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Cultural Interaction

Late 19th- and early 20th-century Western art is characterized by bold rejections of naturalism and the depiction of local color. The Fauves and German Expressionists, prioritizing prismatic color within the pictorial vocabulary, asserted the autonomy of visual language. In doing this they were influenced both by modernity in Europe and by examples of non-Western art, particularly the arts of African and Oceania that were brought back to Western countries (Britain, France, Germany) as a result of the imperial policies of the great powers.

African sculpture and masks showed Western artists (Gauguin, Matisse, Derain, Vlaminck, Kirschner, Pechstein, Picasso) that naturalism provided only one formula for translating life into art. African art offered powerful evidence of a conceptual approach to image construction. The simplified, stylized forms of African sculpture fascinated European anthropologists and artists who, seeing their own culture as increasingly complex and “civilized,” responded to simplicity. Ignorant of African culture, their enthusiasm for what they deemed “primitive” was a romantic interpretation of sculptural objects that artists found alluring because they were exotic, or radically different to Western art forms.

Although Western modernists were attracted primarily by the forms of African art, bright, chromatic color sometimes contributes detail to African carvings. The dominant color of African sculpture is the natural color of the materials used – wood (used to carve sculptures in West and Central Africa) and cast metal bronze (used in sculptures from Benin). Masks are often made of a variety of textural materials (such as wood, hair, cloth, raffia, fiber, and bone) and some masks have natural pigments (such as ochre, chalk, and charcoal), painted as design elements painted onto facial forms (such as Kuba masks in Congo). Cowry shells, seeds, or glass and clay beads are frequently added. Here, detail offers visual contrast, attracting the eye to significant areas of the sculpture, such as glass bead necklaces in Yoruba carvings. When beads are incorporated into sculptures, the contrast between grey or brown wood and blue and red beads is visually dramatic, and the principle of tonal tertiary color, acting as a foil for pure hues, is demonstrated.