The Barbus Müller

Their Enigmatic Sculptor Finally Unmasked

04 March 2020 27 September 2020

What are the Barbus Müller? In 1939, strange sculptures appeared on the Paris antiquities market. Possessing a boundless curiosity, Josef Müller, the founder of the Barbier-Mueller collection on display at the eponymous museum, could not fail to be drawn to these basalt creations, and he acquired an entire lot of them.

Jean Dubuffet discovered them in 1945 in the studio of the Japanese pedestal maker Inagaki. Fascinated by these strange creations with a striking family resemblance, he baptized them all “Barbus Müller”, probably after the beard that certain pieces sport and the name of Josef Müller, who had acquired the greatest number of them. He published them in a small leaflet, which contains the founding text on his concept of Art Brut (reissued as an insert in the exhibition catalogue). He also organized an exhibition in 1947 at the Foyer de l’Art Brut in Paris. He later acquired three pieces of this kind.

Nothing was known about these statues. When Josef Müller acquired them, they were described as “Celtic heads in stone, Vendée”, but various provenances were attributed to them over time, including the Americas and Oceania. They were even said to be the work of a self-taught sculptor.

The riddle now appears to be solved. Thanks to a detailed study conducted by the passionate Bruno Montpied, the identity of the sculptor has been revealed (for some of these Barbus Müller at least).

Assembling some twenty Barbus from its own collection and from private and public lenders, the Musée Barbier-Mueller has juxtaposed them with works from faraway cultures selected from its collections, in order to assess the resemblances and differences. They will fraternize as they once did before Josef Müller’s eyes and in his storeroom.