Les Demoiselles d'Avignon. Pablo Picasso. 1907. Oil on canvas. Museum of Modern Art.
But it was the artists of the time, artists who formed an avant-garde in the development of modern art, who started to blend the highly stylized treatment of the human figure in African sculptures with painting styles derived from the post-Impressionist works of Edouard Manet, Paul Cézanne and Paul Gauguin. The resulting pictorial flatness, vivid colour palette and fragmented Cubist shapes helped to define early modernism. While these artists knew nothing of the original meaning and function of the West and Central African sculptures they encountered, they instantly recognized the spiritual aspect of the composition and adapted these qualities to their own efforts to move beyond the naturalism that had defined Western art since the Renaissance.
Baule-Guro. Ivory Coast. Mask. Wood, enamel paint. Standard Bank African Art Collection (Wits Art Museum)
While he was working on Les demoiselle d’Avignon (1907) Picasso preferred to emphasize the influence of the Iberian stone sculpture he encountered on a trip to his native Spain (partly because of political and patriotic reasons) and never gave African art the credit it deserved. There is however ample evidence that he was familiar with, and was already collecting African art while making the Demoiselles. Picasso’s interest was definitely sparked by Henri Matisse who showed him a small seated figurine from the Vili people of what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo. Matisse purchased the carved figure in wood, with its large upturned face, long torso, disproportionately short legs and tiny feet and hands, in a curio shop in Paris in 1906.
Igbo. Nigeria. Mmwo (maiden spirit). Mask. Undated. Wood, pigment, wool, nails. Standard Bank African Art Collection (Wits Art Museum)
Picasso did acknowledge that a visit to the Trocadero museum changed him, and he became captivated by the dramatic masks, totems, fetishes and carved figures on display, just as he had with the Iberian stone sculptures of ancient Spain. The objects from Africa he encountered was something altogether different, altogether more dynamic and visceral.
40 Years of Collecting: A Celebration of the Standard Bank African Art Collection, the exhibition at the Standard Bank Gallery in Johannesburg is the ideal opportunity to familiarize yourself with the wealth of works from this collection comprising of 5 524 items and pieces, purchased from a variety of sources including artists, collectors, auction houses and art dealers. The primary focus is that of South Africa, but the collection also encompasses pieces from many countries across the African continent, especially those in West and Central Africa.
40 Years of Collecting: A Celebration of the Standard Bank African Art Collection runs until 6 July at the Standard Bank Gallery in Johannesburg.
The Standard Bank Gallery – located on the corner of Simmonds and Frederick Streets in central Johannesburg – offers free, safe undercover parking on the corner of Harrison and Frederick Streets. Gallery hours: Mondays to Fridays from 08:00 to 16:20 and Saturdays from 09:00 to 13:00. Entrance to the exhibition is free.
Walkabout dates: 8, 22, 29 June 2019. All walkabouts start at 10:00.