbier, husband to his daughter, Monique, historian and art lover, understood Josef Mueller’s irritation that the works of so-called "primitive" art remained defiantly underestimated while his other paintings received copious praise. Perhaps it was at this moment that the idea of a permanent museum of primitive art was conceived; an idea that would come into effect twenty years later, in Geneva, where Monique and Jean Paul Barbier-Mueller were to settle.

Jean Paul Barbier had built up a collection of his own, and this was added to that of Mueller. He dedicated himself to seeking key works that would provide additional coherence to the overall collection. Indeed, Josef Mueller had not sought to create a synchronous whole, and bought objects simply according to aesthetic criteria. His son-in-law later succeeded in presenting a rationalised collection, which in turn became a "chef d’œuvre" of world renown.

The Barbier-Mueller Museum opened its doors in May, 1977, three months after the passing of Josef Mueller. Many friends of the family, art lovers and connoisseurs from all over the world took part in this event. They soon joined together to form the Friends of the Barbier-Mueller Museum Association, which today consists of nearly one thousand members fig. 8.

The collection today assembles 7000 works of art, sculptures, masks, textiles, and objects of prestige or corporal adornment. This unique store, constantly enriched by Jean Paul Barbier, constitutes the greatest collection of primitive art in the world. The principal sectors are, in order of importance, Africa, the East Indies ("primitive" Indonesia), Oceania, the Americas (pre- and post-Colombian), tribal Asia, and, in a more general manner, the prehistoric or archaic phases of great civilisations (Greece, Italy, Japan, the East Indies).