6 Feb


The French colonial empire in Morocco had given the exotic images of Berber and soukh, dancing girl and war camel, lion and Riff warrior to the imagery of Romanticism, through Delacroix and his fellow Romantics. By 1900, technology in the form of the gunboat and the trading steamer had created another French empire in equatorial Africa, whose cultural artefacts were ritual carvings, to which the French assigned no importance whatsoever as art. They thought of them as curiosities, and as such they were an insignificant part of the flood of raw material that France was siphoning from Africa. Picasso thought they did matter – but as raw material. Both he and Braque owned African carvings, but they had no anthropological interest in them at all. They didn’t care about their ritual uses, they knew nothing about their original tribal meanings (which assigned art a very different function to any use it could have in Paris), or about societies from which the masks came. Probably (although the art historian piously hopes it was otherwise) their idea of African tribal societies was not far from the one most Frenchmen had – jungle drums, bones in the nose, missionary stew. In this respect, Cubism was like a dainty parody of the imperial model. The African carvings were an exploitable resource, like copper or palm-oil, and Picasso’s use of them was a kind of cultural plunder.

But then, why use African art at all. The Cubists were just about the first artists to think of doing so. One hundred and thirty years before, when Benjamin West admired the tapa cloth, war-clubs and canoe carvings that had just come back from the Pacific with Captain Cook and Joseph Banks – relics of a new world that had the strangeness of moon rocks – no Royal Academicians took the cue and started painting Tahitian-style or Maori fashion. To depict the monuments of Easter Island, as Wiliam Hodges did, was one thing; to imitate the style quite another. Yet this was what Picasso did with his African prototypes, around 1906-8. When he began to parody black art, he was stating what no eighteenth-century artist would ever have imagined suggesting: that the tradition of the human figure, which had been the very spine of Western art for two and a half millenia, had at last run out; and that in order to renew its vitality, one had to look to untapped culutural resources – the Africans, remote in their otherness. But if one compares a work like Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, 1907 with its African source material, the differences are as striking as the similarities. What Picasso cared about was the formal vitality of African art, which was, for him, inseperably involved with its apparent freedom to distort. That the alterations of the human face and body represented by such figures were not Expressionist distortions, but conventional forms, was perhaps, less clear (or at least less interesting) to him than us. They seemed violent, and they offered themselves as a receptacle for his own panache. So the work of Picasso’s so-called “Negro Period” has none of the aloofness, the reserved containment, of its African prototype; its lashing rhythms remind us that Picasso looked to his masks as emblems of savagery, of violence transferred into the sphere of culture.

With its hacked contours, staring interrogatory eyes and general feeling of instability, Les Demoiselles is still a disturbing painting after three quarters of a century, a refutation of the idea that the surprise of art, like the surprise of fashion, must necessarilly wear off. No painting ever looked more convulsive. None signalled a faster change in the history of art. Yet it was anchored in tradition, and its attack on the eye would never have been so startling if its format had not been that of the classical nude.


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