During the early 1900s, the aesthetics of traditional African sculpture became a powerful influence among European artists who formed an avant-garde in the development of modern art. In France, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, and their School of Paris friends blended the highly stylized treatment of the human figure in African sculptures with painting styles derived from the post-Impressionist works of Cézanne and Gauguin.
While these artists knew nothing of the original meaning and function of the West and Central African sculptures they encountered, they instantly recognized the spiritual aspect of the composition and adapted these qualities to their own efforts to move beyond the naturalism that had defined Western art since the Renaissance.The Expressionists’ interest in non-Western art intensified after a 1910 Gauguin exhibition in Dresden, while modernist movements in Italy, England, and the United States initially engaged with African art through contacts with School of Paris artists.
These avant-garde artists, their dealers, and leading critics of the era were among the first Europeans to collect African sculptures for their aesthetic value.
Matisse’s fall 1906 purchase of a small African sculpture, now identified as a Vili figure from the Democratic Republic of Congo was brought at a curio shop in Paris. Since Picasso was present, Matisse showed the sculpture to him. Picasso later told curators and writers of the pivotal visits he subsequently made, beginning in June 1907, to the African collections at the Trocadéro, famously describing his revulsion at the dimly lit, musty galleries but also his inability to turn away from his study of the objects’ inventive and elegant figural composition.
The African sculptures, he said, had helped him to understand his purpose as a painter, which was not to entertain with decorative images, but to mediate between perceived reality and the creativity of the human mind—to be freed, or “exorcised,” from fear of the unknown by giving form to it. In 1907, after hundreds of preparatory sketches, Picasso completed the seminal Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, the painting to whose faceted female bodies and masklike faces some attribute the birth of Cubism and a defining role in the course of modern art throughout the twentieth century.
This is only mentioning African influence in ‘European’ modern art, also mentioned are the American and German artists who were also influenced by African art forms. Max Weber and Paul Klee.
The Primitivist worldview is being relegated to the past. It is in efforts to understand the full spectrum of the aesthetic foundations for early modernism that an investigation of African influences in modern art remains relevant today.