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How African Art Influenced Modern Art

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Matthew Kangasby Matthew Kangas

Modern art, let alone Pablo Picasso's art, would not exist without African art. Long before Picasso, whose work is so artfully juxtaposed at Seattle Art Museum with examples from the African collection (to January 17, 2011), African art made itself felt from Lisbon to Paris and from Berlin to Dresden and beyond.

Thanks to SAM African art curator Pam McClusky, precise correspondences between Picasso's art and pieces in the SAM collection that are similar to those he owned or saw are possible when viewing "Picasso: Masterpieces from the Musée National Picasso." The Katherine White Collection at SAM is one of the top five African art collections in the US. The Picasso show came about because McClusky originally wanted to have an exhibition honoring the centennial of Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907), the artist's most important painting to have an African influence.

"One thing Picasso believed was the power of art to reinstate the powers of sorcery, to disrupt our lives, and change our behavior, all things African art was believed to do," she commented.

The romance of African tribal art goes back even farther, before thousands of sculptures began arriving in Europe in the 1870s as "artifacts of colonized cultures." Prehistoric ruins from 10,000 BC began to be excavated in Algeria in 1847. The eminent 18th- and 19th-century philosophers David Hume, Immanuel Kant and G. W. F. Hegel all weighed in authoritatively on the topic, as when Kant claimed "blackness" meant ugliness and stupidity while at the same time lauding African art. Hegel, whose ideas later inspired Karl Marx, reaffirmed Hume's claim about Africa's "absence of civilization" because the continent had no indigenous script. No writing, no history, he believed.

Shortly after the first contacts between Europeans and Africans -- the Portuguese traders of the 1450s -- the influence was reversed. Hunting horns, spoons and forks, heads and powder flasks -- all of carved ivory -- were made by anonymous African craftsmen for export to Lisbon. These extraordinary, puzzling objects came out of pre-existing African traditions of fashioning ivory using the human figure. The purposes were European; the ornament and carving imagery were a hybrid of African and Portuguese art. Prior to that, around 1000 AD, the lost-wax bronze and brass-alloy casting technique was invented in Nigeria, not Renaissance Italy.

What was it about African art that so appealed to 19th- and 20th-century artists of the avant-garde? To Gauguin, who deplored the impact of western culture and technology, Oceanic art superseded African art as the influence once called "primitive." To German artists who were alert to African art as early as 1904, it was an alternative to oppressive social systems and institutions including naturalistic representation taught in art academies. European sculpture depended on overcoming the limitations of materials while African art seemed innocent of artifice and hence more vigorous in expression.

Over the years, Picasso ran hot and cold on admitting and denying African art's influence on him. He told André Malraux in 1937 it was its magic or "sorcery" after claiming in 1920 that he'd "never heard of it." He mentioned to Françoise Gilot, "When I had my Negro period, I was against what was called beauty in the museums." One historian claims Picasso misunderstood African art in this way, that he confused the deliberate, overt ugliness of African art -- to ward off evil spirits -- with "new concepts of beauty."

Picasso: Head of a Bull

Head of a bull, Spring 1942. Original elements: bicycle saddle and handlebars (leather and metal) 13 3/16 × 17 1/8 × 7 1/2 in. Pablo Picasso, Spanish, (worked in France), 1881–1973. Courtesy Musée National Picasso, Paris, © 2010 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Picasso: Head of a Woman

Head of a woman, 1931. Bronze, 33 7/8 × 12 5/8 × 19 1/8 in. Pablo Picasso, Spanish, (worked in France) 1881–1973. Courtesy Musée National Picasso, Paris, © 2010 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, Réunion des Musées Nationaux / Art Resource, NY, Photo: Beatrice Hatala

Crocodile Headdress

Crocodile headdress. Wood, skin, basketry. Nigerian/Cameroonian, Cross River Region, Nigeria, Ejagham, 29 × 38 1/2 × 8 3/4 in. (73.6 x 97.8 × 22.2 cm). Gift of Katherine White and the Boeing Company

Reliquary Figure

Reliquary Figure, 20th century. Brass, wood. African, Gabon, Kota. 24 5/8 × 10 5/8 × 2 13/16 in. (62.6 × 27 × 7.1 cm). Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection

Before those vacillations, it's worth asking how the greatest 20th-century artist came into contact with African art. There are three possible answers. First, after Maurice Vlaminck began collecting African art in 1904, his friend André Derain followed suit and it is likely that Picasso and Matisse saw examples in Derain's studio. Next, it is possible Picasso saw them first in Matisse's studio. Better yet, according to the poet Max Jacob who was there while both artists were visiting Gertrude Stein, "Matisse took a black wood statuette off a table and handed it to Picasso [who] held it in his hands all evening. The next morning when I came to visit his studio, the floor was strewn with sheets of drawing paper. Each sheet had virtually the same drawing. . . a big woman's face with a single eye, a nose too long that merged into the mouth.. . . Cubism was born."

Picasso's own growing collection of African art -- Gabon, Liberia, Nigeria, Mali, Congo, Ivory Coast -- followed his 1906-07 visits to the Museum of Ethnography in Paris where he was astounded by both the plastic value of abstraction and the fierce, "primitive" truth he had always sought out. Two woodcarvings preceded the painting, Two Nudes (1906), and the early masterpiece, Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907), where African masks replace two of the prostitutes' heads.

Picasso was not alone in his enthusiasm. Matisse's 1905 portrait of his wife, The Green Line, divided her face down the middle, like an African mask. What Picasso's first English-language biographer Roland Penrose called African art's four distinct qualities -- "blocked-out features. . . ferocious expressions. . . geometric shapes and patterns. . . and vitality" -- were also caught by other artists such as Brancusi and Modigliani after Picasso's "Negro period," now renamed by some as his "Proto-cubist period."

German expressionism is unthinkable without African art. After a 1910 Gauguin exhibition and the permanent collections at the Zwinger Museum in Dresden, artists of the Brücke and Blaue Reiter groups like Ernst Kirchner, Emil Nolde and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff celebrated African art's raw directness of facial expressions. SAM's Woman and Girl (1922) by Kirchner even contains an image of a full-length African female figure behind the mother and child as a symbol of fertility.

Picasso's art was exhibited beside African art for the first time at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York in 1923. American artists Chaim Gross and William Zorach were turned on and dealers Alfred Stieglitz and Marius de Zayas brought African art to the US in 1914. Such art's formal power, its "masses and voids, cut planes and edges," had a strong appeal to modern artists on both sides of the Atlantic who, according to one critic, "glimpsed what lay beyond, admiring those artists… who painted and carved not what they saw, but what they imagined."

Alain Locke, the top Harlem Renaissance intellectual of the 1930s, encouraged African-American artists such as Aaron Douglas, Romare Bearden and, most importantly, Jacob Lawrence, to encounter African art through European art in order to get noticed. They were overshadowed by an Afro-Cuban-Chinese artist, Wifredo Lam, who was living in New York. His 1943 The Jungle brings our study to a close. Echoing Picasso's Demoiselles 36 years later, The Jungle merges sculptural figures and plant forms in a shimmering, yet threatening, morass of spiky, angular vegetation. African art's influence was once again blurred and blended into the cultural hybrid so important to today's art. It confirms Maurice Raynal's comment in 1953 that "who first brought [African] art into vogue is hard to say, but its fascinations, obvious and manifold, provided unexpected lessons from a fresh quarter." The histories of Western art and, eventually, contemporary African art were changed forever.

MATTHEW KANGAS, consulting editor at Art Guide Northwest, is the author of Burning Forest: The Art of Maria Frank Abrams (amazon.com and burningforest.net). He lives in Seattle.

Copyright © Matthew Kangas 2011


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