A simple Dan spoon is anything but simple. To see it solely as a work of art is analogous to seeing a monarch’s crown as merely a fancy hat. Anyone who is not informed about the cultures from which the spoon and the crown arise will misinterpret their significance. In the Dan culture, the spoon bears a relation to the woman’s role as the generous provider of hospitality who has the capability to take good care of those around her. The spoon possesses and conveys power and is used in the ceremonial giving of food. An agricultural people, the Dan live in the area that is now part of the Ivory Coast and Liberia, although in the 1920s when Alberto Giacometti became familiar with their work, the area was known as French West Africa.

In the 1960s, the Tremaines began to collect primitive art, focusing on aesthetics. However, that focus obscured numerous issues, including the role of art in the society of origin versus its role in the society of acquisition; racial identity and stereotyping; and, ultimately, who had the power to make decisions as to ownership. The word primitive is now considered pejorative, but at that time it was the accepted term. Nelson Rockefeller had already amassed a superb collection that was displayed in its own museum until 1969 when it was transferred to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Spoon Woman, Alberto Giacometti’s evocation of a Dan spoon, was purchased by the Tremaines from the Nelson Rockefeller collection. Probably because it was not really primitive, having come from the Paris atelier of a Swiss sculptor, Spoon Woman had not gone to the Met but instead to an art dealer for resale. However, it is exactly its betwixt and between status that makes Spoon Woman worthy of attention.

Paradoxically, it was Giacometti who peaked Emily’s interest in primitive art. Eight years before acquiring Spoon Woman, the Tremaines wandered into a gallery in Paris to see an exhibition of Oceanic art. According to Emily, they heard “a very eerie sound” and turned to see Max Ernst and Giacometti beating on a large hollowed-out log known as a tam-tam. They knew both men well, and owned their art, including Giacometti’s sculpture Man Walking Quickly Under the Rain. That particular tam-tam had already been sold, but before too long the Tremaines acquired an even more imposing one. Standing nine feet tall with huge elongated eyes, it dominated their New York apartment, reaching to the ceiling. Emily often moved the art around in the apartment as new pieces entered the collection, and so at various times the tam-tam shared space with Calder’s Bougainvillea, while across the room a Senufo female form from the Upper Volta gazed at Delauney’s Premièr Disque.

For Emily, Spoon Woman served as a link between the primitive and modern. Giacometti had moved to Paris in the 1920s during a time when there was a great interest in the art of the European colonies in Africa and the South Pacific. Artists found it to be spiritually mysterious and free from the onerous strictures of Western culture. Yet few artists, including Giacometti, made an effort to understand the cultures from whence it arose. Nor was it really possible for them to do so. The general opinion at that time was that the benefits of imperialism went both ways, with the superior imperialists gaining raw goods and material wealth from their colonies, while the inferior colonies gained civilization.

Furthermore, artists borrowed ideas all the time, whether from a Greek sculptor two thousand years before, or from a contemporary artist who abstracted reality. Which brings up Pablo Picasso who, like Giacometti, was intrigued by primitive art, turning it to his cubist purposes, as in his New Hebrides Mask, purchased by Emily in the 1940s. Cubism was also at work in Spoon Woman. Was it primitive? Giacometti himself used the word primordial, as in the following quote: “In every work of art the subject is primordial, whether the artist knows it or not. The measure of the formal qualities is only a sign of the measure of the artist’s obsession with his subject, the form is always in proportion to the obsession.”

As totemic as the sculpture may seem, it lacks the power of a real Dan spoon. Also its size (just shy of five feet) make it into something other than a utensil. A Dan spoon is usually between one and two feet long, like a very large ladle. It is big enough to be out of the ordinary but not so big as to be purely symbolic. It retains its functionality, serving rice or wheat. Furthermore, Dan spoons are carved wood, while Spoon Woman is cast bronze. Spoon Woman was an edition of six, whereas each Dan spoon is one of a kind, representing the individual woman to whom it belongs. Perhaps the greatest difference is that while Giacometti’s statue alludes to the symbolic primacy of the oval as womb, in Dan culture the spoon went beyond that, speaking to the totality of the woman’s position as provider and sustainer.

When they acquired Spoon Woman, the Tremaines were members of the International Council of the Museum of Modern Art, which was founded in 1953 on the tenet that “modern art transcends national and ideological boundaries.” However, that tenet was more idealistic than true as can be seen by the International Council’s program to lend art to American embassies, a program with political overtones during the Cold War. Although the members were probably not aware of it, even the meaning of the word international was in flux as colonies around the world sought independence and, with it, the right to claim their own identity.

I end this essay not with Spoon Woman but with Man Walking Quickly Under the Rain, which presents a conundrum. If viewers do not know what the title is, they see a figure of a man walking. There is no rain from which he seeks shelter, no gray cloud, no cold dampness. It is the title that places the figure in time and space. Regardless, the impression is of a human intently alone. Just as an actual woman is immanent in a Dan spoon, so also, as Giacometti wrote in a letter, “the figure was me.”

The Emily Files is a monthly feature where we explore specific pieces from the Tremaine Collection and connect them to themes shaping contemporary art. Each feature is written by Kathleen Housley, author of Emily Hall Tremaine: Collector on the Cusp.

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