Picasso and the Intersection between Primitive and Modern Art

An African ritual mask in Pablo Picasso’s collection. Ethnic objects like these became a new and powerful source of influence on modern abstract art pioneers like Picasso, Jacob Epstein, Constantin Branscusi, Paul Klee and others.

A fascination with the ‘primitive’ lies at the heart of some of the most influential developments in modern Western art. The decades between 1890 and 1950 was the most fertile period for this development. Below is an intimate account of the close encounter between Pablo Picasso, a leading abstract painter at the time and the indigenous art of Africa, Oceania and other “primitive” cultures:

After visiting the Ethnography Museum in Paris, where he saw masks such as the one pictured, Picasso experienced a ‘revelation’. His friend Matisse wrote that he was struck by the purity of line of the African sculpture in the shop of Pere Sauvage on the Rue de Rennes. He wrote: “It was as fine as Egyptian art. So I bought one and showed it to Gertrude Stein .. And then Picasso arrived. He took to it immediately.”

The poet Max Jacob recalled visiting Matisse with Picasso and seeing it: “Picasso held it in his hands all evening. The next morning, when I came to his studio, the floor was strewn with sheets of drawing paper. Each sheet had virtually the same drawing on it, a big woman’s face with a single eye, a nose too long that merged into the mouth, a lock of hair on the shoulder.”

~ From Susie Hodge, Modern Art in Detail: 75 Masterpieces, Thames & Hudson, 2017.

A clear influence of tribal art on Picasso can ben seen in his masterpiece, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, painted in 1907. One of the most recognizable paintings of the last century, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon depicts five nude females in various poses, four of whom look out toward the viewer, each painted with bodies that are angular and rather abstract, with three of them possessing mask-like faces. This work is now in the Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Pablo Picasso, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, 1907, oil on canvas, length: 244 cm. Museum of Modern Art, New York.


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