In the early 1900s, the Parisian press had the public buzzing with exotic tales about the African kingdom. Exaggerated stories of savagery and cannibalism sparked a fascination for the land that the French were increasingly occupying. But with French colonies expanding throughout Sub-Saharan Africa, the French learned more about the culture, discovering its beauty and art. Many African artifacts that were not quite yet referred to as artwork went to Paris museums such as the Musée d’Ethnographie du Trocadéro. They also found their way to museums in London, Berlin, and Munich. And while museums began to fill with many priceless African artifacts, it would be a small African figurine carved out of wood that became instrumental to African art’s impact on modern art. The Vili people of the Congo created the sculpted figure and caught the attention of legendary artists, such as Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso. They immediately appreciated that while the piece was primitive, it was sophisticated in its abstraction, lending itself as a point of inspiration.
African Art and Henri Matisse
French artist Henri Matisse traveled extensively, allowing many different cultures to influence his work. In 1906, he went to Algeria and after studying African art, became enamored by it. African art began to shape much of his work as he practiced many of the same styles and techniques seen in African masks and fabrics. It was also that same year that Matisse met Spanish artist Picasso who would become his lifelong friend and rival.
To date, some of Matisse’s most notable works have evidence of African art aesthetic influence. His piece from 1907, Marguerite, is a depiction of his daughter rendered in similar form to the African mask he owned. Likewise, as seen in the image above, Matisse’s depiction of this wife has clear structural and tonal qualities that resemble the aesthetic techniques used in African masks. Particularly, the arc of the eyebrows and the upward curve of the mouth on Madam Matisse, seem to mirror those elements in the Mask of Sira Punu. Another notable example portraying African influence is Matisse’s Red Interior still life on a blue table, 1942. The bold geometric pattern seen in the piece is similar to the Kuba cloth, an African handwoven fabric by the Kuba people of Congo.
Pablo Picasso’s African Period
Picasso’s African Period also referred to his Proto-Cubist or primitivism period, would last from 1907 to 1909. It was at the ethnographic museum at Palais du Trocadéro that the then 24-year-old Picasso truly experienced a “revelation” as he explored African art further. Picasso became strongly influenced by traditional African masks and sculptures in particular.
Picasso’s seminal painting Les Demoiselles d’Avignon 1907 — a portrayal of five nude prostitutes, was the most notable withdrawal from his typical style of Blue and Rose Period, leading to his African Period. It had the aesthetics of traditional African art with figures that had African mask-like features. The piece would ultimately spark the Cubist movement.
Inspired heavily by traditional African masks, Picasso used a palette of earthy tones, overlapping browns, and yellows with dark reds. Other works from Picasso’s African Period include Portrait of Gertrude Stein 1906, Nude with Raised Arms 1907, Dryad 1908, and Three Women 1908.
African Art’s Impact on the Cubist and Modern Art Movement
Led by Picasso and Parisian painter Georges Braque, the Cubist art movement began in 1907. Cubism explored geometry and the redefinition of perspectives. It attempted to reveal objects from a different vantage point – from the mind and not only how the eyes perceive them. Cubists who aimed at resisting conventional style and subject-matter welcomed the influences of their travels, particularly the “primitive” art that came back from Africa.
Georges Braque describes “African masks” as the opening “a new horizon for me. They made it possible for me to make contact with instinctive things, with an uninhibited feeling that went against the false tradition which I hated.” Some of Braque’s work that was visibly influenced by Picasso, Cubism, and African art include Large Nude 1908 (image above).
From ceremonial masks to costumes to religious statues, African artifacts and sculptures contributed a powerful influence to the development of the modern art movement during the early 20th century. From exotic abstractions to vivid expressions, they ignited a significant artistic departure from what the Western audience was accustomed and comfortable with. Their clashing colors, fragmented geometric patterns, and powerful primitive imaginations attracted many to their forms. Cubists and other European avant-garde artists who were hungry for viscerally new and dynamic languages of innovation were particularly drawn to the unique elements of representation in African art, launching forward a whole new art movement.