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Picasso, modernism and the non-European

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The art of the early 20th century shows how cultures can mix and interact, writes John Molyneux
Issue 1997
Pablo Picasso’s pioneering Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907)
Pablo Picasso’s pioneering Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907)

The art of the early 20th century shows how cultures can mix and interact, writes John Molyneux

In debates about racism and multiculturalism questions of “civilisation” and the development of “culture” are never slow to surface.

Underpinning much racist ideology is the notion that the development of civilisation was basically a European or Western phenomenon.

In reality, civilisation – living in cities, literacy, law and so on – developed first in three main areas, none of them in Europe – the Middle Eastern fertile crescent (Iraq to Egypt), north western India and south east China.

Moreover Europe in the Middle Ages remained pitifully backward compared to China or the Islamic civilisation in the Middle East and North Africa.

But even those who accept these basic historical facts often still cling to the idea that “modern culture” and “modernism” are a uniquely European (and thus “white”) creation.

Then again in the anti-racist camp there are those who see different cultures as equal or “equally valid” but still think of them as separate and inherently linked to distinct ethnic or racial groups.

Therefore they talk of preserving different cultures and maintaining their authenticity, resisting their contamination by external influences (for example, by opposing mixed race adoptions).

A striking challenge to all these views of how culture develops is provided by the work and career of the greatest of all modern artists, Pablo Picasso.

At the beginning of the 20th century Picasso was already a rising star of the art world on the basis of the works of his so called “blue” and “rose” periods, which mainly comprised powerful, if somewhat sentimental, depictions of the poor and the marginalised.

Implacable stares

Then in 1907 Picasso painted Les Demoiselles d’Avignon depicting five prostitutes in a Spanish brothel displaying themselves to their prospective clients and staring implacably out of the canvass at the viewer.

This painting opened the door to the development of cubism and the whole of modernist art. At the time it was deeply shocking not only to the establishment, but also to all Picasso’s avant garde artist friends like Georges Braque and Henri Matisse.

Among its many shocking features was the fact that two of the women’s heads were painted to resemble African masks, while the other three were based on images from ancient Iberian culture.

The Marxist art critic John Berger describes Les Demoiselles d’Avignon as “a raging frontal attack against life as Picasso found it” – and the African mask images are part of this. But if we look at how Picasso’s work develops we find that his use of African art also has a deeper significance.

What Picasso found in African art was the key, or one of the keys, to a new way of seeing and representing the world and a profoundly new conception of art. This broke more decisively than ever before (the break had been building for decades) with the dominant European art tradition.

Since the 15th century – the start of the era of the rise of capitalism – European painting and sculpture had focused on achieving a naturalistic representation of the physical world. It tried to make more or less accurate copies of things, people and scenes, especially the possessions, land and appearance of the rich and powerful.

The African sculptures that influenced Picasso were products of a pre-capitalist society where the role of art was quite different.

It was not made to hang in palaces or museums, but for use in daily life, particularly rituals. Its aim was not naturalistic imitation of status or property, but the expression of “spiritual” (emotional-psychological) power.

This is what made it such a useful source for the bohemian artists, like Picasso, who were rebelling against all the traditions of the bourgeois and aristocratic art academy.

If it were just a case of African art influencing one major modernist painting, this could be dismissed as accidental – but it was not.

The African influence on Picasso and Braque’s cubism as a whole and on Picasso’s later work is manifest. Paintings like the Three Dancers and even Guernica would have been impossible without the breakthrough achieved in Les Demoiselles.

Direct influence

And there were many other artists also directly influenced by African art. They included Matisse, André Derain and Maurice de Vlaminck, the pioneer of modernist sculpture Constantin Brancusi, Paul Klee and Amedeo Modigliani, the German expressionists, and the sculptor Alberto Giacometti.

This was part of an even wider turn towards non-European pre-capitalist sources of inspiration. This ranged from the enthusiasm for Japanese prints of the Impressionists and Vincent van Gogh, Paul Gauguin’s physical migration first to Brittany and then to Tahiti, Henri Rousseau’s “primitivist” evocations of jungle scenes, Henry Moore’s inspiration by Mayan sculpture, to Jackson Pollock, who was influenced by Native American (Navajo) sand pouring in his “drip” paintings.

Nor was this tendency restricted to visual art – witness the role played in modern music by blues and jazz, with its African roots, or Ezra Pound’s translations of Chinese poetry, or DH Lawrence’s journey to Mexico.

Politically this general trend was highly ambiguous. It could, as was the case with Picasso, be left leaning and even a mark of identification with anti- imperialist struggles.

But it could also be associated with colonialist notions of the “exotic” or even, as with Pound and Lawrence, with fascist ideas of “race” and “blood”.

But in all these cases there was a search for different models of language, rhythm and visual representation to the traditional European conventions. These were then linked to an engagement with the forces of modernity – electricity, cars, aeroplanes and the restless pace of the city – to produce something new, modernist art.

And what the example of Picasso and the episode as a whole demonstrates is that cultures are not set in fixed and closed boxes, but develop through interaction and dynamic fusion.

This has always been the case from as long ago as the influence of ancient Egypt on the Greeks, but it is truer than ever in today’s era of imperialism and globalisation.


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