The aim of this art history essay is to discuss the ways in which primitive, African art affected the style and subject matter of the Cubist art movement.

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Liz Purdue

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Art History Essay

The aim of this art history essay is to discuss the ways in which primitive, African art affected the style and subject matter of the cubist art movement.

Cubism is considered as ‘art of abstraction’ which makes reference to the visible world but doesn’t copy it. It depicts real forms in a simplified way - keeping only an allusion of the original natural subject. Cubism originated from Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque in 1907. Their style was heavily influenced by post impressionist artist Paul Cezanne, who’s later work starts to depict the multiple perspectives that defined the cubist period. The cubists felt that the traditions of western art in which subject-matter and style had been depicted had been unchanged since the renaissance and they believed a new challenge was needed to revitalise the conventional methods set by the academy. Most of the cubists were attracted by the anarchist philosophy, and they wanted to create art that would shock the academy, critics and public.

About this time Paul Gauguin had travelled to Tahiti were he painted the natives and their natural surroundings, this in itself was revolutionary as no other western artist had explored to such a depth geographically or artistically. Primitive art was not greatly known outside the African continent but other artists were also beginning to notice these cultural differences. So with the new perception on painting from multiple viewpoints and the opportunities of new cultural experiences, the cubists became extremely enthusiastic about re-inventing 20th century art. (Georges Braque recalled that ‘negro masks… opened a new horizon for me. They made it possible for me to make contact with instinctive things, with uninhibited feeling that went against the false tradition [late western illusionism] which I hated’). The simplified shapes and lack of concern with realist depiction of the sculptures attracted them to including and incorporating this style into their own work. The sculptures and the masks of the primitive have a lot of religious meaning to the native people; the westerners were not however, interested in the religious symbolism of these cultural artefacts. (‘Apollinaire remarked: ‘in negro sculpture, no account is taken of the supernatural character with which it is endowed by the artists, who have created it and the faithful who worship it”) Westerners viewed Africa as the symbol of savagery. The cubists, however, saw this as a refreshing source but merely valued their expressive style and abstract forms. (“His [Picasso] interpretation of African art, in these mask-like faces, was based on this idea of African savagery; his brush-strokes are hacking, impetuous, and violent”). Picasso was able to convey his personal feelings and views about the primitive culture through his dramatic art work.

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Maurice Vlaminck sold an African mask to Derain who, in turn, introduced it to Picasso. (“...Derain was ‘speechless’ and ‘stunned’ when he saw it … Picasso and Matisse, who were also greatly affected by it.”) This was the first time Picasso had seen such unusual art. He later went to an exhibition at the Ethnographic Museum of the Trocadero in Paris, which intrigued him further. The 19th century Fang sculpture (below) is similar to what Picasso saw just before he painted Les Demoiselles D' Avignon in 1907. It is notably Picasso’s first art works to be influenced by primitive ...

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