African Art has inspired Great 20th Century Artists

Picasso art work on Daley Plaza in Chicago, US

I already knew that the great Pablo Picasso had been inspired by African art (just a look at his sculpture on the Chicago plaza reminds you vividly of a Fang mask of Cameroon, Gabon, or Equatorial Guinea), but this is the first time I read it clearly in the BBC, an international magazine. It is about time that the world knew how much Africa has inspired the world, and this throughout the ages from ancient Egypt to modern-day Congo as in the case of Picasso, Matisse, and others. See… and then we are told that our ancestors were not savvy: have you ever looked at an African mask? The geometry, symmetry, symbolism, and emotions are amazing! Enjoy! This is just an excerpt of the article by Fisun Güner of the BBC. For the full article go to the BBC.


A small seated figurine from the Vili people of what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo was instrumental in the lives of two of the greatest artists of the 20th Century. The carved figure in wood, with its large upturned face, long torso, disproportionately short legs and tiny feet and hands, was purchased in a curio shop in Paris by Henri Matisse in 1906. The French artist, who liked to fill his studio with exotic trinkets and objets d’art, objects that would then appear in his paintings, paid a pittance for it.

‘Les Demoiselles d’Avignon’ by Pablo Picasso (Source: Wikipedia)

Yet when he showed it to Pablo Picasso at the home of the art patron and avant-garde writer Gertrude Stein, its impact on the young Spaniard was profound, just as it was, though to an arguably lesser extent, on Matisse when the compact but powerful figure had fortuitously caught his eye.

For Picasso, his appetite whetted, visits to the African section of the ethnographic museum at the Palais du Trocadéro inevitably followed. And so precocious was the 24-year-old artist that it seemed that he had already absorbed all that European art had to offer. Hungry for something radically different, something almost entirely new to the Western gaze that might provide fresh and dynamic impetus to his feverish creative energies, Picasso 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 which he also sourced as material. Here, however, was something altogether different, altogether more dynamic and visceral.


artists were struck by a directness, a pared-down simplicity and a non-naturalism that they discovered in these objects. But no thought was given to what these artefacts might actually mean, nor to any understanding of the unique cultures from which they derived. The politics of colonialism was not even in its infancy.

Pablo Picasso (Source:

The Trocadéro museum, which had so impressed Picasso, had opened in 1878, with artefacts plundered from the French colonies. Today’s curators, including those of the Royal Academy’s Matisse exhibition in which African masks and figures from the artist’s collection appear, at least seek to acknowledge and redress this to a small extent. A similar effort was made earlier this year for Picasso Primitif at the Musée du Quai Branly, Paris, an exhibition exploring Picasso’s life-long relationship to African art. The sculptures, from West and Central Africa, were given as much space and importance as Picasso’s own work and one could appreciate at first hand the close correspondence between the works.

Paul Gauguin, perhaps the quintessential European artist to ‘go native’, …, had long felt a disgust at Western civilisation, its perceived inauthenticity and spiritual emptiness.


4 thoughts on “African Art has inspired Great 20th Century Artists

  1. This doesn’t surprise me. I’ve been finding out more and more that so many examples of Western art is influenced by African art. Shoot, I was shocked when I saw the Unjust Perceptions: Ethiopia documentary which shows the Obelisk of Axum which is TOTALLY the original Leaning Tower of Pisa.


      1. No problem, Dr. Y. They actually talked about the situation how the pieces were taken to Italy and the Ethiopian government fought tooth and nail to get the Obelisk back while they were in a museum in the Tigray region.


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