The term modern art sounds like it means art that is popular at the moment, but in fact, modern art is a style that originated over 150 years ago, and includes artists that by now have attained classic status, such as Picasso, Matisse, and Gauguin. And what’s even more ironic is that the movement they pioneered, considered revolutionary and even scandalous at the time, was inspired largely by an object of a traditional and ancient design. As far back as the Renaissance, the primary European art movements emphasized conventional representation and adherence to classical forms. But that began to change in the late 19th century as artists like Van Gogh and Cézanne expanded the boundaries of painting.
Soon, a movement arose that sought to create an entirely new style of art, and one way of doing so was to look beyond Western civilization. For example, Paul Gauguin moved to the island of Tahiti in the 1890s. There, he found inspiration in the island’s inhabitants, landscape, and culture to create artwork that intertwined European themes and Polynesian lore. Others looked the cultures of the Islamic world, but the most influential inspiration would come from Sub-Saharan Africa. As European empires expanded deeper into the African continent, its artifacts and artworks made their way into the hands of museums and collectors.
One such collector was Henri Matisse, who showed his friend Picasso a mask he had acquired made by the Dan tribe of the Ivory Coast. The mask awoke Picasso’s curiosity, leading him to visit the Trocadéro Ethnographic Museum in Paris in 1907. Founded to house acquisitions from colonial conquests, the museum boasted a collection of African art, with stylized figures and masks made of wood and decorated with simple colors and materials. The visit was a revelation for Picasso, who proclaimed that African masks were what painting was all about. At this time, Picasso had been working on a painting of five nude women in a style that would later come to be known as Cubism. And while three of these ladies show facial features found in ancient Iberian art, a nod to Picasso’s Spanish heritage, the faces of the two on the right closely resemble African masks.
Created in 1907 after hundreds of sketches and studies, “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” has been considered the first truly 20th century masterpiece, breaking with many previously held notions in art. It was at once aggressive and abstract, distorted yet primal in its raw geometry, a new artistic language with new forms, colors, and meanings. And these avant-garde qualities caused a sensation when the painting was first exhibited almost ten years later. The public was shocked, critics denounced it as immoral, and even Picasso’s own friends were simultaneously surprised, offended, and mesmerized at his audacity.
More artists soon followed in Picasso’s footsteps. Constantin Brâncuși and Amedeo Modigliani in Paris, as well as the German Expressionists, all drew on the aesthetics of African sculptures in their work. Others looked to a different continent for their inspiration. British sculptor Henry Moore based many of his semi-abstract bronze sculptures on a replica of a chacmool, a distinctive reclining statue from the Toltec-Maya culture. Pre-Columbian art was also a major influence for Josef Albers.
He created a series of compositions, such as the geometrical series Homage to the Square, that were inspired by pyramids and local art he encountered on his frequent visits to Mexico. Inspiration from ancient cultures initiated one of the most revolutionary movements in art history, but were these artists playing the role of explorers or conquistadors, appropriating ideas and profiting from cultures they considered primitive? Questions like this deserve scrutiny, as artists continue to redefine standards. Perhaps not too long from now, the bold innovations of modern art will seem like stale orthodoxies, ready to be overturned by a new set of radical trailblazers drawing inspiration from another unlikely source.