Skip to main content

Paris and 'African' Art

One of the signal facts of artistic movements in Paris in the first half of the twentieth century is the influence of African art on the painters and writers who created what we now refer to as Modernism. I put the word African in inverted commas in the title to this post to indicate that what Picasso, Matisse, Breton, and others were borrowing from was as much their own, sometimes erroneous, ideas about Africa, as much as the physical objects that fascinated them so. That said, you can't visit museums in Paris without finding evidence for the importance of this south-to-north current of influence.

The Musee du Quai Branly houses objects from Africa, the Americas, and Oceania, and early in January I made my first ever visit to the collection:

African carvings at Musee du Quai Branly

Masks at Musee du Quai Branly

This is the source material, or very similar to it, for the statues that Picasso saw in the Louvre in the early 1900s, and which inspired his 'primitive' painting of the female figure in Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, the foundational painting of Cubism. At the Louis Vuitton Foundation, I saw an exhibition of masterpieces from the Schukhin collection (grand patron of Matisse and Picasso, a Russian who lined his palace with paintings which were confiscated by the Bolsheviks and which form part of the Hermitage collection). Among the works by Picasso were studies for the Demoiselles, in gouache:

Studies by Picasso, 1907

The similarity between Picasso's work and the African wood carvings is especially noticeable in the simplified forms of heads and torsos.

Then at the Centre Georges Pompidou, the studio room of Andre Breton is displayed in its entirety behind a room-length wall of glass:

Andre Breton's studio, 1

Andre Breton's studio, 2

This takes us up to the middle part of the twentieth century. Breton was a member of the Surrealist movement, and the paintings and objects in this room are in a variety of styles. But once again, there are African masks and figures everywhere. I suspect that to a Surrealist, the attraction would have been that the anonymous men and women who created these objects were accessing their unconscious, unfiltered by the intellectual theorising of Western art. No doubt this is a crude and patronising way of thinking about African art, but the point is that this is close to what twentieth century Modernists thought, and that these beliefs, whether mistaken or not, were a driving force in the renewal and regeneration of art and literature after 1907.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

A Visit to the Studio of Connie Noyes

An artist’s studio, it has been said, is half science laboratory and half Aladdin’s cave.

I was reminded of this when I visited the studio of Chicago artist Connie Noyes recently, on the third floor of a grand brick factory building that once manufactured Ford Model Ts. As soon as the steel doors swung open, Noyes guided me on a pathway that led between old and new paintings concealed in bubble-wrap and leaning against walls, tables laden with the recycled and cast-off materials that she uses in her current work, and works in progress standing against other walls, reclining on other tables, or lying on the floor, amid pools of wet and dried resin that she pours in cascades over her materials.

We talked a lot about process. Whether in a series of works incorporating enlarged digital photos, pigment, resin, and hilariously gaudy frames, or in a piece that cocoons hundreds of peanut shells in a bright gold layer, Noyes spoke about finding her way by working with the materials. The size and…

Brancusi in Plastic

Artist Mary Ellen Croteau is showing these columns made from recycled plastic cartons and lids in the window of the Columbia College bookstore on Michigan Avenue. They are a playful homage to Brancusi's "Endless Columns", with a serious environmental message for our times:

Mary Ellen also runs a wonderful experimental art gallery in a window space in west Chicago, called Art on Armitage. I will be exhibiting a mixed media piece there during August 2012.

A List of Every Drink in Hemingway's "The Sun Also Rises"

I first read Ernest Hemingway's 1926 novel "The Sun Also Rises" when I was a teenager, and immediately fell in love with it. For the last couple of years, I have had the incredible privilege of teaching a class based around Hemingway in Paris -- while living and teaching in Paris itself, close to the Boulevard du Montparnasse, where most of the action of the novel's first half takes place.

Of the many things that one notices about the book, the colossal amount of drinking is something that stands out. These people didn't just drink like fish: they drank like whales, as if the ocean they swam in was alcohol and they had set themselves the task of drinking the seas of the world dry of it. During my read-through of the book before class started last year, I tried to underline every mention of drink in the book. And now, purely in the interests of science, I am listing the entire menu of booze mentioned directly by name. Some preliminary observations:
Most of this is…