Modern Art Unmasked

How African masks changed the history of art

In the later part of the 19th Century, thousands of African masks were brought to Europe as the result of colonial expeditions and expropriation. Many of us have seen African masks, but we tend to forget how they were intended to be used, normally in special performances and ceremonies. What’s more, African masks had a powerful influence on the development of 20th Century Modern art, in particular on the work of famous European artists such as Picasso, Matisse, Modigliani and Klee.

1. Out of context: Masks in Museums

Traditionally, museums have displayed African masks like this one - lonesome on its ownsome. Because of colonial European attitudes, most masks were seen as ‘primitive’ artefacts rather than art. Accordingly, collectors often failed to gather information about how and why masks were made, or by whom. This is a wooden ‘antelope’ mask from the Dogon people in Mali, West Africa - but seen here, it is divorced from the rich music, dance and costumes that were an integral part of its life at home.

Painted Wooden Face Mask of an Antelope (Walu), date unknown (The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston)
Detail showing ‘stitches’ in the wooden mask, possibly made to try and preserve it.

2. Masks in action!

Did you find the previous image a bit boring? Well, you probably aren’t bored any longer! Look at these special animal masks in action in Mali. Whilst the cultural uses of masks have no doubt changed over the decades, you can imagine the feelings evoked in someone watching a performance or ceremony like this - anticipation, wonder, curiosity, excitement, maybe even fear. You can see more amazing masks in action elsewhere on Google Arts & Culture, for example here and here in Benin.

Masked Walu performers mimic an antelope and a stinging insect, Mali, 1994 (Carol Beckwith & Angela Fisher).

3. Masks meet European artists

On arrival in Europe, masks from across the African continent were often placed on view in museums, like the Musée d’Ethnographie du Trocadéro in Paris, and in museums in Berlin, Munich, and London. It was there that now-famous European artists encountered African art for the first time.

Look at this striking Fang mask from Gabon (also in West Africa), which was worn by members of a powerful religious and judiciary secret society known as the Ngil, later banned by the French colonial authorities.

Ngil society mask, Fang people, Gabon, 1800/1900 (The Israel Museum, Jerusalem)

4. Was Modigliani a copycat?

Picasso was an avid museum visitor, first seeing African masks in Paris around 1907. His Italian peer Modigliani was also inspired by what he saw in African masks.

Modigliani forged a new sculptural language in European art. Whilst he was also inspired by the art forms of ancient Greece and Egypt, the long face of this elegant sculpture bear a remarkable likeness to the Fang mask we just saw!

Head by Amedeo Modigliani, 1911/1912 (Minneapolis Institute of Art)

5. Long faces and low mouths!

We know that Modigliani also made sketches of the elongated faces of African Baule masks and figures, with small mouths placed very low on the face.

Here’s another example of an artwork by Modigliani with abstracted African mask-like influences. Is your mouth as low as this one?

Caryatid, Amedeo Modigliani (c. 1913-1915) (Collection: National Gallery of Victoria)
Detail from the mask-like face of Caryatid (c. 1913-1915)

6. African Aesthetics further afield

Of course, Modigliani was not the only Modern artist swayed by the power of African masks and aesthetics. Other European artists at the time - and a number of writers and intellectuals - were also influenced by the the way that African sculptural forms reconfigured the human body - including Paul Klee, Constantin Brancusi, Georges Braque and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. Klee’s “Mathematical Portrait” with its simplistic, almost childlike, lines and flattened face is perhaps a good example.

Mathematisches Bildnis (Mathematical Portrait), Paul Klee, 1919 (Collection: The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston)
Detail from Klee’s flattened Mathematical Portrait (1919).

7. Expressive Expressions

The German expressionists also followed the French in seeking new forms of expression in non-European cultures. Celebrating “primitivistic” expressions reinforced their bohemian artistic identities, which in turn defied the norms of mainstream society. Ernst Ludwig Kirchner was one such German artist: look at this striking woodcut with its brusque lines, angular noses and pointed chins.

Fehmarn Girls, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, 1913 (Collection: National Gallery of Art, Washington DC)

With strong, stylised forms, African masks had a strong influence on the development of Cubism - the first European style of abstract modern art - and Modern art more widely. Mask-like faces became a key feature of many avant garde artists’ work. Until then, European artists had pursued the realistic, naturalistic representations that had dominated since the Renaissance period. Abstraction was completely new to them - yet African sculptors had been practising it already for centuries. In turn, the African artists indirectly changed the history of modern art. Want to explore more striking and exciting African masks? Click on and enjoy!

By Julie Taylor
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