European Use of Non-Western Art
Southern Utah University
During the early 20th Century European Avant-Garde artists utilized non-Western art and incorporated it into their own art. African art was one of the most appropriated forms. Most of what was seen as influential from Africa was sculpture. African sculpture typically includes nonorganic planar shifts that contrast with Classical proportions. The elongated areas of the body, such as face, neck and torso as seen on p. 457 in the Adams book, illustrate the non-Classical nature of African art.
One of the Avant-Garde schools that specifically utilized African art was The Bridge (Die Brucke). This group was intent on building a link between their art and revolutionary ideas, and between tradition and Avant-Garde. One of the ways those in The Bridge worked toward this was by combining the geometric look of African art with more traditional ideas. The flattened forms of Kirchner’s The Street (p. 459) speak to this idea. The figures in The Street are also elongated, as seen in the sculpture of the Baule ancestor from Africa.
Matisse was also influenced by African art. His work speaks of African masks. His lack of modeling in his work Madame Matisse (p. 458) bears strong resemblance to the masks found in Africa. There is also a lack of organic qualities in this painting. The hair on her head is flat, and it seems to perch on the top of her head. Matisse was also influenced by Arabian art. In his Harmony in Red (p. 463), sinuous lines are used to create an illusion of animation. Matisse coined the term “arabesque” in reference to the lines seen in Arabian architecture, such as mosques.
Emil Nolde was also influenced by African art. However he used other non-Western influences in his art. His Still Life with Masks (p. 460) is indicative of the use if non-Western art. One of the masks (the red one) is based on a drawing of an Oceanic canoe prow, the yellow skull is derived from Brazilian shrunken heads, and the green mask seems to be influenced by African art.
It is clear that these artists were very interested in appropriating other art forms for their own use. This fueled further Avant-Garde developments and shaped the art of the early 20th Century. African art appears to be the most pervasive in these works, but the influences of Arabia, the New World, and Oceania can also be seen. It is also important to note that while these artists copied the look of these other forms of art, the cultural context of the art in regard to the peoples it was borrowed from was lost.
Laurie Schneider Adams, A History of Modern Art (New York, N.Y.: McGraw-Hill, 2000).