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Picasso Primitif 

Picasso, the artist who changed so much about Art then to bring us the art we know now, may owe it all to seeing a few dusty African masks at the Musée d’Ethnographie du Trocadéro shortly after he arrived in Paris in 1900.

I say “may” because in typical Picasso fashion, after declaring this visit showed him the path to painting, he fully rejected any African Art influence later on in his career.

Today, Picasso would find it hard disputing the impact of Primitive Art on his oeuvre if he could witness the astonishing work Quai Branly Museum put in documenting their Picasso Primitif exhibition, on show in Paris until July 23rd, 2017.

In 1907, Picasso saw African masks as a tool “to help people avoid coming under the influence of spirits…to help them become independent”. Exactly what he was looking for to “exorcise” himself from the artists who came before him.

Picasso was about to explore a way to render expressions rather than impressions  (been there…) or even pictorial accuracy (done that!).

See, Picasso was always positively certain of the genius inside him but how best could he express it to the outside world?

He easily absorbed influences like Rubens or Cezanne and used them as springboards – a trait the late (and irreplaceable) John Berger described as being a “vertical invader” in The Success and Failure of Picasso. Still, Picasso knew posterity could only come from what Mary Acton referred to as a shift in one of my Art History modules. The aim was ‘realising the invisible beneath the visible’ – to paint what actually lied beneath the masks.

As these masks kept coming his way when visiting collector Gertrude Stein’ salon or André Derain’s studio, Picasso started buying specimen and ended up with quite a collection.

The Grebo Mask and a tiki from the Marquesas Islands in the exhibition would feed his angle of attack, presaging Cubism. For me, this is what Picasso did best so I will come back to “Picasso’s moment” and the Demoiselles d’Avignon at the end of this post.

The Grebo Mask is a vivid image because all the elements of the face are reduced to the simplest forms to express an eye, a mouth, a nose or even hair. Yet, it’s un-mistakingly a face and an expressive one at that. Volume is rendered with color contrasts and the protruding effect of mouth and eyes.

Both mask and tiki represented a liberating factor best explained by Matisse. African wood statues are not subservient to representing or copying the limbs and muscles of something seen or real. Instead, proportions are invented, utilizing the unique properties of the material and releasing the artist’s creativity in full.

For this reason, Picasso kept the tiki statue and others close by for inspiration until his later years at Villa La Californie.

The chronology of the Quai Branly exhibition shows how African statues pushed Picasso to explore the depiction of  the human body as a succession of volumes rather than articulated limbs.

With humanity associated with verticality, striations on paper stack volumes and compose a statuesque body turned columnar and totemic, just like its wooden counterpart.


In paintings, earthy choice of colors and tonal striations give Picasso the edge he will keep on pushing further and further until I personally think he “lost” it. More on this later.

Continuing simplification of lines until extreme stylization, Picasso reduced the body to just a few lines or signs, echoing African staff heads.

The beauty here is that Picasso still achieved expression of strength and decisiveness with this Turned Nude with Raised Arms (study for Les Demoiselles d’Avignon).

And Picasso keeps venturing further, simplifying ever more…

He then played with representing the body as positive space…

…and negative space as Picasso approaches full deconstruction with his Femme Enceinte (Pregnant Woman), 1949.

Next, came metamorphosis.

His Cubist approach with multiple angles and points of view disaggregate bodies, to recombine them, mutate and fuse their constituent parts as seen above and in Nature Morte au Guéridon.

See how much ground Picasso has covered since Trois Figures Sous un Arbre (1907-08) shown below?

And for me that’s the issue with such a long career and such a big ego. I am fine with Picasso never having been preoccupied with beauty and ending up with disfiguration and monstrosity as part of his introspection journey. He reached and painted what lied beneath his own “masks”.

That is the Id (le Ça), the Freudian psychic energy Picasso brings to the surface of his late canvases and lithographs.

But because he is such a revered artist by then, can he do no wrong?? Do I need to see this whole 1960 phallic series (below) signed Picasso? Most kids go through drawing as such in their teens without calling it art! And what about the Minotaure lithographs? Or the very last 156 Series? I just think he lost himself in the end which is a shame as this is also how such a comprehensive exhibition ends…

In my opinion, the raw expressive power of wood as a material, carving as an artistic technique and liberation from the traditional representations of the female body brought by the exposure to African Art culminated in Picasso completing his Demoiselles d’Avignon in 1907. This shocked the Art world, being unlike anything painted before.

First, we have to give his due to Manet who started it with his Olympia and then his Dejeuner sur l’Herbe (both dated 1863).

Manet rocked the Salon by making a courtisane, his Olympia, look right at the viewer, unapologetically.

Then a « naked » woman (NOT a nude) joins for Luncheon. Manet’s goal was to draw the viewer in, to involve the spectator.

He did so by adding audacity into what look ed like a traditional subject from afar (an odalisque, a luncheon party). And because Manet was still set on delivering aesthetics and beauty.

Picasso seems to have abandoned the idea of beauty in Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. Picasso actually declared that African Art enthralled him so much because it was not trying to be beautiful and that he would switch to other inspirations the moment it was deemed “beautiful”.

Yet Picasso knew he was onto something big – the monumental size of the Demoiselles leaves no doubt, especially as times were hard at the Bateau Lavoir.

And Picasso threw himself much deeper than Manet ever did.

With scientific discoveries like X-rays in 1895 making the visible no longer the limit of what could be seen as well as Freud’s subconscious analysis of dreams, feelings and deepest fears buried beyond the corporeal enveloppe, Picasso followed in Munch’s footsteps and made his Demoiselles loud and expressive from the inside.

A traditional way to achieve expressions would have been through minute details to make faces ever so expressive and highly naturalistic.

Not for Picasso.

Not after Courbet showed that faces don’t even have to be shown to convey movement and realism with The Wheat Sifters. 

Not after Munch’s Scream, lacking all facial details yet engaging all senses nonetheless.

Not after Picasso’s own Gypsy Girl (1898) whose face, eyes and mouth were darkened to the point of non-existence but still conveyed all the melancholy and emotions through colors and tones in the composition.

So Picasso goes one step further : he puts masks on two of his Demoiselles.

As Will Gompertz said, Picasso “found that removing narrative elements from the composition increased its visual power”. Scarification marks, hands and ears are all reminiscent features of the Marquesas Islands tiki Picasso cherished.

Like Cézanne and his Bathers before him, Picasso got confirmation that expression and expressionism could be achieved with limited details and simplified lines.

Picasso ‘s art became all encompassing, not stopping at what you think you see. He started to facet multiple viewpoints and combined them on canvas using overlapping angularity. This facetting brought tension and expression of what lied beneath.

Les Demoiselles d’Avignon is a bridge between Picasso’s Pink and Blue periods and Cubism, where women’s bodies and faces show all the steps necessary to open the door onto what changed Art forever.

Picasso Primitif is at Quai Branly Museum until July 23rd, 2017.

Apologies if formatting is a bit loose as I am travelling and working from my phone.

© 2017 Ingrid Westlake

All pictures by Ingrid Westlake, unless otherwise stated.

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