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Modernism as a period of art refers to the movement of the late 19th and early 20th century that embodied a break from traditional renaissance classics. Artists tend to explore and experiment with styles, colors, and medium. They challenge conventions of the past, often juxtaposing elements of irrationality or inappropriateness with what would otherwise be considered classical.
Much of the philosophy behind modern art stems from Enlightenment Ideals, such as individualism, self-consciousness, perspective, and more. These challenged two dimensional themes of the past, branching out beyond Greco-Roman ideals, Venus nudes, angels, and the like. Modernists often serve as critics who portray judgments about art, its purpose, and its development throughout history.
Famous modern artists include Vincent Van Gogh, Henri Matisse, Edouard Manet, Henri de Toulousse Lautrac, Paul Gaguin, and Paul Cezanne. In fact, Van Gogh's Painting of the Peasant Shoes exemplifies canonical modernism in many ways.
First, the subject of the artwork is atypical for standards of the day. Van Gogh is painting peasant shoes! This is hardly romanticized or ideal, but rather, it epitomizes harsh realities that surround us. Not all people are wealthy and beautiful. The shoes are worn and tattered. They even look exhausted. There is a certain ugliness to the world, and Van Gogh manages to push past the idyllic images of angels, Venus, and other divinity a work of canonic modernity.
Second and moreover, the illustration is of shoes. Not only does Van Gogh illustrate poverty, but he does so through footwear. This does not conform to the classical and allegorical mythical scenery of a historic subject, portraiture, genre, or landscape. He portrays something common, and unexceptional. In this way, he is the exemplary canonical modernist.
Modernism covers a wide spectrum of art, from Manet all the way to Pollock. It is easy to assume modernism as something more extreme than it is, but in reality, it is, in its truest and simplest essence, a forum that goes beyond classical and real art.
Van Gogh's "Painting of the Peasant Shoes"
Picasso and Africa
African visual culture has influenced a wide variety of major modern artists, most notably, Pablo Picasso. But there is much debate as to whether the elements that manifest in contemporary art are purely formal and stylistic, or whether they are mystical and magical, more relevant to the context from which they were taken. The appropriation of African visual and material culture is fundamentally a progression of the creative process behind aesthetics. There need not be any deeper contextual application of its influence; rather, African art as simply "curious and charming objects" fuel the purpose of art for art's sake (Picasso interview).
Perhaps, anthropologically speaking, it is sin to rip African artifacts out of its framework. African masks, figures, and other objects serve ritualistic purposes in communities all across the continent. It is likely even more sin for scholars of art to reference an African influence on modern art without breaking it down further. African art is diverse, and to generalize the entire body of art to a continent as opposed to specific regions or countries is to deny the inherent differences in the many cultures that compose Africa. But arguably, this is relevant only on an anthropological level, and not on an aesthetic one.
This brings me to my argument. Picasso and other modern artists appropriated (anthropologists may call this stealing, through a process of acceptance and rejection) the formal elements of African art into their own works for the purpose of pushing beyond the norms of classical art, to diversify stylistically, and to aesthetically break new grounds of beauty and charm.
Consider the example of Amadeo Modigliani's Reclining Nude (1917). The angularity and geometric shape of the figure's face takes on many characteristics of African masks. But is it possible to say that HER eyes come from THIS mask in THAT particular African culture? Think of the phrase "African masks." What comes to mind for most people isn't a particular mask, but rather a general group of them, with general characteristics of long faces, hollow eyes, wood medium, angularity, etc. It is not a one particular set of eyes from one particular mask from one particular culture. Arguably, Picasso and Modigliani illustrated their pieces with such a concept as influence. The juxtaposition of, for example, a Fang mask next to a Picasso cubist work in the Picasso and Africa exhibition therefore violates the generality and filter African art off of which Picasso painted.
Modigliani, similarly, demonstrates a general and filtered African influence. He has clearly appropriated. Her nudity elicits a classical notion of the divine Venus, yet she is not softly curved, nor fair and angelic as one might expect. Rather, she is composed of strict lines and shapes, darker in skin, and very long. She is perhaps native and genuine, unabashed by her nakedness. Her face is elongated, flat, and angular, much like an African mask. Her eyes are certainly hollow. Her eyebrows are shapely, almost as though they have been carved on. Even her breasts have a rigid form and shape, possibly deviating from the softer, angelic counterpart classical Europeans were more familiar with. The reclining nude is structured, and it is obvious that many of the formal elements can be traced to an African influence. He accepts and rejects features of African art and classical art to bring us a revolutionary modern aesthetic vision of his creativity.
Modigliani's "Reclining Nude"
Pollock's Lavender Mist and a Fang Mask
Scholars have often argued that African art influence pervades modernism and abstract expressionism on the most subtle of levels. Indeed, Jackson Pollock's Lavender Mist demonstrates similarities to a classic Fang mask. The formal elements of texture, use of space, and simultaneous contrasts are used most creatively and even correspondingly in both cases; however, juxtaposing the two in a gallery exhibition setting may induce discomfort in the eyes of the viewer for the harsh conclusions it may force them to draw.
The first and most obvious likeness between Pollock's Lavender Mist and a Fang mask is texture. The Fang culture of Gabon emphasized a use of natural materials, which served as medium for art and masks. Whether it be crafted out of wood, limestone, sandstone, bone, etc., African masks all over the continent exhibit an immense array of texture. In the example below, texture serves a formal element, pervading the entire negative space of the mask in a patchy yet smooth manner. Similarly, the canvas behind Pollock's paint, not to mention the strokes themselves, work together to create a similar effect of texture. Pollock also utilizes neutral and natural colors, found frequently in Fang masks.
Moreover, repetition is able to find its way in both pieces. The Fang mask repeats in the symmetry on either side along the face, and also in geometry, with the eyes and mouth as foci. Meanwhile, Pollock literally repeats in a gestural manner. The patterns of paint are also able to create a negative space of curves that mirrors the positive geometry and shape of the Fang mask, almost as though the artist intended it. Indeed, Pollock is noted for claiming "I can control the flow of the paint. There is no accident."
But to draw the conclusion that this Fang mask influenced Lavender Mist might be a bit extreme. There is no doubt that Pollock absolutely was able to control and input the gap between the Fang mask and Pollock's Lavender Mist. influence of African and Fang masks into his work; however, the juxtaposition of two very different pieces of art in a gallery exhibition setting forces the viewer to forge conclusions and connections in one's mind as to the timeline and progression of modern art as a historical storybook of sorts. It wasn't as though art simply jumped from one to the other; rather, there is much art history and influence in between that bridges the gap between the Fang mask and Pollock's Lavender Mist. Despite the formal similarities, there are certainly more differences that make the two pieces fundamentally unrelatable in an exhibition setting.