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 together with utensils and weapons in display cabinets with accompanying texts and labels dedicated to explaining the ‘primitive’ forms of civilisation (p62, AA100 Book3, 2008 OU).
It was the idea of the ‘primitive’ which so appealed to the Avant Garde. The ‘primitive’ civilisations from which the artwork emanated were supposedly untouched by the heavy and overwhelming apparatus of Western civilisation, so what remained in this artwork, for the Avant Garde, was a sort of pure distillation of human expression and emotion, untainted by centuries of tradition and constraints from which the Avant Garde were trying to free themselves.
In 1936, at an art exhibition in New York titled ‘Cubism and Abstract Art’ the artists of the modern movement, such as Picasso, were well on their way to establishing themselves as fine artists in their own right. The curator of the exhibition Alfred H. Barr termed the period of the transition of Picasso before he fell upon Cubism as his ‘Negro period’. Barr made the direct connection between Picasso’s 1907 work Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (Plate 3.2.1 Illustration Book for Books 3 and 4, 2008 OU) and a mask from the Etoumbi region (Plate 3.2.8 Illustration Book for Books 3 and 4, 2008 OU) (p65, AA100 Book3, 2008 OU). Doubts have arisen over whether that mask in particular was a direct influence on Picasso’s work but there seems little doubt to me that the painting was heavily shaped by African influences as at least two of the women are wearing African style face masks very similar in appearance to the mask from the Etoumbi region.
The question of African influence brings us back to the Art of Benin. The Art of Benin was conspicuous in its absence from cited influences in the ‘primitivism’ movement, the critic Carl Einstein went as far as to say that ‘despite their technical sophistication (the Art of Benin) seem to us of no decisive significance’ (P69 AA100 Book3, 2008 OU). The key phrase here is ‘technical sophistication’; it appears the artwork of Benin served no purpose for the Avant Garde because it ran directly counter to their ideas of ‘primitivism’. Some of the Art, dating back to the early 16th century such as the sculpture of the head of Queen Idia (Plate 3.1.1 Illustration Book for Books 3 and 4, 2008 OU), made using the ‘lost wax’ technique, have more in common with the ‘fine art’ of the Renaissance rather than any of the uncultivated connotations associated with ‘primitivism’.
One of the biggest problems Europeans had in interpreting the artwork from Benin was the early insistence on categorizing the art in anthropological exhibitions such as that of the Pitt Rivers Museum (Figure 2.9 P72 AA100 Book3, 2008 OU). The exhibitions would display utensils in one cabinet, weapons in another, plaques in another and so on, with the intention of illustrating the archaic way of life of these primitive societies, In that context the beauty and meaning of the Art of Benin is lost amidst a display of strict functionality.
Ideas about race and ‘primitivism’ greatly hindered the understanding of the Art as they were attempting to view the artefacts and artwork through the existing paradigm of understanding Africa as a primitive or timeless civilisation, occupied by ‘brutal savages’. (P80 Reading 2.3 AA100 Book3, 2008 OU)
To appreciate the artwork of Benin in its own right would take years of peeling back the layers of prejudice which had thus far hindered scientific understanding and cultural relations while depriving the Benin artwork of its own platform in contemporary galleries and museums.
This problem has been remedied somewhat in recent years, with institutions such as the Horniman Museum, London, who have settled for a compromise between an Art and an anthropological exhibition. On the one hand the artwork itself is placed in individual cabinets, well lighted, with the exhibition extending along the wall. This gives the viewer the chance to appreciate each work of Art in itself. On the other hand the exhibition provides accompanying literature, providing background information and interpretations from contemporary African historians to help elucidate the meaning and the context within which the art was created. (DVD ROM Cultural Encounters, 2009 OU)
- AA100 Book3 Cultural Encounters, 2008 OU.
- Illustration Book for Books 3 and 4, 2008 OU.
- DVD ROM, Cultural Encounters, 2009 OU.