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Picasso and African Art

by Dr. Lori Verderame
Picasso and African Art

African art's impact

Throughout the history of art, African art has inspired artists working in various styles and media. The most evident examples of Africa's impact on fine art relate to modern art in Europe and America. It is well documented that African art forms inspired the work of modern masters such as Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, and Jacques Lipchitz. 

Influences Picasso and Matisse

Picasso drawingPicasso incorporated the ceremonial masks of the Dogon tribe into his groundbreaking cubist work, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907-09). As Picasso addressed geometry and form, Henri Matisse drew upon African art to unite bold color and ceremonial patterns with results that spearheaded the Fauve masterpiece, The Green Stripe (1912). Matisse's treatise, Notes of a Painter, described how his arbitrary use of bold color stirred the emotions and related to the ritualistic origins of African art. While the pioneers of early 20th century European modernism connected African art to painting, sculptors across the Atlantic surveyed the history of Africa's totems and carvings. The American direct carvers (e.g., William Zorach, Chaim Gross, Jo Davison) worked in the early decades of the 20th century and reintroduced curators, collectors, and connoisseurs to the physical nature of sculpting via the forms of the Dark Continent. In the history of sculpture, the American direct carvers rejected Rodin's cast-bronze stronghold in favor of direct carving in wood.

African art and Modernism

The relationship between African art and modernism has been studied and surveyed, well beyond its borders, through museum exhibitions, art gallery shows, and related events. It is interesting that seemingly all at once, art lovers can enjoy a good number of exhibitions based on either modern art, African art, or the many stylistic marriages of the two. 

While the influence of African art on modernism is evident in most exhibitions dealing with modern art, some shows strongly highlight Africa's impact while others quietly embrace the non-western tone of modernism. Contemporary artists show their work alongside African art are inspired by the power of African ritual objects, the unique patterning of language and visual form, and the nature of materials.

Many artists working today make work that directly relates to African form and the issue of the primitive. The excitement and emotion that these pieces offer demonstrate the wonder of abstraction, non-objectivity, and modernism. A stroll through some of our region's fine museums and galleries will offer insight into the beauty and diversity of both African and modern art.  

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