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Beauty and the Influence of African Art on Modern Art in black Africa

With photography having the potential, in the eyes of some people, to relegate figurative painting to the ranks of a superfluous ideal, 20th century western artists very quickly came to appreciate the value of African sculpture. They took what they saw as free interpretations of nature, that they were not subject to any realist canon, and they thought that they too could liberate their own art. In reality, they were fooling themselves in believing that African artists were free of constraints. The arrival of new African sculpture in Europe would soon show them that African artists also worked within the framework of a creative tradition that had been evolving for centuries.

And so came about, the claim that the impact of the discovery of African sculpture was as great as the discovery of Classical Antiquity by Renaissance culture.

African art has become more and more popular, and towards the end of the 1980’s prices saw a particularly steep increase. Why? Firstly, and simply because the break with the figurative in Western art , which owes so much to the discovery of African art by our painters and sculptors, made us more receptive to this type of form. In addition, African art is so varied that there is really something to suit all tastes.


The Colonialist view of African Art

At the end of the 19th century, the status of African objects was at the heart of scientific debate, notably in terms of museology. The first ethonographic museums were created in the 2nd half of the 19th century. From 1830 on, Edme-François Jomard (1777-1862), Director of the geographical department at the National Library in Paris, pleaded the cause in favor of a project for an ethnographic museum that would bring together all the pieces brought back from scientific expeditions. The objective being to evaluate the degree of development of ‘primitive’ societies before they became the object was considered the art of a civilized and evolved people, whilst sculpture is the art form of ‘primitive’ peoples. This type of museographical classification fitted in perfectly with the way of thinking that prevailed at least up until the end of the 19th century. For example, in 1846, Baudelaire expressed a similar viewpoint “The origin of sculpture is lost in the mists of time; thus it is a Carib art. We find, in fact, that all races bring real skill to the carving of fetishes long before they embark upon that of painting, which is an art involving profound thought and one whose enjoyment demands a particular initiation”. NB: this kind of opinion could have been contradicted, if there had been a need, by the discovery of the great prehistoric painting cycles.

According to these theories, Africans, who principally made sculpture, must necessarily be an inferior people. It should be said, moreover, that even in assessing works of sculpture, the canons of Greek or Renaissance art (who above all privileged imitation to nature) were adopted. The African masks and statues, ‘idols’ and ‘fetishes’, appeared rough, awkward and grotesque, and consequently the work of men only remotely skilled, lacking artistic sensibility.


The Real Change Toward the Appreciation of African Art around 1905

The real move towards an appreciation of African art came about around 1905 when artists from the Paris school and the German Expressionists discovered African sculpture.

For very different reasons, Picasso, Braque, Vlaminck, Derain, Matisse, Gris, Brancusi and Modigliani … in France, Nolde, Kirchner, Heckel, Pechstein, Schmidt-Rottluff … in Germany, found a medium for their revolt against academism.

For example, the Cubists and the Fauves saw in African sculpture:  anti-naturalist, marked by its refusal for anecdote and the imitation of the real world, the answers to their formal search for liberation from plastic form. In 1907, Picasso, inaugurates his ‘negro’ period, Modigliani takes to lengthening his forms in a manner similar to those of the Fang and the Gabon people (of which an example could be found in Matisse’s collection). Guillaume Appollinaire decorates his study with exotic statuettes.

The Expressionists, on the contrary, saw African works as an exotic source of inspiration,  as both  a psychological and emotional support in attempting to rediscover the primordial origins of art and in appropriating them.

Carl Einstein, man of letters born in Germany in 1885, observed in 1915, that the formal experimentations and research of his contemporaries in the Arts, often resulted in works that were based on constructions in space. These artists, above all the Cubists, discovered that ‘negro’ sculpture had cultivated pure plastic form.

Einstein comments on a Hemba statue of a sage from Zaire, wherein the form of the head was stylized with an ovoid appearance, and where the representation of the body is reduced down to the essential, the work is created as the model of a venerated ancestor. He analyses that such an art finds itself in the perfection of form and concentrates itself within with an astonishing intensity, that is to say that the form is reworked until it is completely closed in upon itself. This is reminiscent of works by Brancusi, whose work at the time of the discovery of ‘negro’ art, was also culminating in the same pure forms, the same astonishing three dimensionality, and that equally represented movement captured in time.

This “clear formulation of pure vision” that Einstein notices in African works is  illustrated by a buffalo mask of the Nigerian Mama people where the animal is represented purely by its essence.

Vladimir Markov, painter of Latvian origin and Futurist theorist from Petrograd, writes in 1913 : “the new generation of painters is grateful to Africa for having pulled European art out the stagnating, dead end situation that it found itself in”. Markov “captures in action and at its source, in this ‘negro’ art, the principals of futurist art that he was looking to establish theoretically”. For him African sculptures “impose themselves by way of their clarity and simplicity of expression”. “The symbolism of reality is rendered in a convincing manner, the characters and the Gods are specified”. Moreover, for him, African art has the tendency to represent man through loose masses that do not conform to nature, but strictly follows the laws of plastic form, leading to an inexhaustible richness of form in African art. The plastic language of Africa is dominated by the search for pure form and the use of an expressive symbolism.

Generally, where the statues are concerned, the head takes up 1/4 or even 1/3 of the statue’s total height. This over dimensioning conforms to a sort of ideal, not an ideal beauty but rather a symbolic ideal. In effect, if the Africans give greater importance to the head in relation to the human body, it is because they esteem that within lies thought and man’s most noble senses.

It is equally during this period that the first collections of African art begin to be established. Masks and African statues can be found in specialized art galleries, side by side with works from Western avant-garde artists. Paul Guillaume was one of these merchants. Exoticism, of which Paul Gauguin was the initiator, became a cultural trend, brought to life through a series of editorial and musical initiatives, and exhibitions in which African art played a substantial part.

From around 1935 onwards, African art had achieved, amongst the literary and artistic elite, equal status with the artistic creations of other ‘civilized’ continents.

Today, it could be thought that the circle of reciprocal influences between African and Contemporary art has come full circle. It could be thought that black African sculpture   has given, to early 20th century European artists, a new way of seeing reality, a new vocabulary of form and a kind of legitimacy. And for its part, the Western avant-garde, with its experiments, its formal changes, has familiarized a large part of the general public to the expressive distortive nature of African art. It has also, by way of comparison, brought ‘the great classicism’ of African art into the spotlight.

How should we qualify works of African art? ‘Tribal art’? No, because one ethnic group may have several styles or one style might be common to many ethnic groups! Africa should be seen as a mosaic of very different peoples and civilizations, some more developed than others, but all of which have an artistic heritage that should be studied in the same way as Western, American Indian or Oriental civilizations, in which artists are seen to play their proper part as creator, and in a context that is proper to their people and their time.