Arena for Contemporary African, African-American and Caribbean Art

Influence African Art in Europe


During the early 20th century many European artists were faced with the dichotomy between creating work for the then tastemakers and simultaneously recreating the idea of artistry at the time. By moving away from these norms artists such as Pablo Picasso, Amedeo Modigliani and Constantin Brancusi all began shifting their “efforts to move beyond the naturalism that had defined Western art since the Renaissance” (1). Although these artists had no understanding of the symbolic nature behind these “West and Central African sculptures they encountered, they instantly recognized the spiritual aspect of the composition and adapted these qualities” to their creations (2).

Xolani Shezi on the influence of African Art in Europe




Influence of African Art in Europe

Constantin Brancusi & Amedeo Modigliani


The progression of sculptural composition can be traced to a history of self-expression derived from spiritual practice. The art in sculpture has grown itself from natural carvings associated with spiritual practices rooted from West and East African traditions. These traditions are evident in predated African rituals. Traditions such as Yoruba masking and artistry carvings made for royal kingdoms throughout West Africa, and Benin’s role in pioneering the appreciation of metal usage such as bronze and copper as a means of art, have set a strong influence on European sculptural practice. During the early 20th century many European artists were faced with the dichotomy between creating work for the then tastemakers and simultaneously recreating the idea of artistry at the time. By moving away from these norms artists such as Pablo Picasso, Amedeo Modigliani and Constantin Brancusi all began shifting their “efforts to move beyond the naturalism that had defined Western art since the Renaissance” (1). Although these artists had no understanding of the symbolic nature behind these “West and Central African sculptures they encountered, they instantly recognized the spiritual aspect of the composition and adapted these qualities” to their creations (2). This essay will deal with artists Constantin Brancusi and, Amedeo Modigliani. I will be running a cross-sectional analysis on Constantin Brancusi’s “Mlle Pogany. version I, 1913 (after a marble of 1912)”, and Amedeo Modigliani’s “Women’s Head, 1911-12”. Although neither piece is presently within the United Kingdom, the exposure of Modigliani’s recent collection at The Met Museum in New York and Brancusi’s current exhibition, Constantin Brancusi Sculpture in The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) New York, has allowed for a closer analysis of the pictured works. Within their respective history, the pair share an intimate relationship on the medium of discussion. Although each has created independent works, the traces of influence from Brancusi in Modigliani’s work represents a strong presence of mutual influence and sculptural appreciation. The essay will further integrate the usage of African culture as a strong influence behind the discussed works. I primarily focus on the significance of both the sculptural material used in each piece and its symbolic nature recreated by each artist. The personal developments discussed for each artist will make evident the differences and similarities of relative intent of creation.


Amedeo Modigliani, Woman’s Head, 1912, Medium: Limestone, Dimensions: 26 7/8 × 6 1/4 × 9 1/2 in. (68.3 × 15.9 × 24.1 cm), From exhibition: Modigliani Unmasked, September 15, 2017 – February 4, 2018, The Jewish Museum, New York

Amedeo Modigliani is well known for his abstract portraiture. Each creation under his influence of portraiture has reflected both the artists and tastemakers identification with modern sculpture. Through depersonalizing his figures used in portraits, Modigliani experimented primarily with “the abstraction of portraiture, depicting each sitter as though they all hailed from the same long-faced, almond-eyed, tiny-mouthed family” (3). This would later develop into a series that confronted “racial labels and the hegemony of European culture, all while embracing globalism…” (4). This reaction from the European culture of Renaissance styled works was a key factor in transforming artworks; especially under the consideration of the then Roman folktale and African styles of art. My choice to analyze this specific sculpture, “Women’s Head”, is for two specific reasons. The first deals with the natural essence of Modigliani’s choice of medium. At the time, around 1909-1915, Amedeo was a young Italian artist faced by what many Italian scholars and artists started re-assessing. This rising reassessment of commercial art and sculptural influence by Renaissance neutrality was reawakened by the ideals of Roman and African culture (5). The representation of religious practice and its institutes such as “Catholic Church was a huge influence with the Renaissance art period as many arts had depicted religious images” (6). This can be easily identified through works such as the Virgin Mary, The Last Supper & decorative designs made in the Vatican. The uprising of new stylistics forms such as, the Baroque assisted in shifting the ideal norms of artists across Europe. Although in this context it had no direct influence, the Baroque played an important role in opening the minds of both tastemakers and general society’s perspective with art. The Baroque period began around the 17th century in Rome (7). This was a “period of new discoveries of science, exploration, and broader art diversity” (8). As Europe developed into its thriving hub of avant-garde artists such as Modigliani began their migration from home countries to Paris. This was a welcoming environment for artists to grow their network and intellectual exchange among each other. Artists such as Pablo Picasso & Max Jacob began their quest of experimentation in Paris too. These artists “morphed what was once a more traditional artistic style into a fusion of many and eventually evolved into something bold and unique” (9). Through this period of curiosity, Modigliani’s works represented much of the artists’ personal conflicts. The second reason highlights the personal developments behind Modigliani’s work. His extensive use of drugs and alcohol allowed the artist to channel an inner form of deconstruction and disassociation from coherence (10). Deconstruction of the self was an important facet in his works. Despite the artists prolific output of abstract figure drawings and paintings, “neither a 1906 gallery exhibition nor the inclusion of several of his paintings—including The Jewess—in the Salon des Indépendants of 1908 generated any widespread interest in Modigliani’s work…” (11). Much of his expressionist paintings and drawings seemed to be “preparatory sketches for his limestone heads and caryatids…” (12). This style was the beginning of incorporating Greek and Roman style sculpture. Collectively, this reflected the artists “openness to cultural hybridity” (13).


Head Owujoto, Benin/Nigeria, c. 1800, bronze, 23 cm. Bronzes From Ice and Benin, from xxhibition: February 3  – April 14, 2007, Photo and courtesy Peter Hermann Gallery, Berlin

During the premeditated periods of 1908, Paris at the time was facing an aggressive tone of xenophobia and anti-Semitism (14). As stated by curator Mason Klein in an Artsy cover, “there was this huge nationalist movement in France to purge foreign and ‘impure’ elements” (15). This is to make evident that the “popularity at that time of pseudo-scientific theories classified facial features to construct and justify racial hierarchies, like the racist sheets of Édouard Drumont, which brutally vilified Jews” (16). Thus the medium of sculpture used reflects the significance behind this works’ symbolic nature. Alongside the resistance to modernized art forms, Modigliani’s personal and external circumstance influenced the emotionless and denaturalized element in his works. Modigliani’s prospects were further “bolstered by his introduction to sculptor Constantin Brancusi, who introduced him to tribal art” (17). This would later influence the exhibition of designed sculptures used by Modigliani during the “Salon d’Automne in 1912” (18). The use of elongated stone heads that are now considered among his most important work, were the idealistic reflections similar to what his mentor Brancusi had discovered. The artwork in discussion speaks on its own harmony. The work made from limestone encapsulates elements that uniquely combine efforts towards definition and generalization. The portrait conveys “his subjects’ personalities, while his trademark stylization and use of recurring motifs – long necks and almond-shaped eyes – lends them uniformity” (19). Through creating this melancholic openness, Modigliani clearly incorporates all techniques learnt from his mentor Brancusi. With more focus on certain facial features such as the nose and lining above the eyes, unlike Brancusi, Modigliani’s efforts are more characterized. His works endorse a slightly more explicit expression which channels a fluidity of personality from both himself and his subject. Thus, unlike Brancusi’s elements of surrealism, Modigliani was more personalized in sculptural processing. A combination of existential and expressionist depictions defines how a viewer may interpret this work. The work in discussion, however, does maintain a particular favor towards idealistic influences by Brancusi’s developments and insights at the time.


Constantin Brancusi. Mlle Pogany. version I, 1913 (after a marble of 1912). Bronze with black patina 17 1/4 x 8 1/2 x 12 1/2″ (43.8 x 21.5 x 31.7 cm), on limestone base 5 3/4 x 6 1/8 x 7 3/8″ (14.6 x 15.6 x 18.7 cm). From: Exhibition: Constantin Brancusi Sculpture, July 22, 2018 – June 15, 2019, MoMA, New York

Constantin Brancusi, the Roman sculpture, is renowned for artistry across many platforms. Ranging from design to sculptural recreation, Brancusi has maintained juxtaposing creations well within the discourse of modern sculpture. Generally, “Brancusi is constructed as a primitive with either an affinity towards African art, or a familiar connection with Romanian folk art” (20). The dichotomy faced by Brancusi’s design patterns were exemplified through primitivism derived from “the Brancusian studies of Sidney Geist and Edith Balas” (21). In academic discussion, art historians such as “Sidney Geist and Balas set in motion how Brancusi was conceived within the discourse of twentieth century primitivism” (22). The ability of the artist’s postmodern perspective assisted in reconstructing his identity in relation to other art forms. Brancusi developed his prolific style during “his participation in the New York avant-garde scene at the turn of the 20th century” (23). Because of his growing network of American tastemakers, Brancusi was able to validate and develop his reputation as a high-ending selling artist. The acceptance of cultural intersectionality in America allowed artists such as Brancusi to exercise new ways of influenced works. In the same period as Modigliani’s showcase of works, in 1913 Brancusi was able to sell and exhibit his sculptures in “New York in a context where New York collectors and artists such as Alfred Stieglitz and John Quinn sought to integrate African art into the canon of modern art” (24). The agency pool of tastemakers within New York art scene saw a rise in pragmatism coming from galleries such as Stieglitz’s Gallery 291 and Marius de Zayas’s Modern gallery. These were agents that drove the idea of validating African objects to be seen as art rather than artifacts (25). This was geared by “collecting objects acquired from French colonies in Africa and by displaying them alongside new Euro- American modern art” (26).

African culture and art were both seen as significant tools for Brancusi’s primitivism. The direct influence of “African masks is as apparent in the refined Mannerists masks of the Baule, Guro, Dan from Liberian/Ivory Coast region as it is in the Expressionist masks from the Yoruba of Nigeria and the tribes of the Cameroon Grasslands” (27). To its own history, the “idealized faces and the equal emphasis on component forms give expression to traditionally desirable qualities such as wisdom, strength, youth, and vitality” (28). Generally it is acknowledged that the “stylistic forms of expression within traditional African society have been greatly divided by tribal boundaries, with little of the cross- flow of styles common in Western art” (29). This is important in understanding the aggression of influence derived by European artists who recreated this power. As I mentioned earlier, when comparing his style to Modigliani, Brancusi’s works were seen to be “less personal that Romanian folk art” (30). In context of figure naturalization, this made his objects more surreal. The correspondence to what was influencing the artist at the time is well connected to spirit within art making. This is a concept initiated by African tradition. The surrealist nature one interprets from “Mlle Pogany” is clear in its state of lucid imagination. Without facial features or any defining facial elements beside the almond-eyes, the bronze sculpture is an imagination of facial configuration. This deviation allowed Brancusi to employ “materials and techniques, such as wood and direct carving, from African and Romanian art sources art course in his development of abstract sculpture” (31). I mentioned Benin earlier as a key initiator of bronze art-making.

The pre-colonial era in Benin was ruled by the kingdom Oba. The hailing and belief in these kingdoms saw many of its people creating beautiful works of art that would be handed as gifts, memorials, and general reflections of people’s good spirits towards their rulers. The Oba’s palace was compromised with “elaborate mud-brick buildings and wood column which were decorated in bronze plaques commemorating the Oba’s victories” (32). Many of these pieces were made by Owo craftsmen, who were accomplished craftsmen among the Edo people, in the 15th & 16th century (33). Bronze commemorates strength, power, and respect. Its radiating tone represents the light brought forth by the ruler and its people resonation. Brancusi was entranced by this. The lack of personality resembles fertile stimulants to Brancusi’s creation of vital sculptural images containing all the rich elements of urban experience. Brancusi believed strongly that his work was not abstract. He was quoted saying, “They are imbeciles who call my work abstract; that which they call abstract is the most realist, because what is real is not the exterior form but the idea, the essence of things” (34). The Mlle Pogany is a weaving bust of a young woman modeled in marble as an egg. It was later modified to a cast of bronze (35). Throughout his personal developments of portrait bust, in this piece he was representing a comforted woman almost in a condition of self-nurture yet with lucid facial features streaming into her body. An almost transcendental beauty that binds the beauty of face to body. He furnished his practice around the “essence of languor in the prostrate position of the head, weighed down by inertia, resting peacefully” (36). This was a beginning to what would be the thematic style of portraiture for the artist. The “smoothness of the piece, achieved by the artist’s practice of polishing the surface of his sculptures until they achieved a high gleam, contrasts with the carved definition of the sitter’s facial features” (37). Alongside his practice of “eschewed drama and detail in favor of reducing ideas to fundamental forms and simplified detail”, Brancusi was able to mold his intrigue for African and Roman art through mythology of simplicity within complexity (38).

In conclusion, both artists and their medium of choice have been essential to modern sculpture. The manner in which each artist has grown into themselves has created a wholesome image of art history. The essence of this paper was to truly show how each sculptor was defined by one another and further reinforce their distinct processes. The major lesson in this comparative analysis is to acknowledge the primitive manner for each artist. Because Modigliani drew his inspiration directly from Brancusi, it is more important to understand the anchor effect of Brancusi’s state of mind and surrounding influences This influence has relayed itself much throughout how we conceive European art. Cultural influence from Africa and Rome have allowed for artists such as Wassily Kandinsky for German Expression and Pablo Picasso for Cubism to really start engaging with new art forms. The juxtaposing images of the sculptures discussed, the influence of refreshed engagement is a shared quality. The difference lies in the personal exposure for each artist. The tastemakers’ pool of Europe was shifted by these prolific artists. How we now interpret their work is under the pretense of academic movement rather than socio-conditioning. Growing into the spectrum of Modernism, it is evident these norms were recreated into bold and absolute innovate ways for sculpture. It is exciting to await the new pioneers within contemporary and modern sculpture. The interpretation of its construct will remain as personal and close to the artists’ exposures. Sculpture differs in that it represents a much closer look into the artists’ craft. He/she has taken a physical approach of hand-made craft. Unlike art as a canvas or painting sculpture continues to invoke personal emotions rather than personal discretion. It is through this ideology that we may interpret sculpture made in a future era of art.

Xolani Omari Shezi is a writer and poet. Born and raised in South Africa, his essays specialize in the influence of African Art as a key notion towards the pivotal artistry within the European Art Market during the 19th & 20th century.  His contributions lie in selective publishing for magazines, ( among others), journals and poetry written by himself.


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