African Art: The First Form of Cubism

Picasso and Braque may have pioneered one of the most radical avant-garde movements in Europe during the early 20th century: Cubism. But African carvers were first to abstract reality.

Oct 3, 2020By Carolina Sanmiguel, BA Art Education, MA Art History & Theory
picasso cubism african art
Kagle mask, 1775-1825, via Rietberg Museum, Zürich (left); with Les Demoiselles d’Avignon by Pablo Picasso, 1907, via MoMA, New York (center); and Dan mask, via Hamill Gallery of Tribal Art, Quincy (right)


With their vital sculptures and masks, African artists invented the aesthetics that would later inspire the so-popular Cubist styles. Their abstract and dramatic effects on the simplified human figure date far earlier than the most-celebrated Picasso and extend beyond the Cubism movement itself. African art’s influence reaches from Fauvism to Surrealism, Modernism to Abstract Expressionism, and even contemporary art


African Art Carvers: The First Cubists

pablo picasso african art cubism
Bust of a Woman by Pablo Picasso, 1932, via MoMA, New York (left); with Pablo Picasso with a Cigarette, Cannes by Lucien Clergue, 1956, via Indianapolis Museum of Art (center); and Lwalwa Mask, Democratic Republic of Congo, via Sotheby’s (right)


African art has often been described as abstract, exaggerated, dramatic and stylized. However, all of these formal characteristics have also been attributed to artworks of the Cubism movement. 


The pioneers of this new approach were Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, who were highly influenced by their first encounters with African masks and Paul Cézanne’s systematic paintings. The impact of African art’s intense expression, structural clarity, and simplified forms inspired these artists to create fragmented geometrical compositions full of overlapping planes.


African artists often implemented wood, ivory, and metal to create traditional masks, sculptures, and plaques. The malleability of these materials allowed for sharp cuts and expressive incisions that resulted in brusque linear carvings and faceted sculptures in-the-round. Instead of showing a figure from a single perspective, African carvers combined several features of the subject so that they could be simultaneously seen. In effect, African art favors abstract shapes over realistic forms, to the extent that even most of its three-dimensional sculptures, would portray a two-dimensional appearance.


british soldiers looted artifacts
British soldiers with looted artifacts from Benin, 1897, via The British Museum, London

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After colonial expeditions, some of the most precious and sacred objects of Africa were brought to Europe. Countless original masks and sculptures were widely smuggled and sold among Western societies. African replicas of these objects became so popular during this time that they would even replace some Greco-Roman antiquities that adorned the studios of some academic artists. This rapid proliferation allowed European artists to come in contact with African art and its unprecedented aesthetics. 


But why were cubist artists so attracted to African art? The African sophisticated abstraction of the human figure inspired and encouraged many artists at the turn of the 20th century to rebelliously break from tradition. We could even say that the enthusiasm for African masks and sculptures was the common denominator among young artists during the artistic revolution that reached its peak before WWI. 


But that wasn’t the only reason. Modern artists were also attracted to African art because it signified an opportunity to escape the rigid and outdated traditions that governed the artistic practice of 19th-century Western academic painting. Contrasting from the Western tradition, African art was not concerned with the canonical ideals of beauty nor with the idea of rendering nature with fidelity to reality. Instead, they cared about representing what they ‘knew’ rather than what they ‘saw.’


“Out of limitations, new forms emerge”

-Georges Braque


Art That Functions: African Masks

fete des masques
Dan tribe mask activated through sacred dance performance at Fête des Masques in Ivory Coast


Art for art’s sake is not big in Africa. Or at least, it wasn’t when the 20th-century western artists started to wander for inspiration in the richness of the African Continent. Their art encompasses a wide variety of media and performances while addressing mostly the spiritual world. But the relationship between the physical and the spiritual turns very much tangible in their practices. The art of Africa is mostly utilitarian and can be seen on everyday items, but it also plays an active role in rituals when commissioned by a shaman or a worshiper. 


Therefore, the role of traditional African art is never merely decorative, but functional. Every item is created to perform either a spiritual or civil function. They are indeed, imbued with supernatural powers and a symbolic significance that exceeds their physical representation. 


While functions vary from region to region, most masks become ‘activated’ through a performance of dance, songs, and ululations. Some of their functions go from a suggestion of the spiritual to guard and protect (Bugle Dan mask); to pay tribute to a loved one (Mblo Baule mask) or venerate a deity; to reflect on death and the afterlife or address gender roles in society (Pwo Chokwe mask & Bundu Mende mask). Some others document historical events or symbolize royal power (Aka Bamileke mask). The fact is that most are created to continue established traditions and to be used alongside daily and religious rituals. 


The Power Within: African Sculpture

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Three Power Figures (Nkisi), 1913, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (background); with Power Figure (Nkisi N’Kondi: Mangaaka), 19th century, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (foreground)


There is great debate in Art History on how to call these works of Africa: ‘art,’ ‘artifacts,’ or ‘cultural objects.’ Some have even referred to these as ‘fetishes.’ In the contemporary postcolonial era, increased awareness of diasporic viewpoints versus western colonial terminology has created a well-justified turmoil of discomfort amid the global art history village. 


The fact is that these objects do not function as art per se. In most cases, they are considered powerful and sacred in their origins. African sculpture is created with a very different purpose than passive observation at a museum: physical interaction. Be it for protection or punishment (Nkisi n’kondi); for recording ancestral history (Lukasa board), to illustrate dynasty and culture (The Benin Bronzes from Oba’s Palace) or house spirits (Ndop), African sculpture was meant to be in constant communion with its people.


african art cubism
Seated Couple, 18th – early 19th century (left); with Walking Woman I by Alberto Giacometti, 1932 (cast 1966) (center left); Ikenga shrine figure by Igbo artist, early 20th century (center right); and Bird in Space by Constantin Brancusi, 1923 (right)


Inspired by the cylindrical form of trees, most African sculptures are carved from a single piece of wood. Their overall appearance depicts elongated anatomies with vertical forms and tubular shapes. Visual examples of its influence can be easily identified in the formal qualities of the sculptures by Cubist and Modernist artists such as Picasso, Alberto Giacometti, and Constantin Brancusi.


African Art & Cubism: An Instrumental Encounter 

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Pablo Picasso in his Montmartre studio, 1908, via The Guardian (left); with Young Georges Braque in his studio, via Art Premier (right)


The western road to Cubism started in 1904 when Paul Cézanne’s views of Mont Sainte-Victoire disrupted traditional perspective with his use of color to suggest form. In 1905, artist Maurice de Vlaminck allegedly sold a white African mask from Ivory Coast to André Derain, who placed it for display in his Paris studio. Henri Matisse and Picasso visited Derain that year and became ‘absolutely thunderstruck’ by the mask’s ‘grandeur and primitivism.’ In 1906, Matisse had brought to Gertrude Stein a Nkisi statue from the Vili tribe in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (shown below) that he had purchased that same fall. Picasso happened to be there and convinced by the power and ‘magic expression’ of the piece he started to look for more.


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Nkisi figurine, (n.d), Democratic Republic of Congo, via BBC/ Alfred Hamilton Barr Jr, Cover of the exhibition catalogue ‘Cubism and Abstract Art’, MoMA, 1936, via Christies


The ‘discovery’ of African art had a catalytic effect in Picasso. In 1907 he visited the African masks and sculptures chamber at the Musèe d’Ethnographie du Trocadéro in Paris, which turned him into an avid collector and inspired him for the rest of his career. That same year, a posthumous exhibition of Cézanne’s works proved inspirational to future Cubists. At this time, Picasso also completed the painting that later came to be considered ‘the genesis of modern art’ and the beginning of Cubism: Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, a crude and crowded composition depicting five prostitutes from Carrer d’Avinyó in Barcelona, Spain. 


In November 1908, Georges Braque exhibited his works at Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler’s gallery in Paris, becoming the first official Cubist exhibition and giving rise to the term Cubism. The movement acquired its name after Matisse had dismissed a Braque’s landscape describing it as ‘little cubes.’ In terms of sculpture, we must mention Constantin Brancusi, who in 1907 carved the first abstract sculpture influenced by African art. 


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The Mendès-France Baule mask, Ivory Coast, via Christie’s (left): with Portrait of Mme Zborowska by Amadeo Modigliani, 1918, via The National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design, Oslo (right)


Since then, several other artists and collectors have been influenced by the African style. From the Fauves, Matisse collected African masks, and Salvador Dalí represents one of the surrealists that was highly interested in collecting African sculptures. Modernists such as Amedeo Modigliani feature elongated shapes and almond eyes inspired by this style. The influence is also visible in the bold angular brushstrokes of Abstract Expressionists such as Willem de Kooning. And of course, many contemporary artists as diverse as Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and David Salle have also incorporated African imagery into their works.


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Cover of the exhibition catalog ‘Cubism and Abstract Art,’ at MoMA by Alfred Hamilton Barr Jr, 1936, via Christie’s


In 1936, the first director of the MoMA, Alfred Barr proposed a diagram of Modern Art for the exhibition Cubism and Abstract Art where he pointed out that Modern Art was necessarily abstract. Barr argued that figurative art’s place was now in the peripheries and that the center of focus was now to be on the abstract pictorial entity. His position became normative. However, Barr’s Modern Art diagram was based on the consideration of The Bathers by Cézanne, and Les Demoiselles d’Avignon by Picasso as foundational pieces to the late 19th and early-to-mid 20th-century art. Therefore, what Barr proposed was that Modern Art was necessarily abstract when in reality, its foundation was based on figurative works. These works in his diagram, appear directly linked to African art and its models of representation.


“Every act of creation is first an act of destruction”

-Pablo Picasso


Two Titans Of Cubism: Georges Braque & Pablo Picasso 

ma jolie pablo picasso georges braque
 Ma Jolie by Pablo Picasso, 1911–12, via MoMA, New York (left); with The Portuguese by Georges Braque, 1911–12, via Kunstmuseum, Basel, Switzerland (right)


The history of art is often a history of rivalries, but in the case of Cubism, Picasso and Braque’s friendship is proof of the sweet fruits of collaboration. Picasso and Braque worked closely in the early developing years of Cubism, challenging traditional ideas by deconstructing the image into fragmented planes until it was almost unrecognizable. 


After Picasso completed Les Demoiselles d’Avignon many of his friends found it incomprehensible. Matisse despised its crude perspective, Braque described it as ‘drinking kerosene in order to spit fire,’ and critics compared it to a ‘field of broken glass.’ Only his patron and friend Gertrude Stein came to its defense saying, ‘Every masterpiece has come into the world with a dose of ugliness. A sign of the creator’s struggle to say something new.’ 


Braque believed in the systematical analysis of cubism and insisted on developing a theory for it following Cézanne’s teachings. Picasso was against that idea, defending Cubism as an art of liberty of expression and freedom. 


mont sainte victoire
Mont Sainte-Victoire by Paul Cézanne, 1902-04, via Philadelphia Museum of Art


But this was just part of their dynamic. From 1907 to 1914, Braque and Picasso were not only inseparable friends but avid critics of each other’s work. As Picasso recalled, ‘Almost every evening, either I went to Braque’s studio or Braque came to mine. Each of us had to see what the other had done during the day. We criticized each other’s work. A canvas wasn’t finished unless both of us felt it was.’ So close they were, that their paintings from this period are sometimes difficult to differentiate, as in the case of Ma Jolie and The Portuguese


Both remained friends until Braque enlisted in the French Army in WWI, forcing them to take separate paths for the rest of their lives. On their interrupted friendship, Braque once said, ‘Picasso and I said things to one another that will never be said again… that no one will be able to understand.’


Cubism: A Fragmented Reality


Cubism was all about breaking the rules. It emerged as a radical and groundbreaking movement that challenged the ideas of verisimilitude and naturalism that had dominated Western art since the Renaissance


picasso mask african art cubism
Tête de femme by Georges Braque, 1909 (left); with Dan Mask, Ivory Coast by an unknown artist (center left); Bust of Woman with Hat (Dora) by Pablo Picasso, 1939 (center); Fang Mask, Equatorial Guinea by an unknown artist (center right); and The Reader by Juan Gris, 1926 (right)


Instead, Cubism fractured the laws of perspective, opted for distorted and expressive features, and the use of splintered planes without an orderly recession to draw attention to the two-dimensionality of the canvas. Cubists intentionally deconstructed perspective planes to let the viewer reconstruct them in their minds and ultimately understand the content and perspective of the artist.


There was also a third one at the party: Juan Gris. He became friends with the former while in Paris and is commonly known as the ‘third mousquetaire’ of Cubism. His paintings, although less known than those of his celebrated friends, reveal a personal Cubist style that often combines the human figure with landscapes and still lives. 


The influence of African aesthetics can be easily identified into the geometric simplification and forms that appear in the wide oeuvre of several progressive artists. An example is Tête de femme, Braque’s mask-like portrait, the woman’s face is fragmented into flat planes that evoke the abstract features of African masks. Another example is Bust of Woman with Hat by Picasso, which through energetic lines and expressive shapes denotes multiple viewpoints merged into a singular frontal perspective. 


The level of abstraction in Juan Gris is interplayed not only by shapes but also by color. In The Reader, the already geometric face of the woman is fractured into two tones, creating an intensified abstraction of the human face. Here, Gris’s use of dark and light may even hold a dualistic meaning on the African origins of the movement and its representation in Western art.


“I prefer the emotion that corrects the rule”

– Juan Gris


The Afterlife of African Art In Cubism

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Exhibition view of Picasso and African Sculpture, 2010, via Tenerife Espacio de las Artes


The history of art reveals itself in front of our eyes as an infinite tide that constantly changes direction, but that always looks to the past in order to shape the future. 


Cubism represented a rupture with the European pictorial tradition, and today it is still considered as a true manifesto of new art because it undoubtedly is. However, the creative process of Cubist artworks must also be contemplated from a perspective that seriously considers its African influence.


Because after all, it was the influx of other cultures what largely inspired our 20th century geniuses to disarray and deconstruct western aesthetic canons of balance and imitation to propose a more complex vision based on the juxtaposition of viewpoints, a new sense of balance and perspective, and a surprising raw beauty that emerged full of geometric rigor and material force.


The influence of African art in Western artworks is evident. However, this cultural appropriation of African aesthetic models doesn’t overlook the most significant contribution and ingenuity, with which Cubist artists such as Picasso and Braque led the forces of artistic innovation at the turn of the 20th century. 


Next time you visit a museum, remember the rich legacy and enormous influence that African art has had across the global art scene. And, if you happen to stand in awe in front of a Cubist artwork, remember that just in the way the invention of Cubism shocked the Western world, African art shocked its creators.



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By Carolina SanmiguelBA Art Education, MA Art History & TheoryBased in Barcelona, Carolina is an American contributing writer who focuses on current trends in global art. She explores the influence of Classical Antiquity on the contemporary art scene while looking at the impact of historic aesthetic models on visual culture. She holds a B.A. in Art Education from The University of Texas and an M.A. in Art History and Theory from The University of Barcelona. Carolina has international experience in art education, curriculum design, and varied museum roles in places like the MACBA (Museum of Contemporary Art Barcelona).