Baumeister as a Collector

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One emphasis of the collection is the compilation of Oceanic objects that come from the Sepik region of New Guinea. Among other objects are also a heavy combat shield with a height of 1.4 meters (ca. 55 inches) and a slightly smaller ceremonial (dance) shield. The extraordinarily expressive ornamental and figural formal realm refers to the world of spirits and the cosmos - a thematic area that continually captivated Baumeister not only in the 1940s, but also over many decades while working on the Unknown in Art.

Baumeister owned a few works of ancient American art from the Precolumbian period, Central America, and ancient Peruvian cultures. Many objects came from a time that preceded the Incan Empire. The sign-like quality is so pronounced, even in the mimicry of some figures, that we can understand Baumeister's interest in this culture. He also collected ancient Peruvian weavings.

The wisdom of the East, Far Eastern philosophy, and art of the East Asia particularly spoke to the artist. His collection contained 46 objects of Asian origin, including a small group of Chinese and Japanese woodcuts. The most important object for him was the 19th-century scroll painting in India ink on paper with the written character shou (for long life), which he received in 1941 as a gift from Dr. Kurt Herberts.

Baumeister also loved the art of the ancient Egyptians. He estimated this art to be - as he put it - direct painting that is built up of elementary forms as elements of the expression. Some wooden Shabits and two bronze Osiris figures appear in his collection.

Baumeister was especially attached to the ancient Orient. The pieces of his collection meant a great deal to him and his interest in this cultural region was immense, especially in the thirties when he enthusiastically read the field reports of archeologist C. Leonard Woolley, such as Ur und die Sintflut (Ur and the Flood, 1930) and Vor 5000 Jahren (5000 Years Ago, ca. 1930). The harp motif in some of his works from around 1945 is derived from the lyres of Ur.

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Baumeister was also especially interested in early ancient small sculptures from the Mediterranean and in Egyptian ushabti (shabtis in English). His collection includes fossils, prehistoric vessels, stone axes. While Baumeister taught as a professor at the Municipal School of Applied Arts (Städelschule) in Frankfurt, he took the opportunity to attend lectures by Swiss cultural historian Hans Mühlestein.

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The beginning of Baumeister's great interest in nonwestern art cannot be precisely dated. Even so, it is conceivable that he came into contact with African art beginning in 1924, when he met the French artist-colleagues Le Corbusier, Amedée Ozenfant, and Fernand Léger in Paris. Especially in the French art magazines Cahier d'Art and Documents illustrations of African art appeared.

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Willi Baumeister's collection of ancient and nonwestern material culture contains around 250 objects. Astonishing is the collection's breadth in terms of cultural regions and time periods, but also in light of its figures, masks, and other artifacts' variety of functional and handicraft.