How did ideas about race and about the primitive influence the response of Western Europeans to art from Benin from 1897 onwards?

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TMA05 Part 2

How did ideas about race and about the ‘primitive’ influence the response of Western Europeans to art from Benin from 1897 onwards?

The entry entitled ‘Negro’ in the Encyclopedia Britannica, (11th edition 1910-11) gives us a useful insight into the way in which African people were viewed by the scientific class of the day. The entry also provides us with some examples of the fundamental differences that were believed to exist between the white and black races.

The entry begins “In certain of the characteristics [.....] the negro would appear to stand on a lower evolutionary plane than the white man”. Among the distinguishing characteristics of the ‘Negro’ cited are ‘length of arm’, ‘a heavy massive cranium’ and a ‘flat nose depressed at the base’. The entry also has no hesitation in stating that “Mentally the negro is inferior to the white”.

The article concedes (citing the lost wax method used in Benin) that “the negro is capable of becoming a craftsmen of considerable skill” but attributes this skill to that of European influence and laments the fact that when the Europeans left the ‘Negro’ was “unable to sustain the high quality of his work when the inspiration failed.” (Reading 2.4, AA100 Book3, 2008 OU)

The preconceptions about race and what the ‘Negro’ was and wasn’t capable of bring us onto the art world of the early 20th century and the Avant Garde’s ‘primitivism’ movement. Ambitious and radical artists had long been searching for a way to break free from the confines of the European post-Renaissance tradition with its representation of accurate figures in coherent space (P61, AA100 Book3, 2008 OU) using classical academic technique. Artists such as Monet and Cezanne had found a way to break free from these confines through impressionism, a form of art which captured the fleeting ‘impressions’ of the “heroism of modern life” as the poet and critic Baudelaire had termed it.(p61, AA100 Book3, 2008 OU)

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However, in the early part of the 20th century this medium had apparently become tired and worn, so much so that the German sociologist Max Weber had spoke of Modernity becoming like an ‘iron cage’. (P61, AA100 Book3, 2008 OU) This ‘iron cage’ led ambitious artists to search further a field for inspiration and, I believe, a stamp of authenticity to give their work true meaning and lasting appeal.

It was with this in mind that the Avant Garde turned towards African artwork for inspiration. Recently liberated/looted, and currently being exhibited in anthropological museums around Europe. The artwork was generally grouped ...

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