In search of magic ingredients

Sculptural element from reliquary by Kota artist, Gabon (before 1926)

In 1907, Picasso paid a fateful visit to the anthropology museum at the Trocadéro in Paris. Dejected by the decrepit atmosphere there, he fought off the temptation to flee. “But I forced myself to stay, to examine these masks, these objects that people had created with a sacred, magical purpose, to serve as intermediaries between them and the unknown ... Then I understood what painting really meant. It’s not an aesthetic process; it’s a form of magic that interposes itself between us and the hostile universe, a means of seizing power by imposing a form on our terrors and our desires. The day I understood that, I had found my path.”

African Art, New York and the Avant-Garde, a small but riveting exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum, hinges on that moment of epiphany. What followed was the ongoing realisation that traditional craftsmen of the savannah had something to teach the modernists of Montmartre and Greenwich Village. African masks, instruments and statuettes bewitched Picasso’s coterie of artists, who passed their passions on to a gaggle of enlightened American dealers and collectors, and eventually to a wider public. Suddenly, western audiences came to understand African handiwork not as ethnographic finds or colonial trophies but as works of anonymous genius. They were imitated, collected and exhibited alongside the most advanced artistic experiments.

After the thunderbolt at the Trocadéro, Picasso gave two of his “Demoiselles d’Avignon” the faces of African masks. Those primping nudes are hybrid creatures, with the bodies of prostitutes and the heads of totems. By using masks to exorcise his twin fears of sex and death, he appropriated objects intended for collective ritual into icons of his private terrors. That became a common trajectory, and the show’s curator Yaëlle Biro traces the way sculptures, masks and reliquaries shed old meanings on their way to the west. She doesn’t condemn this process, but chronicles it with captivating insight.

Even as he tapped into the sacred and magical qualities of masks, Picasso thrilled to their formal qualities, which he distilled into the beginnings of cubism. Like Brancusi, Matisse and others, he savoured the sophisticated way African sculptors rendered facial features as abstract geometries and bodies as arrangements of intersecting planes. The avant-garde was primed for that anti-naturalistic lesson. Eager for alternatives to academic realism, artists in Paris (and, later, New York), found in African art a way to reconceive nature rather then merely copy it.

‘Georgia O’Keeffe’ by Alfred Stieglitz (c19181919)

The Met show gets going in 1914, when two New York galleries mounted major introductions to a continent that was still mantled in mystery. Robert Coady’s Washington Square Gallery placed a fragment from a Fang reliquary alongside pieces by Juan Gris and Henri Rousseau. Alfred Stieglitz, at his gallery 291, offered displays of African art which he meticulously photographed for his magazine Camera Work. One of these shows set off a bronze head by Brancusi with the figures and masks that clearly inspired him. The last exhibition of that year, provocatively titled Statuary in Wood by African Savages: The Root of Modern Art, presented an elegant display of African objects strictly as aesthetic treasures. (“It is possibly the most important show we have ever had,” Stieglitz wrote.) Biro has done a marvellous job of reassembling the pairings and photographs, conveying the excitement of those juxtapositions.

The apostles of modernism claimed kinship with pieces they knew almost nothing about but which they imbued with shamanistic power. Stieglitz acquired Matisses and African carved-wood utensils with equal avidity; he saw tribal art as a source of a talismanic, even erotic vitality that modern art craved. He photographed Georgia O’Keeffe delicately cradling small, erect artefacts. In one picture she is bare-breasted, balancing the bowl of a carved wooden spoon between her fingers. The shaft lengthens suggestively along the edge of the frame, curling slightly towards its pouchy tip. In another, O’Keeffe – dressed, this time – fingers an armless Matisse bronze figure with a rod-like torso and knobby head. In both shots, the effect is pointedly erotic.

‘Negro Masks’ by Malvin Gray Johnson (1932)

Photography completed the transformation of tools and utensils into objects of contemplation. Charles Sheeler’s shots of the collectors Walter and Louise Arensberg’s home, where African and avant-garde items were matched as if to demonstrate the overlap in their DNA. Sheeler also shot close-ups of statuettes, dramatically lit to exaggerate their angular geometries. In a photo titled “African Negro Wood Sculpture”, an Indian stringed instrument (mistakenly assumed to be Sudanese) throws spiky shadows on the wall, so that it could almost be a Picasso guitar against a cubist cityscape.

The vogue for all things African (or pseudo-African) metamorphosed during the 1920s into a touchstone for the Harlem Renaissance. Alain Locke, the editor of the 1925 anthology The New Negro, encouraged black American artists to study African art for clues to their cultural origins. The Met includes a self-portrait by the short-lived Malvin Gray Johnson, posing in front of a cubist background and a painting of masks that share his planar cheeks and faceted nose. It’s not the presence of Africa you feel here but the abstract concept of a continent, refracted through layers of Picasso, Stieglitz and Sheeler. African art taught the avant-garde how to see the world, and for a while the avant-garde taught the rest of the world how to see African art.

‘African Art, New York and the Avant-Garde’ continues until April 24;

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