Influence of African Sculpture on Early 20th-Century Art

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  • 0:01 Artifact or a Work of Art?
  • 0:53 What Is Primitivism?
  • 2:15 Influences on the…
  • 4:58 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ivy Roberts

Ivy Roberts is an adjunct instructor in English, film/media studies and interdisciplinary studies.

Investigate the influence of African sculpture on early 20th-century art. Explore the works of Picasso, Matisse and the School of Paris. Learn about the influence of ethnography and Primitivism on art before the First World War.

Artifact or a Work of Art?

What attracted Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse to African art and sculpture? How did it influence modern art? What's the difference between artifacts in a museum and art in a gallery? In this lesson, we will explore the influence of African art on the style of Picasso and Matisse, focusing on the School of Paris in the first decade of the 20th century.

For a European audience that had previously considered non-Western artifacts only as museum pieces, the integration of an African style into the works of Matisse and Picasso caused a sensation in the French art scene in the first decade of the 20th century. Picasso and Matisse adopted the aesthetic of simplicity and spiritual evocation they admired in African art, and fused it with their aspirations to create a new art based in a subjective way of seeing.

What Is Primitivism?

A notable French painter who imported the simplified, flattened, colorful, exotic style to Paris, Paul Gauguin inspired a new generation of artists to turn away from the Western canon and embrace the non-Western aesthetic. Paul Gauguin's paintings were inspired by the time he spent in Tahiti. A back-to-basics philosophy, Primitivism in art reflects the appreciation for the simplicity of folk art and integration of simplistic style connoting pastoral settings into Western art.

But 'primitivism' is now recognized as a problematic term, as it implies the superiority of Western world to the third world. 'Primitivism' suggests that non-Western art and culture are somehow less civilized, less developed, less advanced, less sophisticated. It also has racial overtones, as the white colonial oppressors were the ones making the value judgments on African and oceanic natives. It's not so much a distinct style as it is an attitude. Gauguin brought the conception of Primitivism to the recognition of Picasso, Matisse and the School of Paris, particularly in the posthumous exhibition at the Salon d'Automne (Autumn Salon) in 1906.

Influences of African Art on the School of Paris

The School of Paris was neither an organized group nor an educational institution. It's a term used to refer to the importance of Paris in avant garde art, particularly before the First World War, and the international group of artists working there. Picasso and Matisse are considered its most central members, and the first to rally the group. Developing the styles of Post-Impressionism, Cubism and Fauvism, the School of Paris is remembered for fueling the interest and enthusiasm in abstract art.

Along with the influence of Gauguin's Primitivism, Matisse and Picasso were inspired by frequent visits to the Musée d'Ethnographie du Trocadéro (Trocadéro Museum of Ethnography) in Paris. The School of Paris was drawn to the evocative and spiritual meanings underlying non-Western art, particularly African sculpture. It was so different from the stuffy art of the classical painters and the Renaissance that summed up Western art tradition. These painters sought to express a spiritual yearning through their art that diverged from realistic representation, and even recognizable objects. Adopting the style of African art, infused with the native spirituality of indigenous cultures, allowed the French painters to channel an authentic voice.

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