Picasso is generally considered to have entered into his African Period in 1907 whilst working as a professional fine artist, building on from some initial proto-cubist experimental works that were produced during his Blue Period.
This overlapped with his transition into using "warmer" brown and red palette colors and his shift away from depicting depressing themes to a more neutral stance, both of which defined his Rose Period (c.1904-1907).
Picasso's work during these years is still generally considered to be proto-cubist, as it included some semi-realistic elements and geometry.
Picasso's interest in African (particularly African tribal) influences is usually considered something of a brief flirtation with subversive form that formed a stepping stone to his lifelong infatuation with depicting his own take on surrealist cubist geometries.
The work of Picasso during this period is also known to have influenced New York modern artist, Jean-Michel Basquiat.
His experiments with African themes are considered to have concluded by the start of 1910, in favour of focusing on developing his (then) more successful 1908 experiments in "Analytical Cubism" into a coherent genre of painting.
Nevertheless, Picasso never entirely abandoned his interest in Africa. Some much later work such as the painting Musician (1972) can be said to contain the same influences.
Certainly, the enduring influence of some elements of the African Period on Picasso can be seen throughout the work that followed on from it. This is particularly so in Picasso's approach to facial structure and depiction of the human body after 1909. One of his most highly regarded paintings, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907), also emerged as an iconic masterwork from his exploration of tribal African depictions of the human form.
Importantly, this period also saw Picasso starting to produce portrait artwork that was not drawn directly from life models. This would form a significant part of his approach to Cubism and Surrealism.
Picasso's Interest in African Art
Picasso's brief but intense interest in African art arguably stems from the influence French colonialism had on the European bourgeois from 1899. After the French annexation of several states in sub-Saharan Africa (notably the kingdom of Dahomey in 1894), traditional African artwork began to filter into European museums. In particular, the masks, tools, and ornaments of the Fang and Dan peoples proved popular amongst European audiences.
By the end of 1906, Picasso had, by his own later admission, reached the boundaries of what he could do with classical portrait work. In an effort to perfect his classical style, he is said to have repainted his 1906 portrait of writer Gertrude Stein over eighty times.
Whilst looking for inspiration in early 1907, Picasso visited the Trocadéro Museum of Ethnology on a trip with his friend, the artist André Derain, after being inspired by an African sculpture shown to him by Henri Matisse at Gertrude Stein's Paris apartment.
It was here that he first saw a Fang depiction of a face, carved in wood. Picasso would later recount that he saw the connection between artwork and magic as a form of spirituality while visiting Trocadéro for the first time in his life.
Instead of depicting realistic scenes from an objective point of view, his new work would depict the innate links that humanity had at a primitive level to nature. Picasso claimed that this was present in traditional, crafted African art.
This was a novel approach to art at the time, as few others in Europe had drawn on anonymous influences from outside of the continent untrained in the European classical style. However, it was one that also partly built on the work of earlier European impressionists such as Monet and the then contemporary European avant-garde. Picasso aimed to depict power, spirit, and emotion through art, rather than achieve a purely faithful recreation of reality.
Picasso combined his two approaches to metamorphose themes in African art into something else.
He used them, mostly, to produce a new style of semi-realistic portraiture. Between 1907 and 1908, his work was overwhelmingly centered on producing abstract portraits of female nudes (particularly in groups), distorted heads, and more ambiguous humanoid figures.
As the period concluded, Picasso also began to apply his new technique to depictions of mundane scenes such as still life depictions of fruit and panoramic views of factories, fusing his African inspirations more with Cubism to create stark but colorful landscapes.
He also expanded this approach into some sculpture, but pieces in this medium from him made between 1906 and 1909 are far less common than the wealth of oil paintings that survive.
Despite this, Head of a Woman (Fernande) (1909) is sometimes considered to be one of his most important late-stage African period sculptures, if not one of the most important sculptures of his career. The stacked ridges and bold lines around the head represented a striking and radical departure from the neoclassical bust making that preoccupied nineteenth-century Europe.
Much of the artwork that Picasso produced during his African Period was purchased by the merchant S.I. Shchukin and shipped to from France to Russia to form part of an enormous collection of impressionist and post-impressionist art. Around 80 or so key pieces from this period still exist today, most of them taken from the 1914 Shchukin collection.
Some of his African work also briefly scandalised parts of the European art establishment, although not to the same degree as other avant-garde artists of the time. In particular, his deliberate geometric distortion of female faces was considered at the time by some critics to be a hateful act against the spirit of what art should be.
Picasso's African Period Style
Picasso's style of painting and drawing this period can be best described as one which features heavy emphasis on bold lines, warmer colours interspersed with blue tones, background and foreground blending (to the point of being indistinguishable), stilted motion in depictions of human figures, and drastic distortions of limbs and faces. The influence of facial masks can be seen in Picasso's frequent depiction of relatively detailed heads, placed in the midst of simple shapes.
Sharply etched lines and shading are also key features of the African Period, throwing his drawings of male and female heads into sharp relief, such as in the famous oil painting Head of a Sleeping Woman (1907). A contrast between a grey palette for buildings and a more colorful natural background is particularly noticeable in some later African period paintings, most obviously in the oil painting Factory in Horta de Sant Joan (1909).
The Legacy of Picasso's African Period
Picasso's African Period is not one of his more commonly discussed phases. In part, this can be put down to its relative brevity and experimental tone. Picasso also appeared unusually hesitant to discuss his African influences much while living, compared to his Cubist.
Nevertheless, his attempt at depicting of disjointed human form that still retained a sense of emotion and beauty helped, along with the African textile inspired work of Henri Matisse, to move the cutting edge of European painting away from a conventional neoclassical mode and sculpture away from Iberian archaic revivalism (Picasso's interest in this shared some similarities with his philosophy of African art).
The techniques he developed during 1906 to 1909 would be reused again throughout his career. Specifically his usage of harsh lines, shading, and contours, blending of grounds, and abstract figures would appear time and again. His masterpiece Guernica, particularly, owes a significant amount to the legacy of his African techniques. Parisian School post-impressionism would also build on (or copy) his African work to a great degree.
In particular, his later plasterwork sculpture Bust of a Woman (Marie-Thérèse) (1931) can be seen as a surrealist reinvention of his earlier African inspired techniques. Picasso's palette choices for painting in the decades that followed also deviated surprisingly little from the colors he first used during the African and Rose periods.
Picasso's African work also helped to contribute to an important social legacy, particularly in America. A 1923 exhibit in New York presented Picasso's work alongside the African art that inspired it. This exhibit helped to establish the idea of African work as an equal and valid influence for European and American artists. Alain Locke would later argue in 1925 that African-American artists should look to their own heritage for inspiration in much the same way.
The pioneering innovation of Picasso and Matisse thus helped to establish an important cornerstone of modern art, namely that it should transcend national and cultural boundaries.
After 1910, Picasso would also go on to become an insatiable personal collector of African art produced by tribal societies, more so as his wealth and fame grew. Observers noted that his studio space was still dominated by African Grebo and Nimba masks at the time of his death in 1973.
Opinions vary. But Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) is commonly considered to be one of the greatest twentieth-century radical European surrealist and cubist painters and sculptors to have lived, if not the greatest modern artist that Spain has ever produced.
His prolific portfolio included experimentation in everything from printmaking to ceramics, although oil painting was for most of his career his primary medium. His extensive legacy in popular culture and fine art, particularly in abstract geometry and use of color, is extensive and incomparable to all but a few other titans of modern art.
He was identified as a child prodigy and was admitted at the age of just 14 to Barcelona's School of Fine Art. Over the following eight decades, Picasso consistently pushed against the classical conventions that had dominated nineteenth-century Spanish and European art to develop his own post-impressionist style. He would deliberately reinvent his approach to artform every few years until he died.
His early twentieth-century Blue, Cubist, and Surrealist Periods are probably his most well-known, although his post-1945 "naive" and "political" work is still well regarded. His work of all types frequently contained female nudes, distortions and contortions of the human face and frame, and cubist interpretations of buildings and rooms as key themes.
The most famous piece from his entire career is probably the painting Guernica (1937), an anti-war mixed media piece with both classical and abstract themes illustrating the human destruction and barbarism wrought by bombing in the Spanish Civil War.
Picasso's artwork still remains extremely popular worldwide with serious art collectors, although the Picasso market is dominated disproportionately by his paintings. In 2015, one version of his interpretation of Les Femmes d'Alger (1955) sold for a (then) record-breaking $179.4 million dollars at auction.