Very early in the 20th century, and even before then, missionaries, explorers, traders and other travellers from Europe who were journeying in Africa began taking home African masks and sculptures. Eventually these objects were arriving in Europe in their hundreds. These carvings and masks ended up in museums in France, Spain, Germany, Austria and Belgium: although they were out of context and seemed strange and difficult to explain, they still communicated a power and a compelling spiritual force, to their uninformed audience in Europe.
Among those who saw them were artists – especially artists at the forefront of new ideas – like Picasso, Mattisse, Derain, Vlaminck, Moore and others. Almost at once, changes became visible in their work. Picasso, busy at the time on a large painting of five nude women (called Les Demoiselles d’Avignon)
went to see the African masks in the Trocadero Museum. He came back to his studio and immediately repainted two of the faces in his painting, turning them into starkly angular, striated, mask-like images, “fearsome, war-like African idols”.
This was the beginning of a seismic shift in European art. Cubism was just one of the important movements in art that evolved out of this embrace of the extraordinary qualities of African sculpture.
“At that moment… I realised what painting was all about. Painting isn’t an aesthetic operation… (it’s) a way of seizing the power, by giving form to the terrors as well as the desires. When I came to that realisation, I knew I had found my way.”Picasso, on seeing African masks for the first time in 1907
Talk About This
What physical similarities do African masks share with any of these these faces? (You might talk about the sharp angularities, the flat sweeping planes like carved wood, the concave instead of convex planes of the cheeks, the eyes and mouths, and the surface striations and lines.)
Does this only affect the way the figures look? Some of the figures in the large painting still have faces that appear unaffected by the masks. What difference, if any, does that make to how we read each one’s power qualities of these figures?