When I was walking around the Dallas Museum of Art last week, I saw a small section in a bigger gallery that had one of the best things on show (see photo, above). The space was only about 10 feet wide and less than 20 feet long, basically just three walls, but it was displaying African masks and sculpture together with some of the western artists who were influenced by that, such as Picasso. Pride of place was one of Picasso’s first Cubist pictures, flanked by a grouping of masks, and a photo showing Picasso in his Bateau Lavoir studio surrounded by his own mask collection. All it takes to make a strong exhibition, sometimes, is just three or four things.
At the same time as I saw these works, I was re-reading Joseph Conrad’s “Hearth of Darkness.” I am struck by the connections in thought between Conrad the writer, and artists such as Gauguin, Picasso, and Braque. First, their interest in what they called “primitive art” grew almost at the same time. Conrad wrote his novella in 1899, and Picasso painted Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (with its African-mask-women-faces) in 1907. Their ideas about Africa had this in common: they were filtered through the white colonial exploitation of African countries that was still in full force at the turn of the twentieth century. So at worst, this means that black Africans were seen as inferior subhumans, who could be given the choice of dying immediately in defence of their land, or dying later as part of a subjugated labour force. At best, you get Picasso’s idea of the “noble primitive” who is more in touch with his natural instincts because he hasn’t been “corrupted” by civilization. Both views make patronizing assumptions about non-white people of the time, mainly that they are somehow not as “advanced” as white Europeans. From an artistic point of view, historians now tend to acknowledge the limitations of the assumptions that underlie the idea of “primitivism”, and then proceed to analyse how Picasso’s (erroneous) assumptions influenced his art. That’s fine. But it’s interesting to read Conrad, and to see both sides of that contemporary view struggling with each other.
“Heart of Darkness” is suffused throughout with all the ugly, despicable parts of colonialism, as told through the brutal Belgian regime in the Congo. At times, Conrad’s narrator Marlow seems to sympathize with the plight of the black people who are virtual slaves:
They were dying slowly -- it was very clear. They were not enemies, they were not criminals, they were nothing earthly now -- nothing but black shadows of disease and starvation, lying confusedly in the greenish gloom.Then, as Marlow reaches the ‘heart of darkness,’ the land and the people become a metaphor for all that is destructive, malicious, and ugly in human existence:
The earth seemed unearthly. We are accustomed to look upon the shackled form of a conquered monster, but there -- there you could look at a thing monstrous and free. It was unearthly, and the men were -- No, they were not inhuman . . . They howled, and leaped, and spun, and made horrid faces; but what thrilled you was just the thought of their humanity -- like yours -- the thought of your remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar.To modern ears, the ugliness is in the vocabulary that equates dark skin colour with “blackness”, and “evil”. The power of the writing is that it compels an aesthetic assent, even as we nowadays attempt to resist its ethical implications. Whatever we think of Conrad’s real feelings about Africa, my point is that it is a more extreme version of the thinking that led to Picasso’s interest in African art. It’s an uncomfortable fact that we still need to wrestle with when we look at Picasso’s so-called “African-ized” art, or when we read Conrad: that great works of art can have unpleasant origins.