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Article on African Art's Influence on Western Art

By Amelia Du Plessis

In the early 1900’s, European artists were facing a struggle between the avant-garde style that had been established and a more contemporary realism that was emerging. The avant-garde style was daring in its approach, pushing boundaries and negating definitions. The new style, however, focused on the realistic in its proportions, subjects and media.

It was at this important time in the world of art that famous craftsmen like Pablo Picasso, Vincent Van Gogh and Henri Matisse began to explore African art more deeply. As they discovered and uncovered the various forms and subjects of African art painitngs, the balance between realism and the bizarre emerged, revealing an entirely new approach. Art from Africa presented several realistic forms (often of humans and animals) in one piece, it ignored reasonable proportions and stressed ideologies by excessive over-exaggeration. This forced the spectators and the art world to think about art, rather than just enjoying the colors and subject matter (such as a beautiful landscape). They had to question what was being communicated, urging them to form their own opinions in the face of strong statements. They were no longer able to simply like or dislike a piece for its aesthetic qualities.

This approach to art influenced such artists from around the world to begin to question their own material, subjects, media and intentions. They could use their talent to express concerns and preferences on a platform of self-expression. African art gave artists a new system of representation that did not include anything that had been done before (such as cubism or surrealism). They were now ‘allowed’ to break down and rebuild standard figures in a way that had never been done, rather than just presenting spectators with a completely abstract piece. The real was made abstract at the hands of the artist.

The corresponding effect was that African art began to be appreciated for its aesthetic beauty by investors and art enthusiasts from all over the world. Soldiers and explorers began buying African paintings from the local African people and bringing it back to Europe, assisting the local tribes to establish an industry around their craft. This trend has continued for over a century, and African art continues to permeate the creative productions that emerge all over the world.