First published: Winter 2005
Much has been written about the extraordinary impact of African sculpture upon 20th century European art. Although by the turn of the 19th century artists like Derain, Vlaminck, Matisse and Braque were all drawing inspiration from non-Western art, it is Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon of 1907 which is the best known example of a 20th century painting showing the direct influence of African sculpture, particularly masks, on progressive artists of the time. It has long been customary to refer to this movement as Primitivism, a term which describes Western reaction to so-called ‘tribal arts’, rather than non-Western art itself. In the words of William Rubin, ‘Primitivism is thus an aspect of the history of modern art, not of tribal art.’
It is ironic that at the very time when wood sculpture from the African and Pacific colonies of France, Britain, Belgium and other European countries began to inspire Western artists to move away from the literal interpretation of nature, local artistic expression was undergoing profound change in the colonies themselves. Critics in Paris, London, Brussels and elsewhere, having appreciated and welcomed the liberating influence of non-Western sculpture on European art, tended to view outside influences, such as colonialism, on African art as cataclysmic and ultimately negative. New works of African art were seen as travesties of masks and figures produced before missionary and colonial intervention, degenerate versions of the old pieces which by now had been mostly swept away into ethnological museums throughout the world. It was conveniently overlooked that, like any great tradition, African art had always moved with the times, reflecting a wide variety of foreign influences over long periods.