Influence of African Art on Matisse and Picasso

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During the early 1900s, the aesthetics of traditional African art became a predominant influence among modern European artists. Between 1876 and 1912, Africa was annexed and colonized by seven European countries: France, Belgium, Germany, Italy, Portugal, Spain and the UK. This geopolitical event, often referred to as the ‘Scramble for Africa’ was caused, in part, as a result of ​political competition between increasingly powerful European countries and their quest to accumulate power. As a result of such conquests, African art became increasingly prominent ​in Europe, predominantly in Paris and France. This was facilitated by the colonial occupation of Africa as well as the increase in travel to Africa, in particular by French elites and expeditionists in search of riches and adventure. Tribal African art was housed in museums such as the Musée d’Ethnographie du Trocadéro in Paris, and presented as curiosities that evidenced the colonization of Africa and perceived by Europeans as ‘exotic’, and not artworks. However, when I study modern artists, particularly Picasso and Matisse, it is evident that the aesthetic and style of traditional African artwork in fact had a profound influence on the artists and African art proved to be pivotal to the artists visual vocabulary. This suggests that not only did Europe have a powerful effect on African culture, in terms of colonization, but Africa too had an effect on European culture by inspiring and influencing major European art which proved to be pivotal to the artists visual vocabulary.

In the early twentieth century, non-Western form and aesthetics were employed by modern artists due to their desire to revolutionize and redefine art. The term ‘primitivism’ was associated with negative connotations, namely it was used to describe the belief that African art was created by primitive people, as it was suggested that African and other non-western nations had ‘prime’ components from which Western art had already evolved. As evidenced by O’ Riley, non-Western art and its culture was labeled as ‘primitive’, “it comes from ‘primitif’, a nineteenth-century French art history word used in reference to certain late medieval and early renaissance Italian and Flemish painters. Eventually the term was applied to African traditional artists”. However, conversely, ‘primitive’ art was a major influence in the development and evolution of Western art and in particular, modern artist’s quest as it played a substantial role in radically changing and questioning the direction of Western art.

Artists in the twentieth century had a desire to revolutionize and redefine Western art. For artists such as Picasso and Matisse, African art inspired the exposition and criticism of Western art due to it being ‘stagnant’. This questioning, prompted by African art, was critical to the rejection of sterile art and the development of an avant-garde movement. In response to increasing industrialization and urbanization, these artists disturbed the complacency in the art world, and looked to both the past and other cultures for new inspiration. Artists such as Picasso and Matisse were seduced by primitive art and embraced it as a means of release from the restraint of their formal art theories.

An analysis of Matisse’s artwork in the early twentieth century, such as​ ‘Still Life with Negro Statuette’ (1906), ​exposes the central role that African art played as a source of inspiration and his attempt to incorporate African aesthetics into his own art making practice. Due to extensive travel, Matisse was exposed to and drew inspiration from many different cultures and in particular, African sculptures and masks. The styles and techniques used by Matisse mimicked the styles and techniques used on the African masks, statues and fabrics. An example of this influence can be recognized in Matisse’s 'Still Life with Negro Statuette' (1906).​ Matisse purchased and utilized a figurine of Vili, a piece from the Democratic of Congo in 1906, as a source of inspiration. His use of ​unconventional vibrant colors and bold brush strokes together with his replication of his Vili sculpture on the right in ‘Still Life with Negro Statuette’ (1906)​ ​is indicative of how the artist succesfully combined ​his inspiration from African sculpture with his already established avantgarde fauvist style.

Therefore, Matisse does not fully adopt an African approach and start a new movement/style, like Picasso, but rather simply incorporates it. Matisse and the Vili figurine, which was sculpted by the Vili people of Congo, also played an important role in Picasso's rejection of the formalities of classical art and his exploration of new forms of artistic expression through inspiration from African art. Picasso was first introduced to African art by Matisse after Matisse exhibited his newly purchase Vili figurine. According to Matisse, Picasso was ‘enthralled’ by the African artists depiction of the human body. ​Picasso went to the ​Musée d’Ethnographie du Trocadéro in Paris, which permanently housed the African artifacts. ​This visit proved to be pivotal to Picasso’s later career. Picasso was fascinated with how African artists represented the body as well as the functional role of artworks, such as masks and statues, as ritual objects. ​Max Jacob, a French writer who was present when Picasso was introduced to African art recounted the following: “Matisse took a wooden statuette off a table and showed it to Picasso. Picasso held it in his hands all evening. The next morning when I came to his studio the floor was strewn with sheets of drawing paper. Each sheet had virtually the same drawing on it, a big woman’s face with a single eye, a nose too long that merged into a mouth, a lock of hair on one shoulder … Cubism was born” (Huffington, 90).

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Despite African art being a source of inspiration for both artists, the effect of African art on Matisse and Picasso are different. Matisse incorporated his influence from the African culture in combination with his fauvist style, as he was already considered the leader of the fauvist avantgarde movement, which emphasized painterly qualities and bold colors. Although African art featured in Matisse's work, Persian art played a more considerable role and had a more considerable effect on his work. In contrast, it is apparent that African art inspired Picasso to make ​radical change from his previous rose period, in which he depicted harlequins and other performers as he frequently visited the circus when he first moved to Paris. Picasso’s exploration of ​African art profoundly changed the way Picasso approached art making. His fascination with the culture provided him with the creative drive to change the course of modern art, by empowering him to reject the constraint constraints of Western art. Picasso is seen to be the first to transcend the concepts of African art and to create a new aesthetic language. This pivotal period of his career is what he called​ his 'periode nègre' (‘black period’) or African period. However, the effects of this transcend this period alone and can be seen to have influenced the rest of his works.

Matisse's oil-on-canvas painting ​'Madame Matisse' (1913)​, ​imitates the structural and tonal qualities and techniques used in African masks, namely the ‘Mask of Shiru Punu’. This depiction of his wife's facial features, specifically the arc of the eyebrows and a curve in the mouth, is indicative of Matisse's borrowing influence from elements of the mask. An additional example of the considerable effect African aesthetics had on Matisse’s art practice is noticeable in his work ​'Red Interior Still Life on a Blue Table (1942). The vivid geometric pattern seen in the background of the piece resembles the Cuba cloth, a fabric handwoven by the Cuba people of Congo.

Picasso’s ​strong influence from African art and radical changes from his previous ‘rose period’ which had a more realistic style, is noticeable in his choice​ of earthy tones and colors together with the African mask-like features in his artworks such as ​'The Dancer' (​1907) ​and ‘​Nude with Drapery (1907), which were both influenced by the Bakota sculpture​. ​‘The Dancer' influence from the Bakota statue is noticeable in the arms of the dancer being placed behind her head and her right like being placed against her left leg which in order to resemble the statue.

However, Picasso's painting ​'Les Demoiselles d’ Avignon' (​1907) is in fact the embodiment of Picasso's rebellion and a key example of how African art in fact influenced Picasso's revelation of abstracted form which consequently revolutionized modern art and set the foundation of Cubism. ‘​Les Demoiselles d’ Avignon’, which translates to ‘The Young Women of Avignon’, is a painting by Picasso of prostitutes in a brothel in Barcelona's red-light district. In this work Picasso has abandoned the concepts of perspective, as a rejection of the Renaissance formalities of human form, and has integrated his influence from African art. ‘Les Demoiselles d’ Avignon’ ​exemplifies the specific styles of African tribal masks that influenced his artwork. For example, the traditional Dan and the Pende masks are noticeable in Picasso's portrayals of the females faces and figures. ​Clear similarities between the Pende mask and the facial features of the women in the painting as the facial distortions of the district and expressions of the Pende mask have been replicated. ​African tribal influence can further be seen in the exaggerated flatness of the figures whereby there is no sense of the figures occupying space in a rational way. These characteristics adopted by Picasso from African art can be seen as one of the sources of inspiration that inspired the ideas and techniques of Picasso's which utilized geometric shapes in the representation of the human and other forms which essentially broke the rules of traditional painting which is known as the ​Cubist period.

Furthermore, the influence of African tribal masks on Picasso’s art practice is evident in his painting ​'Friendship' (1907). The heads of the figures in the paintings are egg-shaped, with concave cheeks and broad heads which emphasizes concavity. One can see that the artist drew inspiration from the Dan masks. This painting indicates the early stage of the development of Cubist movement as the forms have been deconstructed into geometrical shapes whereby the two-dimensional forms are integrated with the two-dimensional background which creates no sense of perspective.

Therefore, due to the oppressive nature of Western art and the desire to move away from Western art tradition Matisse and Picasso played key roles in the spread of African tribal art which is evident which is evident in the way that the artists embraced and incorporated the ‘primitive’ African tribal elements in their own artworks. However, despite these artifacts had a powerful impact on both Matisse and Picasso's style and techniques it is evident that African art influenced Matisse substantially less than Picasso. The influence of African art did not affect Matisse's style in an ongoing way, as it transcended whereas African art not only served as a source of inspiration to Picasso but it aided the development of his style as an artist was subsequently launched a whole new art movement known as Cubism.

Works Cited

  1. Foster, Hal. 'The 'Primitive' Unconscious of Modern Art.' October 34 (1985): 45-70. doi:10.2307/778488.
  2. Rubin, William. ​“Primitivism” in 20th Century Art : Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern ​New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1984.
  3. Harrison, David. “The Tribal Arts of Africa.” ​Reference Reviews​ 17, no. 1 (January 1, 2003): 37–37. ​
  4. “Africa’s Magic That Transformed Modern Art; Picasso and Africa.(An Exhibition Showing African Influence on Picasso)(Pablo Picasso)”. ​The Economist (US)​ 378, no. 8464 (February 11, 2006).
  5. Kart, Susan. “Picasso’s Collection of African and Oceanic Art: Masters of Metamorphosis”. African Studies Review​ 50, no. 2 (September 1, 2007): 276–278.​.
  6. “Africa’s Magic That Transformed Modern Art; Picasso and Africa.(An Exhibition Showing African Influence on Picasso)(Pablo Picasso)”. ​The Economist (US)​ 378, no. 8464 (February 11, 2006).
  7. Carolyn Young Long. “African Art & Picasso”. ​School Arts​ 99, no. 6 (February 1, 2000): 40–41.​.
  8. Selassie, Beseat Kifle. “Picasso’s Debt to African Art”. ​UNESCO Courier​ (December 1, 1980).
  9. 'Primitivism Movement Overview'. 2019. ​The Art Story​.​.
  10. Goldwater, Robert. Primitivism in Modern Art. Cambridge Massachusetts and London, England: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1986.
  11. Grimaldi, Forum. Arts of Africa. Monaco, Skira Publishing, 2005.
  12. O’Riley, Michael Kampen. Art Beyond the West. New York, Harry and Abrams, 2002.
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