Picasso and African Art at the de Young!

Picasso was perhaps the greatest innovator of twentieth-century art. The power of Picasso’s invention, however, was deeply influenced by sources from across the art historical spectrum. Chief among these was African art. Drawing upon myriad stylistic resources, Picasso created new modes of expression. The development of this multifaceted artistry is illustrated in several works featured in Picasso: Masterpieces from the Musée National Picasso, Paris at the de Young through October 9.

Arguably the most important painting of the twentieth century, Les Demoiselles d’Avignion (at the Museum of Modern Art, New York) was completed in 1907, the same year that Picasso first encountered African art at the ethnographic museum in the Palais du Trocadéro.

Picasso dramatically recounted the power of that experience:

I was all alone. I wanted to get away. But I didn’t leave. I stayed. I understood that it was very important: something was happening to me. [The objects] were intercesseurs, mediators. They were against everything—against unknown, threatening spirits. I understood: I too am against everything.

Studies for Les Demoiselles are displayed in the current exhibition and articulate the impact of ethnographic art on Picasso. During his lifetime, Picasso continued to collect African art along with work from other non-western regions, including Papua New Guinea. Non-western influences are interspersed throughout Picasso’s oeuvre and cannot be underestimated.

The de Young’s African art collection contains masks and figures similar to those collected by Picasso, which provided the foundation for much of his work. Here is a small sampling of African art at the de Young that we hope will provide you with a better understanding of Picasso’s art.

Elements of the crest of this Makonde Helmet mask can be seen in Picasso’s Tête de femme (Fernande) (Head of a Woman [Fernande]):

Helmet mask, Early 20th century. Mozambique, Makonde people. Wood, beeswax and hair. Museum purchase. 1990.13

Various versions of the Buste de femme (Bust of a Woman) draw inspiration from Baga headdresses like this one:

Headdress, early 20th century. Guinea, Baga people. Wood. Gift of the Erle Loran Family Collection. 2008.38.17

Additionally, the following works are representative of similar objects, styles or cultures present in Picasso’s personal collection of African art:

Face mask, early 20th century. Gabon, Central, Vuvi or Sango people. Wood, paint and fiber. Blossom and Dwight Strong Collection. 2008.54

Hyena mask for kore society, early 20th century. Mali, Bamana people. Wood. Museum purchase, Phyllis Wattis Fund. 1985.36

Female figure (bateba), 19th century. Burkina Faso, northwest Ghana, northeast Ivory Coast, southern Burkina Faso, Lobi people. Wood and surface encrustation. Lent by the Robert T. Wall Family. L10.57.1

All these works are currently on display in Gallery 40, so after you visit the Picasso exhibition head upstairs to see the powerful African art that inspired the most important artist of the twentieth century!