Tuesday, July 1, 2014

From 1876, the race for Africa meant that most of the continent was under European rule by 1912. France too had expanded its empire into Africa and the French media were falling over themselves to print exaggerated stories of African curiosities, cannibalism and other extraordinary tales. African artifacts, the likes of which had never been seen before, were brought back to Paris, the epicentre of the European art world.

The first time Picasso encounters an African treasure

Various accounts describe the first time Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) held in his hands an African mask, a newly acquired treasure belonging to his friend and artistic rival, Henri Matisse. It was the first African piece Picasso had ever seen.

In that same year, in 1906, twenty-six year old Picasso visited the *Trocadero Museum in Paris, which was filled with various African finds. It was this visit to the museum that influenced Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. While he and George Braque are both credited with founding Cubism it is, arguably, Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon that emphatically marks the arrival of Cubism.

Pablo Picasso
Picasso’s rebellion shocks the art world

Les Demoiselles d’Avignon shocked people into a different way of looking at art. The work depicts women in a brothel like the ones Picasso had visited in his home city, Barcelona in Spain. The figures are not obviously seductive and certainly not naturalistic, but rather two dimensional, deconstructed and angular. The women are bold and confrontational with fearsome mask-like faces. Not since the Renaissance had anyone so radically broken with traditional composition and naturalistic perspective in painting. His contemporaries were horrified.

Why Picasso denies African influences later in life

Picasso was inspired by African art until the day he died. His studio was filled with African works, masks in particular, that he had collected for decades. No one really knows why later in life he denied that he had been inspired by African art while making Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. Some say his reasons were political and patriotic but no one really knows for certain. What is certain is that in this work Picasso subverted accepted ideas of beauty and perspective.

Les Demoiselles d’Avignon is widely considered by art critics to be the first of Picasso’s works in which African influences emerge, most noticeably the two faces on the far right. Inspired by African art, he revolutionised modern art by crafting a powerful, new aesthetic language that dismissed centuries old renderings of form and of beauty.

* Now Musee de l’Homme

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