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Primal Instinct: Impact of African Art on Artists' Impulse to Create

by Noa Ishaki


From Merriam-Webster Dictionary:

pri-mal adjective \ˈprī-məl\

Definition of PRIMAL

1: original, primitive

2: first in importance : primary adjective \'



The first thing that usually comes to the average person's mind about African Art is masks: Wooden carved masks that are kind of scary and they could make some viewers uncomfortable. On the other hand many people who like them would look at them for aesthetic purposes using them as artifacts for their decorative reasons and not think what their purposes were in their original setting in Africa.


So what were these masks' purpose, and what are masks anyway? Originally these masks and statues were created for spiritual reasons. They were created to expel evil spirits or provide protection against them. They were worn during ritualistic ceremonies. For example the Dan people used masks during initiation ceremonies of boys where “they served to protect the young initiate against destructive or evil forces from the time of initiation, till he one day enters the spirit realm... After the initiation ceremony the young man heads off home and is now ready to enter into serious relationship with the young women of marital age that will eventually lead to marriage. The mask will remain in the family and community for years, and will eventually be passed down through the generations.”1... In these ceremonies, “(o)nce the male mask dancer dons the mask, he is transformed into a spirit. The mask dancer goes into a deep trance during rituals and brings forth messages of wisdom from his forebears. The message is inaudible and in uncontrollable utters, a wise man accompany the dancer during the ritual and translates the messages. The messages are often words of great wisdom, prescribing a way of life that will lead to longevity, health and prosperity.” 2


And today, what do masks mean to almost all of us? We all wear masks in our everyday lives. We mask our feelings behind a façade of acceptable behavior, many times hiding our true self, and our most primal urges and primitive instincts are transformed into normalcy within a social setting. This is clearly laid out in Sigmund Freud's structure of the psyche of the id, ego and superego where the id contains the primal urges and the need to satisfy them, the ego makes one think of other's points of view into consideration and makes one delay or suppress instant gratification of that urge, and finally the superego would make you determine whether your decision is morally right.


Freud therefore explained that all unconscious thoughts, desires, instincts and urges are acted out through a filter. The unconscious is so powerful therefore he 'believed that artistic and literary creativity ultimately derives from primal instincts rooted in the unconscious.”3


On the other hand there exists in the artist's mind, more than any other person, an urge to create. Freud himself explained that artists “... are apt to know of a whole host of things between heaven and earth of which our philosophy has not yet let us dream. In their knowledge of the mind they are far in advance of us everyday people, for they draw upon sources which we have not yet opened up...”4


It was around 1905 on one hot afternoon, artist Maurice de Vlaminck took a break from painting and went to a bistro, and having his drink noticed three African sculptures on a shelf behind the bar. Vlaminck states that “these three sculptures really struck me. I intuitively sensed their power.”5 He would go on to say that he was “moved to the depths of (his) being”6 and he further shared this with André Derain “who was left speechless upon sight of the sculptures”7 and purchased them from Vlaminck.


In early 20th Century Paris, writer Gertrude Stein's home was a host of salon meetings for many artists of the period: Pablo Picasso, André Derain, Georges Braque, Maurice de Vlaminck, Henri Matisse as well as literary artists such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Joyce, and Ernest Hemingway all met there. In the “Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas”, Stein notes that Derain one day brought an African mask he had purchased to such a meeting and that Picasso was jolted by it. She further states that Matisse was introduced to it earlier.8 and he too was moved to show the effect of African Art in his creations.


So all of them were influenced by African Art. But why was that? Was that just their special way of seeing things aesthetically? Was it just the strangely angular forms utilized to create these artwork? Or was it something from beyond?


African Art influenced the artists of this period in such a way that two important schools of modern art were born. One being Cubism the other Fauvism,from the word fauve, wild beasts.


Cubism, led by Picasso was started with his creation of the infamous Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, a painting of five women working at a brothel on Avignon street in Barcelona. Picasso seems to have exorcised his demons with this painting:


All alone in that awful museum, the masks, dolls made by the redskins, dusty manikins. Les Demoiselles d’Avignon must have come to me that very day, but not because of the forms; because it was my first exorcism painting-yes absolutely... When I went to the old Trocadero, it was disgusting. The Flea Market. The smell. I was alone. I wanted to get away. But I didn’t leave. I stayed. I understood that it was very important: something was happening to me... The masks were not like any other pieces of sculpture. Not at all. They were magic things. But why weren’t the Egyptian pieces or the Chaldean? Those were primitives, not magic things. The Negro pieces were intercesseurs, mediators; ever since then I’ve know the word in French. They were against everything- against unknown threatening spirits...I understood; I too am against everything. I too believe that everything is unknown, that everything is an enemy! Everything! I understood what Negroes used their sculpture for. Why sculpt like that and not some other way? After all they are not Cubists! Since Cubism did not exist. It was clear that some guys had invented the models, and others had imitated them...isn’t that what we call tradition? ... They were weapons to help people avoid coming under the influence of spirits again, to help them become independent. Spirits, the unconscious, emotion-they were all the same thing. I understood why I was a painter. All alone in that awful museum, with masks, dolls made by the redskins, dusty manikins. Les Demoiselles d ‘Avignon must have come to me that very day, but not at all because of the forms; because it was my first exorcism painting—yes absolutely!9


This famous work that started cubism was painted in Paris however it is of a brothel he frequented back in his days in Barcelona. He clearly has many oedipal issues as well that needed release as he puts African masks on the faces of the two women depicted.10 11


Enter Freud's inclusion of sex and death as our primal instincts: At the point in time of Picasso’s youth venereal diseases were naturally dreaded as they caused death. There it is, in the psyche of a young man in pursuit of pleasure, orgasm, or as the french say le petit mort (little death)12, who goes to a brothel always with fear, for sex which might also lead to death. In original drawings of les Demoiselles d'Avignon, he placed a medical student in the midst of the ladies, as symbol of death from venereal diseases. That constant fear he had when he was younger had an outlet with this painting many years later.


But what was it that provoked Picasso living in Paris to paint about his visits in his youth to Avignon street in Barcelona, or dare I say unmasked him to reveal these feelings and caused the instinct to paint?


On the other hand Henri Matisse, leader of fauvism and a close friend of Picasso, was also influenced by African Art but it rather had a different effect on him. Matisse had a healthy, loving relationship with his mother who encouraged him to draw. The same is also true with Modigliani and Giacometti all of whom refrained from degrading women in their art. Yes, the African Art brought out hidden issues but they were not issues that needed to be exorcised for these artists.


In his impressive discussion of the les Demoiselles d'Avignon, which Picasso described as his ''first exorcism picture,'' Mr. William S. Rubin, the late Picasso expert, cites the artist's earlier statement to Andre Malraux that tribal masks were ''intercessors. . . against everything - against unknown, threatening spirits.'' ''If we give a form to these spirits,'' Picasso said, ''we become free.'' The moment Picasso had the revelation that Primitive art was apotropaic (''designed to avert or turn aside evil''), he had a liberating insight into himself.”13


It is without a doubt that there exists a creative impulse in the artist's mind. It is one of the primal instincts for him and the artistic outlet is a healthy way of bringing it out in the open to handle it correctly.


African Art didn't just cause this by the mere looks of it. The spiritual underpinnings, meanings in them compelled these artists intuitively to surface these hidden truths in them.


Previous exhibits of African Art's influence on Modern Art include Museum of Modern Art's 1984 exhibition curated by William S. Rubin Primitivism in 20th Century Art and the recent exhibition African Art, New York and the Avant-Garde at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, dealt with only the influence, calling African Art by its then-name Primitive Art and its influence on Modern Art as we know it. This exhibit intends to show that there's more to it than is visible to the eye.


Before the ushering of Modernism with Cubism and Fauvism, art was traditional, conventional. The real color, perspective at a certain given time, exactly as the artist saw it was depicted by the artists on the canvas. But then something happened: As artists who are more in connection with their intuitive side as explained by Freud, they were touched and moved by these African masks and statues. All of a sudden their unconscious needed an outlet, pushing the boundaries of acceptable, leaving behind the conventions of art. In their work, they abandoned intellect for intuition and showed their unconscious world as they perceived it. The urge to create art, a primal instinct very much like sexual gratification deep within the unconscious surfaced and ushered a new era of Modern Art.


These African Art pieces were created for spiritual purposes; to bring spiritual meaning to life, for protection, feelings ever-present in all humans regardless of race or religion if any.


There are always some other mechanics going on behind even the simplest of actions, so, for an artist -to create- being a part of creation from nothing, certainly is spiritual. What causes inspiration, has a deeper truth- African Art masks and statues that were in the collections of there artists were displayed/kept in their homes for decorative purposes but that doesn't mean they did not affect them spiritually – unmasking their feelings and also protecting their psyches by the proper release of these feelings. Truly, these African Art pieces weren't too far from their original intent of their creation.


Primal Instinct

Wall Text


This exhibition will consist of African Art - masks and statues- mainly from the Sub-Saharan region along with the artworks of Picasso, Matisse, Vlaminck, Derain, Braque, Modigliani and Giacometti who were all influenced by African art in their work.


At the beginning of the 20th Century African Art was considered to be consisting of artifacts, and the masks and statues were called Primitive Art in the West.While many sources claim Maurice de Vlaminck to be the first in the West to notice African Art and be influenced by it, Gertrude Stein wrote that one day Andre Derain brought an African mask he had purchased to her apartment and that Pablo Picasso on his visit was "jolted by it". He and Derain further went to the Trocadero Museum to see more and their inspiration can clearly be seen in both Cubism and Fauvism.


This exhibition plans to bring out not only the similarities between the so-called Primitive African Art and the famous, sophisticated Modern Art pieces only to point out the aesthetic similarities, but also provide a connection between the spirituality underlying the African Art and how that spirituality, having moved these artists deeply, compelled them to continue the same work in their own medium.


This will be done by displaying both works -the inspiration and the modern work- side by side and providing information on the African Art along with the cultural background of the region and the meaning of the work. Only simple title information will be provided for the modern work as these are already quite known by the general public.


The exhibition, as the title suggests, on the one hand wants to change the perception of African Art being considered "primitive" by showing how it brought on important art movements and works of art to be of utmost sophistication while on the other hand owning up to primitive feelings of spirituality intrinsic in people of all cultures to make them create art as per their method and style.

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