Picasso And Africa
An Exhibition At The Iziko South African National Gallery, Cape Town, South Africa

20 April 2006
by Mandy J Watson
South AfricaCape Town, South Africa

Painter With Palette And EaselThe Picasso And Africa exhibition has finally opened at the Iziko South African National Gallery in Cape Town after a highly successful six-week run at the Standard Bank Gallery in Johannesburg that drew over 56 000 visitors. The curators are Laurence Madeline, curator at the Musée Picasso, and Marilyn Martin, director of art collections for Iziko Museums of Cape Town.

The exhibition spans three rooms and comprises 84 of Pablo Picasso's paintings, drawings and sculptures and 29 African masks and sculptures that have been sourced from private collectors in South Africa as examples of African art that would have influenced his work and which reflects the spirit of his private collection, which remains in Paris as it is too fragile to travel. The sourced works originate from various African countries, including the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mali, Ivory Coast, Nigeria, and Gabon. The exhibition has chosen, primarily, to exhibit masks, as Picasso's African-art collection mainly comprised these kinds of artworks, but his collection also included other items, such as a number of African musical instruments and a few pieces of jewellery.

The first room provides biographical information on Picasso and background information on the exhibition, the second room holds the primary exhibition of 63 artworks completed between 1906 and 1972, as well as the African art display, and the third room houses 21 companion works, including three from South African collections and three from the Centre Pompidou in Paris, that "reveal the metamorphoses and unity of which he was capable through his long and fecund creative life". This room includes a series of lithographs of bulls (some of which are pictured on this page) that demonstrate how he used different techniques and styles to reinterpret an image over and over.

Picasso was introduced to African art in 1906. Reportedly, Henri Matisse was on his way to visit Gertrude Stein when he passed an antique shop that had a small carved head on display in the window. He bought it and took it with him to Stein's residence, where Picasso was also visiting as he was in the process of painting Stein's portrait. Matisse and Picasso had a long discussion concerning African art, which proved to be the spark that ignited their ongoing interest in the subject. A visit to the Musée d'Ethnographie du Trocadéro, now known as Musée de l'Homme, in June 1907, proved to be an emotional experience that was to change his perception of art.

Picasso never visited Africa, so his experience with African art was limited to his museum visits and encounters with dealers and collectors that specialised in African art, as well as a number of friends who also became fascinated by the subject. The exhibition seeks to demonstrate how Picasso was influenced by African art and how the style and techniques he utilised in certain artworks reflects this.

Two Works By Picasso That Form Part Of The Exhibition

Accompanying the exhibition is a companion book, Picasso And Africa (ISBN: 0-620-35721-5; Bell-Roberts Publishing; already in its second printing), that presents a thorough investigation into the links between Picasso and Africa, including sourcing relevant texts from interviews, other reference works and third-party accounts. The book also features essays by both curators of the exhibition (who have also acted as the book's editors) as well as a number of other academics, and full-colour plates of every work - both those by Picasso and the collection of African art - in the exhibition. The book is an indescribably wonderful keepsake and reference work, but it is pricey (for the general public), at R295. If you want it, and I do recommend it, you can purchase it at the Gallery Shop.

What is so remarkable about this exhibition is that we - as South Africans - are able to view a substantial (relatively speaking) collection of Picasso's work without having to leave the country. Due to our geographic distance we are incredibly isolated from the rest of the world's history and culture, and are rarely afforded opportunities to experience it.

I was lucky in that last year I went on holiday to London and Paris and had a chance to see a number of artworks by Picasso, Rodin, and others. The feeling that you experience the first time you realise that you are three feet away from an original piece, created by a particular artist, is indescribable. Photographs and images shown on television do not remotely capture texture, or the way light plays off an artwork, or the intricate detail contained in many works. One of the most wonderful results of the exhibition being presented here is that thousands of South Africans have finally been given the opportunity to experience this for themselves; a privilege that many Europeans, I'm sure, probably take for granted.

This is not to say, of course, that South African art should be considered inferior or less worthy of the same attention. In fact, the opposite is true, but the challenge for our local museum directors and art-exhibition curators is to overcome the South African mindset that anything from overseas must be better. Rather we should be considering how everything is interconnected.

Perhaps the Picasso and Africa exhibition is a start, in that it shows a link between an artistic icon with worldwide appeal and our own heritage, which hopefully will draw more of us towards exploring and understanding our cultural history and its relevance to all of us, today, as well as to the rest of the world.

Two Masks That Form Part Of The Exhibition

Two Masks That Form Part Of The Exhibition

"When I discovered art nègre, forty years ago, and painted in what is called my Epoque nègre ['black period'], it was to question what was called 'beauty' in the museums. For most people at that time, an African mask was no more than an ethnographic object. When I went to the Trocadéro museum for the first time with [Andre] Derain, a smell of mould and neglect caught me by the throat. I was so depressed that I would have chosen to leave immediately. But I forced myself to stay, to examine these masks, all these objects that people had created with a sacred, magical purpose, to serve as intermediaries between them and the unknown, hostile forces surrounding them, attempting in that way to overcome their fears by giving them colour and form. And then I understood what painting really meant. It's not an aesthetic process; it's a form of magic that interposes itself between us and the hostile universe a means of seizing power by imposing a form on our terrors as well as on our desires. The day I understood that, I realised that I had found my path.
   And then people started judging these masks in aesthetic terms: now, everyone repeats that there is nothing more beautiful, and they no longer interest me. If they are only aesthetic objects, then I prefer Chinese objects. Moreover, this thing from New Guinea frightens me. It must also frighten [Henri] Matisse, and that's why he wants so much to give it to me. He probably thinks that I will know better than he does how to exorcise it."

-- Francoise Gilot and Carlton Lake, Vivre Avec Picasso, Paris, Calmann-Levy, 1965, reprint 1973, pp. 248-49; quoted in Picasso And Africa, Bell-Roberts Publishing, Cape Town, 2006, p. 200

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Key Facts
Address: Iziko South African National Gallery, Government Avenue, Gardens, Cape Town
Phone: +27 21 467 4660
Duration: 13 April 2006 to 21 May 2006 (10:00 to 17:00)
Entrance Fees:
• Adults - R10
• Pensioners - R5
• Students - R5
• Learners - Free
Tours: Daily tours by Iziko educators and volunteer guides - Monday to Friday at 12:00, 13:00, 14:00 and 15:00
Exhibition Partners:
• Standard Bank
• Iziko South African National Gallery
• Musée Picasso
• The French Institute in South Africa (IFAS), the cultural agency of the Embassy of France
• Air France
• The French Embassy in South Africa
• AFAA (Association Française d'Action Artistique)
• Business & Arts South Africa (BASA)
Exhibition Patrons: President Mbeki of South Africa and President Chirac of France
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