Monday, November 09, 2009

Picasso's Collection of African and Oceanic Art- a Book Review

"A hundred years ago, in June 1907, a young Spanish artist visited the Musée d’Ethnographie du Trocadéro in Paris. His visit took place just as he had left behind the wistful mood of his blue and rose periods and was making heavy-weight nudes with blank, classical faces.
Peter Stepan’s research on the consequences of this event opens up a new window on the sources of Picasso’s inspiration. Stepan is an expert on African art and has researched the collections of Georg Baselitz and Fritz Koenig. He approaches his subject with passion and an extensive knowledge of the African art prized by European artists.
Picasso first came into contact with African and Oceanic culture when the horrors of colonialism in the Belgian Congo were hitting the news. Fellow artists and writers, such as Juan Gris, Alfred Jarry and André Salmon, were satirising European attitudes to Africa. The cultural historian Patricia Leighton has described how such modernists embraced what she terms an ‘imagined primitiveness whose authenticity they opposed to a “decadent west”’.
Three decades later Picasso was still haunted by the smell and sight of ‘that awful museum’. The African and Oceanic artefacts he saw were not simply pieces of sculpture, he later told André Malraux: ‘They were magical things. …The Negro pieces were intercesseurs, mediators… they were against everything – against unknown, threatening spirits. I always looked at fetishes. I understood; I too am against everything.
I too believe that everything is an enemy!’
Picasso turned painting inside out. As a Malagan from southern Spain, he was already an outsider in the sophisticated Parisian metropolis. He wanted to assert himself by identifying with both French culture and an ‘absolute’ Other. The most shocking way that he could do this was by introducing the unknown and feared continent of Africa into his work – which he did in the ferocious masks worn by the prostitutes in his ‘brothel’, the name Picasso gave to his aggressive depiction of five nude women which became known as the Demoiselles d’Avignon. Far from being just another stylistic stimulus confined to the making of the Demoiselles, the African and Oceanic sculptures that Picasso continued to acquire over the course of his life provided him with a constant conceptual and emotional charge. The artist would show these pieces to visitors to his studio before showing his own work. He had himself photographed in front of key African sculptures, as well as taking his own pictures of visitors in front of tribal masks and figures. Not only did his collection parlante, as Stepan describes it, supply Picasso with a source of immediate inspiration, but the figures and masks that peopled his studios offered a form of continuity with his own past, his own alter-ego. They were spokespeople for a primeval, non-European form of communication and attitude to life. Picasso initially rejected a ceremonial body mask that Matisse (who had introduced him to tribal figures) gave him in 1950 (Figs 2 and 3), ‘this thing from New Guinea scared me,’ Francoise Gilot records him as saying.
‘It will have scared Matisse too, and for that reason he so wanted to give it to me.’
Photographs of Picasso’s studios, taken by himself and others, reveal his life-long attraction to masks. Not only did he collect, paint, draw and make them, he also enjoyed clowning with them and hiding behind them. The idea of disguise, of becoming an Other, fascinated him. Stepan demonstrates that this enthusiasm was central to Picasso’s artistic evolution. He argues that it was inseparable from the artist’s fascination with mythical hybrid creatures – the Minotaur, Pan, centaurs, fauns and satyrs: ‘Fluctuating between realistic representation and abstraction, equally in contact with the worlds of man, animals and imagined spirits, metamorphosis was and is a great specialty of Africa. Natural life forms came on stage and demanded their right to be made corporeal.’
The artist’s support for the African independence movement became explicit in the 1940s when he worked with Léopold Sédar Senghor and Aimé Césaire, founders of the Négritude movement amongst black intellectuals. He offered to make a monument to celebrate the end of slavery for the island of Martinique in 1947.
Over four decades ago, John Golding’s account of the Cubist revolution analysed the way in which Picasso’s mystic shock at the Trocadéro acted like an exorcism and paved the way for his Cubist deconstruction of pictorial space. It gave him the confidence to break completely with old-style naturalism and introduce the brutal, the ugly and the unexplained.
But although the catalytic effect of Oceanic and African art upon the Cubist revolution has been thoroughly documented, it continues to provoke argument and perplexity in accounts both of Picasso’s own development and of the modernist movement.
Over the past half-century, the relation-ship between African, Oceanic art and Western art has undergone a great change. ‘Primitivism’, to use a politically-charged word, is no longer patronisingly viewed as an ethnographic curiosity but as an artistic phenomenon, encompassing varying aesthetic styles, histories and cultures. Stepan touches on these issues in his critique of the former director of the Museum of Modern Art, New York, William Rubin, whose 1984 exhibition ‘The Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern’ provided an early opportunity to study the connections between 20th-century art and tribal cultures. He accuses Rubin of elitism, and of misjudging Picasso’s assembly of art by applying the inappropriate criteria of a rich museum collector.
Christopher Green, in an essay on the Demoiselles has argued that Picasso’s view of the idea of the ‘primitive’ was offered as a counter canon to that of Europe, but in terms of ‘sameness in difference, the essentialist theme of the unity of human-kind’. Similarly, Stepan shows that Picasso’s attitude to the ‘primitive’ was anything but patronising towards his African counterparts.
The book has beautifully laid-out colour and black-and-white photographs, which include extraordinary images from the storeroom at Villa La Californie, Cannes. There is a detailed catalogue of Picasso’s entire collection of 110 objects, 96 of which are of African origin, making clear where his enthusiasm lay.
Although he pays tribute to prominent Picasso scholars, Stepan fails to provide a bibliography. The lack of a full index is infuriating and the prose can be awkward, with the odd Germanism creeping in. Nor are we told about a major exhibition, ‘Picasso and Africa’, curated by Laurence Madeline and Marilyn Martin in South Africa last year, which set 80 works by Picasso alongside African art objects.
But, nonetheless Stepan provides a comprehensive chronology detailing those aspects of the artist’s life connected with tribal art, including unpublished documents from the Picasso archives in the Musée Picasso in Paris. By giving a visual account of the artist’s collection and documenting the circumstances in which Picasso brought it together and made use of it, Stepan shows the emergence of a generous, all-encompassing and revolutionary vision of human culture. " Apollo magazine

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