Asia and Africa in Western European Art
Globalization is generally associated as a modern phenomenon, however, it is a global movement that began with the Greeks and did not accelerate until the renaissance era. The West, going back to Alexander the Great, has a long history of interactions with Asia and Africa. Ideas and goods were consistently traded. This trend of globalization accelerated with the age of exploration in the 16th century when Europeans came into further contact with Africa, Asia, and the Americas. Driven by the quest for gold and natural resources Western European traders navigated the world. This had a profound effect back home, as Europeans developed an interest in the exotic. The interest blossomed during the 18th and 19th century, during the height of Western power and colonialism. Curiosity into the foreign permeated all levels of society. Artists incorporated Asian and African artistic styles into their own. This paper will examine the extent of Asian and African influence on Western art by looking at specific examples discussed by Ori Soltes.
European fascination with foreign art began in the world of Louis the XIV, XV, and XVI. Examining the work, Chinese Fishing Scene (1742), by Francois Boucher, a prominent artist from the middle of the 18th century, one notices the obvious Asian influences. It depicts a world so vastly different, culturally and linguistically foreign from the halls of Paris and the rest of Europe (Soltes, “Asia and Africa in the Western Mind”). A serene and idealized view, in which relaxed figures are set in a calm setting along the water, in contrast to the woodland and streams of Boucher’s Paris. The Western obsession with foreign cultures continued, into the 1800s, evident in John Nash’s The Chinese Gallery, the royal pavilion in Brighton built for the prince regent George IV (Soltes). It’s an extraordinary mesh of Persian-indian elements, reminiscent of the Taj Mahal, from the white domes and minarets. The artistic style of the Pavilion also includes Western influences evident in the gothic windows surrounding the building (Soltes). The Pavilion’s detailed exterior is subtle compared to the lavish interior with a diverse range of rooms. Soltes discusses the Chinese gallery which includes all the fancied elements of China; the Chinese lanterns hanging from the walls, the Chinese pattern on the walls, vases, and the Chinese statue. All of it was meant to convey a strong sense of China as the exterior paid tribute to the Persian-Turkish elements meshed with the gothic world.
The mid-19th century marked an important colonial event, which was the sailing of Commodore Matthew Perry to Japan. Japan was a traditional, close society. It had limited, controlled exposure to the outside world. Perry’s expedition changed Japan and had unforeseen consequences. Japanese ports were open, changing East-West relations. Perry brought with him a camera, in which he brought back hundreds of photographs. These photographs were converted into etchings, so by the 1870s and 1880s, there were an array of etchings of the Far East all over American and Europe. That induces another aspect of new imperialism, which is two sided. One is raw materials being brought from the east for the purpose of business and other side is the works of art brought from the east for patrons and artists.
Edouard Manet’s Portrait of Emile Zola depicts one of the Asian etchings that a Westerner could purchase. Soltes describes how a portrait gives insight into the individual, showing what the person is about rather than their physical depiction. In Zola, we saw Manet’s crowded desk and open book but also to the right, the observer can see Manet’s Olympia next to a drawing of a samurai. To the left there is a Japanese screen, giving the viewer the impression that Manet was a cultured man, blending elements of the East and West. Soltes further describes how Impressionists were fond of Chinese and Japanese ideas. Evidence of the era’s fascination with Japanese and Chinese culture is James McNeill Whistler, Rose and Silver: The Princess of the Land of Porcelain. He takes a European woman and immerses her in a Japanese background while maintaining a gothic pose, an S-curved stance (Soltes). She is standing on a Chinese carpet and wearing a Japanese kimono. However, Asian influence was just one out of several styles that affected European art. African art had a profound effect.
African art influenced 20th century styles of European art which is evident in cubism. Looking at the Bakota reliquary guardian figure from Gabon, Mbulu-Ngulu, we see an intermediary between the living and the dead. It is formalized into geometric shapes, the base taking the shape of a diamond, the solid contrasting the empty space (Soltes). The head depicts the connection to the soul and the realm of the dead. Another geometric piece of art is the Fang mask from Gabon, with geometric reduction and geometric emphasis on light and shadow. The Kifwebe mask from Zaire looks like a direct ancestor to the cubist art style with cube eyes and a square mouth. There are striations and parallel lines given the illusion of geometric forms within other geometric shapes. According to Soltes, at least one Fang mask, made its way to the collection of an artist, which was seen by Pablo Picasso. Evidence of the mask’s influence on Picasso is seen in one of his early works Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, painted in 1906-07 (Soltes). The figures to the far right have faces similar to the Fang mask, including striated details associated with African art. Picasso drew the women in geometric contortions, in African fashion. Further evidence of African influence stems from the fact that Picasso’s painting was inspired by Cezanne’s The Large Bathers, however Picasso’s work takes a much different approach stylistically because it was clearly inspired by African styles. Picasso’s work is one of the early steps towards cubism. Cubism would carry the Western tradition and fascination with nudity, specifically of women.
Western contemporary art is an amalgamation of different artistic styles and traditions, incorporating influences from around the world. It is the combined legacy of not just Western peoples but of all people from around the world. Western art is one of the many byproducts of globalization. A positive example of what comes from positive human influences on each other.
In the 19th century, Paris was the capital of Western European art. Monet, Van Gogh, Picasso, and Braque were some of the prominent artists that lived in Paris during this time. Living in close proximity to each other, artists influenced one another. For example, Picasso and George Braque, the founders of cubism were strong friends, and affected each other’s paintings. Braque’s Still-Life with Violin, an example of analytic cubism, has the same color scheme and familiar form of Picasso’s Portrait of Art Dealer (Soltes, “They All Came to Paris”). Impressionists had similar influences on each other, which is evident through the evolution of art. Realism evolved to impressionism as photography mandated a different perspective on art, and post-impressionists created Expressionism as a method to bring color and emotion together.
Such rapid evolution of art was made possible due to the close proximity these artists had to each other. It was a community that promoted innovation and experimentation, similar to today’s Silicon Valley. People being so close together, exchanging ideas is going to create impressive results. Early 20th century Paris was also home to poets, writers, and other creative workers. It was a place for artists and creative people can go to be inspired and let their creative energies go wild. It must have been an exciting place especially for those on the outskirts of society, as artists are generally a liberal group of people. Evidence of their inclusion is seen by objects of their work; prostitutes, the poor, the depressed. Members of society that are looked down upon by the higher ups found a home in Paris.
Soltes, Ori. “They All Came to Paris.” YouTube. YouTube, 11 Oct. 2011. Web. 2 Apr. 2014. .
Soltes, Ori. “Asia and Africa in the Western Mind.” YouTube. YouTube, 11 Oct. 2011. Web. 2 Apr. 2014. .
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