Newsletter Archives

November 2002 - The Influence of African Art in the Work of Matisse and Picasso

by Françoise Treuttel-Garcias

The great exhibition Matisse/Picasso that is now being held at the Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais is an excellent opportunity to see and analyze how African art was interpreted and used by European artists, when the avowed aim of the avant-garde movement was to regenerate Western artistic tradition.

African pieces (wood statues and masks) were first shown at the Universal Exhibition of 1900 in Paris. They surprised Parisians who were both attracted to and frightened by this mysterious new culture, totally unknown to them up to that date.

The two giants of modern art, Matisse and Picasso, who originated some of the most important art movements in twentieth century painting and sculpture, were among the first collectors of African artifacts. It was because of them (and also lesser known artists such as Lipchitz, Brancusi, and Modigliani) that African artifacts brought back to Europe by soldiers, colonial administrators, and missionaries began to be appreciated for their aesthetics rather than for their ethnological interest. Thus, the objects acquired a new status and began to be sought after by art dealers and collectors.

During the early part of the twentieth century, the artistic elite was mainly concerned with the rejection of academic tradition. African art became a source of inspiration for artists who were searching for systems of representation other than naturalism and illusionism.

The guided tour of the exhibition that I propose will enable the viewer to compare and contrast the different ways that Picasso and Matisse acknowledged Africa and reacted to African art. For instance, Matisse was mostly influenced by Islamic and North African art while Picasso appreciated sub-Saharan sculpture for its physicality and tragic power.

While viewing selected sculptures and canvases, we will compare both artists' treatment of African art and explore how it influenced them, directly or indirectly, in different ways and at different times during their respective careers.

African art appealed to these masters because of its strong simplification and abstraction of form. For them, the art was an Africa of the mind, no longer to be associated with old-fashioned clichés such as sensuality as had so often been the case in Orientalist paintings by Delacroix, Chassériau and others.

We will also discuss the use of the word "primitivism" and its different connotations and mention the important role played by Paul Guillaume, the famous art dealer and collector, in the discovery of African art.

The Matisse/Picasso exhibition is scheduled to end on January 6, 2004.

Paris Panorama Newsletters for 2002