THE COLLECTIVE: Martine Pinard, a seeker of humanity

By Laurent Granier with Artkhade and Gus Adler & Filles

Paris, 23 January 2018

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Collectors and art lovers populate the world of ancient African, Oceanic and American arts. Laurent Granier takes a look at their backgrounds, the psychological mechanisms behind their passions, their doubts, and their strategies. With them, he discusses objects, their histories, and the market.

All self-respecting tribal-arts lovers are familiar with the blog Détours des mondes, its hundreds of meticulous posts, its accounts of exhibitions, its yays and its nays, and its thematic bibliographies. But who exactly is Martine Pinard, the author of the said blog, and the president of the eponymous association? I was dying to find out more about this discreet woman, whom I’d come across two or three times previously in the course of my research, and whose conscientious work gave me hope of a wonderful encounter. So we scheduled to meet for Sunday lunch in a venue that she is particularly fond of: La Maison Rouge, in Paris, on 2 April 2017.

Beautiful things

Born to a modest family, young Martine Pinard dreamed of conquering space. An only child and a good student, she majored in maths at high school, fascinated by the beauty of equations. Science would become her social elevator. One DEA (Master’s research) degree in astronomy and one PhD in celestial mechanics later, Martine got bored while doing her post-doc. “What I liked was the beauty of maths. A fine demonstration should have style.” She found work in private preparatory schools and taught maths at the Ecole Supérieure de Chimie Organique and the Ecole Polytechnique Féminine. “This lifestyle suited me, I was the master of my timetable.” All the same, she also enrolled in philosophy courses at the Sorbonne, earning a Master’s and a DEA with dissertations on Kierkegaard and Conrad. A big gap “to satisfy my maths mentality,” she admits. From there, she went on to teach philosophy for two years in a high school in a priority-education zone. “An enriching human experience. But very hard: I wasn’t bringing pure Truth the way one can claim to in maths… There was something pointless about navigating through concepts when the young people facing me were already being tested by life’s tougher aspects.”

/Photo © Martine Pinard.

In 2004, a voyage to Chile – to visit her daughter who was traveling around the world – helped trigger her future passion. “I love travelling. I’m interested in the arts. Even if I didn’t know anything about them, I said to myself that perhaps I could set up a business and sell fine craftwork.” She also thought about selling books… With a little hindsight, Martine realises that what she likes, in the end, are “beautiful things”: stars, polished equations, philosophy, artworks and voyages. She sums up a life already well lived, and draws a conclusion in the form of a challenge: “I have to learn what beautiful things are. And then I have to stay within what I know how to do. I don’t know how to sell, any more than I know how to sell myself, but I know how to transmit.” The blog Détours des mondes was launched in December 2005. At that time, Martine was attending the Ecole du Louvre “for a single reason: to earn a diploma on the African and Oceanic arts so I could be credible writing about tribal art.” She did some research, and from there, her first articles on the blog were born.

“At the start of the blog, I was surprised by my need to keep on writing for the next day. Not for the ego’s sake, but out of a real hunger for knowledge.” A new playground opened up to her. With the Oceanic arts, she discovered the magical arts, namely alongside Ludovic Coupaye, who “provided an ethno vision of things. Whereas in Africa, things are far more formal: the history of styles, interminable series of slides… Humanity isn’t really part of it, we don’t know where the Africans are behind all this. It’s the complete opposite in Oceania.”

Quick to crop up was the question of her legitimacy in speaking about the peoples of Africa. “But I got over it because I receive many comments from young high-school pupils or students from Africa who thank me for the knowledge I bring […]. And I’m also against the idea of knowledge being reserved to the big specialists. That’s obscurantism! I’m aware that our thirst for knowledge can cause damage, but I’m nonetheless sure that we shouldn’t leave discussion simply to those who give themselves the authority to speak.”

/ Photo © Martine Pinard.

In 2009, the Détours des Mondes talks began. “I missed people, I wanted to get back in contact with them, but I didn’t really see how because venues in Paris are expensive.” So she set up an association to gain access a venue and to get reimbursed for some of her expenses. “But I couldn’t live on it, far from it.” Starting off with around thirty members, “mainly auditors from the Ecole du Louvre, and a dozen talks per year, today the association has over one hundred members. Their profiles are extremely varied, with as many men as women. “Almost all the men are collectors, and only a few women, but they’re all open people who are curious about the world.”

“At first, the visits to the exhibitions for Christie’s and Sotheby’s sales were new for many. I’d also take them to galleries. Women in particular wouldn’t have dared to push the doors open as it’s very intimidating.”

The association quickly gained speed: presentations, tours, meetings multiplied. “Today, the association has reached its goal and turned into a convivial space where guest experts and passionate enthusiasts are given a common forum.

Martine continues to travel a great deal. “My husband and I have wound our way all over the Sahara, bit by bit – Southern Algeria, Mauritania, Libya, Egypt, Niger – and outside the desert, the Dogon Country, of course. Sumba was a great discovery; the Batak Country was also very interesting… I took with me Barbier-Mueller’s travel log, En pays toba, and we tried to find what he was talking about…”

No such thing as a good collection

Martine’s office is lined with a thousand or so books, half on Africa, the other half on Oceania. “A little on Southeast Asia as well. Lots of ethnology. Recently I ruined myself with books on Captain Cook.”

Her favourite books on the African arts include Central Nigeria Unmasked: Arts of the Benue River Valley (Fowler Museum) and Ubangui (5 Continents). “There are also all the books by Marc Leo Felix, François Neyt’s great Songye, and older works by Raoul Lehuard. As for the arts of Oceania, very quickly I got my hands on Anthony Meyer’s two big volumes, Oceanic Art and New Guinea Art, on the Jolika Collection. Now, of course, I buy more specialised books, and above all, I read many articles depending on my preoccupations of the moment.”

I’m curious to find out whether her relationship to objects exceeds the frames of museum displays and the pages of books. “Yes, I collect objects. I like sharing my objects, but not as much as knowledge on my blog.”

Her first object was the fragment of a panel from an Abelam house. “It reminded me of my classes with Ludovic Coupaye.” Initially highly cerebral in her choices, Martine has today become more sensitive to aesthetic choices of the heart, and collects objects from all ethnicities. “But there has to be a figure.” The finesse of Polynesian objects “doesn’t appeal to” her. “I like hard objects: Vanuatu, Sepik, the grotesque, the photogenic, the colourful, the all-consuming… Dubuffet [Martine is a great fan of art brut] […] I also like objects that speak to me as bearers of our humanity, little pieces of missing links in our universality, of the mark of humans, their inventiveness in responding to the big questions in existence.”

/ Abelam painted bark, Maprik region, Papua New Guinea. Aprox. 145 cm. Collected by Mr. de Bellfond in the 70's. Ex Laurent Dodier Coll. / Photo © Martine Pinard.

Regarding her eye, she claims “not to have any in particular. Eyes are formed little by little. I’m convinced that it’s something you work at.” When asked what makes a good collection, she replies: “There’s no such thing as a good collection. A collection is the reflection of its collector. It reveals his life. […] You put your guts into a collection. A collection that’s built thanks to money is beautiful, that’s all. It’s not by gathering the top ten from the latest big sales that you can generate beauty and make a fine exhibition.” “Art doesn’t lie in the beds that we make for it. This is well known… However, a little exhibition like the one on the art of the Toma, shown by Aurélien Gaborit at the Musée du Quai Branly, had body and strength; we could follow its guiding thread. Or recently, there were the Amazonian feathers at the MEG (Musée d’Ethnographie de Genève), because there wasn’t just the aesthetic side of feathers, but also the context, the environment, social aspects, transversality. I like ethnology museum exhibitions that attach themselves to the present. These museums need to anchor themselves in modernity, to work with contemporary artists. They carry great responsibility.” She returns to her own collection: “You know, women don’t say I collect. They say I have a few trinkets… I think that generally speaking, women are more moderate and may keep more of a distance with objects than certain men. It’s not at all due to a lack of passion, but it’s a different relationship, another way of seeing things.” A recognised enthusiast in the small circle around the Sepik arts, Martine embarked on a big Polynesian chapter on the voyages on Captain Cook around a year ago. Producing about thirty detailed posts, she has extended the studies of the most brilliant researchers in the field, and the pages of her blog on these objects bear resemblance to a thesis. “Now, I look at Tongan baskets, tapas, even though I wasn’t really into them before. I’ve also developed an interest in the motifs of clubs. Knowledge thus helps us to appreciate things that we didn’t necessarily notice before.”

Making an effort

“Some people go into an exhibition or gallery and know everything. It seems that this can exist – I believe it. I suppose that big dealers or artists have a more sensitive pictorial eye.”

But isn’t it possible to fall in love with an object and find out about it afterwards? “I’m surprised that people can love an object solely for its form, without desiring to find out more about it. This is absolutely not what an artist or a designer would say, for example. I can only respect this point of view, but it remains alien to me.”

Everyone loves objects with stories, but in her opinion, William Rubin’s Kota is “ridiculous”. The genuinely historic part is interesting. Like the history of Cook objects in Europe, from 1768 to 1900: “Why Hawaiian caps in Leningrad? It’s the life of the object that interests me rather than the renown of its successive owners.”

/ Photo © Martine Pinard.

When I ask her about Félix Fénéon, she replies: “All I know about him is his investigation to establish whether the primitive arts should enter the Louvre. In terms of thinking on the primitive arts from the start of the 20th century, I’m more interested in the ideas of Carl Einstein.” And what about Hubert Goldet? “I don’t know much about him… I have his sales catalogue.” Or Maurice de Vlaminck? “We may well wonder what his eye found interesting in these forms. Artists like him didn’t care at all about the context, and as it happened, people knew little about it at the time, but they broke quite a few codes… Picasso in particular, seeing African masks as intercessors.”

What’s her view on dealers? “Oh, dealers! [Laughter.] I get bored with polished slippers on Parisian carpets! Of course I’m caricaturing, but I think that there are some gallerists who would be capable of selling any product as long as it’s labelled good taste and culture. Rare are those who are willing to take time to give explanations to beginners. So I fear a lack of new collector’s vocations, especially given today’s high prices that smell of big margins. There are some who have abused of the situation, and trust has suffered. It’s really a pity, because there are also some in the business who are conscientious, real tribal-arts experts or enthusiasts.”

Finally, how does this passion for the primitive arts improve us? “It makes us neither better nor worse. There are some events in our Western societies that I understand better through the prism of the primitive arts. For example, Bateson on the Iatmul people’s naven, or Marilyn Strathern on the Melpa at Mount Hagen. Through them, we understand that in these Papuan societies, gender is constructed socially, and this forces us to reflect on what happens in our own society. By distancing questions, spatially or temporally, we see them better. This is something else that’s well known: you have to make an effort!”

In 2018, Martine Pinard will be making her first voyage to Papua New Guinea.

Tags: Oceanic Art, African Art, Interviews