Currently on view at The Met is a small, focused exhibition African Art, New York & the Avant-Garde. The photo above best describes what the show aims to do: put you in the home and atmosphere of the art patrons who were bold enough to collect African art juxtaposing it with Modern and Contemporary art just after the New York Armory show in 1913. There are approximately 40 masks and sculptures from West and Central Africa along with photos, paintings, drawings and sculpture by Charles Sheeler, Alfred Stieglitz, Constantin Brancusi, Francis Picabia, Diego Rivera, Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso, among others.
I wish that everyone would go see it, especially a nasty man who came into the gallery (full disclosure: I work in an art gallery that specializes in antique tribal art from Africa and Oceania) and told me that all the masks and figures look the same and there is no way that Picasso or Matisse were influenced by African art. I cited Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, 1907, as an example but he refused to believe me. The Museum of Modern Art who owns the painting even states on the gallery label next to the painting:
“Picasso drew on sources as diverse as Iberian sculpture, African tribal masks, and El Greco’s painting to make this startling composition.”
Needless to say the man walked out of the gallery unconvinced and I felt a little sad for him because there are so many things in the world that are influenced and tied to each other, as disparate as they seem, if he would only open his mind a bit. Anyhoo.
Somewhat like today people may not be aware of the art and culture that exists in the world unless they go out and explore. Museums and galleries are at the forefront of these discoveries if you’re not able to travel the world. In 1914 two New York galleries began showing African sculpture, Alfred Stieglitz’s gallery 291 and the Washington Square Gallery of Robert J. Coady. Another man who began hyping these “new” works of art was artist and gallery owner Marius de Zayas from Mexico. In marketing the work to collectors de Zayas had Charles Sheeler and Stieglitz shoot beautiful and evocative photos of the African sculpture.
Sure the art is not everyone’s taste but it’s hard to deny how interesting these dealers made it look in the galleries next to Contemporary art of the day. Eventually American museums caught on and began exhibiting and collecting African art, most notably the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, the Whitney Studio (which became the Whitney Museum of American Art), the Brooklyn Museum and The Barnes Foundation.
Another thing that made this exhibition exciting for me is that some of the pieces came from the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology which I visited a few days after The Met show. I will post about that trip separately.