In purchasing Philippe Wolfers’ masterpiece Civilisation et Barbarie in 2001, the King Baudouin Foundation prevented this exceptional sculpture from leaving Belgium to become part of a private collection in Japan. The work is not only a flagship of Art Nouveau in Belgium, it is also a unique testimony to our national history.
The work is inseparable from the Exposition Universelle (World Fair) organized in Brussels in 1897. On this occasion, a colonial section was inaugurated in Tervuren, aimed at counteracting negative criticisms of Belgium’s colonial policy and with the purpose of presenting products imported from the Congo and pointing out the benefits of this trade.
Philippe Wolfers was commissioned to create a prestigious gift for the occasion: a document holder in Congolese ivory supported by two figurines, one white and the other black, supposed to evoke the two peoples who would share the Belgian part of the “African Coral Coast”. The artist adapted the commission by choosing an allegorical representation: a swan to represent civilization and a dragon to symbolize barbarism. The two animals are fighting to protect a lily, symbol of purity and enlightenment. In this work, Wolfers was merely reflecting the perception of the period regarding the colony and the civilizing influence of Belgium.
Wolfers mastered to perfection the nature of the various materials he used, excelling equally as a silversmith and a sculptor. He was the only person to ensure that the elephant tusks were used as they were or sectioned in such a way that their origin remained clearly identifiable. Ivory is an extremely fragile material and very sensitive to changes in the climate, so setting it in metal was a most delicate operation. In fact the ivory is not attached to the metal at all, enabling it to develop without splitting.
The allegory and framework of the document holder are in silver. Wolfers employed the sheen of the silver for the swan representing white man, whilst he gave the dragon a dark patina that enhanced the sculptural effect. Unfortunately this patina has almost completely disappeared.
On the parchment placed in the document holder was a map of the Congo and a text describing the steps in the battle of civilization against barbarism: the creation of the independent state of the Congo, a medical service, plantations and a postal service. Together with the planned construction of a railway, all of these things would contribute to the development of the local peoples. The document holder also contained two scrolls containing the names of those who had contributed financially to the realization of this masterpiece.
Today, the Musées Royaux d’Art et d’Histoire have given this important work a place of honour among its collection of prestigious objects commissioned by King Leopold II to mark the occasion of the International Exhibition of Tervuren.