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Pablo Picasso – African art and Primitivism Period Artworks: 1907–1909

Pablo Picasso’s African-influenced Period (1907–1909) begins with his painting Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. Picasso painted this composition in a style inspired by Iberian sculpture, but repainted the faces of the two figures on the right after being powerfully impressed by African artefacts he saw in June 1907 in the ethnographic museum at Palais du Trocadéro. When he displayed the painting to acquaintances in his studio later that year, the nearly universal reaction was shock and revulsion; Matisse angrily dismissed the work as a hoax. Picasso did not exhibit Le Demoiselles publicly until 1916.

Picasso’s African Period, which lasted from 1906 to 1909, was the period when Pablo Picasso painted in a style which was strongly influenced by African sculpture, particularly traditional African masks and art of ancient Egypt, in addition to non-African influences; Iberian sculpture, Iberian schematic art, Paul Cézanne and El Greco. This proto-Cubist period following Picasso’s Blue Period and Rose Period has also been called the Negro Period, or Black Period.

Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, Picasso1907
Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, Picasso, 1907

In the early 20th century, African artworks were being brought back to Paris museums in consequence of the expansion of the French empire into Sub-Saharan Africa. The press was abuzz with exaggerated stories of cannibalism and exotic tales about the African kingdom of Dahomey. The mistreatment of Africans in the Belgian Congo was exposed in Joseph Conrad’s popular book Heart of Darkness. It was natural in this climate of African interest that Picasso would look towards African artworks as inspiration for some of his work; his interest was sparked by Henri Matisse who showed him a mask from the Dan people of Africa.

In May or June 1907, Picasso experienced a “revelation” while viewing African art at the ethnographic museum at Palais du Trocadéro. Picasso’s discovery of African art influenced the style of his painting Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (begun in May 1907 and reworked in July of that year), especially in the treatment of the two figures on the right side of the composition.

Picasso continued to develop a style derived from African, Egyptian and Iberian art before beginning the analytic cubism phase of his painting in 1910. Other works of Picasso’s African Period include the Bust of a Woman (1907, in the National Gallery, Prague); Mother and Child (Summer 1907, Musée Picasso, Paris); Nude with Raised Arms (1907, Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, Madrid, Spain); and Three Women (Summer 1908, Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg).

Other works from this period include Nude with Raised Arms (1907) and Three Women (1908). Formal ideas developed during this period lead directly into the Cubist period that follows.

Picasso’s Artworks: African art and primitivism: 1907–1909

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