During the mid 19th century up until the Great War of 1914, European countries began to heavily colonize and come into contact with African nations. This was called “new imperialism”. During this contact, European culture was influenced by Africa. The influence of the African people can be seen in the European society of the time. In the 19th and 20th centuries, modern artists embraced African art for its lack of pretension or formal qualities. In the latter part of the 19th century, the “scramble for Africa,” consolidated at the Berlin Conference, divided the terrain of the African continent among the numerous European contenders.
Fourteen countries were represented by a plethora of ambassadors when the conference opened in Berlin on November 15, 1884. The countries represented at the time included Austria-Hungary, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Russia, Spain, Sweden-Norway (unified from 1814-1905), Turkey, and the United States of America. Of these fourteen nations, France, Germany, Great Britain, the Netherlands, and Portugal were the major players in the conference, controlling most of colonial Africa at the time.
At the point of the symposium, only the coastal parts of Africa had been colonized. The idea behind the conference was to also annex control over the resource rich interior. As a result of the scramble, the British received control over Egypt, Sudan Uganda, Kenya, South Africa, Zambia, Zimbabwe, and Botswana, as well as, Nigeria and Ghana. The French acquired, much of western Africa, from Mauritania to Chad, Gabon, the Republic of Congo, Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia. Italians established power in Ethiopia and Somalia, and the Dutch controlled the Congo and South Africa.
Portugal took Mozambique in the east and Angola in the west. Germans claimed Namibia and Tanzania, and Spain was rationed Equatorial Guinea. South of the Sahara Desert, there were three distinct types of societies; nomadic tribes in the desert and steppe regions, sedentary farming cultures located in the savanna and “rain-forest fringe” areas, and the ancient sophisticated kingdoms of Nigeria and the Guinea coast. All three sectors of the African society had different art traditions. However, all three were similar in certain aspects.
These aspects being the similar attention to craftsmanship, a general use of non-permanent materials, use of geometric abstraction, and religious orientation. Religion was at most often marked in masks and sculpture. Masks were used in many ritual ceremonies to embody spiritual forces. Geometric and naturalistic shapes were combined to represent a recognizable human face. As part of the daily ritualistic routine, families would often present offerings to cult figures, full-body images kept in homes as insurance of protection.
The decorative arts, especially in textiles and in the ornamentation of everyday tools, were a vital art in nearly all African cultures. Wood was one of the most frequently used materials—often embellished by clay, shells, beads, ivory, metal, feathers, and shredded raffia. As the contact between Europeans and Africans grew, parts of African culture assimilated into that of the Europeans. Europeans would bring home treasures found in Africa on their many journeys. These possessions were various forms of African art. Soon after the European colonization, African art began making its’ way into European culture.
Some of the African artifacts brought back from Africa with Europeans during the colonization period, were displayed at Paris’ Ethnographic Museum. These tribal or primitive arts of Africa were virtually unknown to many artists until visiting the museum. Pablo Picasso made his first visit in 1907. The artifacts he saw greatly influenced Picasso and his coworkers, such as Georges Braque, who founded the European avant-garde artistic movement of Cubism in the latter part of that year. Cubism was and still is the most influential movement in the history of modern art.
The epoch came in three stages. The first stage, Analytic Cubism, was characterized by the simplification, distortion, and emphasis of the forms of objects. It consisted of facets, or cubes, arranged in superimposed, transparent planes with clearly defined edges that established mass, space, and the implication of movement. During this period, Picasso and Braque employed a palette of muted greens, greys, browns, and ochre. Many cubists were strongly influenced by the formal simplification and expressive power viewed in black African sculpture.
The second phase of cubism was marked by the disappearance of the representation of objects and a slow phase-out of the separation of form and space. Synthetic Cubism was the third and final stage of the movement. Synthetic cubists wanted to improve reality with the creation of new tasteful objects. It is in this phase, where African influence is most apparent in Picasso’s work. His characters began to obtain oddly shaped faces, resembling those of African masks and sculpture. The colors in his palette changed to earth tones that were emblematic of African sculpture.
Wild animals, which were typically found in the African range such as bulls and other horned creatures, also began surfacing in his work. His great curiosity with African sculpture was also directly seen in the representations of African characters conventionally made of wood and other materials. Picasso’s most famous painting, as well as the start of cubism, is considered by many to be Les Mademoiselles d’Avignon (The Women of Avignon). This extraordinary painting, fabricated by Picasso in 1907, includes many facets of African sculpture and art.
The painting depicts five female prostitutes in a brothel. In the artwork, three central women obtain the “simplified structure of earlier creations” (McDonald, 12). These figures are composed of flat, splintered planes. Arms raised above their heads, these three forms strike seductive poses. Though the two additional figures at the right edge of the work are still constructed having clearly defined planes, they are no longer modeled by light but violently twisted in a system of “internal torques” which is applied to the special framework and human form.
The two somewhat distorted figures on the right are also adorned with masks that emerge directly out of African culture. Other works done by Picasso such as Negro Dancer, also demonstrate elements of African art. The Negro Dancer, also done in 1907, incorporates an African mask titivating the dancer. In addition, this composition is done in the celebrated cubist structure. Picasso’s portrait of Gertrude Stein includes mask like treatment of her face, which was influenced by African artists. Other Picasso paintings indicating African influence include, Seated Nude done in 1907, Nude Figure of 1910, and Man with Mandolin completed in 1911.
Head of a Woman, done in 1909, as well as Mandolin and Clarinet, 1913 illustrates Pablo Picasso’s interest in the sculptural form of African sculptures. Picasso was not the only European artist to find inspiration from ethnic art. Another artist, whose work exemplifies African influence, is Paul Gauguin. After being drawn into Impressionism, Gauguin realized that he did not agree with and later rejected the formless movement. Gauguin wanted to return to a “primitive style of art with simple forms and symbolism rendered in a decorative and stylized way”, (Brommer, 383).
Like Picasso, Paul Gauguin also visited an exhibition in which he was subjected to African art. The Exposition Universelle of 1889 opened in Paris on May 6th. This grandiose event lasted six months. During this time the exhibit “brought together some 60,000 exhibitors and attracted over 28 million visitors. ” (Merlhs, 81) The esplanade of the “Invalides” was devoted to various pavilions, but principally to the Colonial Exhibition. The Egyptian sector of the exposition featured many panoramas from industrial life in Egypt some 5,000 years before.
The scenes at the showing were derived from the Khnoumhospou tomb at Beni-Hassan. Many of the vistas depicted workers in the fields in the form of a register. Egyptian registers were comprised of a group of people working or carrying on in the form of a line. All subjects in a register stood next to each other, with no feeling of depth. Registers could comprise an entire piece of art, or could just be a part of the whole illustration. The Egyptian studio also demonstrated the spinning and weaving in ancient Egypt. On one of the walls present in the studio, two men were portrayed working leaning towards one another.
The men were represented in perfect symmetry complimenting one another. In the scene from Beni-Hassan, much double symmetry, both vertical and horizontal, is apparent. This symmetry, so frequent in the art of ancient Egypt, is later found in the works of artists such as Meyer de Haan, and Gauguin. The Colonial Exhibition would have a lasting impression on Gauguin’s art. Beginning in 1889, after his appearance at the exhibition, Gauguin manifested for primitive painters and for Japanese and Egyptian art. After his exposure to the art of other ethnicities, changes in Gauguin’s work began to appear.
Like Egyptian artists, he outlined his shapes and even used Egyptian poses in several of his paintings. In Gauguin’s work Harvest Brittany (1889), these aspects are clearly visible. In The Day of the God, a young native mother and her two children are near the water while an immense image of a god towers over them. In the configuration of an Egyptian register, a line of natives performs their daily tasks in the background. Between 1901 and 1906, several comprehensive exhibitions were held in Paris, making the work of Vincent van Gogh, Paul Gauguin, and Paul Czanne widely accessible for the first time.
Gauguin’s work had a particularly large influence on the novel art movement, Fauvism. The Fauvists carried the idea of arbitrary expression further, translating their feelings into color with a rough, almost clumsy style. This style mimicked that of African artists. Vlaminck was one of the Fauves. A self-professed ”primitive”, he ignored the wealth of art in the Louvre, preferring to collect the African masks that became so important to early 20th-century art. Derain also showed a primitive wildness in his Fauve period, Charing Cross Bridge, 1910, bestrides a strangely tropical London.
His late work, after 1912, showed the influence of many styles-including African sculpture-and tended to become increasingly traditional and derivative, characterized by muted color and fussily elaborated technique. Emil Nolde was another artist who showed interest in the arts of Africa. His grotesque faces, as seen in the Masks (1911), demonstrate this interest in primitive societies and cultures. Nolde belonged to the group of artists characterized by German Expressionism.
German Expressionism was a movement in fine arts that accentuated the expression of inner experience rather than solely realistic portrayal, seeking to depict not objective reality but the subjective emotions and responses that objects and events arouse in the artist. The German Expressionists were ardent admirers of Gauguin and other artists that shared similar styles. Many artists belonging to German Expressionism studied sub-equatorial African art in depth, trying to incorporate elements such as the expressive masks and carvings into their production.
Another painter associated with German Expressionism, was Franz Marc. While Marc painted an array of subjects, he was most interested and proved the most talent in his portrayal of animals. Before Marc, ethnic and primeval artists only placed such an emphasis on animals in art. Franz Marc used “ brilliant color in a symbolic and arbitrary way” (Brommer, 398) combining it with shape and rhythm to dramatize the integration of all creatures found in nature and on the open range. Amedeo Modigliani was an Italian painter who spent most of his life painting in Paris.
At first Modigliani’s work was strongly influenced by Toulouse-Lautrec. However, he soon developed a unique style distinguished by elongated distortion and strong linear rhythms of African sculpture. His portrait sculptures are reminiscent of African masks in their extended forms and stylized features. This representation is present in paintings such as Nu Couch De Dos (Reclining Nude from the Back), and La Jeune Bonne (The Servant Girl). A friend of Modigliani, Constantin Brancusi was a Rumanian artist, who had later moved to Paris, involved in the Abstractionist movement. Brancusi’s art heavily involved sculpture.
His limestone carving, The Kiss, fashioned in 1912 reveals his interest in simplification and the elimination of detail. The simplification of sculpture was an African characteristic he admired. Brancusi “cherished the basic upright shape of the block of stone, considering it a strong primitive form, and carved it as little as possible”, (Brommer, 416) Western artists had finally discovered the enduring qualities of African art. African art has come to be appreciated for its intrinsic aesthetic value as well as continuing to be a source of inspiration for the work of Western artists.