When Pablo Picasso set his eyes on an African sculpture belonging to his fellow artist and friend, Henri Matisse
in the spring of 1907, his life as he knew it changed forever: he used the magical and ritualistic power of that
African sculpture and many more after that, contends LYDIA GATUNDU-GALAVU, to mystify and promote his
Although he was already attracting attention as a promising young artist in the French capital, Picasso was
looking out for fresh inspiration to keep the canvases rolling.
Just how much Picasso and other European artists of the 20th century borrowed from Africa remains a matter
of debate. The resemblance in some cases was so striking that one would ask, did they borrow or did they
simply copy? Was it influence or theft? Were they inspired or was it a calculated move to propel them to the
front of the avant-garde art?
With the increasing use of photography in the early 20th century, many artists did not see the logic in
continuing with realism. The power of photography to represent nature realistically forced artists to seek
alternative sources of inspiration and survival. It is probable that the rise of photographic portrait may well
have been a threat to the artists who were enjoying the patronage of their rich clients who were now more
likely to commission photographers to do what artists had always done. The artists needed to find a diversion
from realism; they needed unconventional and exciting new ways of expressing themselves.
With its distinct characteristic of mysticism, deliberately casting aside realism and abstracting nature, African
art provided this diversion and many European artists found in it a sense of freedom from their own rigid
The painter Maurice de Vlaminck once said, “As for painting, I realise that the period of realism is over. Where
painting is concerned, we’re only beginning.”
Other French artists who collected and copied African art included Henri Matisse, Andre Derain, and Italian-born
Amedeo Modigliani. The liberating force spread across Europe and America.
Artists like Jacob Espstein in England, Paul Klee in Switzerland, Constantin Brancusi in Romania and Jacques
Lipchitz in Lithuania were also drawing inspiration for their creations from African art forms.
In Germany, groups such as Die Brücke and Der Blauc Reiter were greatly influenced by African art. Die Brücke,
(German for ‘The Bridge’) believed their work to be kind of a bridge between revolutionary elements and the art
of the future. Their work consisted of flat, linear, rhythmical expression, simplification of form and brilliant
Der Blauc Reiter (The Blue Ride) was more international than Die Brücke and their main approaches were
spiritual, expressionistic and abstract.
In France, a group named The Fauves (Wild beasts), dubbed so for their violently contrasting, non-descriptive
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colours, and flat patterns at a time when abstraction in art was unorthodox, were also influenced by African
art. Members of The Fauves included Vlaminck, Matisse, Derian and Georges Roualt.
The practice of these new movements was to change the course of European art in the 20th century.
In the United States of America collectors like Albert Barnes and Alain Locke helped popularise African art in
African art was taken from its roots where it served visual, functional and spiritual purposes and taken to far
off lands where it was labeled ‘primitive art’ and placed at the lowest ranks of world art , notwithstanding that
it was plagiarised to produce works of very high value.
Musician, an oil painting by Picasso, has a fierce face much like the African Grebo masks he owned. Though he
did not comprehend African art, Picasso recognised its magical and ritualistic power and used it to mystify and
promote his own art.
Derain on the other hand, created and supplied woodcuts in African styles for an edition of Guillaume
Apollinaire’s first book of poetry, L’enchanteur pourrisant (1909), and illustrated a collection of poems by Max
Jacob in 1912.
Constantin Brancusi and Amedeo Modigliani had great interest in non- European sculptural traditions. The two,
who were friends, looked to African sculptures for ‘primitive’ vitality that inspired in their sculpture, simple
ovoid forms with minimal details.
Brancusi abandoned modeling in favour of curving techniques. Works such as Head and Danaide established
Brancusi as the pioneer of the extreme simplification of forms of sculpture. Strong linear rhythms and simple
elongated forms characterise Modigliani’s sculpture.
Even though Modigliani abandoned sculpture in 1914, the
distinct African art features of long necks and attenuated features as in Jean Hebuterne and Italian Lady
continued in his later painted portraits.
African masks used by Picasso and others were not just simply sculptures; they were magical objects that
were used by diviners during mediation ceremonies between the living and the dead. The wearer of the mask
would experience a transformation and become the “living dead”, an intermediary between the living and the
spirits. Like the mask came alive to possess the diviner who wore it, did it come alive to possess the European
artist who tried to own it?
A 19th Century wooden caryatid stool from the Luba community of the present day Congo-Kinshasa that Pablo
Picasso copied to create his Woman’s Head in 1909
The artists seemed to become obsessed as they compromised their originality by imitating African art.
Ironically, the European artist did not use African art to express himself much as African art used him to
express itself. He became his own intermediary between his living person and the creative spirits in his mind
that were crying out for freedom. One can see the African influence in Paul Klee’s paintings as he struggled to
build a bridge between the inner and the external world “Now that I am only directly linked to nature, I can
again attempt to give form to that which burdens the soul”.
From 1909 Klee’s paintings were built up from exceptionally tense, nervous strokes, born of emotions, moods
and dream experiences ; like one possessed.
Maurice de Vlaminck was one of the first artists to be influenced by African sculpture “Our painting was not an
invention but an attitude. A way of being or acting, of thinking, of breathing.” A musician and avid racing
cyclist, Vlaminck looked up to Van Gogh as an artist. Though he was known not to have taken his painting
career seriously, he painted over a hundred works in his lifetime.
Many European artists never went to Africa but they got to hear things about African masks and other art
forms from tales that traveled back with soldiers, traders and missionaries from Africa. Whether they believed
the tales, some European artists worked under the control of African art until their death. Some of them led
destructive and tragic lives. Whether they secretly attributed this to the wrath of the mystical African objects
is an intriguing thought.
African masks were unique objects made by great African artists that Europe did not care to know about.
Instead, European artists absorbed African art making it their own fragmenting and faceting it and calling it
Nigerian philosopher Innocent Onyewuenyi argues that there is a strong ethnocentric tendency among
European artists, art critics, art collectors and others to interpret and evaluate traditional African artworks
according to Western standards that lead to failure in their attempt to understand those works.
That an artist is a free spirit, with liberty to experiment and create work that is unique and individual, is a
conception culturally natural to the Western mind. It is this conception that soldiers, traders, missionaries and
other colonial ambassadors carried home from Africa. This explains the mistaken interpretation of African arts
by otherwise intelligent European artists when they made the acquaintance of African visual arts.
Onyewuenyi explains that African aesthetic standards are different from the accepted standards of uniqueness
and individuality; that African art, be it visual, musical, kinetic or poetic, is created as an answer to a problem
and serves some practical end.
By fragmenting African art, Western artists miss its essence. Symbols, colours and forms that represent certain
values of African life were used for plain aesthetic purposes in the European paintings. They had no meaning in
that world and that was why Cubism and other movements influenced by African art were rejected in Africa.
Over time the magnetism of African style won and most artists who went through an artistic evolution inspired
by African art in early 20th century became famous, albeit posthumously.
Gatundu-Galavu, a trained artist, works in the Exhibitions Department of the National Museums of Kenya,