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How African art influenced Pablo Picasso

African art - Pablo Picasso
African art - Pablo Picasso

How African art influenced Pablo Picasso

African art is a distinct form of creativity that has played an important role in the culture and the history of the world. For years, the traditional African art paintings had inspired many artists’ work, and what made African art so unique is that it was abstract enough to allow people to interpret it in many different ways.


The start of his African art  

Pablo Picasso adopted many of his art themes from African art pieces, especially during the Cubist period. This period was known as the most influential movement in the history of modern art, and many of the visuals which you could have expected to see were paintings with shapes, lines and African masks.

After a visit to Paris, he established some African-inspired tribal work. This quickly sparked an interest, and in particular, it was the masks that drew him in. During this time, he was working as a professional fine artist exploring the trade. After being exposed to the Cubist movement and African art, Picasso truly started to appreciate African art, and it was only then that he learned what painting was about.

As his painting progressed, he started to paint a number of landscapes without any human figures in them. He also experimented further by introducing complex shapes that overlapped. During the Cubist movement, he worked with George Braque where he learned to master the different art techniques. These techniques inspired him to work on ideas that involved landscapes and simplistic designs.

After his landscape themed paintings, he grew fonder of African art, and this is where you start to notice that many of his paintings started to include African-looking masks. The most commonly used colours of Picasso’s palette was earthy tones which clearly reflected the themes he admired from African design. This palette then overlapped with darker reds and warm browns, which again linked back to Africa.

Traditionally his themes were usually quite sad and emotionless, without human figures to portray power, spirit and emotion. But over the years, once he started to incorporate these richer colours into his work, he started to draw people, accessories and other elements in his work. Somehow this work progressed into something that was considered a brief flirtation with a subversive form, which then formed a stepping stone to his lifelong infatuation with depicting his own take on surrealist cubist geometries.

One of his most highly regarded paintings, ‘Les Demoiselles d'Avignon’, emerged as an iconic masterwork from his exploration of tribal African depictions. This painting is a large oil painting created in 1907, and it portrays five nude female prostitutes from a brothel on Carrer d'Avinyó in Barcelona. This painting alone transformed Western art forever, as he made the women confrontational and not in the least sweet and submissive. This was completely radical at the time and frowned upon by many.

This intense African art phase took place during the duration of 1907-1910, and after this, people concluded his African experiment as he slowly moved into an ‘analytical Cubism’ era of painting. However, people still say that decades later, his art contained similar African influences as years before.


The legacy Picasso left behind

After being exposed to even more tools and art techniques, Picasso approached sculptures which, together with his oil paintings, were mostly purchased and shipped off to France and Russian to form part of an impressive collection of art pieces. Because some of his art was extreme, with various meanings behind each piece, many people perceived it negatively and completely against everything art should be.

Although it stirred the pot with many cultures and religions, it also contributed to society and helped people to become more open-minded about life, and to be more creative in their art. In turn, this formed an important cornerstone of modern art and transcended national and cultural barriers across the globe. It also helped to move the cutting-edge of European painting away from a conventional ‘neoclassical’ mode.

Although he never admitted that his work was solely inspired by African art, his paintings clearly spoke a different story. Many artists were influenced by his artistic movements throughout history, as they appreciated the difference in expression that he possessed in his paintings. And the fact that some of them created social stirs made others appreciate his creativity even more.

Today, his work still remains extremely popular among customers and is highly admired between artists across the globe. His most well-known paintings are extremely iconic and have become some of the key features at many bespoke hotels and accommodation establishments which appreciate arts and culture.

The market for Picasso’s paintings was always inconsistent, but in 2015, one version of his ‘Les Femmes d'Alger’ paintings was sold for a record-breaking $179.4 million dollars at auction. Pablo Picasso was certainly one of the few artists who took chances and changed the face of modern, contemporary art. This is something that many new and upcoming African artists will be inspired by.