Pablo Picasso’s African Period (Paul Cezanne Cubism)

African period was a short period that preceded extremely monochrome and fragmented analytical cubism plus, obviously, bright and colorful synthetic stage, and lasted around 1907-1908.

It can be sometimes called “Cezanne Cubism” because at that time Picasso was greatly influenced by Cezanne’s method of simplifying the image, not forgetting the fact that in the basis of any, even very complicated shape, lies a simple geometry – a sphere, a cylinder, a cone.

But even more often this period is called the “African”, “Black” or “Negro”, as at that point Picasso discovered the archaic art of Africa and felt the need to change his own creative method under its influence.

Pablo Picasso - Frienship (1908) (African Period) (Paul Cezanne Cubism)
         Pablo Picasso – Friendship (1908)

Picasso’s Acquaintance with African Art

He became acquainted with the African art at the ethnographic exhibition at the Museum of the Trocadero (Paris) in the spring of 1907. It was a real discovery for him – such simple, even primitive forms of ancient sculpture as idols, statuettes and masks carried a huge artistic charge. They conveyed an image or vision of reality with much more power than modern European art, embodied the mighty forces of nature, from which primitive man was not distancing himself.

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In ancient times – a rough simplicity and extraordinary power, in our time – a pictorial beauty and a scenic swarming in detail. Ancient people exempted a form from any detail, that’s why that form was able to convey the essence of the subject and the magic of an image hidden in that form much more effectively. Picasso placed art above all else in his life, that’s why his ideology coincided with a powerful concept of those images.

Picasso - three figures under a tree (African Period)
    Three figures under a tree by Pablo Picasso                                          (1907-1908)

Ancient wooden idols, rough stone statuettes, and archaic masks served not as decorations of life but carried the symbols of obscure and dreadful forces of nature which controlled the life on earth, full of danger. The art was a magical mean of a spell of forces that were hostile to a human.

It played a much more important role than now. In the course of history, it has become just a makeweight to life that only puts a beautiful gloss on our human existence. Pablo Picasso, who always took his occupation as the most important in the world, realized how to breathe the spirit of the primitive force in it.

We can say that the great cubist followed the path that was suggested by savages or barbarians. During the African period, Picasso was applying the methods of the ancient artists by consistently simplifying the shape of the depicted objects, making them more monumental and expressive, turning the characters into some sort of wooden idols, distorting their faces and turning them into masks.

Picasso Pablo - Dance of the Veils (African Period)
         Picasso Pablo – Dance of the Veils

He uses rough hatching that simulates notches on wooden African sculptures. He dims down the color, integrates space and characters. Such a syncretic view of reality was peculiar to the ancient consciousness.

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On the Picasso’s canvases, it looks as if the characters and the background – a curtain or trees, mountains in the back, or even the air space itself – all is tangible, all “made” from a single “material”, the background looks as tangible as the figure.

Everything consists of single blocks or “cubes”, as derisively described by contemporaries because a primitive man did not separate or distance themselves from nature. The surface of his paintings started to be perceived as a sculptural bas-relief, the image looks like a three-dimensional, as if carved from a single piece of wood or cut down from the whole rock.

The First African Period Artwork by Picasso

The first work by Picasso, in which “African influence” can be clearly seen, is considered to be the painting called “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” created in 1907. Pablo was looking for a new shaping, and something that he achieved in this artwork, he thought to be extremely radical even himself. He was working on this picture for more than six months, repeatedly reshaping the composition and altering the images of women.

In this artwork, he broke off with any kind of conventionality, refused from all the prettiness with which a female body was typically portrayed. He was endlessly repainting the characters by distorting and simplifying their form and finally transformed the faces of the two characters (especially those on the right) in real African ritual masks.

Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907) (Picasso African Period)
                Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907)

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As you can see, this work of art possesses all the necessary characteristics to be doubtlessly related to the African period (or Paul Cezanne cubism). By the way, the deformation of figures and schematic representation of faces was considered as the act of misogyny by some critics.

No wonder, that the first reaction of the artistic community was a rejection. But Picasso realized that he discovered a new method which he was consistently developing and experimenting with it during the following two years. He aims to create the illusion of three-dimensional space, populated by deformed creatures, at a two-dimensional plane of the canvas.

Other Picasso’s African Period Paintings

Major works, which are usually referred to the “African” period, were made in the second half of 1907, when he was creating some kind of “supplements” to the Les Demoiselles d’Avignon – numerous characters with faces similar to African masks, for example, “Three figures under a tree” (winter 1907-1908) or “Nude with drapery” (summer 1907).

In 1908, in Rue-des-Bois, he painted such typical works as “A Driade” (Nude in the forest), “Trois femmes” (Three Women), “Friendship”. In 1909 he spent the summer at Horta de Ebro, where the examples of “pure”, “high” or “Analytical” cubism appear. But as we already know, these works are usually referred to the next period of his work.


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