Civilization and barbarity in ivory sculpture

Footsteps by D. Chiparus©Cento anni at Brafa 2015.
In the 1920s there was a rage for figurines in ivory and bronze called chryselephantines. Among the masters of that time, Demetre Chiparus still stands out as the one who best captured the new liberated women who danced charleston and smoked in public places. The mix of ivory with metal in chryselephantine sculpture (from the Greek chrysos, gold, and elephantinos, ivory) had been almost forgotten since the loss of the highest achievement in Ancient times’ sculpture: the twelve metres tall Athena Parthenos of Phidias, covered in the gold of the treasury of Athens and housed in the center of the Parthenon of the Acropolis. But this new fashion began in Belgium in 1897 in very dark circumstances.
Athena Parthenos.
During the Congress of Berlin of 1885, the major European powers ended up the partitioning of colonial Africa. The king of little Belgium managed to grab an immense territory located between the German, French and British possessions, around the basin of the Congo river, out of fear of these three to let it increase the huge dominions accumulated by any of the other two.

Ivory sculpture hall at the Palace of Colonies, 1897, Brussels.


The Congo Free State was born as a private possession of Leopold II, king of the Belgians. He was already very rich but wanted, as we say today, to maximise the money invested. Ivory was, with rubber, the main commodity extracted from Congo, sent to Antwerp, the second ivory market after Liverpool, and sold internationally with decreasing benefits. Between 1884 and 1904, 445.467 elephant tusks were traded in Belgium, with a total weight of 3.660.236 kg of ivory. The market was flooded with Congolese ivory.
Civilisation and Barbarity by Wolfers. “Collection Fondation Roi Baudoin”©Hughes Dubois.
“Towards infinity” by Pieter-Jan Braecke. © Musée Royaux d’Art et D’Histoire. Brussels.
Leopold used the 1897 Brussels International Exposition to show the wealth of his private possession of Congo. A Palace of Colonies, though there was only one colony, was built in Tervuren, alongside a typical Congolese village where seven Congolese died of exhaustion after the Exposition. Inside the Palace, there was a special section devoted to ivory sculpture. Leopold, looking for new markets, had sent elephant tusks to the thirty best Belgian sculptors: Wolfers, Stappen, Devreesse, Meunier, Braecke, etc. A new opportunity for Congolese ivory was guaranteed after having set a new fashion for chryselephantine sculpture.
“Mysterious sphinx” by Charles Van der Stappen. © Musée Royaux d’Art et D’Histoire. Brussels.
Many of the ivory sculptures exhibited in 1897 can be seen in the “Wolfers shop” room of the Royal Museum of Art and History at the Cinquantenaire Park. This room is partly a piece of art itself because the display cases were genuinely designed by Horta for the showroom of the “Wolfers Freres” silversmiths. The room is somewhat neglected but there are plans to display this exceptional art nouveau collection in a new series of galleries. We hope so!

Japanese-style ivory vase by Wolfers. © Musée Royaux d’Art et D’Histoire. Brussels.