African art has played an important role in the culture and history of the world. It's
distinctive characteristics and inspirations have influenced many artists to adapt their
own interpretation of the art in their own time period. Characteristics of African art had
made its way into many paintings in the Cubist period, among others. If one examines the
European avant-garde artistic movement of cubism, founded mainly by Pablo Picasso, they
can find many themes adapted from African art.
Cubism is the most influential movement in the history of modern art. It is a
complex movement, including not only painters and sculptors, but also musicians and poets.
The Cubists introduced entirely new approaches to interpreting form and space. Cubism
began in France, where it flourished as a movement between 1907 and 1914. It was headed by
the work of Pablo
Picasso and Georges Braque.
Characteristics of the first phase of Cubism, usually called Analytic Cubism, were the
simplification, distortion and emphasis of the forms of objects. Cubism was a reaction
again set the formlessness of Impressionism, but the development of Cubism got many ideas
from post-Impressionism. Following the trend of the nineteenth-century transcendentalism,
the artists believed that "true reality lay in the essential idea and not in its
reflection in the material world"
(Colliers 546). The role of the artist was to create symbolic forms for the essence of
ideas, rather than initiate the short-lived appearance of things. This attitude led to
paintings based on the expressive abilities of the artist, and the idea of creating
expressive art, like music, that didn't depend completely on the world in actuality. This
began as experimentation with color and lines, but experimentation with form would later
develop. A typical Cubist painting analyzes the subject in basic geometric shapes and
elementary signs. By rearranging these elements and not mimicking object in nature
directly, the Cubists developed a new manner of representation. Many Cubist paintings and
sculptures are still lifes that represent such common objects as tabletops, musical
instruments, bottles, etc. Cubists were often impressed by everyday subjects such as
advertisements, cartoons, and songs. Some artists
included numbers and parts of words in their paintings. In addition, many of the cubists
were strongly influenced by the formal simplification and expressive power of black
African sculpture. The second phase of Cubism, Hermetic Cubism, was marked by the
disappearance of the representation of objects and a slow phase-out of the separation of
form and space. A characteristic of paintings in this phase was the appearance of "an
iridescence which was caused by the use in the picture of transparent overlapping planes
whose position in space was ambiguous" (Colliers 547). These characteristics began to
appear in Picasso's works in 1910.
The third phase of Cubism is Synthetic Cubism. It marked a major change in the artistic
point of view of the movement. Synthetic Cubists wanted to improve reality with the
creation of new tasteful objects. Many works of this period consisted of cutout shapes of
canvas in many colors pasted on the main canvas. Though cubism faded out as an active
movement in the 1920's, it's influence on modern art has been deep.
One of the first main developments of Cubism was experimenting with the forms of
Paul Cezanne's painting. Although this influence is not completely apparent, Pablo
Picasso's Portrait of Gertrude Stein showed in an interest in Cezanne's style.
Cubism was in its nascent phase, and after Picasso's return from Spain with his first
cubist landscapes in his hand, a long struggle began. Cubism began with landscapes, but
Picasso quickly began to use the style to portray people. Picasso always knew "people
were the only interesting thing to him." (Christian Science Monitor 1).
Picasso painted a number of landscapes without any figures in
them. Picasso then experimented further with the complex interlocking and overlapping of
forms. He continued to experiment and lead the Cubist movement along with Georges Braque.
His most acclaimed works of this period were at the point when he
"mastered" the Cubist techniques in his numerous interpretations of both male
and female characters. During this period, Picasso's works began to shift slightly
in appearance and theme. His characters had oddly shaped faces, looking similar to masks.
Their masklike faces reflected his interest in Iberian and African sculpture. Picasso was
interested in African art, as were many other artists of the time. His interest in these
pieces began to appear in his work. The colors of Picasso's palette were "earth
tones" and natural colors, typical of African sculture. Picasso also painted wild
animals such as bulls and horned creatures, similar to those found in the African range.
His interest in African sculpture was directly seen in his sculpture representative
of African characters traditionally made of wood and other materials. This interest
in African art can be seen in one of Picasso's most famous paintings, Les Demoiselles
de Avignon, where some of the women in the painting appear to be wearing masks.
African art has influenced many artistic movements throughout history.
Even the founder of the Cubist movement was heavily influenced by this aesthetically
different cultural form of expression. Picasso allowed himself to create yet another
movement within the Cubist movement in which African culture and art can be greatly
Link to the Musuem of Modern Art
Page on Les Demoiselles d'Avignon,
Picasso's first major cubist painting.
It contains not only the image, but audio
sources accounting Picasso's first
encounter with African masks. This
link will open a new window. After
viewing, you may easily return to this
page, because it is still open.
Andreae, Christopher. "African Art: Its Beauty, Form, and Function." Christian
Science Monitor IS Apr. 1996, SIRS Inc.
Andreae, Christopher. "Picasso as a Cubist Landscape Painter." Christian
Science Monitor 13 Nov. 1995, SIRS, Inc..
Astor, Robert. "Cubism" STRS Renaissance Fall 1996, SIRS, Inc.
Colliers Encyclopedia. New York: Colliers Incorporated, 1891. Vol. C. 546-7.
Encyclopedia Americana. Danbury, Connecticut: Grolier Incorporated, 1991. Vol.
The World Book Encyclopedia. Chicago, Illinois: World Book Incorporated, 1997. Vol.
The World Book Encyclopedia. Chicago, Illinois. World Book Incorporated, 1997. Vol.
Juan Gris' Portait