Artists Find Inspiration in African Tribal Art

European artists in search of new means of expression discovered them in African tribal art, altering the course of twentieth century painting and sculpture.

Summary of Event

Several collections of tribal art had been established in Paris during the latter half of the nineteenth century. France owned extensive colonies in Africa and Oceania, and expeditions to these colonies had returned with statuettes, masks, headdresses, musical instruments, and other artifacts. These pieces were seen as “primitive”—that is, crude in conception and execution. In turn, their apparent primitiveness illustrated, at least to the satisfaction of most European viewers, the savagery of the groups producing them. African tribal art
[kw]Artists Find Inspiration in African Tribal Art (1906-1907)
[kw]African Tribal Art, Artists Find Inspiration in (1906-1907)
[kw]Tribal Art, Artists Find Inspiration in African (1906-1907)
[kw]Art, Artists Find Inspiration in African Tribal (1906-1907)
African tribal art
[g]France;1906-1907: Artists Find Inspiration in African Tribal Art[01540]
[c]Arts;1906-1907: Artists Find Inspiration in African Tribal Art[01540]
Picasso, Pablo
Matisse, Henri
Derain, André
Vlaminck, Maurice de

By the early twentieth century, examples of tribal art had thus been accessible to the French public for several decades. Three factors contributed to their “discovery” in about 1906 by avant-garde painters in Paris. First, dealers in antiquities and curiosities had begun featuring tribal art in their display cases and windows—in other words, at the street level, where their aesthetic qualities were more striking than in poorly arranged documentary displays in museums.

A second factor was the change in public attitudes toward colonization. By 1905, evidence of incredible brutality on the part of the French and the Belgians in central Africa had become public. Newspapers condemned the atrocities, and politically radical artists such as Pablo Picasso, Kees van Dongen, and František Kupka—some of whom drew political cartoons—joined in the attack. As a result, collecting and studying African art became a means of establishing solidarity with the oppressed.

The third and perhaps most important factor was the situation of art itself at the beginning of the century. It was felt that the movement known as Impressionism, which attempted to reproduce the actual experience of seeing, had exhausted the possibilities of realistic painting. In this context, a retrospective exhibition of works by French painter Paul Gauguin Gauguin, Paul in 1906 came at just the right moment. Gauguin had visited Tahiti in 1891 and had eventually settled and died in the nearby Marquesas Islands. The exhibition featured canvases that seemed barbaric in their bright colors and subject matter: idealized native scenes, “pagan” idols, and other exotic themes. Gauguin had rejected purely realistic art, and artists in search of new means of expression found inspiration in his work. Gauguin’s insight into non-European cultures has been questioned, but he paved the way for the appreciation of African and Oceanic art by his younger colleagues.

Accounts of how European artists discovered and began acquiring African sculpture differ. French painter Henri Matisse recounted that he bought a piece from Emile Heymann’s shop in Paris and that he subsequently showed it to his new acquaintance from Spain, Pablo Picasso, in 1906. The piece has since been identified with some certainty as a Vili statuette from a region of Africa that would later become the Republic of the Congo. The figure, of a seated man impudently sticking out his tongue, appears in an unfinished oil painting by Matisse, Still Life with African Sculpture, Still Life with African Sculpture (Matisse) dating from 1906 or 1907.

Another French painter, Maurice de Vlaminck, told a different story. He said that he noticed pieces of African tribal sculpture in a bar, and he bought them for the price of a round or two of drinks. The exact date is hard to establish—it may have been anywhere from 1903 to 1906. Later, a friend gave him several more pieces, one of which, a wooden Fang mask from what would later become Gabon, he sold to fellow artist André Derain. According to this story, it was this mask, which was on display in Derain’s Paris studio, that constituted the introduction to African tribal art for both Matisse and Picasso.

Picasso himself was guarded in explaining his art and its inspiration. He once claimed complete ignorance of African art at that stage of his life, but he later stated that he had studied examples at the Musée d’Ethnographie du Trocadéro (rechristened the Musée de l’Homme) in Paris in 1907. In any case, he began buying pieces on visits to the flea market, eventually assembling a large collection that he maintained throughout his life.

The influence of tribal art was far greater in some cases than in others. Vlaminck and Derain seem to have found little more than confirmation of their own attitudes. As members of the Fauve movement, they painted in bright, even harsh, colors, bypassing the intellect of the viewer to make a direct emotional appeal. They felt that African sculpture operated in the same fashion.

Matisse’s work shows a more direct influence. In its apparent crudeness and emphasis on breasts and buttocks, his small sculpture La Vie (1906) clearly recalls African models. The same influence is apparent in a larger sculpture created in 1907, Reclining Nude I, and a major painting of the same year, The Blue Nude. All these works show a rejection of conventional nineteenth century European standards of beauty and proportion, and they mark a clear advance over his Still Life with African Sculpture.

It was only when he came face-to-face with tribal art, said Picasso, that he realized “what painting was all about.” At the time, he was a successful if relatively unknown painter, and his study of ancient Spanish and Egyptian sculpture and the work of Gauguin had allowed him to move beyond the somewhat sentimentalized paintings of his blue and rose periods. Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907), Demoiselles d’Avignon, Les (Picasso) however, marked not only a break with his own past but also a total rejection of the European tradition. This large (almost eight-square-foot) painting of five prostitutes seemed intentionally ugly to those who first saw it. The figures’ limbs are distorted and broken into planes. Their faces are as blank as masks, their lozenge-shaped eyes staring past the viewer. The faces of the figure on the left and of the two on the right are literally masklike (although experts disagree over their specific tribal prototypes) and savagely crosshatched. Long after its recognition as a key work of the twentieth century, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon continues to shock.


So-called primitive art had a major influence on Western culture during the twentieth century. As used broadly, the term “primitive” has been used to refer not only to tribal art but also to the work of children and the insane and to the output of self-taught “naïve” painters. Sometimes even a tendency to extreme simplification has been called primitive. Within this complex of factors, African and Oceanic tribal art made its influence felt widely and early. In addition to the Fauves, Matisse (who exhibited for a time with the Fauves), and Picasso, a number of other artists were affected. The Romanian Constantin Brancusi Brancusi, Constantin began to produce African-inspired sculpture about 1913, as did the Italian Amedeo Modigliani, Modigliani, Amedeo better known today as a painter. Both lived in Paris and so were affected by the same conditions as other Paris-based artists.

Collections of African and Oceanic tribal art were not unique to France. Larger collections had been established in Germany, although that country had been acquiring colonies for a much shorter period of time. These collections were accessible to a major group of German-based artists, Die Brücke Brücke, Die (the bridge), which had been formed in 1905. That group’s most important member was Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. Kirchner, Ernst Ludwig For a while, Fauve painter Kees van Dongen and Swiss artist Cuno Amiet, who had been a friend of Gauguin, were also associated with the group. The Fauves Fauvism were a major influence, as was tribal art. Kirchner was already painting from live black models when he began studying African and Micronesian (North Pacific islander) art at the Dresden Ethnographic Museum in 1910. His work is more harshly colored and far more angular than that of the Fauves, as if he were straining to express the emotional, “primitive,” non-European side of his character.

It was through the work of Matisse and particularly Picasso, however, that the tribal art of Africans and other non-European peoples had its most significant impact on the mainstream of Western painting. Matisse integrated the elements so subtly that they became difficult to identify, especially after his initial burst of interest in 1906 and 1907. Only toward the end of his life did the influence again become obvious, in a series of “cutouts,” highly decorative collages of brightly painted paper. The portfolio of these works that he completed in 1947, appropriately called Jazz
Jazz (Matisse) (after the popular black American music form), is the culmination of his career.

Several of Picasso’s works from the period of 1907 take the experiment of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon a step further, especially two paintings sharing the title Nude with Raised Arms. Nude with Raised Arms (Picasso) Here the degree of stylization and near abstraction is marked. Whatever minimal perspective remained in Les Demoiselles d’Avignon has vanished. Picasso was on the verge of forging the most revolutionary style of the century, cubism. Cubism
Art movements;cubism

This new style was actually the mutual creation of Picasso and his colleagues Georges Braque and Juan Gris; Derain and Matisse took part, but less enthusiastically. In its simplest sense, cubism was a solution to the problem faced by all painters: representing three dimensions (height, width, and depth) on a surface that has only two. As Gauguin had been an influence a few years before, now French painter Paul Cézanne Cézanne, Paul (1839-1906) became an important example. Cézanne had reduced objects and landscapes to their essential geometric components. To perceptive artists such as Picasso, the angularity of African tribal art, with its seemingly violent juxtaposition of stylized features, must have seemed the result of a similar process. To reduce these elements still further to the flat surface of a canvas was to carry the process to its logical conclusion.

Directly or indirectly (through the medium of cubism), tribal art influenced almost every important European artist of the twentieth century. After Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, its most important manifestation may have been the 1923 Paris premiere of the ballet La Création du monde (the creation of the world). Création du monde, La (ballet) This production combined numerous aspects of black culture, some more authentic than others, and capitalized on intense French interest in everything African. The score by Darius Milhaud Milhaud, Darius is generally credited with being the first orchestral use of jazz (although the relationship between jazz and genuine African music has been debated). The scenario by writer and impresario Blaise Cendrars Cendrars, Blaise was based on African creation myths. Choreographer and principal dancer Jean Börlin Börlin, Jean adapted his movements from African models. The costumes and backdrop were designed by Fernand Léger, Léger, Fernand a painter who had taken part in the cubist movement and who now combined cubist and more obviously tribal elements into one harmonious and awe-inspiring whole. Léger based many of his designs on illustrations from Marius de Zayas’s African Art: Its Influence on Modern Art (1916), a pioneering work on the subject. The set featured three tall, freestanding figures representing presiding deities and illustrated the emergence of various stages of life. The costumes were highly stylized and managed to be both expressive and lighthearted. Around them all wound Milhaud’s ingratiating, sinuous music.

When European artists discovered African tribal art in 1906 or 1907, they were impressed as much by its psychological aspects (its “magic”) as by its aesthetic dimensions. Picasso’s shocking Les Demoiselles d’Avignon and the lyrical collaborative effort of La Création du monde define the far-reaching impacts of that discovery. African tribal art

Further Reading

  • Bois, Yve-Alain. “Kahnweiler’s Lesson.” Representations 18 (Spring, 1987): 33-68. Discussion of critic and art dealer C. H. Kahnweiler’s theory of the relationship between African tribal art and cubism. Kahnweiler had maintained that while African art was important to the development of Picasso and of cubism, its impact on Picasso’s painting Les Demoiselles d’Avignon was negligible. For the serious student of art history. Illustrations, substantial notes.
  • Flam, Jack, ed. Primitivism and Twentieth-Century Art: A Documentary History. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003. A collection of essays by artists, literary figures, museum curators, art collectors, and others focusing on the encounter between Western artists and what has historically been called primitive art. Includes illustrations, an extensive bibliography, and a chronology of events, exhibitions, and publications.
  • Goldwater, Robert. Primitivism in Modern Art. Rev. ed. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 2002. The classic study, discussing “primitivism” in all its manifestations. First published in 1938 and revised in 1966; this “enlarged” edition adds two supplementary chapters. Still the best introduction for the general reader. Black-and-white illustrations, detailed notes, chronology of “ethnographical museums and exhibitions,” index.
  • Le Coat, Gerard G. “Art Nègre and Esprit Moderne in France (1907-1911).” In Double Impact: France and Africa in the Age of Imperialism, edited by G. Wesley Johnson. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1985. Examines the “discovery” of African tribal art by artists in Paris and compares the accounts of the various participants. The collection as a whole provides a broad context for the interested student. Maps, some black-and-white illustrations, notes, select bibliography, index.
  • Leighten, Patricia. “The White Peril and L’Art nègre: Picasso, Primitivism, and Anticolonialism.” Art Bulletin 72 (December, 1990): 609-630. Detailed analysis of the reaction of artists to accounts of atrocities in French and Belgian colonies in Africa. Black-and-white illustrations, including reproductions of newspaper cartoons. Notes, list of frequently cited sources.
  • Rubin, William, ed.“Primitivism” in Twentieth Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern. 1984. Reprint. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2002. A lavish, two-volume treatment for browsers and experts alike. Particularly pertinent chapters include “From Africa,” by Jean-Louis Paudrat (on the arrival of African tribal objects in the West); “Matisse and the Fauves,” by Jack D. Flam; “Picasso,” by William Rubin; “German Expressionism,” by Donald E. Gordon; and “Léger: ’The Creation of the World’” by Laura Rosenstock. Heavily illustrated, with many of the illustrations in color. Each chapter carries detailed notes, but there is no overall bibliography or index.

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