DMA Insight

Clark and Frances Stillman: Forming the Collection

This essay is excerpted from a 1969 catalogue prepared to announce to the acquisition of The Clark and Frances Stillman Collection of Congo Sculpture at the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts.

In Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet "wanted Mr. Darcy to account for his ever having fallen in love with her. 'How could you begin?' she said. 'I can comprehend your going on charmingly, when you had once made a beginning; but what could set you off in the first place?'"

Collecting is very much like falling in love, and how one begins is equally mysterious. As in falling in love, the conjunction of time, place, people, and object must be just right for that inexplicable spontaneous combustion of intellect and emotion, which leads to a kind of obsession, to take place. For the collector is obsessed, just as the lover is obsessed.

In the beginning of our long love affair with Congo sculpture, the time was the early 1930s, and we were very young and impressionable. The place was Brussels, full of small shops and collections of Congo objects, where even at the Sunday flea market there were one or two stands selling genuine Congo objects. Our deus ex machina was the young Professor of Anthropology at the University of Ghent, Frans Olbrechts, who had just returned to Belgium from a period of graduate study under Professor Franz Boas of Columbia University. Frans and his wife, Margriet, were the warmest and most delightful friends imaginable. At that time, Frans was on the hunt for Congo sculptures for Belgian museums, and we accompanied him on many a foray into the side streets and the flea market in search of minor treasures and to more important collectors and dealers for major treasures. With his characteristic enthusiasm he explained the functions of the various pieces, their origins, and their beauties. He was working out, in his own mind, the classifications by style and style group which he was to develop in his pioneering book, Plastiek van Kongo, and we were participants in the process.

Frans Olbrechts was later to become the director of the Congo Museum at Tervuren, Belgium, and lead the museum in its great program of acquisition, research, and education in Congo studies and particularly in the field of Congo art. He was a person whose very presence kindled any group to burn more brightly with enthusiasm and brilliance; when Frans entered a room, everything lit up. He was not only a great scientist in the field, but an inspiring personality. He had served in the First World War and had been one of those permanently injured by gas warfare; and the privations of the Second World War, together with the tensions of his underground activities, undermined his health still further. His many activities were cut tragically short by his death in 1958 at the age of fifty-nine.

Over the years, starting slowly and gaining momentum as we gained knowledge and sureness of taste, we worked consistently to "purify" and improve our collection. Residence and visits in several European countries and in Africa gave us opportunity to find pieces that met our criteria. Most of these old, traditional pieces had come out of African many years before, and it was not in Africa that we found them, but in collections, museums, and in the trade in Europe and New York. Although we are both in a way scholars, one of us has more the scientific approach, and the other the aesthetic; therefore we have always complemented each other as we approached our decisions. Collecting as a team has much to recommend it in other ways. The shared joy of the chase, the give and take of the dialogue that takes place along the way, and even the arguments about priorities, all have made life more interesting and the collection richer and stronger.

We are happy that through the interest and generosity of Eugene and Margaret McDermott this representative collection of Central African sculpture, exhibiting an important part of mankind's artistic achievement, has a home in the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts.

Excerpt from

Clark and Frances Stillman, "Forming the Collection," in The Clark and Frances Stillman Collection of Congo Sculpture (Dallas, TX: Dallas Museum of Fine Arts, 1969), 5-7.