Modern Art Lessons – Exposure to African Art

By the turn of the 19th century, colonialists and explorers transported African art to Europe.  Having stolen or otherwise obtained the items, the works were often sold to pawn shops or trinket stores.  However, after time the creations gained artistic appreciation and were showcased in a variety of galleries and added to personal art collections. Maurice de Vlaminck, André Derain, and Henri Matisse, and Pablo Picasso were all known to have collections of art from Africa. As the world broadened, exposure to the artistic works of other cultures heavily influenced the future of Western Art… so let’s take a further look into the response of Modern painters towards African art.


Here were representations of the human form that focused on the spiritual and eliciting emotion rather than achieving accurate, literal representations.

Seated Male, 19th–20th century - Côte d'Ivoire

Seated Male, 19th–20th century – Côte d’Ivoire

Referred pejoratively as “Primitive Art,” these artifacts were not seen as having artistic value until the Expressionist and Fauvist painters and sculptors started collecting the works and creating their own art heavily influenced from these African forms.

Even without any understanding of these distant cultures, Western artists could sense the spirituality evoked from these avant-garde forms.  With their other-worldly, exaggerated, elongated, transformed and imaginative representations of human features – African art transported the viewer outside of the literal everyday. Freed from the restrictions of depicting naturalistic representations of the corporal form, artists tapped into their imaginations and into their own spiritual sides as they created art from visions within the human mind and soul.

“I paint things not as they look, but how I see them” – Pablo Picasso

Girl before a Mirror - Pablo Picasso - 1932

Girl before a Mirror –
Pablo Picasso – 1932

Key Sources:,

Tapping into unknown cultures, drawing inspiration from the works of “isolated” communities, certainly one thinks of the profound impact exposure to the quilts of Gee’s Bend had on the birth Modern Quilting movement.

Lucy T. Pettway - "Housetop" - 1945

Lucy T. Pettway – “Housetop” – 1945

Living in rural, geographically isolated Gee’s Bend, Alabama, a society of hard-working women used what fabric scraps were available to create glorious, graphic, imaginative quilts in order to keep their families warm.

“The compositions of these quilts contrast dramatically with the ordered regularity associated with many styles of Euro-American quiltmaking. There’s a brilliant, improvisational range of approaches to composition that is more often associated with the inventiveness and power of the leading 20th-century abstract painters than it is with textile-making,” says Alvia Wardlaw, curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Museum of Fine Arts.

The world of quilt making was forever changed after the discovery (and subsequent exploitation – can I say that?) of these magnificent creations, heavily inspiring the work of Modern Quilting founders including Denyse Schmidt – check out THIS QUILT and THIS ONE.

1 Comment

Filed under Inspiration

One response to “Modern Art Lessons – Exposure to African Art

  1. Jenna; Great article, I have very much enjoyed this series and am so glad you are continuing with it. Thank you so much.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s