|Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, 1907|
Considered to be at the forefront of the modernist artistic movement, Picasso was greatly influenced by what is known as the 'plastic arts' (a reference to sculpture and its three dimensional interpretation of form), and is said to have been intensely committed to innovation, both materially and stylistically. As well, he was an avid collector of African arts.
During the early years of the twentieth century, as a direct result of European colonialism, anthropological and ethnographic museums had become well established in many of the major cities of Europe. Displaying thousands of art objects made by the peoples of the Oceanic and African colonies, these museums provided an insight into parts of the world that previously most European people knew little about. Unfortunately, the manner in which these artworks were displayed, referring to them as 'artificial curiosities' or 'primitive objects', reinforced to the public the idea that colonialism was justified.
Although the term 'Primitivism' appears to have been coined around this time (with similar notions going as far back as Socrates), it has both positive and negative connotations in the art historical record. In its most basic usage, it refers to a certain simplicity of form, yet it can also insinuate a lack of intellectual reasoning or low level of artistic skill. For the purposes of this essay, let us say that we are using the term 'primitive' as it relates to an art process or style.
For the artists of the first decade of the twentieth century, it can be argued that their main purposes for borrowing certain aspects of African art styles and techniques was because it not only shook up what was a long tradition of naturalism and Realist painting schools, but also it intermingled certain stylistic traits of African art with their own works. Thus they created a fresh new art that represented a welcomed departure from traditional styles, a departure that was already at work, for example in the later, Post-Impressionist paintings of Paul Gauguin.
That is not to say that the creators of these new works were not ethnocentric, but they were lacking in the specialized knowledge that would have been required to know the context of African art. Plucked from the hands of the original artists, shipped hundreds or thousands of miles away, displayed in museums as curios and at flea markets as trinkets - these are the circumstances under which Picasso and his contemporaries encountered these fascinating objects. If anything they can be faulted for attaching their own subjective meanings to these works, as artists tend to do with most any aspect of their own art process.
In fact, the story is that in about 1905, Parisian artists Maurice de Vlaminck and André Derain made several trips to the Trocadéro Museum in Paris. According to De Vlaminck, in the excerpted essay Portraits avant déce's in "Primitivism and Twentieth-Century Art", "We had become thoroughly familiar with the museum, having looked at everything with great interest. But neither Derain nor I viewed the works on display there as anything other than barbarous fetishes. The notion that these were the expressions of an instinctive art had always eluded us." Yet he found himself one afternoon in a bistro after having spent the day painting alongside the Seine River, facing, "three Negro sculptures. Two were statuettes from Dahomey...and the third, from the Ivory Coast..." Of these he stated, "These three sculptures really struck me. I intuitively sensed their power. They revealed Negro Art to me." He further exclaimed, "These three Negro statuettes in the Argenteuil bistro were showing me something of a very different order entirely! I was moved to the depths of my being." He convinced the owner to sell him the statues and showed them to a friend of his father's. This friend offered to give him more African sculptures. He states, "I went to his place, and I took a large white mask and two superb Ivory Coast statues."
"I hung the white mask over my bed", De Vlaminck went on to say, further stating, "I was at once entranced and disturbed: Negro Art was revealed to me in all its primitivism and all its grandeur. When Derain visited me and saw the white mask he was speechless." Derain immediately offered to buy the mask but De Vlaminck turned down the offer. Several days later, Derain offered a higher amount and De Vlaminck accepted, saying, "He took the object to his atelier on the Rue Tourlaque and hung it on a wall. When Picasso and Matisse saw it at Derain's they were absolutely thunderstruck."
|Corner of the studio of André Derain, Paris, circa 1912-1913|
"Everyone always talks about the influence of the Negroes on me", states Picasso in Discovery of African Art (also excerpted in "Primitivism and Twentieth-Century Art"). "The masks weren't like other kinds of sculpture. Not at all. They were magical things... intercessors... against everything; against unknown threatening spirits... I understood what the purpose of the sculpture was for the Negroes." From this and other interviews given by Picasso, it has become clear that his understanding of African art came from an artist's perspective. As an artist himself, he intuitively understood the function of artistic tradition in African society and related that to his own role as an artist within his own culture. In other words, the process of creating a work of art and the role of the artist in that process, and in society as a whole, are interconnected spiritually and are a shared human dynamic amongst artists throughout the world. He further states, "If we give form to the spirits, we become independent of them. The spirits, the unconscious emotion, it's the same thing. I understood why I was a painter." He then claims that Les Demoiselles d'Avignon came to him, "not at all because of the forms: but because it was my first canvas of exorcism..."
|Picasso in his studio in the Bateau-Lavoir, Paris, 1908|
Les Demoiselles d'Avignon is considered to be Picasso's first foray into a new, more dynamic way of depicting not only form, but space as well. This departure from tradition, while inspired by African sculpture, was also influenced by his earlier studies of ancient Iberian sculpture and by the paintings of Paul Cézanne, and is ultimately considered to be the beginning of Picasso's invention, with fellow artist Georges Braque, of Cubism.
Once we understand the circumstances under which Pablo Picasso encountered African works of art, and view the art he created during this phase of his career, such as Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, we can agree with De Vlaminck when he says: "It was Picasso who first understood the lessons one could learn from the sculptural conceptions of African and Oceanic art and progressively incorporated these into his painting."