Study of Influence 

The Revelation of African Art and the 20th Century - In the Light of the African Collection of the British Museum

 Workshop with Adrian Dutton  15 Sept 2019


“He [Picasso] was convinced that people’s magic and strength 

rubbed off on the things they had wrought”

A Life of Picasso, 1907-1917, John Richardson


“The masks weren’t just like any other pieces of sculpture. Not at all. They were magic things… against unknown threatening spirits… I understood; I too am against everything, I too believe that everything is unknown… spirits, the unconscious, emotion, they're all the same thing… I understood why I was a painter… Les Demoiselles d’Avignon must have come to me that very day.”

Picasso, reflecting on a visit he made in 1907 to the Musée d'Ethnographie du Trocadéro (France’s first Anthropological museum) in Paris which closed in 1935 and was later replaced with the ‘Musee de l’Homme’ on the same site




In today’s workshop, we will explore the work of 20th century artists in the light of the British Museum’s collection of African Art. I don't believe it would be unreasonable to describe the revolution which took place in art at the turn of the 20th century, as a Renaissance. Not since the Renaissance have such tremendous changes in western artistic culture occurred, as happened during this period. Also, in a significant way, the discovery of African art functioned for painters and sculptors at this time, rather like the ancient sculpture of Rome and Greece had done for artists of the 14th and 15th centuries. This influence was Renaissance like in a very particular way, African art reconnected artists with something vital, which they knew had been lost, it also provided them with a new sense of the purpose of art, and the function of paintings, sculptures and all artistic products. The impact of African art on artists at this time was moral, as well as aesthetic. The existing artistic culture of Europe had run its course, it could no longer address the massive changes which were taking place everywhere and in all aspects of life. Artists like Picasso, who will be the main focus of our study today, found that African art possessed qualities which could fundamentally change western art, and enable it to speak to the modern world.


Revelation - Genius or Magic

The two quotes at the beginning of this page illustrate how deeply Picasso felt in relation to objects which he saw at the Trocadéro in 1907. It is easy to forget just how significant the revelation of African art was for artists in the early 20th century. Art changed radically at this time, not only in terms of its appearance, but crucially in terms of the reality it described. Often when historians reflect on the study by artists like Picasso of African art, they discuss the changes in style and design which occurred. The truth is, however, that something much more significant was going on.

Despite being an artistic genius, Picasso appears to have been otherwise fairly normal. He shared most of the prevailing attitudes of his time, and he does not appear to have been particularly forward-thinking on subjects like race. Indeed, to the modern ear, Picasso’s language often sounds uncomfortably condescending when he discusses what were regarded at the time as ‘primitive’ cultures. And yet, his genius for art enabled him to perceive something vital in African art which was opaque to almost everyone else. 

Picasso saw that there was a potency to African art, which went beyond appearance, and touched on something vital that he recognized in himself. ‘Magic’, he realised, has many names, “spirits”, “the unconscious”, “emotion”... and he understood that for art to evolve in his own culture, it had to tap into this deep and direct source of power. As a direct result of this revelation, Picasso embarked on the most revolutionary painting anyone could have contemplated at that time, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. 

Picasso was not entirely alone in this, Matisse had a substantial collection of African art, and the distilling of form and design in his work can be clearly traced back to this influence. Other artists fell under the same spell, Modigliani, and later Giacometti; in the UK, artists like Henry More, who spent many hours drawing from African art in the British Museum. The key to understanding the nature of this influence is to see the bigger picture. Artists at this time were not just trying to make art that looked different, they were determined to unearth something vital and new that would make their art relevant for the radical new times they lived in. 

African art offered these artists a vitality and purpose that had been lost; it was not just ornamental or descriptive, it had ceremonial and psychological relevance for the cultures that produced it. Artists like Picasso could see that our society needed an art of this kind. We needed an art which would speak to the many psychological states and depths which society would encounter as the century wore on. One only needs to look at Guernica (1937) to see that Picasso was entirely right! Who other than Picasso could have spoken so eloquently in paint about the terrible darkness of the 20th Century - the man who understood the importance of Magic, and learned how to use it, by studying the art of Africa.

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