He was one of the greatest artists, if not the greatest, of the 20th century. But as a human being he left a lot to be desired. Selfish, authoritarian, his behavior with women was reprehensible. No one, however, doubts his genius. Among other things, and together with Georges Braque, he was the creator of Cubism, a pictorial style that uses geometric shapes to draw human forms or objects. Some critics point to the influence that Paul Cézanne and his three-dimensional forms had on his style. Others suggest that the stylized African masks were another notable influence on him and many other contemporary artists of his. An article by Andrew Meldrum in the English newspaper The Guardian reveals the origin of this African influence. According to Meldrum, in the spring of 1907, Picasso was visiting Gertrude Stein, the famous American writer, when Henry Matisse also visited with an African sculpture he had just bought. Picasso was fascinated by the shape of the human figure in that sculpture. According to the French writer Max Jacob, who was also present on that occasion, Picasso held the sculpture in his hands all night. Matisse was also surprised by Picasso's interest in that sculpture and said: “We talked for a long time about it, and that was the beginning of our interest in Black art, which we show in our paintings.”
A few days after visiting Gertrude Stein, Picasso went to the Trocadero Museum of Ethnology, now called the Musée de l’Homme, with his friend André Derain. Picasso would later say that this visit was crucial for his training as an artist. “A smell of mold and neglect grabbed me by the throat. I was so depressed that I would have chosen to leave immediately,” Picasso said of that museum visit. “But I forced myself to stay, to examine these masks, all those objects that people had created with a sacred and magical purpose, to serve as intermediaries between them and the unknown and hostile forces that surrounded them, thereby trying to overcome their fears, giving them color and shape. And then I understood what the painting really meant. It is not an aesthetic process, it is a form of magic that stands between us and the hostile universe, a means of taking power, imposing a form on our terrors as well as our wishes. The day I understood that, I found my way.”
Rarely does a story express so well how an event influenced the life of an artist and led to what Picasso called his “black period.” Although it lasted only two years (1907-1909), it was during this time that Picasso became an avid collector of African art with which he would cram his studio in later years. One of the first works that shows this relationship is one of the most famous paintings by the Spanish master: Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, produced in 1907. It shows the deformation of the faces that assume an angular and geometric shape, remarkably similar to some African masks, such as those of the Dan tribe of the Ivory Coast. This is particularly noticeable in the two figures on the right, inspired by African art. The three figures on the left, however, are based on old Iberian sculptures, which a friend of Picasso gave him after he stole them from the Louvre in Paris. As Nadeen Pennisi of Palm Beach State College in Florida writes, “Les Demoiselles d'Avignon was the embodiment of Picasso's rebellion. It destroys Western ideals of beauty and discards the Renaissance concept of perspective. The women in the painting advance against the canvas. They parade and look directly at the viewer.”
Although some critics maintain that Picasso deliberately copied African art, it is more likely that it simply expanded his imagination and allowed him to produce works that displayed that influence. A personal anecdote allows us to better understand this controversy. During a business trip to Gabon, a country located on the west coast of Africa, I was staying with a friend on the outskirts of its capital, Libreville. One Sunday, when my friend was traveling abroad, I decided to go to the museum located in the capital, which consisted of two floors. After visiting the ground floor, I decided to go upstairs via an angled staircase. Right at the elbow of the ladder I had a unique experience in my life. An ancient African human-sized sculpture was placed there. When I saw it, I could not help but exclaim: “Picasso!” I practically screamed; such was the similarity of that sculpture with some of the Spanish master's paintings. Picasso did not copy African art. But it is unquestionable that, thanks to African art, Picasso —as well as many other artists— freed himself as an artist and this provided unexpected magnitude and originality to his work.