From the Industrial Revolution to World War I, C. 1850–1914

Early Twentieth-Century Art

How did African art influence art of the early twentieth century?

At the beginning of the early twentieth century, Western artists such as Pablo Picasso (1881–1973) and Emile Nolde (1867–1956) became interested in the so-called “primitive” art of non-Western cultures, including the arts of Africa and the Pacific. In France, artists were able to see non-Western art at the Musée d’Ethnographie in Paris. Although they were inspired by the visual expressivity and relative abstraction of much non-Western art, most European artists made little to no attempt to understand the historical and cultural context of the pieces they viewed (and often purchased). Picasso’s art was significantly inspired by African style, allowing the artist freedom to explore with color and style. For example, one his most important paintings, Desmoiselles d’Avignon (1907), is characterized by elongated figures and abstract faces commonly found in African masks and sculpture. Another painting, Mother and Child (1907) uses bold colors and ovoid forms to reinvent traditional Christian subject matter. Despite the clear influence, Picasso occasionally downplayed the importance of African art his own work, preferring not to talk about it.


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