Tribute to a tastemaker: Charles Ratton

Man Ray’s portrait of Adrienne Fidelin wearing African headdress and bracelets to publicise Charles Ratton’s 1937 ‘Fashion in the Congo’ exhibition

The term “savvy” could have been invented for French art dealer Charles Ratton (1897-1986). His connoisseurship in what later became known as tribal art was matched only by his skill in networking and his eye for a business opportunity.

In 1937, for example, he saw one in the premiere of The Green Pastures – a remarkable film in which African-American actors perform scenes from the Bible – and organised a profile-raising display of African sculptures in the lobby of Paris’s Edouard VII Theatre. The list of lenders reflected Ratton’s clout as much as the casual conflation of black American and black African culture reflected his times: clients such as US cosmetics tycoon Helena Rubinstein and the French art critic Félix Fénéon supplied works, as did Picasso and Miró.

This key event and many others are explored in The Invention of the ‘Primitive’ Arts, a far-reaching exhibition devoted to Ratton at the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris. Ratton, the curators argue, was instrumental in changing how art from Africa, Asia, the Americas and Oceania was perceived. “These arts that we inaccurately term ‘primitive’ are subject to the same laws and are worthy of the same esteem as the classical arts,” he wrote.

A milliner’s son from Mâcon, Ratton gained an art history degree at the Ecole du Louvre in Paris. At first he immersed himself in the art of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, but in the 1920s became fascinated by tribal art. He was not alone – Picasso, Matisse and other artists had, like Gauguin before them, long sought inspiration in non-western art – but he was ahead of his time in realising its commercial potential, tapping into a market developed in the 1910s by the Parisian dealer and African art aficionado Paul Guillaume.

Granted a dealer’s licence in 1927, Ratton ran his business empire for some six decades from his apartment on rue de Marignan (a meticulous reconstruction of his office is a highlight of the exhibition), transforming the market in the process. “Part of Ratton’s pioneering status was his ability to view, and price, tribal art on a par with western art,” says Anny Shaw of the Art Newspaper.

A portrait of Ratton from the 1930s

How Ratton made friends and influenced people is a compelling story. In the 1930s, he engineered several pivotal exhibitions and auctions, especially a show of Benin bronzes held in Paris in 1932. The conception of non-western art as “exotic”, which prevailed at the turn of the century, was discarded in favour of an emphasis on the objects’ aesthetic aspects. “The show was a revelation for the French,” says Maureen Murphy, art historian and co-organiser of the Quai Branly show.

From the mid-1920s, he nurtured a close – and lucrative – relationship with leading surrealists, in particular André Breton, Tristan Tzara and Paul Eluard. In 1931, Eluard wrote: “I saw Ratton yesterday who offered to sell my works [Oceanic sculptures] and those of Breton around the beginning of May ... The International Colonial Exhibition [which opened at the Bois de Vincennes in 1931] is to take place at the same time. He thinks this will help.” It did – the sale at the Drouot saleroom in Paris raised an impressive FFr285,195.

His most radical move came in 1936 with an exhibition at his gallery of surrealist works, which juxtaposed pieces such as Man Ray’s blanket-wrapped sewing machine (“L’Enigme d’Isidore Ducasse”, 1920) with masks from Alaska and New Guinea.

But, crucially, Ratton had global ambitions, hoping to establish an African art market in the US on the back of the interest it was attracting in Europe. However, US dealers believed there was little mileage in tribal art, even when New York’s Museum of Modern Art launched its trailblazing African Negro Art show in 1935.

An Ivory Coast mask in the Quai Branly show

Murphy says the US market in tribal art only took off after the second world war, most notably after the launch in 1957 of New York’s Museum of Primitive Art. (In 1976, its collection was transferred to the Metropolitan Museum.) Ratton, who supplied numerous works to the new institution, had finally found an entrée into American art circles.

Quai Branly’s catalogue reveals a complex, contradictory figure. Eluard labelled him a maniaque de la beauté (beauty obsessive); Guy Ladrière, Ratton’s unofficial apprentice and, eventually, his gallery partner, characterises him as “extremely discreet”. “His guiding principle was to say nothing,” he recalls.

After the Louvre rejected Ratton’s collection, he eventually sold his holdings to Ladrière, who has loaned several works to the show. Significantly, he addresses the delicate issue that occasionally arises over Ratton: whether he collaborated with the Nazis. Ladrière says: “There were many rumours ... but did he take advantage of Jewish dealers and collectors? No.”

The issue of colonialism looms larger. Whether Ratton was anti-colonialist is difficult to ascertain: he was happy to loan works to the anachronistic Musée des Colonies, founded at the Palais de la Porte Dorée in 1931, but two decades later appeared to voice concern about colonial policy in Alain Resnais and Chris Marker’s 1953 film Les statues meurent aussi (Statues Also Die).

A royal sceptre from Congo, also in the Quai Branly show

“Nothing is coming from the colonies any more; they are being emptied out, and exporting indigenous pieces will soon be prohibited,” Ratton wrote in 1946. Whether he was lamenting the drying up of a source of works to sell or the cultural depletion of colonised territories is a bone of contention. “I don’t think he regretted the fact that the colonies were being emptied, on the contrary. For him, this was a ‘fatality’ of the situation and he tried to make the best out of it,” says Murphy. The dealer’s ambiguous history resonates in the museum: the Musée du Quai Branly, backed by then president Jacques Chirac, opened in 2006 and could be considered an attempt to atone for the west’s colonial past.

“[Ratton] promoted [non-western] art, but at the same time bought objects that weren’t supposed to leave the African continent,” says Murphy. “Beauty came first and then ethical considerations, but Ratton wasn’t worse than other art dealers of the era, just more prudent. He was a man of his times, with all the contradictions it implied.”

‘Charles Ratton: l’invention des arts “primitifs”’, Musée du Quai Branly, to September 22

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