Artist, writer, founder of art organizations and political activist, Jean-Jacques Lebel is also a great collector. His eye is drawn to marginal pieces of mainstream culture: raw, non-Western, primitive and surreal art. He inherited the rich collection of his father, Robert Lebel (1901-1986), an art critic specialized in Marcel Duchamp. The collection emerges as a testimony of the vivaciousness of another art history, going against the academic grain.
Robert Lebel, like Claude Levi-Strauss, Georges Duthuit, Isabelle and Patrick Waldberg, revolved around a core group of surrealist exiles in America between 1941 in 1946: André Breton, Marcel Duchamp, Marx Ernst, Andre Masson, Yves Tanguy, Roberto Matta, Dorothea Tanning, Jacqueline Lamba.
In New York, they quenched their curiosity for north American and Inuit art in the American Museum of Natural History and Julius Carlebach’s antique shop. Julius Carlebach acted as middleman between George Heye, founder of the Museum of the American Indian, who dispersed a few pieces of the collections, and the collectors rooted in surrealism.
donation of two drawing books and a list of pieces belonging to Robert Lebel
In 2006, Jean-Jacques Lebel contributed to the Museum’s collections when he donated two notebooks filled with Eskimo masks (black notebook with 59 Indian ink and lead and colored pencils drawings and a green spiral notebook with two lead pencil drawings and text), and a typed and handwritten five-page list.
The notebooks contain drawings by Robert Lebel and were used by him to meticulously draw his masks and those acquired by André Breton, Isabelle Waldberg, George Duthuit, Roberto Matta, Bernard Reis, Dolores Vanetti and Enrico Donati. Other sketches are inspired by ethnographic board drawings including Edward William Nelson’s famous The Eskimo about the Bering Strait by Edward William Nelson.
At the bottom of the drawings, Robert Lebel wrote some information on the objects (inventory numbers given by George Heye, buyer’s initials, dimensions, bibliographical reference and information). The style of the drawings reveal the hand of an amateur and sheds light on the man who started writing a book on Yup’ ik art in 1944 with André Breton and Georges Duthuit. The project was never completed.
Robert Lebel has left an extremely precious document to reclaim Yup’ik objects collections bought from the Museum of the American Indian through Carlebach.
These sketchbooks can also be viewed as an attempt to capture the poetic fragility of the pieces through a medium other than writing. The surrealists were fascinated by the masks, inspired by shamanic dreams. During ceremonies, masks were swiftly displayed before being burned at the end of the ritual. There are great similarities between the « so called primitive and surrealist thought: they both aim to suppress the hegemony of consciousness and everyday life to launch on a conquest of revealing emotion. » (Andre Breton in the sales catalogue of Collection Robert Lebel, CalmelsCohen, 2006)
acquisition of three Yupiit masks, Robert Lebel's ancient collection
From 1944 to 1946, Robert Lebel assembled an important collection of objects from Alaska and the American southwest, including Yu’pik masks. Three of these masks were acquired by the musée du quai Branly in 2006, one through the patronage of METROPOLE Gestion, and two through the contribution of the Société des Amis of the musée du quai Branly.