Yes, you did read that correctly, Picasso was African, as African as the Pyramids or Jollof rice, but before my Spanish friends demand my extradition, please give me a moment to explain.
Inspiration from the most curious of places
The year is 1906 and on the fateful morning in question, a 37-year-old Henri Matisse walks into a Parisian curio shop. This is not his first time, in fact Matisse has a penchant for the many weird and wonderful discoveries to be found in the curio shops of Paris.
Over the years he will fill his studio with exotic ornaments and objets d’art, many of which will appear in his subsequent paintings.
What catches his eye this morning is an unusual figurine carved in wood. The figurine has a large, upturned face and his long torso, coupled with disproportionately short legs and tiny feet and hands, is sat on a stool. He also appears to be in the middle of swallowing a large round object, giving him a very other worldly, possibly magical aura.
Our man from the Congo
The carved figurine was made by an artist from the Vili people of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Congo over the centuries has bestowed on us many precious gifts including diamonds, copper and, Cobalt, which is used in the production of the pigment called, Cobalt Blue, long used in fine Chinese porcelain and a favourite of artists including J.M.W Turner and Pierre-Auguste Renoir.
Cobalt is also used to make Lithium-ion batteries which are found in everything electronic today, from the smart phone in your hand to the electric car in the driveway.
Congo and Cobalt will have an important role to play in a more environmental sustainable 21st century but for now let’s go back to Matisse and the 20th century because Congo is about to give the art world an early and very important gift.
The Figurine from Congo enchants Picasso
A few days later Matisse is at the home of Gertrude Stein, a renowned American novelist and art Parton, also paying Gertrude a visit that day is a young Pablo Picasso.
(Portrait of Picasso taken a few months after)
Matisse shows Picasso his Vili figurine and the impact it has on Picasso is so powerful it leads him out of his blue and rose period and into his African period (1906 – 1909) during which he creates one of his most celebrated works, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (The women of Avignon).
Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, a large oil painting created in 1907, is today part of the part of the permanent collection of New York’s Museum of Modern Art and in recent times has been described as "the most influential work of art of the last 100 years" (Holland Cotter, Pulitzer winning Art Critic for the New York Times).
However, when it was first exhibited it was deemed immoral and led to widespread public anger and controversy, many of Picasso’s associates and friends hated the painting, including Henri Matisse!
Others however, like Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, one of the most notable French art dealers and an investor in ‘brand Picasso’ loved the painting.
“Early in 1907 Picasso began a strange large painting depicting women, fruit and drapery, which he left unfinished. It cannot be called other than unfinished, even though it represents a long period of work. Begun in the spirit of the works of 1906, it contains in one section the endeavors of 1907 and thus never constitutes a unified whole.
The nudes, with large, quiet eyes, stand rigid, like mannequins. Their stiff, round bodies are flesh-coloured, black and white. That is the style of 1906.
In the foreground, however, alien to the style of the rest of the painting, appear a crouching figure and a bowl of fruit. These forms are drawn angularly, not roundly modelled in chiaroscuro. The colours are luscious blue, strident yellow, next to pure black and white. This is the beginning of Cubism, the first upsurge, a desperate titanic clash with all of the problems at once.” (Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, 1920)
The birth of Cubism and the modern world
The Cubism movement that emerged revolutionized European painting and sculpture, and reached even further changing the worlds of music, literature and architecture.
If you love Art Deco buildings, you have the strange Vili figurine to thank for them. You can also thank the Vili figurine for Dada and Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain, which incidentally was voted in 2004 as the most influential artwork of the 20th century by 500 selected British art world professionals, Picasso’s ‘Les Demoiselles d’Avignon’ was voted second.
Gertrude Stein, who hosted Matisse and Picasso that faithful day, went on the write ‘The Making of Americans: Being a History of a Family's Progress in turn inspired by Cubism to employ repetition and repetitive phrases as building blocks in both the passages and whole chapters of the novel.
And in a sense ‘a Family’s progress’ is what it’s all about.
What really makes us who we are is not how tall we are or the colour of our hair or other physical characteristics, important as these are, it is the things we experience, the memories we hold on to and what we in return share with the world.
Picasso is African because of the figurine, he is French because of Henri Matisse, American because of Gertrude Stein and of course very very very Spanish.
Picasso is African because he is the sum of all his experiences and influences. We are all the sum of our experiences and influences and as we have all been influenced by Picasso, we are all Picasso.
To quote the art critic John Berger: "It is almost impossible to exaggerate the importance of Cubism. It was a revolution in the visual arts as great as that which took place in the early Renaissance. Its effects on later art, on film, and on architecture are already so numerous that we hardly notice them.
There are many ways the 21st century could evolve, as I write this we are in the midst of wars, pandemics and an uncertain economy but perhaps we could also be on the verge of a new Renaissance?
We are all Picasso because we are all connected. We are connected by our ideas and by our shared creativity. We are connected by our shared history for better or worse.
Perhaps the strange Vili figurine was magical after all and what it did that faithful day in 1906 was cast a ‘Butterfly effect’ spell on the world and it’s tornado like creative effects are still being felt today.
It says to us that creativity can be found in any place, you just need an open mind, an important lesson not just for artists, but for business people, for environmentalists, for everyone.
It says to us we are all connected, we are a family and ultimately at our core we all share the same dream. Health, Love & Happiness.
I’m off to my local curio shop, see you there!