Art Criticism

The term 'criticism' is derived from a Greek verb, which means "to discern, to judge, to operate by discriminating" (Kerchache. 1988.p277). This act of discrimination requires the application of values. This is an important element in the development of African art, as value judgements were based on aesthetic criteria, determined by Western notions of art and underlying social processes.

Art criticism, as we understand it today, emerged in the 18th century, initially, as a result of commentaries by the philosopher, Diderot, on the French salon. However, it has been suggested that art criticism was not invented in the West, but simply "perfected its engagement in the activity" (Picton in Deepwell.1998.p22), which was consequently imposed on African artistic production.

Because early ethnographers collected African artefacts as cultural specimens rather than as art, there is almost no reference to African art in ethnological works published in the second half of the 19th century; African works of art were still seen, at best, as curiosities. It was not until the end of the 19th century that Western perceptions about African art began to change. It was the German explorer Leo Frobenius, who at the end of the century was one of the first to recognise the aesthetic appeal of African sculptural forms. His discovery was closely followed by the avant-garde artists of the early 20th century. Maurice de Vlaminck is usually considered the first in recorded Western history to have recognised the aesthetic value of African art, inspiring such artists as Picasso and Derain. However, in Munich, Kandinsky, Macke, and Marc were regular visitors to the Völkerkunde-Museum (Museum of Ethnology) and were similarly inspired by the African exhibits.

The language we use to speak about art is not neutral and carries implicit meanings, and this is exemplified in the terms used in describing African art. The arts of Africa were initially termed "primitive," a legacy of Darwinism and the anthropologists of the 19th century, who saw Europe as the apex of social evolution. Similarly, entrenched in African Art literature is the word "tribal," coined by the late William Fagg, an influential African art historian in the early 1960s, who stated, "What is not tribal [art] is not African". The decades following the 1960s have seen numerous books employing the term "tribal" as shorthand, to distinguish between, western and non-western arts.

It took several decades before the creations of indigenous African art found their place in the Western context, and thus receive some measure of respect for their imaginative conception and skilled execution. Although, ironically, the designated contemporary art of Africa still needs to be accepted on the same terms.

These quotes are a taste of the ideas and attitudes towards African art by art critics, anthropologists, artists, and various other academics:
"The sentiments of primitive art are narrower and cruder, its material poorer, its forms simpler and coarser, and yet, in its essential motifs, tools and aims, the art of prehistoric times is one with the art of all times". E. Grosse. Art historian.1894

"They were pieces of a broken human face .... Here were the remains of a very ancient and fine type of art .... These meagre relics were eloquent of a symmetry, a vitality, a delicacy of form directly reminiscent of ancient Greece and a proof that, once upon a time, a race, far superior in strain to the negro, had been settled here". Leo Frobenius, German ethnographer on first seeing terracotta sculptures in Ife, Nigeria. 1910

"Picasso is going crazy over Negro works and statues - masks and fetishes from all the countries of Africa are accumulating at his place". Fernande Olivier. Girlfriend of Picasso 1910.

"There is hardly any art that is approached by Europeans with so much distrust as that of Africa". Carl Einstein. Art historian. 1915.

"Those masks were not just pieces of sculpture like the rest. Not in the least, they were magic". Picasso. Reflecting on his first encounter with African art. 1937

"In reality Negro Art is beyond our horizons. It is steered in a climate of which we have no experience and about which in spite of appearances we have only a minimum of factual data" Marcel Griaule. French anthropologist and academic. 1950.

"There is no such thing as 'primitive', 'tribal' or 'exotic' art - there is only 'art'". "It is impossible to discover a single fundamental difference between European and non-European art." Professor A.A. Gerbrands. Dutch anthropologist. 1957

"Then those curtain folds like packed ice to quarantine the intruding savage at upper right -in a menacing "African" mode". Leo Steinberg's interpretation of Picasso's 'Desmoiselles d'Avignon' from|The Philosophical Brothel. 1972

"Once it is consecrated and placed on a shrine, Yoruba sculpture is thereafter no longer critiqued". Yoruba sculptor Babatunde Lawal. 1974.

Helen Coleman | Apr 2002
Further reading:
  • Brassai. 1999. Conversations with Picasso. Chicago & London: Chicago University Press.
  • Bodrogi, Tibor. 1968. Art in Africa. Hungary: Corvina.
  • Deepwell, Katy. 1998. Art Criticism and Africa. Saffron Books.
  • Kerchache, Jacques. 1988. Art of Africa. New York: Harry N Abrams.
  • Leiris, Michael & Delange, Jacqueline. 1968. African Art. London: Thames & Hudson.
  • Meauze, Pierre. 1967. African Art. London: Wiedenfeld & Nicolson
  • O'Brian, Patrick. 1976. Picasso. New York: G P Puttnam's Sons
  • Visona, Monica Blackmun. 2000. A History of Art in Africa. London: Thames & Hudson.
  • Willett, Frank. 1993. African Art. London: Thames & Hudson.