European Avant-garde in 7 Minutes: Non-Western Art Influence

African sculptures, Oceanic ritual masks, Japanese woodblock prints…Today, you can turn to Google to see thousands of pieces of artwork from around the world. You can even take a virtual trip to see them in museum collections. However, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, non-Western art just started to make its way to Europe. Works from abroad fascinated European artists with their beautiful aesthetics, subtle color palettes, unique perspectives, and non-traditional subject matters. Their influence was so significant that one could feasibly argue that 20th-century Modernism would not exist without them. So, let’s see how Non-Western art manifested itself in the works of avant-garde European artists.

In the second half of the 19th century, Japan, which had not maintained diplomatic or trade relations with other countries for more than two centuries, opened up to foreigners. As a result of the newly established trade, Japanese art began cropping up in Europe. Impressionists, who were searching for new ways of expression, admired Japanese woodblock prints — known as Ukiyo-e. The term roughly translates to "pictures of the floating world.” These “pictures” featured scenes from Japanese history, landscapes, female beauties, and kabuki actors — all of which seemed very exotic to Europeans. In particular, landscapes by Hokusai and Hiroshige strongly influenced early European Impressionists. 

Take, for instance, Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji by Hokusai. European landscape painting was based on complex composition, and no one had ever thought of making a single object such as a mountain the central subject matter. However, after seeing the works of Hokusai and other Japanese artists, new subject matters entered European artistry. That’s when Claude Monet began to explore multiple views of wheat stacks and his famous water lily pond. 

Edgar Degas became enchanted with the Japanese color palette and uncommon compositions. Compare Degas’s Dancers Practicing at the Barre and Willows and Bridge by an unknown 17th-century Japanese artist — you will notice the same strong diagonal lines and muted yellow and orange shades.  

As one of the most celebrated European painters of all time, Vincent van Gogh was certainly not free from Japanese influence. “All my work is based to some extent on Japanese art...” Vincent van Gogh wrote to his brother, Theo, in 1888. The vibrant colors, flat surfaces, details from nature, and the exotic and joyful atmosphere were all signature features of van Gogh’s work that had their roots in his passion for Japanese art. 

At the turn of the century, Postimpressionists turned to other regions and indigenous cultures for inspiration. On April, 1st, 1891, Paul Gauguin set sail for Tahiti — his new artistic destination in the Pacific Ocean. He longed to escape the conventions and constrictions of the European civilization and "everything artificial” that came with it. His paintings of Tahitian women and lush, tropical landscapes are filled with bold colors and sensuality — which he believed was a sign of the preserved connection with nature. 

It was African art that bewitched Amedeo Modigliani. African sculptures and masks started to arrive in Europe in the 1870s, following colonial conquest and exploratory expeditions. They were soon put on display at ethnographic museums in Paris, Berlin, Munich, and London, among other major cities. Modigliani’s sculptures and paintings implemented elongated features, oval heads, and thinly incised eyes, displaying the definitive influence of the African art, which he discovered at Trocadéro in Paris. 

Henri Matisse, the founding father of Fauvism, purchased various pieces of African tribal art. You can see how his Green Stripe — a portrait of his wife — is reminiscent of a mask. And in the Blue Nude, Matisse combines the traditional subject of the female nude with a new treatment. Hard lines of the body and planar surfaces make the painting look harsh and violent — a far cry from idealized odalisques of Ingres and painters of the past. The woman also appears as part of the landscape — you could even say that she represents nature itself. The Fauves’ interest in African and Oceanic objects is similar to Gauguin’s enchantment with Polynesia: it was an artistic quest for what they saw as “primal” freedom.

And what about the founding father of Cubism? Of course, Pablo Picasso did not escape the influence of Non-Western art, either. Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (The Young Ladies of Avignon), is his seminal work that paved the way to Cubism. The facial features and dress of the figure on the left recall Egyptian or perhaps even Southeast Asian style. The two adjacent figures are rendered in the Iberian style of Picasso's native Spain, while the two on the right exhibit African mask-like features. 

These are only a few most illustrious examples of what was known under the term “primitivism” in European art. However, modern art scholars have abandoned the word for its racist undertones. Indeed, the term reproduced the stereotypes about non-Western peoples used by Europeans to justify further colonial conquest. In any case, the next time you visit a contemporary art museum, you might just see the modernist and contemporary artworks differently and find even subtler references to other cultures. 
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